White, Martha Greer "Mother"
1867-1919 | Pioneer Business Entrepreneur, Hotel Owner, and Community Builder
Martha Greer White, better known as “Mother White,” first became noted as the only woman from Washington State to receive the Gold Lifesaving Medal, the highest honor given by the Life-Saving Service of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, a forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1892, this medal was bestowed on White for saving the lives of three sailors from the shipwrecked British ship, Ferndale, at the risk of her own life, during a storm north of Grays Harbor, Washington. She went on to become a successful business entrepreneur and investor in Alaska. Her searches for the next opportunity took her to the Cook Inlet country in 1895, where she became perhaps its most widely known resident by establishing businesses in Tyonek, Ladd’s Landing, Hope, Sunrise and, finally, Ship Creek over a twenty-four year period. In 1915, she established a tent hotel and restaurant in Anchorage, then called Ship Creek. After the original Anchorage townsite was surveyed and platted, she built the White House Hotel on the city's commercial street, Fourth Avenue, between I and K Streets.
Martha Greer was born in Glasgow, Scotland on February 22, 1867. Her birth occurred on George Washington’s birthday and, because of her mother’s great admiration for the United States, she was named Martha for Martha Washington.1 Martha either immigrated to the United States at the age of seven, when she arrived with her parents in New York or, alternatively, came to stay with her aunt at the age of fourteen.2 She married a Mr. Grove when she was a young woman, and had her first child, Robert, on January 11, 1884. Her first marriage did not last and Martha moved to Patterson, New Jersey, where she met and married Edward A. White. The family first moved to Texas for four years, then to the Washington coast to North Beach, Grays Harbor, Washington.3
Life-Saving Efforts off the Washington State Coast (1892)
While living in Grays Harbor, Martha White became famous for her action in saving three sailors from the English ship Ferndale. Owned by the British firm of J. Henry Iredale & Co., the 1,270-ton sailing bark was caught in a gale and taken by the northeast current about sixty miles north of the Columbia River, to an area near the mouth of Grays Harbor, and then driven another fifteen miles north. The ship was bound from Newcastle, New South Wales, for Portland, Oregon, carrying a cargo of coal and coke, consigned to the Oregon Improvement Company. On the morning of January 29, 1892, at around 3:30 a.m., the ship was blown ashore on the breakers, several hundred yards offshore, just opposite the home of Martha and Edward White, near Copalis Beach. Three of the crew reached shore by clinging to the mainmast of the wrecked ship. Twenty others, including the officers, were lost at sea.4 Martha, then twenty-five years of age, waded into the pounding surf to pull the exhausted sailors to the beach and then on to her home to recuperate.5
Martha White’s actions were documented in local newspapers, and caught the attention of the press, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Portland Oregonian, Aberdeen Herald, and Hoquiam Washingtonian. For her actions, she was presented with the Gold Lifesaving Medal from the Life-Saving Service, the highest honor given by this former federal agency, which later merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915.6 When the medal was ordered later that year, White requested that the inscription on the gold medal read “Martha White” rather than “Mrs. Edward White.” It was sent to White in July 1892 with this inscription: “To Mrs. Martha White for heroic daring in rescuing three men from drowning, January 29, 1892.” A Portland newspaper described White’s efforts as:
" . . . an act of the noblest heroism on the part of a woman of inferior physical strength, unaided and alone, on a stormy and uninhabited sea-coast, that for the sake of humanity, for the sake of women-hood, for the sake of our own sex, should not go unnoticed, or, if it were possible, unrewarded." 7
As noted by historian Shanna Stevenson, her accolades did, indeed, continue. Another gold medal was awarded to White by the citizens of Portland, Oregon, and the city’s chamber of commerce. Later in life, in 1912, she was honored by Congress as one of six women to receive the “American Cross of Honor.” This award was authorized by Congress in 1906 to recognize persons for rescues and those who had received life-saving medals.8
Life in Alaska
After receiving accolades, medals, and financial rewards, Martha and Edward White left Grays Harbor. On May 14, 1894, the Whites relocated to Cook Inlet, settling at Ladd’s Landing or Station, primarily a fish saltery and Dena’ina Native village two miles from Tyonek.9 The accounts of Martha White’s life from her arrival in Cook Inlet to her setting up a hotel, the White House, in Anchorage in 1915, are sometimes contradictory.
