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THE ERA OF NEGLECT

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 Johnson sent 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 probate court.

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 States.

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 formal government.