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Regional History
Governing Alaska
The First Civilian Government

Mining gets people interested

When a Congressional committee proposed that a territorial government be set up in Alaska, a New York Times editorial on March 22, 1880 said that it would be a big waste. "The total white population of Alaska is about 250 and, for purposes of political illustration, the number of voters is usually put down at 15...To give this handful of people a governor and a representative in Congress, to say nothing of the courts, would be a farce of the broadest kind."

The figures quoted by the Times, based on a federal report, differed from the 1880 census, which listed the population of non-Natives as 430 and estimated that there were 33,000 Natives. The level of interest in Alaska and the number of non-Native residents was soon to increase.

The discovery and development of the Treadwell Mine on Douglas Island, across from what is now Juneau was the first in a series of major discoveries that attracted new settlers to various parts of Alaska. Over the next 20 years, the non-Native population would grow to the point that it equaled and then exceeded the Native population, creating a new era in Alaska.

The prospect of riches from these gold discoveries added to a growing clamor to set up an Alaskan government. Residents of Juneau, the first new town developed after the purchase, joined with people in other Southeast settlements to demand action by Congress in 1881. The immigrants, without any legal way to stake and their hold mining claims or to get title to land, made a plea for civilian government. A convention in Juneau in August 1881 was described by historian Ted Hinckley as "the first really consequential territorial political gathering."

The convention sponsored a write-in election the next month and elected a former Confederate officer, Mottrom Ball, as their unofficial Alaska delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. "We hold it to be undeniable that such representation is one of the assured privileges of citizenship," the sponsors said.

The U.S. House of Representatives did not accept the credentials of the Alaska delegate, but it did allocate money for his expenses and he lobbied Congress to extend government to Alaska. Other unofficial delegates would be sent to Washington to plead Alaska's case in 1890 and 1899.

The federal government had started to pay more attention to Alaska in the early 1880s. In his first State of the Union address, President Chester Arthur said he regretted "that the people of Alaska have reason to complain that they are as yet unprovided with any form of government . . ." At the same time there was a growing tension between Natives and the minority white population, especially due to the governmental vacuum in Sitka after the Army left.

One of the most unusual events of this time happened when non-Natives in Sitka appealed for help from a British naval base in Victoria, B.C. because they feared a Native uprising. A ship, the H.M.S. Osprey, responded and everything quieted down. For five years after this incident, the U.S. Navy assumed the role of governing Alaska.

Another incident that revealed underlying tensions occurred when a Tlingit shaman died from a harpoon accident in 1882 in Angoon. Villagers wanted payment and took hostages. The Northwest Trading Company asked for assistance from the U.S. Navy, which led to the shelling on Angoon and the burnig of houses and canoes. Eighty-nine years later the U.S. government settled claims from the case for $90,000.

Among the strongest and most effective lobbyists pushing Congress to do something about Alaska was Dr. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary who first went north in 1877 to open a mission at Wrangell. He rose to prominence by speaking to hundreds of groups, writing articles and working with political leaders in order to get a stronger federal role in respect to Natives. Jackson thought of Alaska Natives as people in need of conversion to Christianity and he condemned the non Natives who took advantage of them. Jackson lobbied hard in Washington for the government to provide money and the means to set up schools. He was interested in evangelization, while others focused on economic potential. All these lobbyists prodded Congress toward a decision.

The First Organic Act

Organic Act of 1884
An act providing a civil government for Alaska. May 17, 1884.
In 1884, Congress finally acted to create a civilian government for Alaska. The law, known as the First Organic Act provided the bare essentials of government. As a Congressional committee reported, "the inhabitants have been absolutely without the pale of law, and without any protection of life or property."

Though the law did not allow a legislature or any other elected representation for the people of Alaska, it did call for a "temporary" capital at Sitka, a district court, a governor, a district attorney, a U.S. marshal and other offices. Alaska historian Robert DeArmond wrote that the most important elements of the act were the creation of the court and the fact that law enforcement responsibility was assigned to the U.S. marshal.