At Cook Inlet around 1895, White’s daughter, Martha “Babe” White, known as “the first white child born in Cook Inlet,” was born at “Tyonik,” on July 21, 1894 or July 22, 1895.10 Mrs. Martha White established a mercantile business with the Dena’ina Indians, exchanging goods for furs.11 It appears that Martha had four children, with two dying in infancy. Several other accounts describe Edward White as a commercial whaler who traveled to the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean.12
The autobiography of Albert Weldon Morgan, describes how he met a “Mrs. White” at the mining camp of Sunrise on Turnagain Arm in the summer of 1897. Mrs. White told Morgan that she and her husband, Edward, were in Sunrise looking for work. They had worked at C.D. Ladd’s fish saltery at Ladd’s Station or Landing (near the mouth of the Chuitna River) the previous year. Later, Morgan found the Whites working for Fred Smith who was successfully mining on Lynx Creek, near Sunrise. Edward White was a laborer on the placer claim and Mrs. White was the camp cook.13
Fred Smith hired Edward White to be the caretaker for the mine over the winter of 1897-1898. Morgan later heard that Mrs. White accompanied Smith to San Francisco, and remained with him after their return from California, apparently leaving her husband.14 Morgan believed Mrs. White married Fred Smith and that the couple kept Smith’s mining claim on Lynx Creek, and bought a saloon in Sunrise.15
In February 1900, a legal notice was published in a San Francisco newspaper listing a divorce action for Edward White against Martha White for desertion.16 Martha may have married Smith by 1903,17 O.G. Herning, then staying in Valdez, wrote a diary entry for October 26, 1904 indicating a “Mrs. Smith White” was traveling to the U.S. District Court at Valdez in November 1904.18 Finally, a decree of divorce was granted to Martha White against the plaintiff, Fred Smith, according to a notice published in the December 8, 1904 Alaska Prospector (Valdez).19 Smith later froze to death while prospecting in the Copper River country. Mrs. White remained in Sunrise to run the couple’s businesses, including a hotel or boarding house.20
While at Hope, White made a trip “to the states” to visit her children, who were in boarding school. Before leaving, she sewed for safe-keeping while traveling, “$50,000 in currency—the cheechaco [cheechako] money—in her skirt.”21
Martha White arrived at Ship Creek early in 1915. She brought supplies and set up two large tents, one as a restaurant, and the other as a hotel. When the auction of town lots took place on July 10, 1915, she bought a parcel of land on Block 30, Lot 8, for $480,22 and then built a two-story hotel, “The White House,” located on Fourth Avenue, between I and K Streets.23
Martha White’s fluctuating financial situation was exacerbated by her generosity. She grubstaked many prospectors. In her funeral oration regarding White, printed in the Anchorage Daily Times on February 13, 1919, Mrs. Ula Thompson stated: “for years past, no one seeking aid was ever turned away by “Mother” White, whether the applicant was deserving or otherwise.”24
The first new track laid for the Alaska Railroad in 1915 was a temporary spur line to carry supplies leading from the beach near Ship Creek prior to an ocean dock being built. Supplies and equipment were unloaded from ships to smaller boats that could pull up on the shore. The supplies were then carried by this spur line to where the Alaskan Engineering Commission planned to build its workshops, warehouses, and roundhouse. Martha White’s daughter, Martha “Babe” White, was honored to drive the first spike.25 By 1916, Martha White’s son, Robert, had joined his mother and sister in Anchorage and worked at the hotel.26 On April 1, 1917, Martha “Babe” White married a prominent Seward citizen and merchant, Frank J. Cotter, later following him from Seward to South Africa and Japan.27
During World War I, White was greatly respected for her fundraising efforts on behalf of the American Red Cross. In the late winter or early spring of 1918, she organized the “Days of 98,” under the auspices of the Order of Alaska Pioneers. This wartime relief effort raised $2,000 for the American Red Cross.28
On February 2, 1919, Martha Greer White died after a long illness, reportedly from cancer. A funeral service was held in Anchorage on February 12, 1919 in Pioneer Hall, which could not accommodate the scores of people who gathered near there. In the eulogy address, delivered by Ula Thompson, president of the women’s auxiliary of the Pioneers of Alaska, she was called “Mother White” and remembered as an exceptional, heroic pioneer woman for her charitable and community-building activities, including raising funds for the American Red Cross and for ministering to the sick and needy. As a sign of the community’s respect, local businesses of every kind--banks, stores, hotels, restaurants, pool halls, and cigar stands—were suspended for the hour of the afternoon of the funeral services. More than one thousand people followed the cortege to Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, the largest gathering for any event in the city’s history.29
The Anchorage Daily Times, on February 3, 1919, editorized in its eulogy:
"Mrs. White was an exceptional woman, possessing all the best traits and characteristics of the pioneer settler of the frontier. She was brave, yet tender; keen in business; yet generous to a fault. She ministered to the afflicted, cared for the sick, aided the needy, cheered the downhearted, gave good counsel to those who came to her for advice, and was indeed a 'mother' doing her long and useful life, to the inhabitants of this remote area."30
Martha White is buried in the Pioneers of Alaska Tract of the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.
