My Reinhardt Family History

Joseph Reinhardt's
Last Days in Alaska

Joe Reinhardt was part of history. He was one of many, lured by tales of gold in Alaska.

Joe Reinhardt was born in NY in 1848, the son of George Reinhardt and Elizabeth Schussler Reinhardt. His parents were both from Germany, immigrants looking for a better life in this country. Joe was the oldest of four boys and soon Charles, Jacob and Peter were added to the family. About 1855 the Reinhardts joined Elizabeth's relatives in Fond du Lac Co. WI., settling near the small community of Dotyville.  In 1857 daughter Louisa joined the Reinhardt family.

The Civil War

On Aug. 24, 1864, at age 16, Joe enlisted in Company E, 3rd Regiment, Wisconsin Volunteers, claiming that he was 18. He was a paid substitute for E. Edhard of Sheboygan, WI. Joe joined the union army just in time to participate in General Sherman's march thru the south.

Marriage and Family

Upon his return from the war, Joe married Anna Dumas, the daughter of John and Mary Dumas. Anna grew up less than a mile from the Reinhardt farm. Their marriage is recorded twice, once on Nov 18, 1869 by P.W. Mahoney, a Justice of the Peace in Eden, WI, (with witnesses Joseph Perront and Emma Phillips) and then again on Nov 23, 1869 at St. Michael Catholic Church in Dotyville, with Nicholas Fuchs and Maria Buese as witnesses.

Joe and Anna were the parents of seven children: George Herbert, Frank, Mary Virginia who died at age 18 mos., Anna Louise, Henry Jacob, Rose Gertrude and Mary Amelia. Joe was a business entrepreneur, a wheeler-dealer. He bought and sold carloads of cattle. He speculated in real estate. He ran a feed store in South Milwaukee. Eventually Joe had to bring his elderly parents to live with him when they could no longer care for themselves.

Business and Court Documents

Joes dealings were not always successful.  His brother Charles had married a young woman named Elizabeth Hegner, the oldest of seven children. The Hegner children were orphaned when Elizabeth, the oldest, was 18, and the youngest, Sarah, was only 7. When she turned 17, Sarah Hegner requested that Joe Reinhardt be appointed her guardian, and her inheritance was invested by Joe. By the time she turned 21 and wanted control of her inheritance, Joe no longer had her money. She had to take Joe to court to get back her inheritance, which was paid back at the rate of $25 every three months.

The Alaskan Gold Rush

Joe was 50 yrs old when the Alaskan Gold Rush caught his imagination. He could not resist the lure of gold. He joined the many adventurers, lured to Alaska by promises of easy wealth. He left his wife, and six grown children behind in South Milwaukee, WI.

He arrived in Seattle, Wash, and joined a group of twelve men headed by Capt. Bens, of Michigan. They each invested $600 in a joint venture for gold, and each man would receive a share in whatever gold the company found. The original investment money was used to build and supply a ship to take them along and around the Alaskan coast to the gold fields.

The skooner Elk II was built, and the enterprise was supervised by Capt. Bens, a man who had operated ships on the Great Lakes.  By the time the Elk II was completed, the company was low on funds, so they sold another partnership, to help pay for supplies needed.

On June 10, 1898 the journey to the gold fields began.  The trip from Seattle was the first rude awakening.  Their craft was tossed about at sea for many days, causing many to fear for their lives. They ran out of fuel, and found themselves becalmed, not far from their first destination.  When they finally arrived at St. Michael, they were appalled at the jump in fuel prices. But they could not turn back. They kept on.  The leader of the expedition had visions of sailing all around Alaska, into the Artic circle, and then down the MacKenzie River to the Yukon.  When you view a map of Alaska to see just where this trip would take them, you think of the term "gold fever" and  you start to question their leadership. Evidentally so did some of the members, because they decided that the leadership had to be replaced.  An election was held, and Joe Reinhardt was elected the new president of the enterprise.

The skooner finally put into Kotzebue.

