Alaska's Heritage


Territorial government affects Alaskans

While federal relations with Alaska evolved, Alaskans helped to shape their own lives by electing members to the territorial legislature or serving in it. The legislature's first act, in 1913, permitted Alaskan women to vote in future territorial elections. This was done in part so that women could share in self-government, but also to increase the number of registered voters. The number of registered voters was thought to be an important factor in arguments for statehood for Alaska.

The legislature's second act established legal holidays for Alaska. Other session laws set up a Pioneers' Home, created the office of territorial treasurer, regulated medicine and dentistry, established a tax system, required compulsory education for Alaskan children, established juvenile courts, and provided for registering vital statistics such as births, deaths, and marriages. The first legislature also passed a good deal of labor legislation. This included a worker's compensation law and an eight-hour day for work on territorial and municipal projects and for work in mining and other dangerous occupations. The territory's first environmental law prohibited throwing sawdust, wood shavings, and other lumber waste into the waters of Alaska.

The second territorial legislature, in 1915, created the offices of territorial attorney general and mine inspector. It set up machinery to grant full citizenship to Alaskan Natives, but Congress did not approve this for all Natives until 1924. The legislature also placed a bounty on wolves, set up a uniform school system, and enacted a labor lien law. This allowed an artisan, such as a carpenter or blacksmith to place a claim on a person's property if that person did not pay for work done for him or her.

After Congress empowered the territorial legislature "to establish and maintain schools for white and colored children and children of mixed blood who lead a civilized life in the territory," the legislature created a board of education. Its members were the governor and the four senior territorial senators. They could appoint a commissioner of education to manage the territorial school system. Also in 1917, the legislature authorized the establishment of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines. This later became the University of Alaska. Other acts of that session established a territorial board of road commissioners, initiated game stocking programs, created a bureau to promote tourism, and provided for the construction of fish hatcheries and the protection of natural spawning grounds.

Legislators' backgrounds vary

Early territorial legislators tended to be non-Native males, many of whom were miners or who had financial interests in mining ventures. Donald Alexander (Dan) Sutherland had such a background and became a political leader. Sutherland first came to Alaska during the Nome gold rush, then worked on ships and prospected in the Nome area. He later became United States Marshal at Juneau, then a miner in the Iditarod and Ruby gold fields from 1910 to 1916. Elected to successive terms from 1913 to 1919 as territorial senator from the Ruby district, Sutherland served as senate president in 1915. After leaving the senate, Sutherland was elected Alaska's delegate to Congress. He held this position from 1921 to 1929. Then, as happened with many Alaska politicians sent to Washington, D.C., he chose to make his home outside Alaska after leaving office.

William L. Paul, Sr., of Ketchikan, became the first Alaska Native to serve in the territorial legislature. Elected in 1924 to the 1925 legislature, Paul attended Sitka's Sheldon Jackson school, graduated from Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, and later studied law. Before joining the legislature, Paul had led legal efforts to obtain citizenship for Alaska Natives and to have a single school system for Natives and non-Native Alaskans. Other Natives later won seats in both the territorial house and senate. joined by them, Paul led a legislative battle to broaden legislation providing old age pensions and aid to dependent children to include Natives.

Nell Scott of Seldovia was the first woman to run successfully for the territorial legislature. A legal secretary who had worked in Seattle and Anchorage, Scott moved to Seldovia in 1934 when her husband was appointed Deputy United States Marshal there. Elected to the legislature, she was a member of the territorial House of Representatives from 1937 to 1939.

Legislatures pass memorials and ask questions

In addition to passing such laws as it was allowed by Congress, the territorial legislature also bombarded Congress with memorials or requests for help concerning matters on which it was not allowed to pass laws. Memorials on such topics as protection of Bristol Bay fisheries against Japanese encroachment and construction of a highway to Alaska from the contiguous 48 states were prepared and sent to Congress.

Territorial legislatures also solicited the opinions of Alaskans about various matters by placing questions on territorial ballots. The 1915 legislators asked Alaskan voters, at the next election, to express their opinions about two questions. First, should Alaska allow liquor to be manufactured or sold in, or brought to, Alaska? Second, should Alaska limit the working day to eight hours for all wage earners? In 1916 the voters said they wanted liquor banned and an eight-hour day for all workers. In response, Congress banned liquor and the territorial legislature extended an eight-hour day to all workers in 1917. The 1921 legislature asked female voters to express their opinions as to whether or not women should be required to serve on juries. Both houses of the legislature approved the bill placing this question on the ballot. The governor then vetoed the bill, but the legislature overrode his veto. Another item expressed Alaskans' frustration over having their governors appointed by Washington. It allowed Alaskans to express their preference as to who should be appointed as the next governor of Alaska. This was done in the 1924 election but did not influence the presidential appointment of the governor of Alaska, so the preference vote was not used again.

