Love of family history drives Tennessee man to Alaska in quest for gold-searching ancestor

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 18 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

Martin McCullough was a passenger in Alaska while searching for the burial place of his ancestor Ben McCullough.

Provided by Martin McCullough

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Martin McCullough hasn’t always been engaged in genealogy so intensely that it would drive him to leave his comfortable home in Tennessee, arrive in Alaska with not much more than a couple of coordinates and then travel down a river that harbors a threat of hypothermia.

But with a little help from his wife, Lynda, and what he attributes to divine influence, McCullough’s heart turned to his fathers more than he may have imagined.

“Absolutely, it was a spiritual experience for me,” McCullough said when asked if he felt inspired to seek out the resting place of his ancestor, Ben McCullough, last fall.

In 1899, Ben led a gold-search expedition into the Last Frontier, a journey that was cut short for him when he fell subject to scurvy, the vitamin C deficiency that attacks the vital organs and finally destroys its victim’s capillaries. Ben was later joined in death by hundreds in the party, who were likewise victims of the same disease.

“We think of scurvy of an ocean-sailing-ship kind of disease, but it killed more Alaskan pioneers than anything else did,” said McCullough, a retired professor from Middle Tennessee State University.

McCullough’s interest in his ancestor was piqued when he began to regularly attend the Murfreesboro Family History Center at the chapel of the Stones River Ward of the McMinnville Tennessee Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which Lynda is a member.

He came across a letter that contained the story of Ben’s voyage and learned more about his ancestor, whose immense crew also voyaged through rough and unforgiving country with temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

“I am from a family that has always had a great respect for history and in hearing stories about people like Ben,” McCullough said.

That interest only increased when McCullough learned from the letter about the noble means by which Ben was leading the expeditions. McCullough was afforded the opportunity when his brother, Hubert, a former Tennessee commissioner of education from Murfreesboro, found a box of family letters in January 2010.

According to Ben’s journal, the ambition of his expedition was to provide his findings as support for his family in the midst of a financial crisis that plagued the nation in the late 19th century.

“Those guys that went out there weren’t wild-eyed seekers of gold,” McCullough said. “They were trying to help the family survive into the decades.”

Upon receipt of the letter, the family could then come close to pinpointing the area of Ben’s demise.

“I am not a minister or preacher, but I figured somebody in the family ought to go up there and say some words,” McCullough told Sam Stockard of The Daily News Journal, in Murfreesboro, Tenn. “He died alone, in the worst possible climate and conditions you can imagine in the whole world, and was buried by strangers.”

In the letter, which was written to Ben’s parents, Dr. A.P. and Mary McCullough, Ben’s party was traveling down the Copper River near the tail of Alaska when he grew ill. Ben was buried on a limestone island characterized by a 200-foot strip of land on the edge of the glacier-ridden river, six miles above Dewey Creek.

“We buried him the best we could. The weather was intense cold, for while I was working on the grave I frosted my hands and face,” the letter reads. “We could only work for a few minutes at a time and when we got the grave 6 feet deep we then made a strong cribbing, and after placing Ben in his best clothes and blankets carried him to his last place, and I will always remember the sober faces that was around the grave.”

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