As the second woman to receive the Gold Lifesaving Medal, White is remembered only through small coastal exhibits in Washington State museums. Ida Lewis-Wilson, Keeper of the Lime Rock Lighthouse Station in Rhode Island, was the first woman to receive this medal in 1881, and has a lighthouse, Coast Guard cutter, and a natural landmark named in her honor.
- Mrs. Christopher Woodhouse, “Sketch of Life History,” in “Mother White Laid to Rest,” Anchorage Daily Times, February 13, 1919, 1 and 4; John Bagoy Family Papers (1995.08), Box 8, Atwood Resource Center, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Anchorage, AK.
- In “Sketch of Life History,” Anchorage Daily Times, February 13, 1919, 1 and 4, Mrs. Christopher Woodhouse stated: “With her parents she came to America when she was seven years old. The family made its home in New York.” Shanna Stevenson, “Mother White: Gold Lifesaving Medal Recipient and Alaska Pioneer,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History, v. 28, no. 2, Summer 2014, 25, stated: “Martha Greer was 14 when she arrived in New York with her family.”
- Shanna Stevenson, “Mother White: Gold Lifesaving Medal Recipient and Alaska Pioneer,” 25; and Mrs. Christopher Woodhouse, “Sketch of Life History,” in “Mother White Laid to Rest,” Anchorage Daily Times, February 13, 1919, 1 and 4.
- “Twenty of the Crew Lost,” New York Times, February 1, 1892, 1.
- Shanna Stevenson, “Mother White: Gold Lifesaving Medal Recipient and Alaska Pioneer,” 24-25.
- The Life-Saving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service were two small federal maritime agencies that enforced maritime laws, assisted shipwrecked mariners and passengers offshore, and insured that vessels were safely outfitted for sea. Dennis Noble, The United States Life-Saving Service: A Legacy (Washington, DC: Historian’s Office, U.S. Coast Guard, 1976), 20-21, http://www.uscg.mil/history/articles/uslss.pdf (accessed September 22, 2015).
- Shanna Stevenson, “Mother White: Gold Lifesaving Medal Recipient and Alaska Pioneer,” 27.
- Mrs. Christopher Woodhouse, “Sketch of Life History,” in “Mother White Laid to Rest,” Anchorage Daily Times, February 13, 1919, 1 and 4; and Shanna Stevenson, “Mother White: Gold Lifesaving Medal Recipient and Alaska Pioneer,” 26.
- Passport application, Martha White Cotter (wife of Frank J. Cotter), April 22, 1920, Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 – March 31, 1925, U.S., Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line], http://ancestry.com (accessed June 18, 2015); and ships’ passenger arrival list, Empress of Japan, September 1921, Washington, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1961 [database on-line], http://ancestry.com (accessed June 18, 2015).
- “Anchorage Honors Pioneer Woman,” Douglas Island News, March 7, 1919, 2. Quoted in Ed Ferrell, compiler and editor, Biographies of Alaska-Yukon Pioneers, 1850-1950, Volume 4 (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 2000), 336-337. Ferrell omitted some information about White from this eulogy.
- Frank G. Carpenter, “The Women of Alaska,” in “Something for Everyone,” Moderator-Topics, April 5, 1917, 591. Virtually the same article was later reprinted in Frank Carpenter’s Alaska: Our Northern Wonderland (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1934), 302. See also Shanna Stevenson, “Mother White: Gold Lifesaving Medal Recipient and Alaska Pioneer,” 26. Edward White might not have traveled to the Bering Sea or the Arctic Ocean to be involved with commercial whaling; the Pacific Steam Whaling Company operated along the Pacific coast of Alaska. The Beluga Whaling Company hunted beluga whales in upper Cook Inlet near Beluga River for their oil and skins (Typescript, “The Cook Inlet Fishing Industry,” no author, n.d., Alaska.gov./hist/hist_docs/docs/asl_ms39_4_4.pdf) (accessed June 20, 2015).
- Albert Weldon Morgan, Memories of Old Sunrise: Gold Mining on Alaska’s Turnagain Arm, Second Edition (Anchorage: Cook Inlet Historical Society, 2013), 17 and 30.
