The Camp Robber - Superstition of Old Gold Miners in Alaska

The Camp Robber

This story, “The Camp Robber,” is from Heinie Snider’s book, Centennial - 100 Stories of Alaska, published in 1966 in honor of the 100th anniversary of the United State’s purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.

One of the best-known birds in Alaska is the camp robber, which is a little larger than a jay. This bird steals everything in sight, and like a pack-rat, hides the stolen food in places for miles around. They are seldom alone, but travel in pairs or in flocks, babbling and talking. They are not often found in the cities, but if you go into the wilderness or camp on the trail you will soon hear them screaming, hopping here and there, picking up morsels of food, then flying away and casting the food where no other birds or animals can find it. The camp robber can smell freshly killed meat miles away. No sooner does one get a moose killed or a caribou quartered, and the robber is there, starting first by picking all the fat off the meat. You would think the prospector would hate them, and some of them do. But the camp robber, like the chickadee, gives the lone trapper and prospector who lives in the wilderness some kind of companionship. However, that is not the only reason he is not shot on sight. Ask any old-timer, and he will tell you that to kill a camp robber is to invite trouble. This pestiferous bird is usually treated with undue considerations throughout the Yukon Territory and Alaska, because of a superstition believed by many prospectors to have been founded on the fact that sailors never kill a seagull. They claim that the soul of a seaman goes into a seagull.
An Old Gold Miner An Old Gold Miner So it is taboo to kill a camp robber. By doing so, you will never find the gold you are seeking. An old prospector, resembling somewhat the German Iron Chancellor, Bismarck, told of him and his partner, “Irish Murphy,” who were prospecting somewhere near the headwaters of the Tolovana. One day, after a strenuous session of work, while Bismarck was cooking hot cakes and frying bacon in their tent, a camp robber was making a nuisance of himself. Not only did he steal a slice of bacon, but he got his feet in the sourdough pot. “Rouch mit him!” said Bismarck, and with a swipe of his hand knocked the feathered marauder against the stove. Mr. Robber fell over, apparently dead. “Gosh,” Bismarck said to his partner, “I killed a camp robber!” He took the bird in his hand, trying to resuscitate it with a few drops of water down its throat, but as there was no sign of life he laid the bird on a rock. While they were eating dinner, the bird came back to life, sitting up in a dazed sort of way. It looked at them reproachfully, flapping its wings, and flew away. Although he had been visiting them all winter, the camp robber never came back.
A camp robber perched on a tree A camp robber perched on a tree | Credit: James Prately, Flickr Discussing whether to stay here when they had found some colors or to move on, both began to think that the bird would bring them tough luck. They packed their supplies and moved to another part of the Northland. If they had stayed and continued to prospect, they would have discovered one of the richest placer gold mines in Alaska. The first year of discovery, the prospectors, with sluice boxes, panning, ground-sluicing, and rockers, washed gold nuggets from Cleary Creek to the tune of five million dollars.   Printed with permission from the family of Heinie Snider.   If you enjoyed this article, check out "1913 - A Very Important Year in Alaska History."  

3 comments

Thank you. I’m writing up my great grandfather’s letters from his gold rush adventures of 1898-1899. He and his party took the first steamer up the Chena River.
In his letters, he describes the camp robber, along with other animals he found in the area. I found this article while looking or background. Wonderful!

Mary Lynn Roush April 17, 2021

Wonderful story!

Worden Willis April 17, 2021

In my 48 yrs of hunting, fishing, 4wheeling, snow machining, and hiking, I never heard a Camp Robber chatter. I’ve heard them make a soft whistle. When butchering an animal, I have felt the quiet stare over me. No noise, just a jay in the tree staring at me, almost creepy.

Sharon April 17, 2021

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published