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Sarah’s Story – Crazed by the Klondike

Updated: Dec 1, 2021

Nome Beach 1900

Guest Article by Debra Berntsen

Discovering in a matter of minutes after completing the IcelandicRoots “Cousins Across the Ocean” form on September 19, 2016, that my Great Great Grandmother Sarah Stewart, was actually Sigríður Sigurðardóttir, born on November 4, 1866 at the parish of Kálfatjarnarsókn in Gullbringusýsla, Iceland to Sigurður Jónsson and Oddný Hannesdóttir, was by far the most exciting piece of information ever given to me. They found an obituary and a photo printed in the Icelandic newspapers for Sarah’s mother Oddný, which lists one of her children as Sigrid Carscadden. This single piece of information was the evidence needed to link Sigrid Carscadden to Sarah Carscadden and it allowed me to tell her life story.

I learned from the Icelandic Roots genealogists, that in July 1876, Sarah’s parents decided to emigrate to Canada with their nine children, ages 7 to 17. But Sarah’s father changed his mind last minute and refused to go. Sigurður Jónsson, age 62, stayed in Iceland with one of their sons, Sigurfinnur, age 12.

Sarah’s mother, Oddný, didn’t want to miss a golden opportunity for a better life for her children in Canada, so she went without him and took eight of their children with her. She eventually took a homestead in Arnes, Manitoba. She farmed there with her children until they gradually left to make their own homes. Her husband and son stayed in Iceland and never came to Canada. Her son, Sigurfinnur, drowned in Iceland in the year 1888, which was less than two months after his baby boy was born. Oddný’s husband, Sigurður, had also lost his father to drowning.

I wondered if Sarah felt abandoned by her father when she was growing up in Manitoba, Canada? She was so young to travel across the ocean to a new country. I learned that Sarah lost her brother, Jón, to drowning in Lake Winnipeg in 1879. These events would play a part later in Sarah’s life, as I was about to find out.

By 1884, Sigríður had changed her name to Sarah Stewart and it was the name she used when she married John James Carscadden in Winnipeg, Canada. Their marriage certificate lists her parents names as Jon Stewart and Ada Hanson (AKA Oddný Hannesdóttir).

Sarah’s birthplace is listed as Iceland, but as many have discovered, such names are not Icelandic. Amazing Icelandic Roots genealogists were able to correctly identify the Icelandic names, which led to the information about her family.

In 1887, Sarah’s son, Melville St Elmo Carscadden, was born while the couple lived at The Royal Oak Hotel in Winnipeg, where John worked as a cook. John came to the United States in 1889. It is not know if Sarah came with at this time. In 1893 John was working as a cook at the Fremont Hotel in Portland, Oregon.

By 1895, John owned a restaurant in Portland, Oregon. I believe Sarah and their son came to Oregon in 1896 . I found a record that Sarah had her first mental breakdown in 1896. It made me wonder if this event was triggered by her fears of abandonment.

In July of 1897, the Gold Rush had begun. John had been swept up in the Gold Rush frenzy and decided to take the last ship of the season on the S.S. Elder, to the Klondike. He left Sarah and their son to run the restaurant while he was gone.

By September 1897, Sarah was overcome with worry about her husband in the Klondike after reading about so much hardship and death in the newspapers. She feared he had drowned somewhere and would never return. She suffered a nervous breakdown and was put in the city jail until she could be evaluated by a physician. When the restaurant workers brought her son to the jail to see her that same night, she tried to physically attack him. A newspaper article titled “Crazed by the Klondike” reported that Sarah’s cries were heard throughout the jail the entire night. The next day she was evaluated and committed to a Salem hospital where she stayed for 2 weeks. Diagnosis was melancholia. Somehow her husband was notified while in the Klondike and came home and she was released to him as recovered. They subsequently sold their business in Oregon and the family left for Alaska in Oct 1897. (Many more newspaper articles and documents are linked to her page at

I was able to obtain a copy of the page from the hospital’s patient log book that contained Sarah’s demographic information from her admission to the mental hospital: Name: Mrs. J. J. Carscadden, Age: 31, Education: Grammar School, Ht: 5’3, Wt: 120, Hair: Brown, Eyes: Blue, Nationality: Icelander, Religion: Christian Science, Occupation: Housewife, Previous attacks: Yes, at age 30, Previous hospitalization: None.

From 1897 to 1903, John and Sarah owned several saloons, restaurants, hotels, and a Creamery in Alaska. When gold was discovered on Ruby Beach in Nome, Alaska, the family moved there and ran several of the same kind of businesses. I learned from Icelandic Roots genealogists about a book called Faith and Fortitude in Geysir District, that contained information about Sarah’s family. I found out that one of Sarah’s brother Sigurmundur Sigurdsson also ran a Creamery in Canada. I wondered if Sarah’s experience as a servant and her family’s Creamery business in Canada helped her run the businesses in Alaska?

By October 1903, the gold rush in Nome, AK was over. Winter had set in and most of the people in the town had moved on. John left for Nevada where there were new gold discoveries, leaving his wife age 37, and son age 16, alone. Once again, Sarah had been abandoned in a part of the world that was harsh, cold, and filled with criminals and corruption.

