The Gambell Story

By Marilyn Mathews Lambert, 2003

Note: I became interested in the Gambells when Marguerite Wolfe of rural Winfield, Iowa loaned me letters she had in her possession from Vene and Nellie Gambell of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, to one Mattie B. Hunt, of Wapello, Iowa.

Go to: Two1898 photos of Vene, Nellie, and baby Margaret Gambell and St. Lawrence Island inhabitants, with the crew from "The Bear:" Captain Tuttle, Dr. Gall, a ship's carpenter, and another crew member.

The John and Margaret Gambell family was one of the early families of Winfield, living on a farm two miles east of Winfield. At the time of this writing, the farm is owned by Leslie Ross. The Gambell family were members of First Presbyterian Church of Winfield. Vene Gambell was their son.

The story really begins in the late 1800s, in Alaska, with Mike Healy, an educated mulatto and captain of "The Bear," and another man, Sheldon Jackson. Jackson was forty-three years old, and for all his five feet and two inches, he was an amazing man. In Jackson's freshman year at Union College, he heard a call from God saying, "Sheldon, there are people overseas who do not know the word of God. Go to them, take them MY HOLY WORD." He was a staunch Presbyterian and graduated from Princeton Theological College. He was examined by the Board of Foreign Missions and their doctors said, "You're too frail and weak for service in foreign countries." He was sent to Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, where he helped build church after church. He usually went places not authorized by the church and he vexed the Board of Foreign Missions. He went where God led him. He was able to get money by speaking to women's groups and he could always count on them to give freely. He eventually wandered to Alaskan waters on Captain Healy's ship, "The Bear." He and the captain became friends and partners bringing law and order to Alaska. Jackson was moved and shocked by the misery of the Eskimo. There was much starvation and drinking. If the Eskimo man drank during hunting season, his family starved to death. On the way home, "The Bear" diverted for a stop at St. Lawrence Island, where Healy showed Jackson the ruination wrought by the rum and molasses delivered by other ships. Jackson was appalled when he saw the skeletons still lying about. The two men had three aims, stop the starvation, stop the supply of liquor, and start a school and church.

WAPELLO REPUBLICAN, Thursday, December 22, 1955

"Picture Renews Area Interest in Gambell Shipwreck Story," by Irving Hurbut

The true spirit of Christmas is poignantly portrayed in the sudden tragic death of the Reverend Vene Gambell, his wife, Nellie, and their three-year-old daughter, Margaret. (Actually, she was thirteen months and nineteen days old according to their obituaries.)

A brief account of a part of the life and death of the Gambell family is one of a beautiful romance. The couple were dedicated to their belief in upholding the high standards of responsibility in the missionary work which they were so actively engaged in at the time of their deaths.

Reverend Gambell was superintendent of the Wapello schools in 1894, and it was in that year that the nationally famous lecturer-missionary, Professor Sheldon Jackson, spoke in Wapello. The reverend was so favorably impressed by this lecture, which related the need of missionaries in the far north, he volunteered to accept a post on the bleak and barren St. Lawrence Island, which was north of the Aleutian group, in the Bering Sea. Today, this island is the furthest north United States air base. On a clear day, the coast of Siberia may be seen from there.

In the year 1894, when the Gambells arrived at St. Lawrence Island, it was necessary for them to build a log building, which was used as a church and school and they lived in a one room lean-to attached to the rear. There were no other white people living within hundreds of miles; so all the work was done by themselves. The Eskimo natives were not too friendly yet with their work.

