Alaska's Heritage


Alaska's relationship with the national government can be divided into four periods

Alaska's relationship with the national government of the United States can be divided into four periods. The first period was from 1867 to 1884. During this period, the army, then the treasury and finally the navy departments provided federal oversight of Alaska. The second period was from 1884 to 1912. In this period, the President of the United States appointed a district governor and other officials to oversee Alaska. The third period was from 1912 to 1958. Presidents continued to appoint territorial governors; but after 1912, Alaskans were allowed to elect a territorial legislature. Its members had limited powers to pass laws and impose taxes. Most control was retained by the federal government. Finally, in 1959, Alaska became the 49th state of the United States and people living in Alaska gained the same rights as citizens of the other states. During each of these periods, and even today, Alaskans have complained that politicians and officials in far-away Washington, D.C. controlled their lives. This was a common complaint of pioneers on America's western frontiers.

The army takes over

The army, as noted before, arrived in Alaska in October of 1867 to conduct the transfer ceremonies at Sitka.

The army troops in Alaska between 1867 and 1870, when most were withdrawn, established a United States presence in Alaska. In those three years, and until 1877 when remaining army posts in Alaska at Sitka and Wrangell closed, the army struggled to do a good job. Historians are still debating whether or not the army did a good job. Officially, the army strove to suppress the sale of liquor to Natives and to protect the Natives from non-Native abuse. Privately, many of the army officers and soldiers themselves sold liquor to Natives and abused them.

While the army was the dominant federal department in Alaska from 1867 to 1877, Treasury Department officials were also present. Customs collectors and officials of the department's Revenue Marine Service did what they could to suppress traffic in liquor. They also enforced regulations that prohibited anyone but Natives to hunt or trap fur-bearing animals. During these early years, navy warships visited Alaska occasionally to survey coastal waters and to assist the army.

In 1877, the army quit Alaska. The reason given at the time was that its troops were needed for the Nez Perce Indian war being fought in the American west, but army leaders had been recommending for several years that the administration of Alaska should be turned over to the Treasury Department. Their idea was that the Treasury Department, with its fleet of armed revenue cutters, was more suited to enforce laws in a land where most transportation was by water. The army leaders also believed that civil administration was better done by a civilian, rather than a military department of government. Although it was not forbidden by law at the time, there was no law authorizing the army to administer and enforce civil laws.

The navy follows the Treasury Department

After the army withdrew, the following year, 1878, passed with only the Treasury Department's customs collectors at Kodiak, Sitka, Wrangell, Tongass Island, Unalaska, and the Pribilof Islands representing the United States government in Alaska. Revenue cutters, calling at Alaska ports on their way to the Pribilof Islands, occasionally reinforced the authority of the customs officials.

Early in 1879, after United States authorities failed to answer their pleas for help, American and Russian residents of Sitka asked British authorities at Victoria, British Columbia, for protection. They feared the Sitka Tlngits, who had become increasingly belligerent after the army fort at Sitka closed. After United States authorities at Washington, D.C., telegraphed their agreement, the British sent a warship from Victoria to Sitka. The Sitka Indians became less belligerent when threatened by the ship's powerful guns. An American navy vessel soon replaced the British ship. This started a tradition, that lasted until 1897, of keeping an American navy ship at Sitka. It also began a four-year period when the navy department was the dominant federal agency in Alaska.

The navy had several more advantages than the army did when it became responsible for administering Alaska. First, it was able to get by with stationing only one ship at Sitka. This made the navy's costs lower than the army's which had maintained six posts around Alaska for several years. Since the ship's crew could not leave the ship without permission, the navy was also able to keep its sailors under tighter control. This lessened the chance of friction between civilian Americans, Russians, Natives, and military personnel.

Second, the navy could move more easily about Alaska, at least to coastal areas. From Sitka, either the ship itself or the ship's steam launches were able to visit other coastal settlements in Alaska when necessary.

Third, the navy significantly improved its ability to keep peace in Alaska by appointing Native leaders as police. Tlingit chiefs such as Annahootz and Katlean of Sitka accepted these posts. They helped to reconcile problems arising from the differences between Native customs and new laws brought to Alaska by the Americans.

Despite these advantages, the navy also faced some of the disadvantages that had confronted the army. It, too, had no specific legal authority for its actions in Alaska. It, too, was out of touch with almost all but the southeastern part of Alaska.

Alaskans seek self-government

In the early 1880s, Alaskans began efforts to obtain Alaska-wide self-government. Juneau was the first new settlement to be established in Alaska after the 1867 transfer ceremonies. It showed its American spirit on July 4, 1881. Juneau residents called for a delegate to Congress to work for Alaska legislation. Several towns in Southeast Alaska joined Juneau in electing such a delegate. Their representative went to Washington, but Congress refused to recognize him. He did draw attention to Alaska. Such efforts renewed interest in Alaska, and in 1884 Congress established a civilian government for the territory.

