Elsie Julia Gibson Whitney

(15 March 1885 – 16 April 1970)


The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium (NCU) has cataloged about two dozen specimens – all ferns & fern allies – collected by Elsie G. Whitney.   As cataloging continues it is likely that more will be found not only in NCU but also in collections across North America.  Ms. Whitney’s specimens  at NCU were collected in New York, between 1929 and 1936.

Other herbaria curating Elsie G. Whitney’s specimens include Academy of Natural Sciences (PH), Butler University (BUT), Kent State University (KE), Missouri Botanical Garden (MO), Morris Arboretum, University of Pennsylvania (MOAR), Morton Arboretum (MOR), Muhlenberg College (MCA), New York Botanical Garden (NY), Rutgers University (CHRB), Tulane University (NO), Botanical Research Institute of Texas (NLU), University of Connecticut (CONN), United States National Herbarium (US) and New York State Museum (NYS).

Elsie Julia Gibson was born 15 March 1885 in Vermont to Albert Milan Gibson (b. Ryegate, Caledonia, Vermont 24 May 1849; died in Mt. Sunapee, Merrimack, New Hampshire 24 March 1918) and Etta Ruth Brown (b. Ryegate, Caledonia, Vermont 3 July 1856; d. in Haverhill, Grafton, New Hampshire 9 November 1933).  Elsie’s siblings were Ralph George Gibson (1877 – 1938), Albert Wooster Gibson (1880 — 1954), John Scott Gibson (1882 – 1961), Sarah Elizabeth Gibson (1886 – 1949), Anna Laurene Gibson (1891 – 1979).1

Elsie Gibson married Alvin Goodnow Whitney on July 28, 1912 in Washington, D.C. Alvin Whitney (2 March 1883 – 19 June 1960) was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, educated at Dartmouth College, and became the Assistant Director of the New York State Museum.1

Elsie graduated with an A.B. from Syracuse University, and earned her M.A. in Botany at the University of Michigan in 1929.

Within three months of their marriage, Elsie and Alvin moved to St. Paul Island, one of the Pribilof Islands of Alaska.  They were employed by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries and took part in a biological survey of the Islands.  W. L. McAtee of the Bureau of Biological Survey notes, “The material upon which the present report is based was collected by Alvin G. and Elsie G. Whitney from October, 1912 to July, 1914, and by G. Dallas Hanna in 1914, 1915, 1916, and 1917.  The collectors were employed on the Pribilof Islands during these years by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries and thanks are due to the Chief of that Bureau for turning over their collections of invertebrates to the Biological Survey… All type specimens mentioned in the following reports as well as the bulk of the remaining material will be deposited in the U.S. National Museum.”2

During their stay on St. Paul Island, the Whitneys were the whistle-blowers in a scandal involving U.S. Government employees and the native people on the island.  (See below for text of “Pribilof Orgies Stir Federal Anger” published by The New York Times in 1914.)3

In 1928 the Whitneys moved to Albany, New York, where they both worked at the New York State Museum, Alvin as Assistant Director of the Museum and Elsie as the Asst. State Botanist.   Elsie G. Whitney served as the Secretary for the American Fern Society during the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Elsie Whitney died on 16 April, 1970.  She and Alvin are buried in Blue Mountain Cemetery in Ryegate Corner, Caledonia County, Vermont.4

Gravestone of Elsie Gibson Whitney in Blue Mountain Cemetery in Rygate Corner, Caledonia County, Vermont. Image courtesy of FindAGrave Memorial ID #121725317.

21 July, 1914.  The New York Times.

Pribilof Orgies Stir Federal Anger:  Debauchery of Women Included in Shocking Charges Affecting Government Employes [sic].  GIVE ALCOHOL TO NATIVES.  Diary of Government Teacher Makes Charges of Immorality – Employes Practically Prisoners.  Special to The New York Times.  3

WASHINGTON, July 20.  Secretary Redfield of the Department of Commerce has submitted all the original complaints in the Pribilof Islands scandal to Attorney General McReynolds for action.  The papers include the formal accusations made against various Government agents on the islands by Mr. and Mrs. Alvin G. Whitney, Government school teachers on St. Paul Island, one of the Pribilof group.  The Whitneys charge gross immorality, seduction of the native women by Government agents, flagrant law violation in furnishing intoxicating liquors to the natives, and illegal killing of fur seal pups.

