Unraveling Frenchy’s Story Part 2

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Part 1 introduced a man named Peter F. “Frenchy” Vian, and the attempt to tell his story by Clark Fair in Alaska and Rinantonio Viani, who now lives in Lausanne, Switzerland. Their initial research was instructive, but the questions persisted.

Arrival in Kenai

It is almost certain that Peter F. Vian’s first appearance in Kenai was in the winter of 1897-1888. Eugene R. Bogart, the Kenai Station Manager for the Alaska Commercial Company (ACC) mentioned Vian in a letter to his superiors at Kodiak on December 2, 1899: “Mr. PF Vian (commonly called Frenchy in those parts) who been wintering here for two years…bought fur from the natives and sold it to [Kasilof cannery owner and California entrepreneur C. D.] Ladd and others.

Frenchy, he said, had come to the village with “commercial actions” and should be seen as a direct competitor to the ACC.

In his January 14, 1900 report to Kodiak, Bogart wrote:[T]there was a good black fox caught by the Wilson boys, who hunt at Kussiloff [Tustumena] Lake—and PF Vian, who trades here, offered them $90.00. It’s not sold yet – and since they have other furs and plan to sell it all in bundles in the spring – I may be able to get it.

In April, reports from Bogart made it clear that Vian was serious competition: to sell the stuff – I sold it…. Among the lots were moose horns and Indian trinkets that I had taken from the trade, and he took everything there was.

French borrowed money there to invest in goods, planning to sell those goods for a better price and make a profit. And he was successful in the fur trade and elsewhere.

Along with other area residents, he made mining claims in places such as Indian Creek on Lake Tustumena and sold these claims to large mining companies in hopes of monopolizing certain drainages and maximizing their mining potential. money gain.

In the years before a permit was required to guide non-resident hunters on big game hunts in Alaska, Frenchy was also very profitable. On August 7, 1900, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that a disgruntled German baron returning from an unsuccessful hunt in the Copper River area met Frenchy on a steamboat ride and was convinced to return the following year, to hunt in the Cook Inlet area. , instead, and to be guided by Vian.

Frenchy, the newspaper said, had regaled the wealthy baron with “splendid stories and sports to be had on Cook Inlet [and] had with him ample evidence of his success as a hunter in the form of a splendid collection of moose and mountain sheep horns that fell under his rifle. He had been hunting and mining in the Cook Inlet section for six years [i.e., since about 1894]and he was of the opinion that there was no better big game shooting anywhere.

Some Important Truths

Despite Frenchy’s repeated claims that he was born in Corsica, which had been part of France since 1768, and that his parents were also French citizens, these statements were simply untrue. In fact, Frenchy’s last name wasn’t even Vian; it was Viani, and he and the rest of his immediate family were pure Italians.

So why invent a past?

The answer is almost certainly that Frenchy was trying to avoid anti-immigrant sentiments, which were particularly strong at this time in America against Italians, especially Italians who were Catholic, according to “Immigration and Relocation in US History,” part of ‘a collection of historical documents from the United States Library of Congress:

“During the years of the great Italian immigration, [Italians] faced an outpouring of virulent prejudice and nativist hostility,” the Library of Congress documents said. “United States [in the late 19th century] was in the throes of an economic depression and immigrants were accused of taking American jobs. At the same time, racist theories circulated in the press, advancing pseudo-scientific theories alleging that “Mediterranean” types were inherently inferior to people of northern European descent.

“An 1891 cartoon claimed that ‘if immigration were properly restricted, you would never be bothered by anarchism, socialism, the mafia and other kindred evils!’ Attacks on Italians were not confined to the printed page, however.From the late 1880s, anti-immigrant societies sprang up across the country, and the Ku Klux Klan saw an increase in its numbers. Catholic churches and charities were vandalized and burned, and Italians were attacked by mobs.In the 1890s alone, more than 20 Italians were lynched.

Frenchy entered this precise moment in American history. So it’s likely that disguising his Italian heritage was an act of self-preservation.

