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.”

So began McCullough’s own journey to Alaska, along with his son, Marty. Upon determining the latitude and longitude of Ben’s resting place, McCullough reached out to the MTSU Geography Department for technological help to enhance his search on Google maps. A bit of help from Geoff Bleakley, a historian with the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska, in obtaining information about the area of the burial also went a long way. But Bleakley wasn’t about to take too much credit.

“He’s unusually devoted, I’ll say,” said Bleakley, before adding that he even doubted the island containing Ben’s place of burial would remain visible following years of potential erosion. “How else can I describe him but persistent. He gave me more information about some people who have a history here than I was about the park.”

Persistent beyond what fear would tell him. Though McCullough said he was “scared to death” the morning of Aug. 9, 2010, — a day in which Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was killed in a plane crash as he flew toward a lodge nearly 300 miles north of Chitina — the 78-year-old continued toward the island, eventually chartering a jet boat typically used to deposit salmon fisherman to carry him and Marty to their destination.

Through both the coordinates and the island’s unique physical characteristics, they were able to identify the correct spot. No other islands in the area fit the letter’s description, and because it was a limestone-based island rather than silt, nature didn’t change it much over time, McCullough said.

A Sunday School teacher in his local Baptist church, McCullough spoke about the family’s knowledge of Ben’s sacrifice before closing with a prayer, quoting from Ecclesiastes the familiar lines, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die…”

Then came the turn for the next line in the McCullough family, Marty, who said that he had to give his parents priority by making the voyage, particularly after having forgone a trip to his ancestral home of Scotland with his family nearly two decades earlier.

“After 110 years, what I tried to say is, ‘Ben, I’m up here to tell you that you are not forgotten, that even though you died in a strange place with a very, very painful, slow death, that your family remembers you and that you are held in the highest respect,'” Marty said.

The efforts of such posterity in keeping their fathers in remembrance is something that at least one of McCullough’s other ancestors have previously kept in mind. McCullough spoke of a female ancestor, whose name is unknown, who is originally from Marshall County, Tenn., but traveled to the Rocky Mountain region upon converting to Mormonism. McCullough believes that she is responsible for having completed Ben’s temple work circa 1922.

It’s a part of McCullough’s history that he is grateful to share with his wife. Despite being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the midst of other relatives who are members of other faiths, Lynda shared experiences about extended family members being touched to the point of tears when she has told them of having taken the name of one of their relatives to have ordinances performed on their behalf in one of the temples of the LDS Church.

McCullough said that he would love to meet Lynda’s ancestor, Peter Maughan, a Mormon pioneer who knew Brigham Young and was instrumental in helping settle Cache Valley. Bleakley said he has used the church’s archives in his historical research and, through systems like familysearch.org, considers the archives as “maybe the best such resource in the United States” for family history.

“They appreciate the fact for more prayers for their ancestors,” Lynda said about those members of her family who have reacted to her telling them of her temple work for fellow relatives. “They have good respect for the LDS Church and its members and the genealogy that they do. They don’t necessarily understand if they’ve already been baptized, but that’s where the explanations will come about needing the fullness of the gospel.

“I think it has an effect on everyone,” she said.

For some, that means seeking remote locales in the far reaches of the North American continent.

Email: rwilkinson@desnews.com Twitter: wilklogan

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