Nate Pedersen readily admits to being taken in by the charm and mystique of “Klondike” Kate Rockwell.
“There’s a lot of mystery in Kate’s life and that’s one of the appealing aspects in researching her,” Pedersen says about Rockwell, who throughout her life would vanish for months at a time.
The president of the Deschutes County Historical Society, Pedersen has given multiple “history pubs” and lectures on Rockwell over the past year, bringing back to life the longtime Central Oregon resident who achieved international fame as a vaudeville dancer in the late 1890s and early 20th century during the Klondike Gold Rush.
She spent most of her adult life in and around Bend before her death at 76 in 1957. “She lived her life right through the last era where you could successfully evade the public notice if you wanted to,” Pedersen said last week.
Rockwell, who moved to a homestead near Brothers around 1912 after her vaudeville run, thrived on the mysterious. She came in and out of money — where it came from no one was ever really sure — and was rumored to have had a child in the Yukon with her one-time lover Alex Pantages, with whom she later had an intense falling out.
Even Rockwell’s final wishes were mysterious, as the identity of who spread her ashes in the High Desert was cloaked in secrecy by her biographer, Ellis Lucia.
Until recently, anyway.
Pedersen, a community librarian at the Deschutes Public Library’s downtown Bend branch by day and history detective by night, this August put to rest suspicions about ex-lovers, a long-lost son or even Lucia himself rescuing Rockwell’s ashes from where they rested in a Salem mortuary for more than three years.
“As I was researching her life story for a history pub talk last January, the main resource I used was a book by Lucia,” Pedersen explains about the longtime writer for The Oregonian newspaper who published a handful of nonfiction books on Oregon history. “Rather cryptically at the end of the book, when Kate passes away, (Lucia) writes that Kate’s final wish after she is cremated is to have her ashes scattered in the High Desert.
“That had always been her solace,” Pedersen continues, “always the place she went when she was feeling down.”
Ashes linger in Salem
Rockwell’s final wish wasn’t so easy to grant, as her husband at the time, Bill Van Duren, was himself in poor health. The couple was living in Sweet Home when Rockwell died, and after her death Van Duren moved to the Seattle area to live with his children from a previous marriage. He died before he could fulfill Rockwell’s request.
“One thing led to another, there were a few thwarted attempts (to take the ashes over the Cascades), but nothing ever happened,” Pedersen says. “The end result is that for several years, Kate’s ashes lingered in Salem. No one signed off on them and no one was able to fulfill that last wish.”
According to Lucia, “on a cold autumn day of 1960,” Rockwell’s ashes were finally scattered to the wind in the place she held dearest to her heart by “an innocent bystander who held a deep appreciation for things historical and, because of his own religious faith, was able to perform final rites.”
“He’s clearly hiding something,” Pedersen says about Lucia. “He clearly knows who it is and is purposely (hiding) that from his readers.”
Pedersen always ended his pub talks with Rockwell’s final mystery, letting audiences speculate for themselves who was Lucia’s “innocent bystander.”
“People like that ending in a way,” Pedersen says.
At the end of the summer, though, Pedersen received a tip that the identity of the man or woman who spread her ashes might not be so mysterious. In 2010, The Source, Bend’s alt-weekly newspaper, had written a short story about a woman who did Klondike Kate re-enactments at area schools and assisted-living homes. The story told of Rockwell’s ashes having been spread in the High Desert and a commenter, four years after the story originally ran, wrote that she had a photograph documenting the occasion. The commenter went by the name Midge Gord.
“After some creative Googling, I figured out Midge is a nickname for Margaret,” Pedersen says. “I found a Margaret Gord in Olympia, Washington, found a phone number, and in about five or 10 minutes the total mystery was solved.”
The person who finally scattered Rockwell’s ashes wasn’t an old lovestruck Yukon miner, an orphan with a mysterious past or even a well-meaning journalist who didn’t want to write himself into the story.
A signed statement and witnesses
On Oct. 27, 1960, David Duniway, the head archivist at the Oregon State Library, finally laid Rockwell’s ashes to rest in the High Desert near Millican, about 20 miles east of Bend.
“The mystery person ends up being no one we speculated,” says Pedersen, who has a photograph, burial-transit permit and a signed statement by Duniway and witnesses erasing any doubt about who scattered Rockwell’s ashes. “It’s not Lucia, it’s not the ‘foster son.’ It’s David Duniway, the grandson of Abigail Scott Duniway, a famous suffragist. Duniway was a librarian in Salem, an avid historian and founding member of some prominent historical societies and trusts.”
As it turned out, Gord’s father, William Brockhaus, was an archivist under Duniway and accompanied him over the Cascades to serve as a witness. Going through some of her father’s papers in 2014, she came across a photo of him and Duniway in the High Desert, with Duniway releasing Rockwell’s ashes into the wild. A note on the back of the photo described the scene. Gord began scouring the Internet for more information on Rockwell after finding the photo and left her comments on The Source story hoping to help fill in historical gaps if she could.
“I saw the article and said to myself, ‘I know what happened!’” Gord said over the phone last week. “And I happen to have proof right here in my drawer.”
Pedersen guesses that Duniway, a man with a profound respect for history and independent women, took it upon himself to carry out the final wishes of an Oregon original.
“Based on his family line, maybe part of the attraction to Kate is that she lived such a strong independent life as a woman in an era where that was difficult to do,” Pedersen speculates.
Kelly Cannon-Miller, the executive director at the Des Chutes Historical Museum, hopes Pedersen’s successful sleuthing leads to more research into Rockwell and her colorful life.
“Kate’s probably disappointed,” Cannon-Miller jokes. “I’m sure she’d love to still have a little bit of intrigue. … But her disappointment is our gain. For someone so tied into the state’s history himself (Duniway) to be the one that followed through with her final wishes, that’s great to know. It’s a testament to how much she meant to the state.”
Ideally, Pedersen and Cannon-Miller say they would like to gain permission to republish Lucia’s biography — it was originally published in 1962 — with a new foreword written by Pedersen, updating Rockwell’s story. Additionally, they hope Pedersen will be able to do even more research on Rockwell, as several libraries and historical societies around the Pacific Northwest and Canada have collections pertinent to her.
“This is a great jumping-off point to dig deeper,” Cannon-Miller says. “Eventually we have to figure out a way to get Nate up to the Yukon (where the Yukon Historical and Museums Association in Whitehorse has a collection of Rockwell’s scrapbooks.)”
Adds Pedersen: “To me, the big attraction to historical research is filling in gaps and solving mysteries,” describing his initial fascination with Rockwell’s story. “That crime sleuth element, that’s what’s awesome about stories like Kate’s. She’s famous locally, but a lot of folks know just a couple things about her. … It’s not like some prominent figures in history that have been so extensively researched.
“That’s really attractive,” Pedersen continues. “We have some basic groundwork, some basic overview of her life and some great clues and from there can go at it and learn new things.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7829,