Utkeagvik Presbyterian Church Barrow
In 1826, Captain Frederick Beechey in the H.M.S. Blossom visited Point Hope on the Arctic coast and estimated that there were 1,000 Eskimos in residence there. In 1838, an expedition under Lt. Kashevarov explored the Arctic Coast to a point 35 miles east of Point Barrow but turned back, it is said, because of the hostility of the Natives.
Alfred Henley Hopson, a whaler from Liverpool, England, settled in Barrow in 1886. He married a local woman “the Eskimo way”, as did several other whaling men, and began to raise a family.
Leander Stevenson landed at Point Barrow in 1890. At age 45, he had contracted to stay only a year, but he ended up staying seven, even though he had a wife and children in the Lower 48. His first school was in the Rescue Station, built to house shipwrecked sailors for the winter. His first class consisted of eight students who couldn’t speak English. He couldn’t speak Eskimo. Four years later he got lumber from the Presbyterian Mission Board and built the first school.
Stevenson began to speak about the Christian faith through an interpreter who came from western Alaska, but when he left Barrow, not one Eskimo had professed faith in Christ nor received Christian baptism.
Dr. and Mrs. Horatio Marsh replaced Stevenson in 1897. It was during Dr. Marsh’s stay at Barrow that the caribou herds diminished and when 300 seamen became stranded in the village, food supplies ran low. Sheldon Jackson sent 400 reindeer from Teller. Dr. Marsh, once everyone was fed, took over the supervision of the remaining herd and trained local Eskimos to take care of them.
By 1920, almost all of the adults in Barrow were Christians. A new hospital was being built and Dr. and Mrs. Griest took charge of the new facility. Griest was not only a medical doctor, but also an ordained Presbyterian minister.
The Work Continues
Griest’s parish extended 1,000 miles. As head of the hospital, mission and church, for the Arctic coast, he mushed his dogs for hundreds of miles along the icy shores to do the medicating, operating and preaching to Eskimos gathered on the ice or in small homes. It was said that all this called “for the three Bs – blood, brains, and brawn.”
Griest left Barrow only once before his retirement. After a period of study and a year in Nenana at the hospital and church there, Griest returned to the Arctic in 1929. The highlights of the next years included diphtheria and whooping cough epidemics, rebuilding a burned manse, hosting Col. and Mrs. Lindburgh for five days, writing the newsletter The Northern Cross, and keeping up with the daily medical and pastoral care of the ill.
Dr. Griest prepared the bodies of Will Rogers and Wiley Post for shipment to their home after their tragic plane crash in 1935. Griest was 68 years old when he left Alaska in 1936 to return to his home in Indiana.
Ann Bannon, RN, a medical missionary, served at Barrow, Wainwright, Wales, Savoonga, and Gambell from 1920 through 1941. It is to her that we are indebted for the extensive albums including photographs of local residents, missionaries and distinguished visitors to the Arctic coast during this period.
The Rev. Fred Klerekoper was a Presbyterian minister serving the Arctic coast. Almost every year between 1936 and 1945, Klerekoper made the trip from Barrow to the Canadian border along with Andrew Akootchook. Klerekoper kept a diary, later reprinted by the North Slope Borough, which contains important records of the families living along the Beaufort Sea coast at that time.
Andrew Akootchook, a lay preacher trained by Dr. Griest, originally began serving as an Inupiat interpreter for resident missionaries at Barrow in 1908. He served as an elder at Kaktovik until he was licensed to preach the gospel by Presbytery in 1934. He conducted worship services for scattered families along the Arctic coast from Barrow to Demarcation Point. from 1936 to 1951. Akootchook was scheduled for ordination in the Presbytery in 1951, but was killed in a hunting accident shortly before it was to occur.
Percy Ipalook was born at Barrow. His religious training came by way of the Reverends Marsh, Spriggs, Spence, and Newhall -- but most of all by the missionary nurse Ann Bannon. Ipalook also served as interpreter for Dr. Griest. Ipalook spent five years at Sheldon Jackson School at Sitka and completed his academic and theological training at the University of Dubuque, Iowa. He returned to the Arctic and served as lay worker at Wales and Wainwright from 1934 to 1940. When he was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church in 1941, he became the first full-blooded Inupiaq to be ordained. He served the mission churches at Wales, Gambell and Wainwright, and was elected to the Territorial House of Representatives in 1949.
Max Egashak and his wife Edith, one of Barrow's Finest Elders, 1939
Additional information regarding the Barrow church and its members can be found in the Issues Section – The Presbyterians and the Land Claims Movement, the Presbyterians and the Formation of the North Slope Borough, and so forth.
Who Followed Whom...
The Rev. Samuel Simmonds, 1971