Millions of images, one Alaska

Preservation project digitizes more than one million files from state's days as a territory
Merrill and Karen Sunderland, of Family Search, look through the last remaining books and files in the State's archives to be photographed on Wednesday. Family Search is a nonprofit family history organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A trapper, alone somewhere in the Territory of Alaska, hurt his hand gravely and feared he wouldn’t survive. He only had black and white family photos to write his wishes for help on, followed by a goodbye note as his end seemed near. The trapper knew his last scribbled words might reach no one, and his life’s story may end right there.

 

Those scribbled words, however, now live on in an unlikely place because of efforts by an unlikely group.

This tale of a lonely end for a trapper, fisherman or adventurer was not uncommon while exploring the Territory of Alaska, and recent measures by four retired couples from Utah, all missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, have made these stories available online for public viewing. These couples each agreed to sit in the State Archives basement with their significant other for eight hours a day, taking pictures of rare documents, several more than 100 years old.

“It’s very touching to be able to feel like you’re part of something so important. It’s history,” said Karen Sunderland, one of the preservation volunteers, while holding a file from 1884 that marked the first recordings of the Alaska Territorial Courts.

Sunderland worked alongside her husband, Merrill, and fellow LDS missionaries Diana and Doyle Rasmussen. The two couples were the last of four to take shifts for several months at a time on the project, backed by the nonprofit FamilySearch.

FamilySearch, supported monetarily by and with volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was founded in 1894. The organization’s mission for gathering, recording and preserving records is a global effort that puts fading documents in a place where they can “live” virtually forever on the internet.

While FamilySearch.org serves primarily as a free place to help “people connect with their ancestors,” according to the organization’s website, this project has also helped the State of Alaska dot some i’s and cross some t’s when it comes to records keeping.

State Archivist Dean Dawson oversaw this digitizing of state records and said what the FamilySearch volunteers did goes beyond the $1 million in funds saved through volunteer time.

“They more than met our expectations with their quality of product,” Dawson said, explaining that the more than 1,101,839 images of archived birth and death records, court and probate records and other historical documents will be ready for public viewing online in about four months.

The time span for documents scanned by the missionaries does not go beyond Alaska’s incorporation to the United States, because of state privacy concerns.

When the images are ready for online viewing, that doesn’t mean the real objects will just go out the window, Diana Rasmussen said. The delicate papers, and even the occasional billfold or tooth that was stored in a box, will still be available for public viewing. This process of online searching will just make finding what people are looking for easier while minimizing their exposure and deterioration.

Items people might want to see more than just a copy of, Sunderland said, might include the 1923 marriage license docket recovered with a bullet shot through the spine. Those type of items, she said, lend themselves to unsolved mysteries the mind can play with.

“Why was there a bullet in a marriage licence docket? You can just make up your own story,” Sunderland said, with Rasmussen adding that the many interesting stories that passed before their eyes often captivated them, slowing the process down at times. Although their pace, finishing a year under the four-year projection, was more than adequate. The Rasmussen’s best day was when they recorded 5,000 documents in one day.

Doyle Rasmussen said the passion behind such a tedious task all goes back to a mission of connecting people, while also sharing the unique journey that was life in early Alaska.

“I don’t know where you could go in the United States and find this kind of experience, the cultures we looked at, the pioneers, the things that people did here for the last 120 years in primitive fashion,” Rasmussen said. “How they made a living or didn’t making a living, and how they struggled are stories of families.”

• Contact reporter Paula Ann Solis at 523-2272 or at paula.solis@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @paulaannsolis.

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