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

Before Alaska, the Pilgrim family — seen here in 1992 — lived an isolated life in New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Courtesy of Kurina Rose Hale
Before Alaska, the Pilgrim family — seen here in 1992 — lived an isolated life in New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

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."

In 2002, the Pilgrim family made their Alaskan home at the site of an abandoned mine just beyond this Bonanza Ridge mountain.
/ Courtesy of the National Park Service
Courtesy of the National Park Service
In 2002, the Pilgrim family made their Alaskan home at the site of an abandoned mine just beyond this Bonanza Ridge mountain.

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."

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