Since July 6 Deputy Commissioner E. Lester Jones of the United States Bureau of Fisheries has been on St. Paul Island making an investigation of the case under directions from Secretary Redfield.  Four Government vessels, the revenue cutters Tahoma and McCulloch, the cruiser Buffalo of the navy, and the steamship Albatross of the Fish Commission, are being employed in connection with the investigation.

The five Government agents against whom charges have been brought technically are prisoners on St. Paul Island.  While investigation continues orders have been given to permit no one to leave the islands.

Four executive departments of the Government are co-operating in the investigation of the scandal.  The chief investigation is being made under the auspices of the Department of Commerce by Deputy Commissioner Jones, who is assisted by E.M. Ball.  Federal inspector of Fisheries, and H.C. Hassatt, who represents the Fisheries Service on St. Paul Island.  The Department of Justice has been asked to look after the criminal prosecutions which it is expected will follow the investigation.  The Navy Department, through Secretary Daniels, has assured Secretary Redfield that steps have been taken to investigate the charges against P.L. McClenny, the navy radio operator on St. Paul Island, one of the officials against whom charges have been made.

Daniels Will Remove Operator.

Secretary Daniels has decided to replace McClenny with another naval radio operator and will assign a man of family to the post.  The Treasury Department, through the Chief of Revenue Cutter Service, has instructed Capt. Reynolds of the Alaskan fur seal patrol service to refuse transportation to any one from the Pribilof Islands while the investigation continues.

The original complaint against Agent P.R.E. Hatton, L.N. Tongue, the storekeeper, McClenny, and others was made on May 1 by Mr. and Mrs. Whitney to F.M. Chamberlain, Naturalist in the Fisheries Service, and was forwarded to the Department of Commerce.

“Drunkenness, licentiousness, and other vices,” says the Whitney complaint, “have been rampant in the community under the drunken leadership of Hatton and Tongue.  These men, who at once assumed authority upon your departure from the island, have so conducted affairs as to make the station an impossible place for decent white men to live, to say nothing of white women, who are in constant peril.

“The station work is disorganized and neglected, and the native community further demoralized and increasingly unruly.  As a basis for my charges of gross immorality on the part of Government officials and its pernicious effect upon the native community I offer the following facts which were recorded daily as they happened by school teachers and physicians.”

Alcohol and Waters for Natives.

Mr. Whitney in his complaint then gives in the form of a narrative from a diary a shocking account of conditions on the island.  The diary covers events from July, 1913 to May 17, 1914.  Some of the entries in this diary, which forms part of the formal complaint against the Government agents on the island, are as follows:
July and August, 1913. – From the time that Mr. Hatton came to St. Paul Island from St. George Island (July 28) to take up his duties as agent and caretaker a strong mixture of alcohol and water was passed out to the natives at every opportunity until the stock of alcohol was practically consumed.  Hatton and Tongue took direct charge of this during the time the natives were landing cargo from the supply ship and gave out this drink twice a day regularly.  The alcohol thus used was requisitioned for “medicinal purposes.”

Aug. 12, 1913. – Hatton, Tongue, and Dr. McGovern went out to the revenue cutter Manning in the evening in a launch and gambled with the Captain and other officers until 6 A.M., when the ship was on the point of getting under way. The native crew was compelled to stay at the ship and wait all night.

Aug. 19 to 22, 1913. – The yacht Adventuress arrived Aug. 19 with Roy C. Andrews and the yachting and hunting party he accompanied.  Hatton, Tongue, and Dr. McGovern spent practically all their time during three days entertaining the party on shore or visiting on board the yacht.  Their entertainment was invariably gambling and drinking day and night.  During this interval Mr. Andrews and I were occupying our time with photographic work.