Frenchy was born on February 18, 1865 in the small village of Villa Viani in the Imperia region of northern Italy. His parents, Francesco and Angela Viani, named him Pietro Francesco Viani.

Pietro was the eldest of the Vianis’ surviving children; he had four brothers (Agostino, Giuseppe, Luigi and Carlo) and two sisters (Teresa and Bianca).

In June 1887, 22-year-old Pietro, then a private in the 92nd Infantry of the Royal Italian Army, finished 13th in a regimental shooting competition. A certificate he received that day listed him as Tiratore scelto, meaning “sniper”. Marksmanship was a skill that would benefit him greatly in later decades.

Pietro left for the United States about a year after being certified as a sniper, following an uncle who had immigrated five years earlier and settled in Calumet, Michigan. The Italian Vianis were farmers in a river valley lined with olive trees growing in what was then the Italian province of Porto Maurizio – and Pietro never seemed to tire of reminding his parents how wealthier, independent and more smarter than them. never be.

In early July 1901, while Frenchy was ensconced at the Stevens Hotel in Seattle, awaiting the steamer’s return to Kenai, he took a stationery from the hotel and wrote a proud and defiant letter to his parents. He said, in part:

“By this letter, I tell you that I am still alive, and I hope the same for all of you; maybe you want to know what I’m doing. I’ll tell you in one word: nothing. For 10 years, I worked for no one but myself. Now I have given up the hunt and started a life as a trader, which is nothing but that of a gambler. Today I buy gold mines and tomorrow I sell them. Sometimes I win and other times I lose…”

He then described the large sums of money he spent on lodging, food, and steamboat passage. He said he grew up “in high society” and briefly bragged about the value of his “shop” (place of business) in Kenai.

“I would have so many things to tell you,” he continued. “Unfortunately, it is useless to tell you this because you do not understand them. I would come home if I could, but I can’t leave my shop. I have nothing more than to greet you all warmly … and I am forever your son Pietro Viani il Bandito who did not feel like hoeing in your garden, and you think you are right to make a boy work when he was not born to work but was born for something else. (You want to make a donkey drink when it’s not thirsty.)

“I [have] made more money here in Alaska than you made [whole] life, and if you lived another you wouldn’t make half of what I earned. Now I’ll tell you that I also know how to spend money, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Frenchy’s reference to himself as “il Bandito” (the bandit) was particularly telling. Although the phrase contains connotations of criminality, in this context it is likely a reference to a son who defies his father (or parents) and refuses to accept the path of life given to him. said to take – probably that of a farmer from the same valley where he was born.

TO BE CONTINUED

Image courtesy of the Viani family collection In 1887, Frenchy (born in Italy as Pietro Francesco Viani) obtained this marksman’s certificate as a member of the Italian army.

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection From the late 1890s in Kenai, Frenchy Vian owned and operated the Cook Inlet Fur Company.  The location is marked here because he used this company stationery to write to his family while temporarily in Valdez.

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection From the late 1890s in Kenai, Frenchy Vian owned and operated the Cook Inlet Fur Company. The location is marked here because he used this company stationery to write to his family while temporarily in Valdez.

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection This image likely depicts Frenchy with a team of sled dogs, likely in the Kenai area in the late 1890s or early 1900s.

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection This image likely depicts Frenchy with a team of sled dogs, likely in the Kenai area in the late 1890s or early 1900s.

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection Frenchy's immediate family posed for this photograph circa 1888, the year Frenchy immigrated to the United States.  From left to right: brother Luigi, (standing in the back) sister Teresa, (standing in front) brother Carlo, mother Angela, brother Giuseppe, father Francesco, sister Bianca and brother Agostino.

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection Frenchy’s immediate family posed for this photograph circa 1888, the year Frenchy immigrated to the United States. From left to right: brother Luigi, (standing in the back) sister Teresa, (standing in front) brother Carlo, mother Angela, brother Giuseppe, father Francesco, sister Bianca and brother Agostino.


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