Excerpts from the Gambell Letters follow:

St. Lawrence Island, August 2, 1895

Miss Mattie B. Hunt

Wapello, Iowa

Dear Mattie,

You are foolish that you didn't come along with us last year. You missed an opportunity which would have been of great value to you. It has been to me in more ways than I expected. Of course we have no society, no news, nothing of that kind, but I feel I have been doing something and would have enjoyed your help and company very much. I could have done more work outside the school if you had been along. So many have pitied us in our loneliness, wondered how we could pass the time, if we "kept track" of the days and c., etc. Of course we felt lonesome when the ship left, we didn't know what the winter would bring forth, but we went to work and took care of the present, we had lots of work to do about the house getting ready for winter, and then for school. We began teaching in November - then we were busy. The short days made the time pass more quickly and before we could realize it the natives were looking for ships in the spring. When the first one came it was foggy, and we could not see it, only hear the fog horn. When it came close we rang the bell - a big one - and they heard it and tied up to the ice. That was the last of May. I think we were somewhat excited - at least Mrs. Gambell was. In a few more days two more had stopped but we didn't think so much of them. They stayed a part of a day each.

"The Bear" came the last of June and was here two whole days. It seemed like meeting old friends again to see them. Then the Meyer came the middle of July with supplies. That is the ship we came up on last year. A man and his wife bound for Cape Prince of Wales were aboard and we had them and two more off for dinner. One was the clerk who came up on the ship last year. School closed in June and we began enjoying our vacation though the natives came continually to us for medicine, etc. They sit around the house all the time - they are as friendly and good to us as they know how. We have to be patient with them, more so then we would with white children. There is no night here from April till September and they couldn't understand why we should have regular hours. They would gather around the house and talk, or the children would play, so we couldn't sleep. When I would tell them to go away they would go away but some one else would come perhaps till I finally built a fence on the east side of the house where our sleeping room is. We had to close the shutter so it would be dark enough to sleep. In the winter in the schoolroom we have to keep lamps burning till 11 a.m. as there is a mountain on the east which shuts off the light. The sun sets a little after 2 p.m. on the shortest day.

And yet, Mattie, with all our privations, if they be such, I don't think I ever spent a happier winter or year. We have enjoyed perfect health, had a warm home, warm clothing, and plenty to eat. I could teach just as I wanted to or as I thought was right without fear of some patron under the influence of alcohol making complaints about the way some room was conducted, or how his child was ill treated. I have no fear of the riff-raff being worked to vote some discontented man into the schoolboard, etc., etc. You see every "cloud" has a silver lining. But this isn't even a cloud. Of course everything has been new to us. We have learned a great deal. We have gone out with the natives on the ice to watch them cut up whale, gone on dog sleds with them, go fishing and camping. I've gone for a couple of days with a crew and had to leave my wife at home. Why they are as careful of us as if we were china. When we first came they would pick me up out of the boat and carry me over a little water. I couldn't stand that long. But they were afraid to have us go on the ice very much as the ice is not reliable. They were afraid to have me go walrus hunting but I am going next spring. They are afraid of Healy, Captain of "The Bear," which makes them take extra care of us.

St. Lawrence Island, Alaska
May 3, 1896

Miss Martha B. Hunt

Wapello, Iowa

Dear Mattie,

I have been wondering if the woods were full of flowers there and if everybody came out for church in spring suits. The only sign of school here is the gulls are coming back and so are the eider ducks. I have seen three venturesome snowbirds. The men saw a whale the other day but there is too much ice to see the whale boats. The thermometer has been -3 degrees and up to 20 degrees within the last week. The days are getting long - the sun sets at 8:30 - but it doesn't seem to do any good. Last year by this time they were going out in whale boats and getting lots of walrus. They have been getting just enough to give them half-rations or less. We have emptied seven sacks of flour in the last four weeks. We have had mittens, boots, etc., made that we didn't need. One little boy brought us a string of 25 - 30 toys made of walrus teeth. He wanted flour. We have given the children beans for dinner when they were very hungry. We have given the men and the boys flour for shoveling when we didn't need the snow shoveled. It is the hardest thing we have to bear to see them so hungry and to know that white men are to blame for killing off their food supply. The ice keeps our attendance up though. Last week there were 38 who had not been absent a day. There were eight last month at school every day and a number either 18 or 19 days. There are 15 or 20 I don't pay any attention to, new ones that just came in this spring. It is not uncommon to have over 80 in the room, the little ones sitting on the floor just as they do at home. They know over thirty songs - mostly from gospel hymns. You would enjoy hearing them sing, especially, "Oh Beulah Land." They learn tunes very quickly.