- Diary typescript of unpublished journal of Captain Edwin F. Glenn, U.S. Army, June 29-October 23, 1898, 144-145, Edward F. Glenn Papers, 1889-1917 (HMC-0116), Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage (accessed June 20, 2015). This transcript is available on-line, in electronic format, at this URL: http://consortium library.org/archives/Transcript/HMC-0116/Glenndiary.doc (accessed June 20, 2015).
- Albert Weldon Morgan, Memories of Old Sunrise: Gold Mining on Alaska’s Turnagain Arm, 17 and 30.
- Shanna Stevenson “Shanna Stevenson, “Mother White: Gold Lifesaving Medal Recipient and Alaska Pioneer,” 26.
- Shanna Stevenson, “Mother White: Gold Lifesaving Medal Recipient and Alaska Pioneer,” 27. The 1900 U.S. Alaska Census for Sunrise shows a Fred Smith, miner, married to Martha Smith. However, this Martha Smith is listed as twenty-three years of age, born in February 1877, ten years after Martha White’s birth (1867). The entry for Martha Smith in the 1900 Sunrise census schedule lists Martha Smith as having arrived in Alaska in April 1893, and with a Scottish father. See, Fred Smith, U.S. 1900 Alaska Census, Sunrise, Southern Supervisors District, Alaska; 1900 United States Federal Census [database on-line], http://ancestry.com (accessed June 20, 2015) . The public notice for Martha White’s and Fred Smith’s divorce decree is published in “The Week’s Court Items,” Alaska Prospector (Valdez), December 8, 1904, 1.
- The authors acknowledge the assistance of Colleen Mielke, who searched her transcripts of the O.G. Herning diaries at the Anchorage Museum for this and other entries referring to Martha White.
- “The Week’s Court Items,” Alaska Prospector, December 8, 1904, 1.
- Morgan, ibid, p. 83.
- “Anchorage Honors Pioneer Woman,” Douglas Island News (Alaska), March 7, 1919, 2.
- Fond Memories of Anchorage Pioneers, Volume II (Anchorage: Pioneers of Alaska, Igloo 15, Auxiliary 4, 2000), 5.
- Shanna Stevenson, “Mother White: Gold Lifesaving Medal Recipient and Alaska Pioneer,” 27.
- Eulogy, Mrs. Ula Thompson, “Mother White, Alaska Pioneer, Laid to Rest,” Anchorage Daily Times, February 13, 1919, 1 and 4.
- “Work is Started on the Alaska Railroad,” Mountain Democrat (Placerville, CA), May 8, 1915, 4 [database on-line], http://ancestry.com (accessed June 17, 2015).
- “Elsewhere in Alaska,” Fairbanks Sunday Times, March 12, 1916, 2; and Draft Registration Card, Robert White, National Archives Microfilm Publication M1509, World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, Roll AK-1, U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918 [database on-line], http://ancestry.com (accessed June 20, 2015).
- U.S. passport application, Martha Cotter (Mrs. Frank J. Cotter), April 22, 1920, National Archives Microfilm Publication M1490, U.S. Passport Applications, January 2, 1906-March 31, 1925, Roll 1099, Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 – March 31, 1925, U.S., Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line], http://ancestry.com (accessed June 18, 2015).
- “Anchorage Honors Pioneer Woman,” Douglas Island News (Alaska), March 7, 1919, 2.
- Editorial, “'Mother’ White Called to Rest,” Anchorage Daily Times, February 3, 1919, 2.
In lieu of a biographical sketch, excerpts from Martha White’s eulogy (“Mother White, Alaska Pioneer, Laid to Rest,” Anchorage Daily Times, February 13, 1919, 1 and 4) were reprinted in John Bagoy’s Legends and Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1935 (Anchorage: Publications Consultants, 2001), 102-104. See also the Martha White file, Bagoy Family Pioneer Files (2004.11), Box 8, Atwood Resource Center, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Anchorage, AK. By Walter Van Horn and Bruce Parham, September 15, 2015.
Preferred citation: Bruce Parham and Walter Van Horn, “White, Martha Greer ‘Mother’,” Cook Inlet Historical Society, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, http://www.alaskahistory.org.
Major support for Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, provided by: Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Atwood Foundation, Cook Inlet Historical Society, and the Rasmuson Foundation. This educational resource is provided by the Cook Inlet Historical Society, a 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt association. Contact us at the Cook Inlet Historical Society, by mail at Cook Inlet Historical Society, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, 625 C Street, Anchorage, AK 99501 or through the Cook Inlet Historical Society website, www.cookinlethistory.org.