Author Interviews
1:31 pm
Tue July 16, 2013

A Dark Family Secret Hidden For Years In Alaska's 'Wilderness'

Originally published on Tue July 16, 2013 5:00 pm

In early 2002, a pair of battered old trucks drove through deep snow into a tiny Alaska ghost town carrying a large family that looked to be from another century.

The patriarch, with his long, unruly beard, introduced himself to one of the town's few residents as Papa Pilgrim (though his real name was Robert Hale). Long before, he explained, a shaft of celestial light had brought him a big-bang religious awakening and now God had whispered to him, telling him to move with his wife and family to Alaska. All 15 Pilgrim children had been delivered and schooled at home. They had names like Hosanna, Jerusalem, Psalms and Job; they didn't use calendar months; they addressed their father as "Lord"; and they'd never seen a TV, or experienced the temptations of the world.

"From the outside, they seemed just very handsome kids, very capable," former Anchorage Daily News reporter Tom Kizzia tells NPR's Melissa Block. "They could ride a horse; stand on the backs of horses; and fix a truck that had broken down. They knew how to live in the wilderness, and they were always offering to help others. They had this kind of great facade."

Kizzia's new book, Pilgrim's Wilderness, tells the gripping story of the Pilgrim family's deep, dark secrets, and the battle that followed their move into the Alaska wilds.


Interview Highlights

On the abandoned copper mining town the family moved to, deep in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

"The town was McCarthy, and it was an old boomtown from a century ago. It had a kind of a homesteader scavenger culture that was just living off the land out there. Not only living off the meat and the fish and berries, but also off the spools of steel cable that had been left in the tram stations and the mullioned windows of the old mills. And by the '70s it was turning into a kind of a bush community of marijuana growers and mountain climbers and gold miners and homesteaders. And right at that time, the national park was established by Congress all around it — a park the size of Switzerland with just this little isolated town in its middle."

On the battle that broke out after Papa Pilgrim bulldozed a road to his newly purchased, 420-acre family homestead inside the park, and the national attention it drew

"From the Park Service point of view, this guy had just driven a bulldozer 13 miles through a national park. From the property rights side, he was using an old right-of-way that had once actually been a road, and he was, you know, making a case for the rural lifestyle. And the property rights people started flying supplies up there to try to help the family and defy the Park Service. And the Park Service was sending in teams of biologists to assess the damage, and were talking about sending in a SWAT team to protect them from this armed, even though pacifist, Pilgrim family.

"And it was just escalating to the point where everyone was talking about, 'Is this going to turn into the next Ruby Ridge?' which was the fatal showdown between federal agents and sort of a right-wing enclave in the Rocky Mountains. And when people start talking about Ruby Ridge, a reporter gets involved. I guess that was how I got started out there."

On the abuse the family suffered at the hands of Papa Pilgrim

"One of the worst things that he did when the boys were violating his rules, he would take them out one at a time and bend them over the whipping barrel, as he called it. They would have to hold on with their hands and with their shirts off be whipped. And the mother would have to hold their hands, and if they started to scream, she would shove a cloth into their mouth. She was badly beaten and abused all the time, and one time dragged out of the cabin, and he came back, his fist clenched full of her hair, and nailed a wad of hair to the wall of the cabin to warn everyone that this is what happens if you resist what the Lord wants to have happen in this house. ...

"As [the eldest daughter, Elishaba,] came of age, she resisted, but he wanted to take her away on special trips in the back of his pickup truck and then sleep with her. And she did resist for a while, but he told her that he would spare her brothers on the whipping barrel if she would relent, and that was the Lord showing mercy. He said the Bible gave every father one special daughter.

"Because she was the oldest, she could read a little bit, and she was once caught trying to read the Bible and look for something about the special daughter, and he beat her for trying to read the Bible."

On why it took so long for the abuse to be exposed

"It was partly the politics of it, that the people on the outside were afraid to intervene and be accused of doing it for political purposes, the fight over land, and the parks and conservation. From within, the kids really didn't have a vocabulary to understand what was going on and what was wrong about it. And it was really only after they were taken in by another big, Christian family [the Buckinghams], when things got so desperate that they needed a place to stay in the winter ... [that] they suddenly said, 'They live very differently. I mean, they're Christian, and they read the Bible, but they talk with their parents about what is the Bible really saying here.' And it was a revelation to the kids. And when their eyes finally were opened, they were finally able to see what was right and wrong, and stand up to [Papa Pilgrim] for the first time."

On what happened to the rest of the family after Papa Pilgrim's arrest

"They've done amazingly well, considering where they came from. The older kids are married, and Joseph, the oldest son, is a successful contractor. However, there is a fight about how best to raise the youngest children, whether they should be in the mother's custody. The children individually, there are lots of psychological hang-ups and things that they're still working on, you know, some more than others. It's not smooth sailing by any means."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. In early 2002, a pair of battered, old trucks drove through deep snow into a tiny Alaska ghost town, and out spilled a large family that looked to be from another century. The patriarch, with a long, unruly beard, introduced himself to one of the few residents there in McCarthy.

My name is Pilgrim, he said. Long before, he explained, a shaft of celestial light had brought him a big-bang, religious awakening. And now, God had whispered to him, telling him to move with his wife and many children to Alaska.

TOM KIZZIA: (Reading) There were 15 of them, he said. Pilgrim was a trained midwife and had delivered each child at home. They had never seen a television, or experienced the temptations of the world. They were schooled at home, tended flocks of sheep in Alpine meadows, made their own buckskin, and lived pretty much as their forbearers did a century ago - innocent and capable and strong, spinning wool and making lye soap and each night singing songs of praise.