Something occurred in October 1903 that caused Sarah to be arrested and subsequently committed insane by a panel of six people. Her son attested to his mother’s insanity as well. A year later, she was admitted to Morningside Hospital in Portland, Oregon. Her son Melville, at about the age of 16, ran away shortly after this and was found living in Washington in 1906 working as a cook’s helper.

With the help of two retired judges in Juneau, Alaska, in connection with Project Jukebox and the Morningside Hospital History Project, I have been able to access Sarah’s quarterly medical reports for the 22 years she spent at Morningside. These reports described her as easily excitable, hostile, combative, and in good health. The judges also provided many other documents related to Sarah’s businesses, mining claims, and lengthy probate.

The 1910 US Federal census shows John remarried to a person named Marie, and was living with son Melville and his wife in Cordova, AK. There, John was a proprietor of the Northern Hotel and other businesses on C Street in Cordova, AK. I have been unable to find a record of John and Sarah’s divorce. This 1910 census also shows Sarah as a patient at Morningside. Her age is listed as 46, place of birth is listed as Minnesota, her mother’s place of birth is listed as Illinois, and her father’s birthplace is listed as Ohio. I know now, that none of this data was correct.

In 1913, Sarah’s mother died in Bifrost, Manitoba, Canada. Her obituary was recorded in an Iceland newspaper in Icelandic language and it listed one of her children as Sigridur Carscadden. Icelandic Roots genealogists provided me with of copy of the obituary and the English translation. So far, it is the only written evidence linking Sarah to the name Sigríður. This was a key piece of information which helped me to identify other family members listed in Sarah’s mother’s Oddný Hannesdóttir‘s obituary.

In 1919, Sarah was able to obtain $100.00 from her money held in Alaska, after 15 years of written requests to the lawyer handling her accounts. She used the money to buy a new dress and some personal items. The total amount in her Alaska account was $2500.00 at this time equivalent to about $ 75,000 today.

The 1920 US Federal census again shows Sarah as a patient at Morningside. Other data lists her age as 51, her birthplace as Ireland, and her parents birthplaces as Ireland. I know now, that none of this data was correct either.

The 1920 US census also shows John, Melville and wife, and Melville’s two daughters living in Seattle, Washington near Stark Street. From Icelandic Roots, I learned that Morningside hospital in Portland OR, was very close to Stark Street. I had never known this before and it had me wondering if her son or ex-husband ever went to visit her there. She was able to manage some of her mining claims from the hospital with the help of the hospital superintendents. I could see how Sarah could become hostile and combative after being left at Morningside without any family contact.

In June 1921, John was living at Soap Lake Mineral Springs in Washington. There, he wrote a letter to his son, Melville, who was now living in Los Angeles, California and working as a bartender. This letter is almost 100 years old now and it is the only document that my mother kept in her safe. Unfortunately, I did not find this letter until she passed away and was not able to ask her about it. In the letter, John writes that he is out of work, has lost all his teeth, and may mix up a batch of moonshine to sell in order to live, or that he may have to commit a crime so he can be put in jail. Which wouldn’t be bad, he adds, as the jail contracts with the Soap Lake hotel to cook the food for the prisoners and the food is quite good. The letter also mentions that Sarah is still a patient at Morningside and that her caregiver stated that “she will probably out live us all.” I think Sarah was a very strong person to survive emigration, the severe weather in Canada and Nome, Alaska, abandonment by her father, husband, and son, and live at Morningside Hospital for almost 22 years. John James Carscadden died on June 28, 1923 in Seattle, Washington of myocarditis, uremia, and nephritis.

Sarah died at the age of 59 on July 13, 1926 at Morningside Hospital. With the help of the retired judges in Juneau, I was able to obtain a copy of her death certificate. Her cause of death was diabetes (acquired while at Morningside), rheumatoid arthritis, and Insanity. Several lines in her death certificate are filled in with the words “ unknown” and my goal is to correct this information which includes her dob, parent’s names, and birthplace. I want her to be known as an Icelander.

Sarah’s probate continued until 1936, ten years after her death, when her son appealed to a court that he was not notified of her death until that year. He won the appeal and the $2500.00 in her account. (See Carscadden versus the State of Alaska) The saddest part of Sarah’s Story is that she was buried in a potter’s grave in the Riverview cemetery in Oregon. She should have had a proper burial and headstone as she could certainly have afforded it. I wonder if her son ever thought to make such arrangements? According to his court appeal records, he never saw his mother after 1903.

Sarah’s great-granddaughters, my Aunt Barbara and my Aunt Rosemary, are still living. My Aunt Barbara was the person who began this search for Sarah, having only a first name. It has taken a long time to compile Sarah’s life story, but I feel it has been worthwhile and one of the most important things a family can do in honor of their ancestors. I think Sarah would be pleased to know that so many people played a part in obtaining information about her and that her family cared enough to take the time to research and share her life story with others.

From the IR Team: This is not the first time we have found a ‘Lost Ancestor’ in an ‘Insane Asylum.’ I am sure there are more stories out there and we can help you, too. If you have a story to share with us, please send us an email.

Find and write YOUR Icelandic family story with the help of the genealogists at Icelandic Roots. If you already know your story, make sure you and your descendants are included in the “Cousins Across the Ocean” project and the database at Icelandic Roots. All proceeds go to keeping the database going and for scholarships to young adults studying Icelandic or the Snorri Programs. Icelandic Roots is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization working to maintain this important database and help people in Iceland or around the world discover their connections and their story.

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