For 17 years, Alaska would be without any formal government. When Congress
approved the purchase of Alaska, it saw no need to give the sparsely populated
new territory a civil government. The legislators saw Alaska as a remote and
noncontiguous territory, a long-term investment in no need of immediate
development. As Representative Benjamin F. Loan of Missouri put it, "to suppose
that anyone would leave the United States to seek a home in the regions of
perpetual snow is simply to suppose such a person insane."
First the area was presided over by the War Department. President Andrew
General Jefferson C. Davis to command a military force of about 500
men to maintain peace and order. It proved to be a poor choice, with little
effectiveness beyond Sitka. Most of the troops were stationed at Sitka and at
Wrangell, a former trading post near the mouth of the Stikine River. Both were
located far south in the Alaska Panhandle.
The Russians' departure left Alaska with a population of approximately 30,000
indigenous people, who lived in isolated places scattered here and there
throughout the territory, and 900 Americans. The majority of the latter were
concentrated at Sitka - and they asserted themselves immediately. Less than a
month after the takeover they held a convention, elected a mayor, five
councilmen, a recorder, a surveyor and a marshal, and framed a city charter.
But larger issues had to be dealt with. As inhabitants of a region that was
neither a state nor a territory they could not legally govern as a town council.
In fact, they could not even incorporate a town or buy or sell town lots. The
land laws of the United States did not embrace Alaska at that time, and
consequently, no one could take possession of land with any hope of clear title.
Nor could Alaskans legally impanel a jury, for United States law provided that
only taxpayers could serve on a jury. Alaska had no taxes and thus no taxpayers.
And if a person died, he or she could not leave a will because there was no
Typically, the Americans refused to allow any of these obstacles to stand for
long in the way of civil government for Sitka. Instead, they applied basic
frontier logic, which held that they had a right to make their own rules when
the law made no provision otherwise. They established a "mayor's court" and gave
the mayor authority to impanel juries. The court would be funded from fines that
ranged from as little as three dollars for being drunk and disorderly ($50 for
being extremely drunk and disorderly) to $100 for assault. To meet the other
city expenses, such as sanding the sidewalks in winter and purchasing paper and
pens, they established a two-dollar poll tax, a two-dollar dog license fee and
business taxes that ran from $25 quarterly for brewers to $75 quarterly for
dealers in lottery tickets.
Thomas Murphy started a newspaper, the Alaska
Times, and the council hired a schoolteacher at $75 per month.
It wasn't long before
Sitkaís prosperity ended. The portís commerce
declined, residents moved away, and in the summer of 1873 the Sitka city council
held its last meeting. Many of those who left blamed the federal government for
Sitkaís decline and Alaskaís misfortunes. Congress had failed to provide needed
services such as mail delivery, construction of lighthouses, and surveying of
land. People left, in part, because without a survey they could not get title to
land. Their departure left Mayor William S. Dodge, as the only
figure of authority. He abandoned his
thankless position to practice law in San Diego.
Dodge's successor in Sitka's nonpaying mayor's chair was John Kinkead, who served
as postmaster, councilman and keeper of the town's trading post. "The
accumulation of honors," he later commented solemnly, "was distressing." Kinkead
kept the job of mayor for less than a year, then he too drifted back to the
Meanwhile, Juneau and the interior, like
their counterparts in Sitka, drafted their own form of frontier democracy known
as the "miners' code." In their initial meetings they decided on the
boundaries for their mining district, drew up the rules for the staking of
claims, and elected an official known as the Recorder to register the site
staked out by each man. As in Sitka, they then prescribed the rules of
conduct for their community, ranging from fines for minor offenses to banishment
for stealing and hanging for murder. A court composed of the miners
themselves would sit in judgment and mete out the penalties.
As for the military, both
enlisted men and officers disliked their northern tour of duty, suffering from
boredom. Army officials, in their annual reports, invariably recommended
withdrawal of the troops since the army had neither the authority nor the
training to administer a civil government. Most of the duties of the troops
consisted of controlling the importation and manufacture of liquor. Finally, in
1877, the War Department recalled its troops from Alaska.
The remaining representatives of the U.S. Government were the
customs collector and deputy and the postmaster. The whites at Sitka felt that
the military presence had guaranteed safety from attacks by the Indians. A week
after the troops departed, Sitka Tlingits tore down a portion of the stockade.
Tensions between Natives and non-Natives at Sitka increased until an appeal was
made for assistance. Pleas to the United States were made first.
When there was no response, and the people appealed to the British for
protection. That brought the H.M.S. Osprey
from Esquimault, Vancouver Island, which anchored
at Sitka until the arrival of the U.S.S. Alaska. Two months later this vessel
was relieved by the Jamestown, under Captain L.A. Beardsley. From 1879-1884, the
Navy governed Alaska, as most of its inhabitants were located in the coastal
southeastern "panhandle" of the state.
In the meantime, the Alaska
Commercial Company acquired much influence in Alaskan affairs. It had been
organized in San Francisco by the recipients of an 1870 government grant of a
20-year lease of exclusive rights to harvest fur seals in the Pribilof Islands.
Before long the company extended its commercial empire to the Aleutians, Kodiak
Island, and the Yukon River valley. It took over the Hudsonís Bay Company post
at Fort Yukon after the United States ordered the British to leave. As the
companyís economic power grew, so did its role in political and social affairs.
It provided schools and medical services in some communities, and even
maintained law and order. In 1880 the company paid a 100 percent dividend to its
stockholders, demonstrating that the fur trade was still profitable. But the
Alaska economy was beginning to change: salmon fishing entered its commercial
era when the first canneries were built at Klawock and Sitka in 1878.
With the influx of gold prospectors after 1880, and the demand for valid
mining claims, civil government became imperative. In 1881 the miners of
southeastern Alaska met and elected as their "delegate to the Congress" Mottrom
D. Ball, the current Collector of Customs. Ball never was given official
recognition, though the House of Representatives voted to pay his expenses.
While in Washington he condemned the American neglect of Alaska and warned the
congressmen that Alaska would not advance in civilization or population until
they passed laws to protect the rights of persons and property.
Most influential of all the spokesmen on Alaskan affairs was the
Reverend Sheldon Jackson. Jackson, a Presbyterian minister, made the first
of his voyages to Alaska in 1877 (he never became a resident) when he helped
organize the Wrangell mission, the first of his endeavors to bring Christianity
to the Alaskan natives. He quickly established himself as the authority on
Alaska and Alaskan affairs, speaking to hundreds of groups primarily in the
northeastern part of the United States, appealing for their aid in his crusade
against the evil influence of those whites who corrupted the native men with
drink and ravaged the women. In Washington he was well known among
members of the Congress, and was the intimate friend and fellow churchman of
Senator Benjamin Harrison of Ohio, later president of the United States.
Jackson and Harrison became formidable allies.
Jackson was mainly interested in securing federal support for educating the
natives, while Harrison was interested in government organization and
administration. Together they were able to achieve Alaska's first civil
government and obtain money for an Alaskan school system.
Based on the civil code of Oregon, new laws provided Alaska a governor and a
district court with a judge, an attorney, clerks, a marshal and four deputies.
John H. Kincaid of Nevada was assigned as the first governor. A total of
thirteen officials were made responsible for a population of 32,000 people, of
which only 430 were white settlers.
At last Alaskans had the beginnings of a