The president was authorized to appoint the governor, who would operate, as much as possible under the laws of the State of Oregon as they existed in1884. They did state that any future changes to Oregon law would not apply to Alaska however.

The district governors appointed were "superfluous," DeArmond wrote, "except as lobbyists in Washington, but when they performed that functions, they were criticized for spending too much time out of the district."

The first governor was John H. Kinkead, who served for less than a year before a change in administration in Washington left him out of a job. S.H. Young, a prominent Presbyterian missionary, wrote of Kinkead that he arrived with "an immense supply of cases labeled 'Canned tomatoes.' These 'tomatoes' were proclaimed as tasting exactly like Scotch whiskey and producing the same effect.'" Political scientist Melvin Crain wrote that the first governors "had practically no civil duties to perform except to inspect, report and to enforce a handful of contradictory laws, with no enforcement means provided."

The law acknowledged the land rights of Alaska Natives in a provision that was to have long-lasting consequences. It said Natives "shall not be disturbed in the possession of any lands actually in their use or occupation or now claimed by them" and that the terms under which they would get title to their lands would be decided in the future by Congress.

The law also opened Alaska to mining claims and said that the provisions of a 1872 mining law were in force. It also said that the land laws of the United States would be withheld, which meant there was no way to get title to private land, a restriction that would cause constant complaints.

Another important feature of the First Organic Act called for the establishment of schools. Mission schools were allowed to select 640 acres and $25,000, -not nearly enough money- was allocated to provide for schools. Dr. Sheldon Jackson was appointed the first General Agent of Education for Alaska, a Washington, D.C. position. He had much influence over policies in Alaska and he often clashed with the early governors about those policies.

Changes after the Gold Rush

Prospectors headed north by the tens of thousands after gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896. They spilled over into Alaska, joining the gold-seekers who had come earlier to the Forty Mile and Circle gold strikes, and those who would come later to Nome and Fairbanks.

Alaska's population doubled between 1890 and 1900, reaching 63,592. The increase led to more pressure to expand the government system in Alaska which had been inadequate since its adoption in 1884.

In the 1890s, the traditional "miners' meeting" was the only form of local government many of the gold rush towns knew. The miners would gather in a group and adopt rules and regulations by a majority vote. This practice from the American West was the only form of local government in Interior Alaska until 1900.

In the midst of the gold rush publicity that put Alaska in the national spotlight, Congress tried to correct some of the problems in the laws about Alaska. It adopted a new civil code that allowed any community of 300 or more to incorporate with seven-member city councils and three-member school boards. The major towns took steps to organize under the provisions of this law and elect local officials. Congress also set up new judicial districts, important for filing legal papers. It adopted a code specifying what activities were illegal and the punishment for violations. Much to Sheldon Jackson's dismay, the prohibition on alcohol was repealed.

The civilcode of 1900 was fine as far as it went, the governor of Alaska told Congress in 1906, but "I think it would be wise to provide some means by which the Alaskan code of laws could be revised." In 1905, Congress moved the capital to Juneau, which had grown because of mining, while Sitka had become less important since the Russian era.

One element in the new laws allowed for territorial taxation, in the form of business license taxes. This led to complaints of "taxation without representation," a contradiction that helped spur the campaign to give Alaska a voice in Congress. In 1903, a Senate subcommittee reported that "the universal opinion among all classes in Alaska is that the District should be represented by a delegate in Congress."

Repeated attempts by Alaskans and sympathetic members of Congress to get a delegate failed to get out of committee during the latter years of the 19th century. Many people believed that even a representative without a vote would be better than no representative at all. Alaskans wanted someone who could lend balance to the political situation in Washington D.C. where the unelected lobbyists of mining and shipping companies and the canned salmon industry made sure that their interests were protected. Historian Jeannette Paddock Nichols wrote in 1924 that the corporations preferred this "self-appointed delegate" system.

