FAIRBANKS — “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” is not a pleasant book to read.
Veteran Anchorage Daily News reporter Tom Kizzia’s account of Robert Hale’s twisted path to Alaska, which brought him brief fame as Papa Pilgrim before revelations of his violent and sexually abusive treatment of his family sent him to prison, is an upsetting story to put it mildly. Or, as one of Hale’s numerous children told Kizzia, it’s “not a book that could dwell in a good Christian home.” It is a necessary tale to have told, however, one that details the horrors of domestic violence, the dangerous impact of apocalyptic religion on deranged minds, and what transpires when peoples’ pursuit of political agendas blinds them to the character flaws of the heroes they create to personify their dreams.
Hale, his wife Country Rose, and their then 14 children rolled into the town of McCarthy in early 2002, looking, they claimed, for a place to homestead and live out their vision of a godly life close to the land. For residents of the town, long at odds with the National Park Service which operates the Wrangell-St Elias Park that surrounds them, the Pilgrim clan seemed like messengers from God. Outwardly pious, with children remarkably well behaved, and not at all fond of the federal government, the family appeared to be a perfect fit for the rambunctious village. They were welcomed with few questions asked and soon had land on a nearby mine.
As Kizzia retraces Hale’s tumultuous life, however, it becomes obvious that questions should have been asked. Hale grew up in Texas, where in high school he impregnated and married the daughter of future governor John Connally in 1959. The marriage ended with Kathleen Connally dead from a suspicious gunshot wound that was ruled accidental.
From there, Hale drifted through the 1960s in a haze of psychedelic drugs, free love, and the fringe spiritual practices that flourished during the era. Finally in the 1970s he married Rose, then only 16, found God, and began building his prodigious family.
For a number of years, as the children were being born, the family worked as caretakers for actor Jack Nicholson’s large ranch in New Mexico. Here Hale began cloistering his family, presumably homeschooling the kids (although only one learned to read), beating every member into submission, and turning his sexual attentions on his eldest daughter, Elishaba. He also acquired a reputation for theft and troublemaking that ultimately turned his neighbors against him, prompting the family to flee northward.
In Alaska, Hale found the perfect set of conditions to make him a star. Confrontational by nature, he carved out an access road to his property that immediately pitted him against the Park Service, whose land it trespassed over. As Kizzia documents, Hale never considered discussing his access issues with the authorities before acting. In fact, he refused to even speak with Park Service from the get-go. Whether doing so would have solved his problems is questionable, but it demonstrates his approach to anyone in his path.
Egged on by many of the McCarthy locals (including a preacher who showed more hatred for government than love for God), he became a symbol of decades of unrest. In the eyes of residents, someone was standing up to federal authority, and this was in and of itself a good thing.
In Alaska’s small media market, it didn’t take long for the family’s story to gain traction, and soon reporters and property rights activists were all over it. Ironically, the Pilgrims’ 19th century lifestyle was a made-for-television dream, and the folksy Papa Pilgrim, a master manipulator, played his role perfectly. It wasn’t long before he had become a nationally known icon for those seeking to roll back federal power; the good Christian father trying to raise his family with traditional values being unfairly persecuted by the overly intrusive and controlling government.
But as Kizzia documents, even then the story was unravelling. Within two years, Hale had worn out his welcome in McCarthy for being a slob and a freeloader. Remarkably, there seems to have been little thought given in McCarthy to the more obvious question of why children well into their twenties remained at home and never sought mates. This was because Hale held them all under a constant onslaught of violence and threats of eternal damnation if they dared so much as question him. Even his 2-year-old son was beaten senseless as one of Hale’s “corrections” of a family member. Only when the older children began escaping and a warrant was issued for Hale’s arrest on kidnapping, assault, incest, and sexual assault charges did Alaskans fully wake up to the monster in their midst.
Kizzia devotes a lengthy section to Hale’s sentencing hearing, where the family finally had an opportunity to confront him. As a reporter assigned to the case he had been present, and, he writes, “For four hours, we watched transfixed as the Pilgrim Family talked back to Papa for the first time.” Unrepentant to the end, Hale blamed his family and acquaintances for his fate. A few months later he was dead.
Kizzia tells this story with great compassion. Several family members cooperated, although one son wrote a recent letter to the Daily News protesting this renewed publicity. He shows the hell of domestic abuse in graphic detail. He also documents how outsiders can so easily fall prey to a charming charlatan, a lesson that was lost on many of Hales’ supporters, who quickly shifted their allegiance to the equally odious and manipulative Schaeffer Cox. But there is also redemption. The Pilgrims are all slowly assimilating into society and meeting with success. Nightmares can end.
By Tom Kizzia
336 pages • 2013 • $25
Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.