The winter has passed very much like it did last winter. If anything, it has not seemed as long. Last spring I got so anxious for the snow to go but don't mind it so much now for I know it won't begin to go till in May. The ice is not piled high on the beach as it was last winter.

We saw only a few cakes of Arctic ice early in the fall. The ice on the beach this winter is salt water ice and of course will go quickly. There was more snow in March and April than in the rest of the winter put together. Just how much fell it would be hard to say as the wind blows so it is a rare thing to see a flake falling. On the lake where there is a level stretch of a mile or so the snow is about 18 to 20 inches deep but nearly as solid as ice. We had no skating or sliding as we had last winter on the lake, as it was freezing there was a big wind which spoiled it. Mr. Hamilton said he would bring up a pair of skates next year or this year now. It was frozen the June 29 when "The Bear" came last year. I hope he does.

How would you like to clean house with the mercury below zero? We have ours done but painting the kitchen and the hall floors. I moved a partition between the bedroom over to make the hall wider. Mrs. Gambell uses it for a pantry now. I built a cupboard in it from floor to ceiling and put in a linen drawer. I had plenty of time so I went slow and made a good one. I have painted four rooms this spring and I think we have the coziest place imaginable. Captain Healy said last year we had the best place up here and that I had the best housekeeper. I want to have everything the best, and will if I can. Next year we are making a special effort. Now that we have things started, and try to send the best possible from here. We are getting to understand what we have to deal with and think we can do a great deal better next year. We have got the girls to coming, or they have concluded to come. We really need another room and another teacher. I would feel willing to pay for the lumber and put up an addition suitable for another room if they would put another teacher here. Filling this place here is the hardest work I ever did. There is an advantage in it regarding the teaching part. I don't have to ask for the place each year. That was a bug bear to me. I hope I get a good letter from you by the first steamer. Then I'll write more of this in answer to it. Wife sends her love to all your brothers and sisters and of course to your father and mother.

Yours truly,
V. C. Gambell

St. Lawrence Island
August 7, 1896

Dear Mattie,

You are a "complete letter writer." We enjoyed it as much as anyone we got, hardly excepting the ones from home. Mrs. Gambell said you "just told everything." So many people merely mention an event, leaving everything connected with it untold or worse half-told. How you must have enjoyed that picnic! You had such a good crowd I was going to say but that isn't the work, you can supply its place, and such good weather. Our summer picnic is over I am afraid. We got ready the first of the week - that is last week - and waited for good weather. We waited a week and the wind calmed down and the sea got smooth. Two boys were going along to help paddle the canoe. By the time we got things out of the house the wind had sprung up and the sea got rough so we concluded to go to the other end of the lake and carry the canoe, etc., across the sea - about two miles. By the time we took the first load across the surf was up so we couldn't launch the canoe so we put the tent up and I went back after the canoe. It was three o'clock by the time we had everything to the shore and then we had dinner. The wind grew stronger and stronger till about five o'clock we decided to go home. We piled things under the canoe as it looked very rainy and started back. Sure enough by the time we got half way back it began to rain, and we had it almost in our faces. Mrs. Gambell had on her bloomer suit - which has been the style here for generations - and rubber boots so it wasn't much harder walking for her than for me. The storm grew worse the next day so we sent a dog sled after our things and concluded "There's no place like home." It has been stormy for nearly a month, and it is doubtful if we get to take an outing at all. We had everything planned for a fine time and do hate to miss it all.