Frustrated at the lack of progress, citizens of Valdez sent a telegram to President Theodore Roosevelt on the day of his inauguration: "On behalf of 60,000 American citizens who are denied the right of representation in any form, we demand, in mass meeting assembled, that Alaska be annexed to Canada."

A Delegate for Alaska

The campaign for a representative voice in the nation's capital paid off in 1906, when Congress finally allowed Alaskans to have one non-voting member in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Some Congressmen supported the addition because Alaska was becoming more famous as a result of the gold rush and so it required more attention. As President Roosevelt put it in a message to Congress, he preferred an elective delegate "whose business it shall be to speak with authority. " From then on Alaska was a "territory," not a district as it had been called in the past.

The early delegates made it a priority to seek a locally elected legislature to expand the voice of Alaskans, and to allow for a truly representative government, not one that was controlled so much by federal appointees.

Dedication of Court Building in Fairbanks by Judge Wickersham, 1904
The most influential and effective delegate during those early years was James Wickersham. He was 43 when he came to Alaska to serve as a district court judge, appointed by President McKinley. Wickersham served in Eagle, Nome, Fairbanks and Valdez before resigning in 1907. For thirty years Wickersham was the most important political leader in Alaska.

Wickersham won the election and became a delegate in 1908. He gained public support with warnings that the corporate power of J.P. Morgan and the Guggenheims was trying to dominate mining and transportation in Alaska. Morgan was the leading banker in the United States, and the Guggenheims had made fortunes in the Colorado copper mines. They teamed up to build the first major standard-guage railroad in Alaska and to develop a rich copper deposit in the Wrangell Mountains. They also controlled most of the ships that sailed to Alaska. "The central political issue in Alaska, as Wickersham phrased it, was whether the territory would have Government Rule or Guggenheim rule," historian Terrence Cole wrote.

Wickersham introduced many bills to create a territorial legislature, arguing that since the non-Native population had grown to more than 25,000, Alaska deserved a right given to other territories a century earlier, when they had a population one-fifth the size. One of the main arguments on the other side came from Alaska's appointed governor, Walter Clark, who said the territory could not afford a legislature. His views were in sync with those of the large companies that feared new taxes and claimed it was far better to have continued federalcontrol than to have even limited self-government. "A large portion of the agitation for territorial government comes from the saloon element in Alaska, which is desirous of decreasing the burdens now imposed on that business and at the same time obtain a greater liberty than they now have in the conduct of their business," said the previous governor W.B. Hoggatt.

Wickersham countered such arguments by saying it was disgraceful to deny Alaskans self-government "while the big interests are permitted from day to day to gather to themselves the advantages and undeveloped resources of the land." He said a legislature would be like a policeman on the ground, keeping Alaska's resources from being stolen by the big companies.

Though he had no vote in Congress, Wickersham worked tirelessly after his election in 1908 to get a territorial legislature for Alaska. Helped by political changes in the makeup of Congress, the Organic Act of 1912 finally cleared the House and Senate in 1912, allowing for an elected legislature. President William Howard Taft chose to sign the legislation on August 24, 1912, Wickersham's 55th birthday.


  • Mining Laws of the Harris District
  • Lt. Frederick Schwatka's account of his trip on the Yukon River in 1883 Part 1, Part 2.
  • Review of Schwatka's book.
  • Testimony of Kah-du-shan, Tlinget Chief (1898) about impact of gold rush on Natives.
  • What has the United States done with Alaska? An 1895 opinion.
  • An essay on the Alaska boundary question in 1891
  • A view of the Alaska boundary question in 1896.
  • An 1889 account of "Our ignorance of Alaska."
  • Biography of Frank Waskey, first delegate from Alaska.
  • Biography of Thomas Cale, delegate.
  • Shelling of Angoon

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