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Heroines of History: These are American women, and their actions were not motivated by fortune or fame. There was no glory, and in many cases very little recognition for their activities. They simply did what needed to be done, and they did so in an extraordinary way. They roared without making a sound and it is time that they were given a voice. Ellen Pavloff we hear you.
Listed among the land transactions of the red light district in Fairbanks, AK, alongside the madames, pimps and whores is the name Irinia “Ellen” Pavloff Cherosky Callahan. For all those who know her legacy, this is an intriguing entry. However, more intriguing still is how her name came to be there in the first place. Especially considering the discrimination against women and Native Americans that ran rampant in Alaska at the turn of the century.
Irinia Pavloff was born to a half-Russian, half-Native American father who was a prominent Athabascan chief. Therefore, not only her people but also all those who knew and respected her family considered Ellen a princess. This higher status afforded her a reprieve from some of the discrimination, but certainly not all.
Ellen was wed by the age of sixteen to Sergei Cherosky and they had two daughters. However, their marriage was to be short-lived. Sergei and Ellen’s brother discovered gold near Circle, AK, but a night of drunken indiscretion found Sergei revealing their find to a group of white men. Before Ellen and her brother could return to build cabins and work their claim it had been re-claimed, and as they were Creoles – father of Russian heritage and mother of Native American heritage – they lost out on their stake. So Ellen left her husband, packed up her two girls and made her way back to Circle.
It was in Circle that she attracted the attention of Dan Callahan, a boisterous and charming Irish teamster from Iowa. Callahan, accustomed to getting what he wanted when he wanted it, proposed marriage flouting convention and not caring a wit what people would say of their inter-racial marriage. Just two months before their wedding, however, Callahan was brought up on rape charges, but was acquitted in short order. Given his friendly nature and the fact that his accuser went about town like nothing had happened the jury sided with Callahan and the wedding went off as planned. They stayed in Circle, even taking in and adopting an Athabascan boy, until gold was discovered in Fairbanks.
Making the move from Circle in 1904, Dan Callahan set up shop and turned Fairbanks into his own personal playground. He was a teamster by trade and a bully by practice, but he was charming and jovial so he soon gained popularity throughout the demimonde. Along with several claims he purchased property in downtown Fairbanks and quickly established himself as the spokesperson for the other bar and tavern owners. He was loved and admired by those who were on his side and feared and hated by those who were not. Callahan made short work of getting himself elected onto the city council and once there he succeeded in getting the local judge’s salary cut in half. In large part out of spite for those that sought to uphold law and order. Dan Callahan had no respect for the law and he was brought up on charges of assault and rape on more than one occasion, but by buying off or intimidating the jury he was always acquitted. “Big Dan” took what he wanted and no one could stop him. Or so he thought.
Despite standing more than a foot shorter then him, Ellen never feared Dan the way that other people did.
For a time she tolerated the occasional beating that she would receive when Dan would come home particularly drunk or in a feisty mood, because he would always fall over himself apologizing the next day when he sobered up. However, there is only so much that a woman can take, so after getting hit one night she gave him an ultimatum – if you hit me again, I will divorce you. Of course Dan thought that this was hysterical and immediately told the joke all over town that his Creole wife was going to divorce him. Little did he know it wasn’t an idle threat. The next time that he came home drunk and hit her, Ellen waited until he was sleeping it off the next morning, put on her finest clothes and marched down to the courthouse to file for divorce. The judge was more than happy to not only help her, but also expedite the paperwork because you guessed it; it was the very same judge whose salary had been maliciously cut in half by Dan. Since Dan himself had spread word all over town of the circumstances Ellen had a strong case against him.
Upon receiving notice, Dan stormed home intent on throwing Ellen out onto the streets, and probably worse. However, for as much as Dan was feared, Ellen was beloved, so she didn’t have any problems finding friends, family and neighbors to stand by her side to kick Dan out. You see a year earlier, to limit his personal liability because of a pending lawsuit; Dan had transferred ownership of all of his belongings to Ellen. Which included his claims, several teams of horses with sleds and his real estate holdings including two small houses in the red-light district. She granted him a small house across town and a team of horses with their rig so that he could work, but kept everything else.
Thus Ellen, despite never actually working there, went down in the books as a Madame of Fairbanks. She didn’t keep those properties for long, eventually selling them to local prostitutes who plied their trade there. With those profits she invested in a fur-sewing business – a skill that she had always been very adept at – and grew to become the most successful Native businesswoman in the region. As if relieving Dan Callahan of his money and power and being an incredible role model to young girls in a land where role models were few and far between, Ellen also gave back to her community extensively. So much so, that in her later years she was often referred to as a one-woman welfare system.
Hell hath seen no fury like a woman scorned, but seldom have so many benefitted from that fury . . . oh, and Dan Callahan did eventually go to jail.
Ellen Pavloff Callahan, this is in your honor. Thank you for all that you did.