The law Congress passed to establish Alaska's first civilian government is known as the First Organic Act. It authorized a district governor and a court system for Alaska. The President of the United States appointed the governor and court officials. These officials included a district judge, court clerk, attorney, marshal, four deputy marshals, and four commissioners who could act as judges on minor matters. A commissioner and a deputy marshal went to Wrangell, Juneau, and Unalaska. The rest of the officials went to Sitka.

The First Organic Act also applied the laws of the State of Oregon to Alaska "so far as they may be applicable." It extended federal mining laws to Alaska so that miners could legally file claims on mineral-rich land. In addition, a federal land office opened at Sitka to administer a land district that included all of Alaska.

Alaskans want representation

Alaskans were not satisfied. Washington, D.C. politicians still appointed Alaska's governor and other officials. These appointees, most of whom were strangers to Alaska, usually spent four years or less in the territory. Alaska's first district governor, John H. Kinkead, and his wife Lizzie, had lived in Alaska for three years from 1867 to 1870. They then moved to Nevada Territory, where he was elected governor. In 1884, President Chester A. Arthur, a Republican, appointed Kinkead to be governor of the District of Alaska. Kinkead had served for less than a year when Arthur's successor, Democratic President Grover Cleveland replaced him.

Alaskans had no say in who was appointed Governor of Alaska and no way to send anyone to represent them officially in Washington. Powerful commercial interests who did business in Alaska, on the other hand, had their headquarters in other places such as Massachusetts and California. Elected representatives from those states could and did influence events in Alaska to the advantage of their constituents who did business in Alaska.

Most Alaskans wanted representation in Congress and more self-government. A move in that direction came in 1890. A Juneau meeting elected a popular ship captain to go to Washington, D.C. Congress refused to recognize him, as it had the delegate sent in 1881. The 1890 delegate did get a lot of attention when he offered, if Congress was not interested in Alaska, to buy the territory for $14,400,000. This was double the price the United States had paid for Alaska in 1867.

Such antics and other efforts to draw congressional attention to Alaska got some results. The gold rushes to the territory that began in 1898 also stimulated government interest in Alaska.

Congress pays more attention to Alaska

In 1897, Congress created the office of Surveyor General for the District of Alaska. This meant that for the first time the government was making an effort to survey and describe properties in Alaska. Without such descriptions, it was impossible to tell who owned what lands. In 1898, Congress established a Local Board of Steamboat Inspectors for Alaska. In doing so, the government provided for inspection and supervision of the often dangerous steamers that furnished much of Alaska's water transportation. In 1899, Congress extended the homestead laws to Alaska. These laws authorized individuals to stake claims to unreserved federal lands for farms, trading, and home sites.

Also in 1899, Congress provided for railroad rights-of-way on federal lands in Alaska. This allowed railroads to lay out routes across those lands and to claim the land involved. Similar legislation had been responsible for much development in the American west. Boomers believed it would do the same for Alaska.

In 1900, Congress extended the public land survey system to Alaska. Under this system, land in each state and territory was described by a system of townships and parts thereof. The six-mile square townships were divided into sections of 640 acres each. The sections, in turn, were divided into 160 acre quarters. The quarters were divided by four into smaller and smaller parcels. This "aliquot parts" system allowed various tracts of (and to be set aside more or less accurately even before actual surveys were made.

Also in 1900, Congress defined which actions were considered to be crimes in Alaska and provided a system of punishments for persons committing those crimes. Finally, On June 6, 1900, Congress enacted a Civil Code for Alaska that almost completely revised the First Organic Act of 1884.

Alaska's capital moves to Juneau

The new civil code moved Alaska's capital from Sitka to Juneau. It also split the single judicial district created by the First Organic Act into three parts. The First Judicial Division, with a judge at Juneau, covered all of Southeast Alaska. The Second Judicial Division, with a judge at St. Michael who later moved to Nome, covered Western Alaska. The Third Judicial Division, with a judge at Eagle who later moved to Fairbanks, covered Interior and Southcentral Alaska. In 1909, this last division was itself split. Its southern portion became the Third Judicial Division, with a judge at Valdez. Its northern portion became the Fourth Judicial Division, with a judge at Fairbanks. Additional court clerks, district attorneys, and marshals were also authorized.