Aug. 22, 1913. – When Mr. Andrews and Mr. Hatton went out to the yacht in the evening to bring the former’s outfit ashore the native engineer was so drunk as to be useless and came near sinking the launch.  The weather was stormy and dark and the sea rough.  The delay of the party in returning caused great apprehension on shore and finally a rescuing party prepared to set out.  At this juncture Dr. McGovern who was drunk got into a quarrel with the native boatman and ended up in a fist fight with the Russian priest.

Sept. 3, 1913. – A native woman was carousing with Dr. McGovern at the dispensary all night.  At 1:30 A.M. he came to the company house and got more liquor.

Sept. 30, 1913. – A dance was held at night at the native shop.  Several natives were drunk there.

Oct. 1, 1913. —  In conversation with Dr. McGovern he declared that Hope, chief of the Naval Radio Station, habitually had Auzenia Diakanof, a native girl, at the station for immoral purposes, that her mother had complained to Hope about the matter, and he had there upon promised to marry her.  Dr. McGovern also asserted that one day recently he went to the Radio Station and found Hope and is paramour drinking in the operating room.

Oct. 19, 1913. – At 3 P.M., occurred the celebration of the marriage of C. H. Hope, in charge of the Radio Station at St. Paul Island, to Auzenia Diakanof, a young native woman, according to the rites of the Russian Church.

Nov. 23 to 29, 1913. – This was foxing week when most of the native men were away from the village trapping.  The white men embraced this opportunity to seduce native women, as I afterward learned.  When the hunters returned at the end of the week there was a grand celebration, practically the whole community being drunk.

Threats for Native Men.

These are only a few of the entries in the diary that forms part of the complaint against the Government agents on the island.  The diary tells of the alleged relationship of the Government agents with the wives of natives, designating them by name, and it is alleged that when husbands of the native women complained, threat of deportation and other punishment were made if they did not remain silent.  Attached to the complaint are affidavits from some of the native husbands.

After Mr. and Mrs. Whitney had forwarded their original report, Hatton on June 2 telegraphed his resignation to the Government.  At the same time Dr. Henry Esmond, a physician in the Federal Fisheries Service on the island, resigned.  Mr. Whitney learned of this and he at one sent this radio message to Secretary Redfield:  Earnestly request immediate inquiry into existing conditions on St. Paul Island on account several employes preparing to leave.  I request that all island officials be held pending investigation.

Deputy Commissioner Jones happened to be in Alaskan waters making an investigation of the halibut industry.  He was instructed on June 11 to proceed immediately in the Albatross to the Pribilof Islands to investigate the scandal.  This telegram was sent to Whitney:  Do not allow any employee to leave pending Jones’s arrival.

On June 12 the resignations were refused and this radio message was sent to Hatton:  Hatton.  St. Paul Island. Alaska, (wireless via North Head, Wash.):  Your resignation not accepted pending investigation by Deputy Commissioner Jones, due at islands about July 17.  Do not leave prior to his arrival or allow any employee to do so.  SMITH, Commissioner of Fisheries.

After the arrival of Deputy Commissioner Jones, Secretary Redfield two weeks ago informed Dr. Hugh M. Smith, the Federal Commissioner of Fisheries, that the entire force on the islands would have to be removed.  In a communication to Dr. Smith, Secretary Redfield said: “Take any course within the law which will put an end to what seems to be the shocking conditions upon the islands.”

1.  http://familytreemaker.genealogy.com/users/b/r/u/Barbara-J-Bruce/PDFGENE6.pdf  accessed on 9 November 2011.
2.   http://www.fwspubs.org/doi/pdf/10.3996/nafa.46.0002  McAtee, W. L. (1923 )  Biological Survey of the Pribilof Islands, Alaska.  Part II. Insects, Arachnids, and Chilopods of Pribilof Islands, Alaska.  IN North American Fauna #46. Washington, D.C. :  Government Printing Office.
3.  http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F60915FC3F5412738DDDA80A94DF405B848DF1D3  accessed on 9 November 2011.
4.   Elsie Gibson Whitney.  Find A Grave Memorial ID #121725317.  https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/121725317 accessed on 8 May, 2019.