On June 7, 1913, four climbers—including Robert Tatum, a young Episcopal missionary from Knoxville—were the first to reach the summit of Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, the highest peak in North America.
They raised an American flag on the Alaskan summit that day, a standard stitched together by Tatum using materials from the climbers’ gear including bits of silk, strips of cotton, and a shoelace.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount McKinley. As part of the centennial celebration, the UT Libraries is lending Tatum’s diary of the first ascent to the University of Alaska Museum of the North to be part of its special exhibit “Denali Legacy: 100 Years on the Mountain.”
One of Tatum’s relatives is lending the handmade flag to the museum.
The library Special Collections staff also has scanned and created a digitized collection of Tatum’s Denali diary and five other small diaries that chronicle his experiences as a priest, as well as a photo album. The Robert G. Tatum Digital Collection may be viewed on the UT Libraries’ website.
Tatum donated his personal papers and effects to the UT Libraries more than half a century ago.
In addition to Tatum, the team that climbed Denali in 1913 included Hudson Stuck, then Episcopal Archdeacon of the Yukon; Harry Karstens, who later became the first superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park; and Walter Harper, a man of mixed Scottish and Athabascan descent who accompanied Stuck on his many travels.
The twenty-one-year-old Tatum was teaching at the Episcopal mission school at Nenana, Alaska, when he met Stuck. The four climbers set out from Nenana for Denali in mid-March and over twelve weeks made the trek to the summit.
With an elevation of 20,320 feet above sea level and a greater base-to-peak height than Mount Everest, Denali is considered one of the most difficult climbs in the world.
Tatum was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church in Nenana on June 7, 1922. He eventually returned to Knoxville where he ministered for the next 42 years. He died on January 27, 1964, and is buried in the Old Gray Cemetery.
Mount Tatum in Denali National Park and Preserve is named in his honor.
To learn more about the Denali ascent as recorded in Tatum’s diary, visit the UT Libraries’ website.
Denali_trekkers: From left, Robert Tatum, Esaias George, Harry Karstens, Johnny Fredson, and Walter Harper. George and Fredson were Athabascan boys who relayed supplies to the climbers’ base camp and cared for their sled dogs. Photo is courtesy of Hudson Stuck’s book The Ascent of Denali.
Tatum_flag: Robert Tatum’s handmade flag. Photo is courtesy of the University of Alaska Museum of the North.
Tatum_diary: Robert Tatum’s Denali diary. Photo is courtesy of the University of Alaska Museum of the North.
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