The 1900 code additionally provided for incorporation of local governments and for taxes in the form of business licenses. Salmon canneries and salteries paid taxes on each case or barrel of fish produced. Steamboats paid a flat fee for each ton of their registered measurement. Lode mines paid fees for each stamp in their mills. Railroads paid fees for each mile of track. Retail licenses ran from $15 a year for cigar stores and other small shops to $250 per year for banks and other large businesses.

Congress passes a series of laws for Alaska

Alaska Fund distribution.
Continued congressional attention to Alaska resulted in more laws for the territory. In 1902, an act protected wild game. An act of 1904 created road districts and provided for road supervisors. In 1905, a law created the "Alaska Fund," which was to be funded by license fees collected outside incorporated towns in Alaska. Seventy per cent of the fund was to be used for roads, 25 per cent of the fund was to be used for schools, and 5 per cent of the fund was to be used to care for the mentally ill. A 1906 act at last authorized a non-voting Alaskan delegate to Congress. Only men, age 21 and over, who had lived in Alaska for one year prior to the election, could vote for the delegate.

Frank H. Waskey was Alaska's first delegate to Congress. He took his seat in the House of Representatives on December 3, 1906. James Wickersham, who had first come to Alaska in 1900 as the Third Judicial District judge at Eagle, was Alaska's third delegate to Congress. He took office as delegate in 1909 and by 1912 had pushed a Second Organic Act through Congress.

The Second Organic Act established Alaska as a territory, rather than a district. The new Territory of Alaska was authorized with its own legislature consisting of a Senate and a House of Representatives. Members of both houses were to be elected by Alaskan voters. This was the first time that Alaskans had say in the laws passed to govern them. The territorial legislature had 24 members, two senators and four representatives from each of the four judicial districts.

The territorial legislature convenes

The territorial legislature convened for the first time on the first Monday of March, 1913. Over the years of its existence, between 1913 and 1958, it passed many laws affecting Alaskans. But the territorial legislature's powers were limited. in general, it could not pass laws about divorce, game, fish, roads, insane persons, or dispose of land. Congress listed five specific things it could do, and 17 specific things it could not do. The territorial legislature met every two years, for not more than 60 days at a time. Congress could, although it never did, override any laws the territorial legislature passed.

The federal government retains much power

Congress and federal officials retained much power over Alaskan life. In February of 1917, Congress responded to a request of the Alaska legislature, based on the wishes of Alaska voters, and prohibited the importation of liquor or its manufacture or sale in Alaska. In 1925, Congress established an Alaska Game Commission to issue licenses for hunting guides, fur farmers, and fur trappers. In 1927, Congress authorized any United States citizen employed by a citizen, corporation, or the government of the United States to purchase up to five acres of unreserved public land in Alaska. The cost was to be $2.50 per acre.

In 1934, Congress repealed the prohibition on liquor importation and its sale and manufacture in Alaska. Also in 1934, Congress declared the Indians of Metlakatla who had immigrated there from Canada to be United States citizens. In 1935, Congress authorized the Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska to sue the United States over tribal lands taken over by the United States when it purchased Russian interests in Alaska. In 1935, Congress included Alaskans in the Social Security Act. In 1936, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Interior to set aside reservations for Alaskan Indians if they wished that done. Also in 1936, Congress finally granted local governments in Alaska limited power to raise funds by issuing bonds without prior congressional approval. This meant that Alaskan communities could issue bonds for the cost of such public facilities as schools, streets, and water projects. In 1942, Congress increased the size of the territorial legislature by authorizing two additional senators from each judicial division. This action, which took effect with the 1945 legislature, also redistributed representatives in proportion to the population of each district. Until then, there had been four from each division. In 1945, there were eight from the first, four from the second, seven from the third, and five from the fourth.

Alaskans see statehood as the solution to too much Congressional control

Some Alaskans chafed at so much congressional involvement in their affairs. They saw statehood for Alaska as the solution to this. Other Alaskans opposed statehood for various reasons. dames Wickersham introduced the first Alaska statehood bill in Congress in 1916. Like later efforts prior to 1958, the bill did not pass.

In 1955, the territorial legislature passed what may have been its most important act since 1913. It authorized a constitutional convention. Voters elected 55 delegates from across the territory. They met at Fairbanks in November of 1955 to write a constitution for the proposed State of Alaska. Alaskans voted approval of the constitution in April of 1956. The new constitution was to take effect when and if Congress granted statehood for Alaska.

Voters approved another proposition in the same election at which they accepted the constitution. This proposition was called the "Alaska-Tennessee Plan." It was so named because Tennessee had successfully used a similar scheme to obtain statehood for itself. The plan called for election of two Alaskans to serve in the United States Senate and one in the United States House of Representatives. The voters selected Ernest Gruening and William A. Egan as its senators and Ralph Rivers as its representative, but just as it had done in 1881 and 1890 Congress refused to recognize these unauthorized delegates. The three people sent to Washington, D.C., were, however, effective lobbyists.