We got our supplies from San Francisco July 1, 1896, and July 5th "The Bear" came with our letters. We got potatoes from "The Bear" and let them take ours which were coming later on a schooner that did not expect to stop here. However, it went by with a good wind and I managed to get aboard, but in fifteen minutes the houses were beginning to approach the vanishing point, so the natives wanted to get back. The captain said he had some boxes for me but I told him I would take only the onions, beets, and turnips as they wanted to get off. They had a letter from the men I deal with and when I got home they said they had shipped a box of mail, and a box "read by ex." which I imagine came from Wapello. We tried to console ourselves by saying we would get things when "The Bear" came down but feel I didn't read the letter aboard the schooner because Mr. Kjreemann who came up with us on the Meyers was aboard and so was Mr. and Mrs. Lopp and children whom we met and visited with in Port Clarence. I was busy talking to them never dreaming I would have to leave soon. It was so rough Mrs. Gambell didn't go to the vessel though we had heard who were coming on it. Dr. Jackson is the only person she had seen this year that she ever saw before, but I have been more fortunate.

Just about a month ago a steamer stopped for an hour or so and brought the grippe or whooping cough. At least in about ten days the children and young folks began to cough. We either had a touch of it or had a cold at that time, but some of them "whooped" till they bled at the nose. Three babies died and another one is very low, I don't see how it can recover. The steamer was out one day and had to take the owner back to San Francisco as he was sick with pneumonia so they had thought. He died the next morning after they landed him at night. We gave them a quart bottle of cough syrup but it no more than temporary good. Those that were able to come to the house came twice a day and those that were not we took or sent it to them.

The warmest it has been this summer was 54 degrees but it is summer and we concluded today to have some iced tea, so I went over to the mountain and got some snow and we had our tea. It seemed rather strange to have a good fire burning and to have "iced drinks." It was cold today, too. Only 45 degrees and a good wind blowing off the sea. On my way there and back, I gathered some flowers and tried to classify them on my return, but only succeeded in taking most of them to the genus. I had my "Rocky Mtn. Botany" too, but it doesn't have all of these plants described. I found one though I well satisfied to know, our dandelion is the Arctic dandelion only a slight variation of the one there. When I first saw them I thought they were false dandelions very much like one plant I couldn't name is known as salmon berry but is only six or eight inches high. It is a raspberry only yellow in color when ripe and tart, tastes much like a sour baked apple flavored with pineapple juice. We get few here but on the mainland they are abundant. You remember you asked if we got berries. Another is a very near cousin of the blueberry. We made twelve or fifteen glasses of jelly of it last year and some marmalade. The women and children picked them and we gave them an equal bulk of sugar. They are not very plenty but we are going to get all we can this summer. We have no driftwood here but 25 miles east there is an abundance brought down by the Yukon River. We are the only white people here. There were three men here the winter before we came whaling, but it didn't pay as they got only one whale. I talk their language some and understand more but I try to get them to use English. The boys learn it rapidly, or some do. I wear fur boots and pants all the time, but Mrs. Gambell a fur suit only outdoors in the winter time. If it is chilly we put fur (reindeer) coats on as the winds are very chilly, and we have them a good share of the time from the last of September till April regular gales much of the time.

The natives of all ages and sexes use tobacco except some of the boys whom I have got to leave it alone. They get a bottle of whiskey from the sailors sometimes or a gallon can of alcohol from Siberia but Healy stopped the Captains trading it. Some captains give them good trade and some don't. They live on whale meat, walrus, seal, ducks, and make sauerkraut of a fleshy plant like old-fashioned live-for-ever, the stonecrop. They get flour, molasses, coffee, tea and hard tack off the ships. We have good lake water, quarter of a mile from here. It freezes about four or five feet deep in the winter but I keep a hole cut in it with a chisel on the end of a pole, and keep a big box over the hole so we get water much easier than they do any place north of here where they melt snow. We get cod fish in August and September. The waves washed one up the other day in a storm but it has been too bad for them - the natives - to go in their boats. About 30 miles from here there are salmon and herring, but they get few of them. They also catch catfish not mud or river cat but salt water cat. They are good eating, I guess, but they are small and ugly so we don't bother with them. They get smelts when the storms wash them up and in the winter in February a small fish spawns here. One day they caught immense quantities (say a big wagonload, but the way they had them piled on the ice made it look large). That was the only day they caught them. As the lake froze over in October and we were skating on it the Fourth of July, it looks like chickens wouldn't pay.