BLOCK: That's writer Tom Kizzia, reading from his new book "Pilgrim's Wilderness." Kizzia met the Pilgrim family when he was a reporter with the Anchorage Daily News. And his book tells the gripping story of the family - its deep, dark secrets, and the battle that followed their move into the Alaska wilds. A note of caution: It's a story with disturbing details.

Tom Kizzia says Papa Pilgrim chose McCarthy because he wanted the farthest-out place, an abandoned copper mining town deep in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

KIZZIA: It was an old boomtown from a century ago, had a kind of a homesteader scavenger culture that was just living off the land out there. Not only living off the meat, fish and berries but also off the spools of steel cable that had been left in the tram stations. And by the '70s, it was turning into a kind of a bush community of marijuana growers and mountain climbers and gold miners and homesteaders. And right at that time, the national park was established by Congress all around it; a park the size of Switzerland with just this little, isolated town in its middle.

BLOCK: The Pilgrims bought 420 acres way up in the national park for their homestead. They called it Hillbilly Heaven. And a huge battle breaks out with the National Parks Service because Papa Pilgrim bulldozes a road up to the homestead, and it becomes a national cause for the property rights movement. What happened?

KIZZIA: From the Park Service point of view, he - this guy had just driven a bulldozer 13 miles through a national park. From the property rights side, he was using an old right-of-way that had once actually been a road; and he was, you know, making a case for the rural lifestyle. And the property rights people started flying supplies up there, to try to help the family and defy the Park Service. And the Park Service was sending in teams of biologists to assess the damage, and were talking about sending in a SWAT team to protect them from this armed, even though pacifist, Pilgrim family.

And it was just escalating to the point where everyone was talking about, is this going to turn into the next Ruby Ridge? - which was the fatal showdown between federal agents and sort of a right-wing enclave in the Rocky Mountains. And when people start talking about Ruby Ridge, a reporter gets involved. I guess that was how I got started out there.

BLOCK: Let's talk more about the Pilgrim family - 15 children, and here are some of their names: Hosanna, Jerusalem, Job, Psalms, Lamb. And as you describe them, they didn't use calendar months; they addressed their father as Lord. What else did you learn about them?

KIZZIA: From the outside, they seemed just very handsome kids, very capable. They could ride a horse, stand on the backs of horses, and fix a truck that had broken down. They knew how to live in the wilderness. And they were always, you know, offering to help others, and they had this kind of great facade.

BLOCK: So the image of this family - the Pilgrim family, up in the Alaska wilderness - is one of wholesome purity. But what was actually going on with this family turns out to be horrific. And you detail examples of just awful, awful abuse at the hands of Papa Pilgrim, one of which is something called the whipping barrel.

KIZZIA: One of the worst things that he did when the boys were violating his rules, he would take them out one at a time and bend them over the whipping barrel, as he called it. They would have to hold on with their shirts off and be whipped. And the mother would have to hold their hands. And if they started to scream, she would shove a cloth into their mouth.

She was badly beaten and abused all the time - and one time, dragged out of the cabin. And he came back, his fist clenched full of her hair, and nailed a wad of hair to the wall of the cabin to warn everyone that this is what happens if you resist what the Lord wants to have happen in this house.

BLOCK: And then there's the eldest daughter, Elishaba, who becomes a special target for her father's abuse.

KIZZIA: As she came of age, she resisted. But he wanted to take her away on special trips in the back of his pickup truck and then sleep with her. And she did resist for a while, but he told her that he would spare her brothers on the whipping barrel if she would relent, and that was the Lord showing mercy. He said the Bible gave every father one, special daughter.

BLOCK: Hmm. There comes a point when the oldest daughters escape. They flee the house and ultimately, Papa Pilgrim is arrested. He's sentenced to 14 years in prison for rape, incest and other charges. And we have audio of one of the older sons, Joshua. This is from the sentencing hearing for his father.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSHUA PILGRIM: And I do want to ask forgiveness for my part, and my sin. And most of all, I want to confess and ask forgiveness that I ever let these go on that went on in our house. I don't know what possessed me in all of my life to deal with it and to let it happen. I beat my chest and weep.

BLOCK: Tom Kizzia, why did it take so long for the truth to come out about this family? Why didn't anyone speak out sooner?

KIZZIA: It was partly the politics of it, that the people on the outside were afraid to intervene and be accused of doing it for political purposes - that the fight over land and the parks and conservation. From within, the kids really didn't have a vocabulary to understand what was going on, and what was wrong about it. And it was really, only after they were taken in by another big Christian family - when things got so desperate that they needed a place to stay in the winter - they suddenly said they live very differently.

I mean, they're Christian and they read the Bible, but they talk with their parents about what is the Bible really saying here. And it was a revelation to the kids. And when their eyes finally were opened, they were finally able to see what was right and wrong and stand up to him for the first time.

BLOCK: Papa Pilgrim died in prison. What can you tell us about what's happened to the rest of the family now? It's been five years since then.

KIZZIA: They've done amazingly well, considering where they came from. The older kids are married. And Joseph, the oldest son, is a successful contractor. However, there is a fight about how best to raise the youngest children - whether they should be in the mother's custody. The children individually, there are lots of psychological hang-ups and things that they're still working on, you know; some, more than others. And it's not smooth sailing by any means.

BLOCK: That's Tom Kizzia. His book is "Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier." Tom, thanks so much.

KIZZIA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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