The reality of what was found in Alaska was not what anyone had envisioned. No one was prepared for the hardships of perma-frost, the logistics of waiting for "summer". They may have been intelligent about many matters, but they were greenhorns when it came to knowledge of Alaska.  The group argued. Most were in favor of waiting out the winter, and starting again in the spring.  By now, several members had died of scurvey or malnutrition, and others were ill.
Later reports and letters also indicate that the group did not have the proper food or equipment.  And once their initial propecting led to disappointment after disappointment, Capt Bens decided, in true 'gold fever' fashion,  to hike across Alaska to the Yukon.......without any dogs, or notion of how far away the Yukon was. The others refused to go with him, and so he and his wife set off alone.  .He did not make it very far, before he collapsed.  After his death, his widow started walking.  She eventually spotted chimney smoke, and her calls for help were answered.  Two kind-hearted prospectors came to her rescue, and took her down a near-by river, eventually getting her to St. Michael, where she was able to beg for passage to Seattle. The ship that was heading for Seattle had a reporter as a fellow passenger, and Mrs. Bens told her story of horror.  What she didn't have knowledge of, she manufactured, indicating to everyone that she alone survived the expedition. Family members of the others who were on the expedition read about their deaths in this APwireservice story.  Later, in an interview with The Examiner, of San Francisco, she repeated details of all the men's deaths, adding that the 4 men left with the Schooner Elk had also died of scurvey.  It was only after returning home to Michigan, that she recanted her tale, indicating that not all of the men were dead. Half of the men did die in Alaska, including Joe Reinhardt. His effects were returned to his widow, including his gold watch, and letters from Anna that he carried with him.

Joe left behind a wife and 6 grown children, but his story does not end with his death.  Anna was destitute. Joe had invested $600 in this venture, and Anna needed that money to survive.  She received letters from survivors of the expedition, or their relatives, attempting to locate the schooner, and obtain some sort of compensation.  She received conflicting stories about what really happened in Alaska, and she did not know who to believe.  One man who invested in the enterprise, but who had sent a substitute for the actual trip, wrote to Anna for power of attorney, to represent her in attempting to get her money. She did not know if she should trust him. She heard from one of the survivor's, telling her not to trust this investor. Eventually she did give him authority to act in her behalf, but it did no good for anyone.  When this investor made his trip to Alaska, to claim his rightful share of this venture, he received quite a shock.  He discovered that one of the survivors of the expedition had taken over the ship, and was making a tidy profit by providing transportation between Seattle and Alaska to others affected with gold fever.  And he knew enough about maritime laws, that he was able to grab sole ownership of the vessel, simply by putting a small hole in the ship, and then having the ship declared a "shipwreck". He then turned around and filed papers indicating that he had "salvaged a shipwreck", which entitled him to sole ownership of the vessel free and clear of any liens.  So he made out like the bandit that he was, and none of the investors could make a claim against the ship.

The story of Joe's venture is not only a story of a tragedy in Alaska, but also the story of media manipulation, intrigue, greed and thievery among the survivors.

Newspaper accounts of the tragedy AP wireservice story from Seattle, of Gold Rush tragedy, as appeared in Milwaukee Journal, 1899 
Feature story Follow-up interview with Mrs. Bens, survivor. San Francisco Examiner
Photos  Ship built in Seattle, which sailed to Kotzebue 
 Crew that went to Alaska 
Letters Joe exchanged with family members during his expedition to Seattle and the Alaskan Gold Rush frontier. poem Copy of poem written by a "sailor boy" as the Gold Rush Adventure was beginning 
pg2 last page of list of participants in adventure 
pg3 April 24, 1898 Letter from Joe to his wife Anna 
pg4 May 12, 1898 Letter from Joe to his wife Anna 
Pg5 May 12, 1898 Letter from Joe to his daughter Rose 
Pg6 June 10-11, 1898 Letter from Joe to his wife Anna 
Letters Joes's widow exchanged with others, after Joe's death, in an attempt to recover Joe's investment in the Alaska expedition. PG8 
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