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From the Stacks 

June 11, 2010

Arnold Liebes and the justice ship “The Bear”

The archives staff is working on a large digital image migration project. One of the collections that I worked on is the Arnold Liebes papers. Liebes was a San Francisco furrier who had a trading outpost at Point Barrow, Alaska. Liebes made several trips to Alaska during the 1910s-1920s and took hundreds of photographs documenting his work as well as the lives of the indigenous people he encountered.

Liebes fur trading post.

H. Liebes & Co.’s trading station at Pt. Barrow, Alaska.

Examining pelts at traders.

Examining pelts at traders.

We digitized five hundred and ninety six Liebes images, and I just finished uniting the metadata with the digital images in our new digital asset management system. While assigning subjects like “hunting”, “sealing”, “churches”, and “ships” to the images, I decided I wanted to learn some more about the named sailing vessels that appear in the photographs. At least three¬† different ships are featured in the photographs including the whaling vessel The Herman, The Arctic, and a ship called The Bear.

Landing on the ice from The Herman.

Landing on the ice from The Herman.

The Arctic at Wainwright, Alaska. A.L. Liebes on the right.

The Arctic at Wainwright, Alaska. A.L. Liebes on the left.

I was intrigued by the subject matter of the photos on The Bear. There are photographs of men in military uniforms as well as a “native wedding” and photographs of “a murdered and two witnesses”.

Captain Ballinger and officers of Bear.

Captain Ballinger and officers of Bear. 1912.

"Native wedding" aboard The Bear.

“Native wedding” on board The Bear at Pt. Hope.

This New York Times article, Cutter Gripped by Ice, from September 22, 1913 explained that The Bear was a U.S coast guard ship that made a yearly trip from Nome, Alaska to Point Barrow, Alaska.¬† The Bear had a judge, doctor, and carpenter to dispense justice and medicine to the Inupiak people of Point Barrow. Captain Ballinger, pictured in the ship’s crew portrait above, recounts the harrowing tale of the ice bound Bear which was only freed from the ice when the winds changed.

Besides donating his wonderful manuscript and photograph collection to the Academy, Arnold Liebes donated approximately 1,000 objects to our Anthropology department. The collection can be searched through our Anthropology database and includes records and images for carvings, beads & leather work, tools & implements, raw materials, and weaponry. Select “Liebes” in the “collections” field. Liebes also donated items to the Smithsonian including this cormorant parka from St. Lawrence Island, Alaska.

- Danielle Castronovo

Archives & Digital Collections Librarian

Filed under: Archives,Archives finds,Photography — Archives & Special Collections @ 5:10 pm


  1. Are there any photos in this collection of Julien Liebes, who went to Alaska as a passenger on the “Bear” in 1894?

    Comment by Gary Stein — August 8, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

  2. We have only digitized and cataloged a portion of the images in the Liebes Collection. Julien Liebes has not been identified in any of our digitized images but there is a chance he could be featured in one of our uncataloged prints. Our collections are open for research so if you are interested in looking for a Julien Liebes image please let me know.

    Comment by Archives & Special Collections — August 20, 2010 @ 11:04 am

  3. I am a vintage clothing collector based in San Francisco. I always enjoy being able to find nicer clothes of some historical importance to SF, such as items from I. Magnin. Today I found a black Persian lamb capelet with silk lining whose tag reads ‘Arnold Liebes, San Francisco.’ I had never heard of this business before, but by Googling this phrase, your article is at the top of the list, and I now have a bit of history behind a 100 year old (but now defunct as of the early 1970s) SF business. His furrier shop was at 167 Geary. Still trying to figure out what decade this fur capelet is from, but your article was a wonderful springboard into the life of this SF entrepreneur.

    Comment by Catie — December 21, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

  4. I’m trying to find information about my great grandfather Tom Gordon who worked for Liebes in the late 1800′s in the Arctic. We’re trying to locate his family from then.

    Comment by Dorothy Edwardsen — June 6, 2011 @ 4:14 pm

  5. We do have a few digitized photos of Tom Gordon and his sons “Spike” and “Charley”. There is also the chance that there is additional information about Tom Gordon in the collection. Are you in the Bay Area?

    Comment by Archives & Special Collections — June 14, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

  6. this is Dorothy from Alaska again inquiring about Tom Gordon. I’m not in the Bay area but I do have internet access. Any information would be greatly appreciated. We plan on visiting Scotland sometimes soon and would like some leads to find his family.



    Comment by Dorothy Edwardsen — April 4, 2013 @ 5:59 am

  7. Hi Dorothy,
    Please drop me an email ybustos@calacademy.org and I will figure out a way to connect you to what you are looking for. Thanks!

    Comment by Archives & Special Collections — April 4, 2013 @ 6:57 pm

  8. Are the pictures online anywhere? I have seen a few Liebes pics posted in various places and can identify many forebears of the Eskimo community. Charles Brower is my great grandfather. A young Waldo Bodfish, forebearer of the Bodfish clan on the North Slope, was in another. It looks like Liebes also has names with many of his pictures; this is really invaluable in identifying individuals in other historic photos.

    Comment by Brower M. Hopson — May 11, 2013 @ 3:11 pm

  9. I hope someday to visit your campus and see for myself your Liebes collection. I have been searching for early Northern Alaska pictures for several years now and have been able to amass a personal collection of hundreds of pictures of Barrow, Nome, Kotzebue, Pt. Hope, and other northern communities. Pictures of the time period 1900-1930 are very rare. Liebes collection sounds like it would double the number of pictures of the people of that era. Websites that have pictures of this time period include: Denver Museum of Nature and Science: the Bailey collection; the Presbytry of the Yukon albums which I have seen for myself at the Rasmussen Museum in Fairbanks, the New Bedford Whaling Museum website. The Alaska Digital Archives has a good collection of early Alaska photographs as well as the University of Washington. Many of the pictures are of my relatives as well as the relatives and forebearers of many of the North Slope community. I am interested in identifying the many individuals in these pictures who have no name attributed to them which Liebes may have identified. I could possibly help identify some in your pictures. I have helped to identify individuals in several pictures in the Alaska Digital Archives. Also there are just a lot of people who would love to see a picture of their grandparent or greatgrandparent of whom they have only heard about. There are hundreds if not thousands of descendants living today of Charles Brower, Alfred Hopson, Tom Gordon, Jim Allen and other men and women who lived in the early 1900s.

    Comment by Brower M. Hopson — June 16, 2014 @ 4:17 pm

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