We use the first reader, copy books, Gospel Hymns, How to See. and geography sometimes. We are ready for the second reader. The books haven't come yet - they went to Port Clarence and will be returned on "The Bear" so we don't know whether we will get second readers or not. We have slated cloth for blackboards. I tacked building paper next to the boards, the whole house is sealed, and it makes a good, smooth surface. I do not know what the children would do without the blackboard. They take great delight in drawing and writing on it. I am afraid the flowers would not thrive very well. We are raising some radishes under glass, but there is too much fog and cloudy weather for them. They are very slow. If everything isn't plain, let me know and I will try to make it so.

The picture you sent is good and we were very glad to get it. The bundle of pictures you sent are just what we want, too. When you go back to school join the P E O if you have a chance, but don't tell them you want to. Yes I was a frat but no one outside the society knew it. It was difficult at Ames. Now write another good, long letter. Mrs. G. says to, also. And don't forget to tell us who in your class is married. I think all the girls have been mentioned by name so we have concluded it is Charlie Myerholz.

Give your best wishes to all.

Your friend,
V. C. Gambell

P. S. The natives use snow shoes in the Spring - the snow is like ice in the winter, the lumps ring like steel when it is broken. Send for the Reindeer Report - the last one - it is very interesting.

Nellie wrote this letter:

St. Lawrence Island, Bering Sea
September 2, 1897

My Dear Mattie,

I thank you and your mother ever so much for the linen. We'll bring it back home with me to work for I am sick and must come home for a year. We enjoyed your nice long letter so much. When "The Bear" came and brought no letters from Wapello, we thought our friends had forgotten us. Yours with a number of others were taken by on the schooner that brought our goods, and another schooner brought them back day before yesterday.

I wish you could see our little daughter. She was born April 13, weighted 10 pounds then and 16 1/2 when four months old, has a chin and cowlick like her fathers and hair and eyes like mine. She has wakened us two or three mornings talking and laughing. She sleeps in her cradle by the bed. The children bring flowers and say for "Margaret."

Mr. Gambell has had nearly all the housework to do since before Christmas. I am not sick in bed but cannot be on my feet much. Dr. Gall the doctor on "The Bear" said I would have to have an operation performed before I would be well again. We are looking for "The Bear" any hour now, have everything packed that can be until she is in sight. If there is any one to help me on the way down, Mr. Gambell will stay here. We are very sorry we have to leave our work now. Yahgonga, a little girl that has helped us some cried the other day when we told her "The Bear" might come in a day or two.

I am very sorry you are having trouble with your eyes. We saw by the Democrat you had been to Iowa City.

Wish we could have some of your mother's spring chicken up here. The canned chicken and turkey we get are nearly all bones and rest necks and wings.

Captain Tuttle (on "The Bear") gave us half a flour sack of oranges and a dozen lemons this spring. We miss fresh fruit and vegetables so much. Our goods come when it is so warm they won't keep. Our onions come from Australia.

Mrs. Thaw of Pittsburgh, Pa. sent us a bay window this spring and the carpenter on "The Bear" with one man were five days putting it up. The sitting room is much nicer now. There is such a nice view of the sea from the north and east windows.

Mr. Gambell will write so I will let him tell the news and about our work.

Give my kindest regards to your father and mother.

