Uncovering the Story of Frenchy, Part 2

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AUTHOR’S NOTE: Part One introduced a man named Peter F. “Frenchy” Vian and an attempt to tell his story of Clark Fair in Alaska and Rinantonio Viani, who now resides in Lausanne, Switzerland. Her early search was instructive, but questions lingered.

Arrive in Kenai

Peter F. Vian’s first appearance in Kenai was almost certainly in the winter of 1897-88. Eugene R. Bogart, manager of the Kenai Station of the Alaska Commercial Company (ACC), mentioned Vian in a December 2, 1899 letter to his superiors in Kodiak: “Mr. PF Vian (commonly called Frenchy in these areas) who has been wintering here for two years… has bought and sold furs to the natives [Kasilof cannery owner and California entrepreneur C. D.] Ladd and others.”

Frenchy, he said, came to the village with “trading stocks” and should be viewed as ACC’s direct competitor.

In his January 14, 1900 report to Kodiak, Bogart wrote: “[T]here has been a good black fox caught by the Wilson boys hunting at Kussiloff [Tustumena] Lake – and they were offered $90.00 for it by PF Vian who trades here. It’s not sold yet – and as they have other furs and intend to sell all together in the spring – I might be able to get it.”

By April, Bogart’s reports made it clear that Vian was a serious competitor: ‘As Mr. PF Vian, who has traded here this winter, he has offered me so much up front of what our price is asking and he has that price up overpaid for the sake of selling the goods – I sold them… Among the lots were some elk horns and Indian curios which I traded, and he took all there was.”

Frenchy borrowed money to invest in commodities, planning to sell those commodities at a better price and turn a profit in the end. And he was successful in the fur business and elsewhere.

Along with other local residents, he made placer prospecting claims in places like Indian Creek on Tustumena Lake and sold those claims to large mining companies hoping to monopolize certain drainages and maximize their revenue potential.

In the years before a license was required to guide non-resident hunters on big game hunts in Alaska, Frenchy also dabbled quite profitably. On August 7, 1900, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that a disgruntled German baron returning from an unsuccessful hunt in the Copper River area encountered Frenchy on a steamboat trip and was persuaded to return the following year to work in the region Hunt down Cook Inlet, instead, and let Vian guide them.

Frenchy, the newspaper said, entertained the wealthy baron with “stories and great sport to be had on Cook Inlet [and] carried with him ample evidence of his success as a hunter in the form of a magnificent collection of elk and mountain sheep horns that fell on his weapon. He had been hunting and mining in the Cook Inlet sector for six years [i.e., since about 1894]and he felt there was no better big game hunting anywhere.”

Some Important Truths

Despite Frenchy’s repeated claims that he was born in Corsica, which had belonged to France since 1768, and that his parents were also French citizens, these statements were simply false. 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 toward Italians in America at the time, particularly Italians who were Catholics, according to “Immigration and Relocation in US History,” part one Collection of historical materials in the United States Library of Congress:

“In the years of great Italian immigration [Italians] faced a wave of virulent prejudice and nativist hostility,” the Library of Congress materials read. “The USA [in the late 19th century] was in an economic depression, and immigrants were accused of taking American jobs. At the same time, racist theories were circulating in the press, promoting pseudo-scientific theories claiming that “Mediterranean” types were inherently inferior to people of Northern European heritage.

“A cartoon from 1891 claimed that ‘if immigration were properly restricted you would never be bothered with anarchism, socialism, the Mafia and similar evils!’ Attacks on Italians were not limited to the printed sheet, however. From the late 1880s, anti-immigrant societies sprung up across the country, and the Ku Klux Klan saw a surge in membership. Catholic churches and charities were vandalized and burned, and Italians were attacked by mobs. More than 20 Italians were lynched in the 1890s alone.”

It was at this precise moment in American history that Frenchy entered. So the disguise of his Italian origins was probably 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 Vianis’ eldest surviving child; He had four brothers (Agostino, Giuseppe, Luigi and Carlo) and two sisters (Teresa and Bianca).

In June 1887, 22-year-old Pietro, then a soldier in the 92nd Infantry of the Royal Italian Army, finished 13th in a regiment’s shooting competition. A certificate he received that day referred to him as Tiratore scelto, meaning “sniper”. Shooting accuracy was a skill that would serve him well in the decades that followed.

Pietro went to the United States about a year after his gunman certification, having followed an uncle who immigrated five years earlier and settled in Calumet, Michigan. The Italian Vianis were farmers in an olive tree-lined river valley in what was then Italy’s province of Porto Maurizio – and Pietro never tired of reminding his parents in the years that followed how much wealthier and more independent and wiser he was than they could ever be .

In early July 1901, while Frenchy was settled at the Hotel Stevens in Seattle and awaiting steamboat passage back to Kenai, he took a piece of hotel stationery and wrote a proud, defiant letter to his parents. He said in part:

“With this letter I tell you that I am alive and I hope the same for all of you; You might want to know what I’m doing. I’ll tell you in one word: nothing. For 10 years I have not worked for anyone but myself. Now I’ve given up hunting and started a life as a trader, which is nothing more than that of a gambler. Today I buy gold mines and tomorrow I sell them. Sometimes I win and sometimes I lose…”

He then described the large sums of money he spent on lodging, food, and steamer passage. He said he was “in the highest company” and briefly boasted about the value of his “shop” (place of business) in Kenai.

“I have so many things to tell you,” he continued. “Unfortunately, there’s no point in telling you, since you don’t understand them. I’d come home if I could, but I can’t leave my shop. I have no choice but 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 put a boy to work , if he was not born to work, but born for something else. (You want to give a donkey a drink when it’s not thirsty.)

“I [have] made more money here in Alaska than you made yourself [whole] life, and if you were living another, you wouldn’t be doing half of what I’ve done. Now I’m telling you that I also know how to spend money and you shouldn’t forget that.”

Frenchy’s reference to himself as “il Bandito” (the bandit) was particularly revealing. Although the phrase carries a connotation of crime, in this context it likely refers to a son who defies his father (or parents) and refuses to embrace the path in life he is meant to follow—probably that of a farmer in the same valley in which he was born.

BE CONTINUED

Image courtesy Viani family collection In 1887, Frenchy (born Pietro Francesco Viani in Italy) earned this rifleman’s certificate while serving in the Italian military.

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

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

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection This image probably shows a Frenchy with a team of sled dogs, probably in the Kenai area in the late 1890s or early 20th century.

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection This image probably shows a Frenchy with a team of sled dogs, probably in the Kenai area in the late 1890s or early 20th century.

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


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