Alaska achieves statehood

Lobbying efforts finally paid off in 1958. That year, the United States House of Representatives approved statehood for Alaska by a vote of 208 to 166. The United States Senate followed with an approving 64 to 20 vote. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Bill into law on duly 7, 1958. Alaskans accepted statehood in August and elected their first state officials in November. On January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower proclaimed Alaska to be the 49th state of the United States.

Statehood at last gave Alaskans voting representation in Congress. The new state had two senators and one representative. Two former territorial governors fought for one of the senate seats. Democrat Ernest Gruening won over Republican Mike Stepovich by just over 3,000 votes. In the race for the other senate seat, Democrat E.L. "Bob" Bartlett beat Republican Ralph Robertson. The voters elected Democrat Ralph Rivers to the House of Representatives in preference to Republican Raymond H. Plummer.

Alaska's new senators and representative immediately pushed for passage of a bill that would put Alaska on an equal footing with the other states. The federal government had to stop developing policies and doing things in Alaska that were properly the responsibility of state and local government. Federal formulas for grant programs had to be revised. Federal control over fish and game in Alaska had to be relinquished. Arrangements had to be made for transfer of many government programs from federal to state control.

Even with such changes underway, the federal government continued after statehood to provide many services for Alaskans. The Department of Defense and the Department of the Interior were the two federal agencies most deeply involved in Alaskan life.

In addition to operating hundreds of military installations that kept thousands of service men and women in Alaska, the Department of Defense operated Alaska's long distance telephone and telegraph service until 1971. The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service managed vast areas of federal lands. The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs provided a broad range of social, educational, and economic services to Alaska's Natives. The Department of the Interior's Alaska Railroad moved most of the heavy freight shipped from tidewater in Southcentral Alaska to Interior Alaska. Even after statehood, the list of federal agencies that affected Alaska was a long one.

Land controversies are most important federal-state issue

The most important federal-state issue that had to be resolved after statehood was land ownership. The federal government, the state government, and Alaska Natives were the three parties to this dispute. Although the 1867 Treaty of Cession said that Congress could resolve the issue of Native lands, it had never done so. One hundred years later, in the 1960s, the issue had to be resolved as the new State of Alaska began to claim federal lands.

The statehood act said the new state could claim ownership of up to 104 million acres of Alaska. Native groups filed protests as the state filed its claims. Both parties wanted many of the same lands. In 1966, the Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, imposed a land freeze in Alaska. This prohibited further transfers of land from federal management until Congress settled the Native claims. After oil was discovered on Alaska's arctic coast in 1969 and a decision was made to bring that oil to an ice-free port by a pipeline running across much of Alaska, the need for pipeline construction created pressure for a quick settlement of the land claims. It brought together an unlikely alliance of oil companies, Native and conservationist groups, and the state. All lobbied for a land settlement. The Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act, passed by Congress in 1971, did this.

Native claims act settles land issues

President Richard M. Nixon signed the act on December 18, 1971, and telephoned the news of his approval to Alaska Natives assembled at Alaska Methodist University in Anchorage. The new law awarded Alaska Natives $965.2 million, of which $462.5 million was to come from the federal treasury. The balance was to come from mineral revenues shared with the state. The act also awarded Alaska Natives about 40 million acres of land.

Regional corporations created by the Alaska Native Claims settlement Act of 1971.
Twelve Native corporations were established to administer the settlement in various parts of Alaska. A thirteenth corporation was later added for Alaska Natives who lived outside the state. Native village corporations were also established to administer the settlement in individual communities. Each Alaska Native living at the time of the settlement became a stockholder in a regional and a village corporation. The new corporations became major elements in Alaskan politics.

People throughout the United States wanted Alaska's wildlife and natural beauty to be protected by the claims act. Section 17(d)(2) of the act was very important for this purpose. It directed that the Secretary of the Interior study Alaska's federally-managed lands for possible designation as national parks, monuments, forests, wild and scenic rivers, and wildlife refuges. It barred most activity on federal lands in Alaska until the study was completed and-Congress acted on its recommendations. Alaska turned into a battleground between those favoring rapid economic development and those favoring conservation through setting aside large tracts of land. The battle raged throughout the 1970s. It ended only in December of 1980 when Congress passed, and the President signed, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The act classified over 100 million acres of Alaska lands in 36 federal areas ranging from national parks to wildlife refuges. For the most part, these areas were closed to development such as road-building and oil exploration. Since some pro-development Alaskans wanted access to the federal areas for mineral resources, this set the stage for further federal-state conflicts in the 1980s.