With love,

Nellie Gambell

St. Lawrence Island, Bering Sea
September 19, 1897

Dear Mattie,

We were very much disappointed this summer and wondered why you didn't write. We saw in the paper your eyes were bothering you so we concluded that was what was the matter. Of course we were very glad to get your letter. I think I told you last year how much we enjoyed them. I thought to myself it made no difference if you didn't write anyway but I had so much to do and so many letters to write, and then Mrs. G. was going home and she would see you, so I didn't write. But now "The Bear" is so long over-due that we are afraid something has happened to her or she has decided at St. Michaels to go south and won't come this way, so we have given up expecting to go home, but we do hope to see a steamer to send mail down on.

I began school a couple of weeks ago and of course have the same children but there are few new little ones and the big boys have to stay out to hunt and to get ready for winter. The houses are all up, we have had some snow but it has been rainy for a couple of days with a south wind. I have seen a couple of spotted seal brought in and that is a pretty good sign that winter is close.

I have developed into a pretty good cook. I can make good yeast bread, it is easy to make a good cake but I don't like to make pies though Mrs. Gambell says I made the best mince pies she ever ate and I don't put brandy in them either. I wouldn't mind the cooking if it wasn't for all the other work I have to do. My! but I am getting tired of canned stuff. It's "what shall we have for dinner. It's almost like the army song "Beans for breakfast, etc." to the tune the old cow died on. How I would like a little rest or vacation, I think, Mattie, I'd enjoy your camping out mud and rain and all. I know I would in that crowd you had. If I ever should be back in Wapello when it is fit, I want you to get up just such a camping outfit and take me along.

I got a camera last spring and nearly went crazy over it but I spoiled nearly all my plates learning and have only about a dozen good negatives to show for it and only about as many plates left for the winter's pictures. If you want any next year and will ask me to send them I'll do it if you'll tell me what you want, but I'm not going to send them if you don't want them. (There is no signature on this letter, but it is in Vene's handwriting) One envelope - Pressed - Sea moss, Forget me not (valarian) Mookshood (Aconitum)

After a few years, on April 13, 1897, a daughter was born to them and they named her Margaret. The lack of proper medical attention made it necessary to ask for a much needed furlough, so the next annual trip of the freighter and whaler, a large four masted sailing ship, the "Jane Grey," they took passage to the United States. During their three month stay, Nellie was nursed back to health and they visited family and friends in Wapello and Winfield, where Rev. Gambell was born and raised.

In May 1898, at the conclusion of the three months furlough, to return to their post, it was again necessary to engage passage on the Jane Grey, which was the only ship that made this trip annually.

Within a short distance of their destination, on May 22, 1898, the ship encountered a storm and it was thought, hit an iceberg, as it sank so suddenly. Everyone on board was lost except two sailors who clung to an island and were saved.

They told of the Gambell family quietly and serenely returning to their cabin when they saw there was no hope of being saved, and all three were kneeling in prayer, arm in arm and went down with the ship.

There is a memorial monument in Scott Township Cemetery stating these dates:
Vene Gambell 1863 - 1898 (age 35) Nellie Gambell 1874 - 1898 (age 24) Margaret Gambell April 1897 - May 1898 (age 13 months and 9 days).

There is a stained glass window in the north end of the First Presbyterian Church, Winfield, Iowa, which was a gift of memoriam donated by local friends and relatives, citizens of both Wapello and Winfield. The plaque merely reads: "In memory of Rev. Vene Gambell, Nellie Gambell and their daughter, Margaret."

There is a second window on the east and is a scene of the sun rising over the ocean waves with the inscription: "When the sea gives up its dead," Rev. 20:13, In memory of Vene, Nellie and Margaret.

When the morning sun shines through the window, it is an inspiration to see and appreciate. The window is a gift from a friend of the Gambell family, a wealthy philanthropist of Philadelphia by the name of Mrs. Thaw. The church was dedicated December 2, 1900.

I will close this presentation with this scripture: Revelation 14:13 "And I heard a voice from Heaven saying, "Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth. Blessed indeed," said the Spirit, "that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them."