Accumulated Fragments: The Bear Man of Admiralty Island: Part 1

This photo from the Alaska State Library Historical Archives (ASL-MS2-2-4-01) shows Allen Hasselborg in 1900.

Editor's note: The information for this column comes with permission from the book "Bear Man of Admiralty Island," by John R. Howe, published in 1996 by the University of Alaska Press. All passages, exerpts and quotes come courtesy of the author.



About 15 miles, as the crow flies, east of Juneau is an island called Admiralty. A little over 90 miles long by about 35 miles wide; this island is the seventh largest island in the United States. The island was named by George Vancouver in honor of his Royal Navy employers, the Admiralty, in 1794. The Tlingits, who had lived there for more than a thousand years, had already named it Kootznoowoo, which has sometimes been interpreted as “the fortress of the bears.” Probably a good reason for the Tlingit name is the fact that the island is home to the highest density of brown bears in North America; which leads us into a story about an extremely interesting person: Allen E. Hasslborg.

Hasselborg was born Nov. 18, 1876 in Franconia, Minn. to Olaf and Mary Hasselborg. He was the first of eight children, born over a 12-year period.

John R. Howe wrote in the Bear Man of Admiralty Island that “by the time he was in his teens, Allen was spending much of his time alone, hunting in the woods and fields around Franconia, often bringing squirrels, grouse, and rabbit home to the family dinner table.”

“I knew every trail for miles and almost every tree worth knowing for nuts, squirrels, etc.,” Hasselborg would say many years later, “We used to go out in snowstorms and try to get lost but I never could.”

“With a few boys his age, he built wigwams and camped out in rock caves on the hill behind town. The first time he earned some money selling fish, he spent it on natural history books. He loved to read. He was a very bright student and usually won most of the prizes at the end of the year. Shy, intense, and given to sudden fits of anger, he didn’t make friends easily. Like many lonely boys growing up in the country, he sought the company of pet animals. The year he turned 13, he tamed a male raccoon and kept it until it got too wild, and he had to let it go. In the fall of 1890, the year he turned 14, he dropped out of school, explaining to his parents that he had read all the books in the school library and was afraid he might start “retrograding.”” Howe wrote.

In July of 1893 the Hasselborg house caught on fire. For years, Allen’s father had wanted to move to Florida and, with the insurance money from the house, this was his opportunity. In October of 1893, after a going away party given by the neighbors, they loaded up their wagon with the few remaining possessions and were off to the train station in Taylor Falls. The “80 acres of land with the improved house” turned out to be mostly brush and a few oaks and palmetto trees pushed up against a marshy bayou. The log cabin was a dilapidated one-room shack with a leaky roof, a dirt and stick chimney and one small window. Additionally, there were a few beehives, semi-tame razorback hogs, some mite infested chickens and an old gray cat.

It wasn’t long before the money ran out and jobs were scarce. The family had gone from being part of the social elite in Franconia with lots of friends and relatives to ‘Yankee’ northerners living on the outskirts of a town that had been nearly destroyed by Union gunships during the Civil War. They didn’t fit in and the neighbors ignored them. His father’s mind began to slip and he became mean; the full weight of supporting the family fell to Mary and the kids. He was extremely hard on Hasselborg, criticizing him constantly for not finding a job. Hasselborg tried to find work but other than fishing there was nothing to be had. Mary had fainting spells and she became afraid she was dying. She told her son that he was going to have to take care of the family. With this burden, along with constant fighting with his father, he became depressed and paralyzed with uncertainty about himself. An advertisement said the government was offering $13 a month for those who would join the Army and fight in the Spanish-American War. However, Allen believed that the entire Spanish-American War was a “war on paper” and disregarded the idea.

In the spring of 1898, he worked his way up the coast and headed north. He stopped by Franconia looking for work but was unable to find a job. Shortly after, he found work in a livery stable in St. Paul. Finally, he went back home. That winter a big snowstorm hit Florida and the temperature dropped to two degrees above zero. Hist father was still giving him lots of trouble and Hasselborg realized that he couldn’t stay there any longer. The next thing his family knew, Hasselborg was in Arizona working for a mine. In a letter to his mother he mentioned the gold rush in the Klondike; so it was no surprise when he wrote from a schooner anchored off the Shumigan Islands in western Alaska in 1899. What he didn’t mention was that he had been shanghaied after he had gone to Seattle looking for a job. He had been knocked out and when he awoke he found himself on an 80-ton fishing vessel called the Arago already out at sea and heading for winter fishing for cod in the Bering Sea.

When they returned to Seattle, the captain kept half his pay and his shipmates got him drunk and stole the rest. By 1900 he was fishing on the Columbia River with his brother, Horace, catching Chinook salmon and steelhead. They would net as much as 4,000 pounds of fish a day. It was easier work than on the Arago but Hasselborg was only being paid $2 a day. The fishing job ended in August, leaving him in Astoria, Oregon; again without a job. So, by late fall he was back in Alaska working in the Treadwell mines, breaking rock and pushing ore cars at $2 a day plus board. At the time the Treadwell was one of the largest hard rock gold mining operations in the world. The adjoining towns of Treadwell and Douglas bustled with activity and, across Gastineau Channel; Juneau was also feeling its oats. A ramshackle mining camp 20 years earlier, it had just been declared the capital of the territory.

For the next few years Allen bounced around between Alaska and Arizona working at different mining jobs or other odd jobs. Then in 1903 he got word that his dad had died. He sent a terse word to his mother saying: “I’m sorry dad has died. I’ll send money as soon as I can.” That fall he went to Sitka and built a dory. In November he set out to row the 80 miles to Juneau. His route took him down Peril Strait, around the southern tip of Admiralty Island, and up to the head of Seymour Canal, where he dragged his boat a mile overland to Oliver Inlet. It was January by the time he pulled the final 10 miles into town. By then he had decided to remain in Alaska. By now an experienced hunter, trapper, fisherman and prospector, he had found everything he wanted, all in the same vast, wild place.

In 1904 he shot his first brown bear. Most brown bears in Southeast Alaska had learned to avoid the beaches, where they were most vulnerable to hunters. Even in midsummer, Hasselborg often had to go 3,000 to 4,000 feet into the mountains to find them. But it was well worth the effort. A hide in good condition sold for as much as $50 in Juneau, more than he could make in a month of fishing or working in a mine, and he could combine bear hunting with other work — keep an eye out and rifle handy while prospecting in the mountains or fishing near shore. But hunting for bear is not easy work and can be seriously dangerous. A green hide can weigh as much as 150 pounds and it had to be carried back to camp or dory and then to camp. Then it had to be scraped and salted and stretched out to dry. Bears are extremely hard to see in the underbrush, can act very quickly and, for a short distance, are very fast. A good bear hunter has to be a crack shot, a fast thinker, an outstanding woodsman, and very athletic. Hasselborg was all of those things and more. Toughened by years of hard physical labor and outdoor living, who liked nothing better than hunting wild country on his own, it was as if all his life he had been preparing to hunt for the most dangerous animal in North America — the Southeast Alaska brown bear.

• This is part one in a multi-part series about Allen Hasselborg. Part two will run in next Sunday’s Neighbors.


1. Bear Man of Admiralty island by John R. Howe

2. Expeditions: In fortress of the Bear by Terry Wieland

3. Papers of Allen E. Hasselborg, 1899-1955 by Alaska State Library, Historical Collections

4. The Wild Grizzlies of Admiralty Island by John Holzworth


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