Governors of the Territory of Alaska vary

Governors of the Territory of Alaska appointed by succeeding Presidents of the United States varied greatly in background and accomplishments while in office. As had the governors of the District of Alaska, governors of the Territory of Alaska tended to be appointed from the political party led by the president in power.

George Alexander Parks became territorial governor of Alaska in 1925, an office he held until 1933. Parks worked as an engineer before and after his governorship.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, Early Prints Collection.
Identifier: PCA 020-0015
John F. A. Strong was the first person appointed to be governor of the newly-established Territory of Alaska. Strong was born and educated in eastern Canada. The 1897 gold rush brought Strong to Skagway, where he edited the Skagway News. The following year he was in Dawson, Yukon Territory, working for a newspaper there. Booms of various kinds then drew Strong to Nome, Katalla, and Iditarod where he started short-lived newspapers. About this time, Democratic political leaders in Alaska unsuccessfully put Strong forward as a candidate against judge James Wickersham to be Alaska's delegate to Congress. Finally, after a year's vacation touring Europe, Strong moved to Juneau and founded the Alaska Daily Empire. Shortly thereafter, in 1912, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Strong governor of Alaska. His first term came to an end in 1916, and he was reappointed for another four-year term. It came to an abrupt end after Strong angered Democratic Party bosses. While they were looking for a reason to unseat him, they discovered that he had never become an American citizen. This was reason enough for federal officials to ask Strong to resign as governor. After resigning in 1918, Strong moved away from Alaska and died in Seattle in 1929.

George A. Parks, a Republican, was a governor of the territory in the middle years between district status and statehood. He was the first bachelor governor, first two-term governor of the territory, and first governor to travel by airplane around the territory. Trained at the Colorado School of Mines, Parks first came to Alaska on a mining expedition. After that he held a series of engineering jobs with the federal government in Alaska, leaving only for two years' service with the army during World War I.

In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge appointed Parks to be territorial governor of Alaska. Shortly after taking office, Parks visited Washington, D.C. During the visit someone pointed out to him that Alaska was the only state or territory not represented in Washington by a flag. When he returned to Alaska, Parks organized a flag-designing contest open to all seventh and eighth-graders in the territory. The contest ended with Benny Benson, a Kodiak Native, winning with a design of a blue flag ornamented with eight stars of gold.

Parks left office when Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt replaced Republican President Herbert Hoover in 1933. Parks returned to federal service as an engineer until his retirement in 1948. Out of federal service, Parks became an official of the First National Bank of Juneau and associated with the R. J. Sommers Construction Company of Juneau. He lived out a second retirement in Juneau, dying in 1984 at age 100.

Alaska's territorial governor who served the longest time in the office, Ernest Gruening, was, like Strong, appointed by a Democratic president. Gruening first served President Franklin D. Roosevelt as director of the Division of Territories and Island Possessions. Then, in 1939, President Roosevelt appointed Gruening to be territorial governor of Alaska. Gruening was an active governor. He pushed for territorial income and property taxes, civil rights legislation, conservation programs, and tourist promotion. When the first Republican president in 20 years, Dwight D. Eisenhower, came into office in 1953, he dismissed Gruening. Gruening kept fighting for statehood, however, and was elected as one of Alaska's first United States senators in 1959. He held that office until defeated in a 1968 election campaign. Although he chose to live in Washington, D.C., after 1968, Gruening remained an Alaskan at heart and after he died in 1974, his ashes were scattered on a mountain overlooking Juneau.

Alaska sets up its state legislature

When Alaska achieved statehood in 1959 the new state's constitution approved three branches of state government. These were the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. A state legislature replaced the territorial legislature. The new legislature, like the old one, was divided into two houses, a senate and a house of representatives. The senate consisted of 20 members elected for four-year terms. The senators were elected from 16 geographic districts designed to provide regional representation. This changed in 1966 after court rulings required the senate districts to be based on population statistics. The house of representatives consisted of 40 members elected for two-year terms. The representatives were elected from 24 districts based on population statistics. The boundaries of the districts changed every few years as population patterns changed.

Unlike the all-male, all non-Native early territorial legislature, the state legislature from its beginning included a wide representation of Alaskans. Native leaders came from widely separated communities. Among them were Barrow's Eben Hopson, who later became executive director of the Arctic Slope Native Association and the Alaska Federation of Natives; and Klawock's Frank Peratrovich, who had been a territorial legislator. Women in the first legislature included Senator Irene E. Ryan, a geologist, and Representative Helen M. Fischer, a homemaker and civic leader. Blanche McSmith, a black civic leader in whose Anchorage house the Alaska chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded, was appointed to the first legislature to complete the term of another member who resigned. Other legislators who served with distinction in the first session included Thomas 8. Stewart, a future Alaska Superior Court justice, and Jay S. Hammond, a future governor of Alaska.

Constitution makes governors strong executives

The state constitution called for Alaska's chief executive, the governor,, and his second-in-command, the lieutenant governor (at first called the secretary of state), to be elected as a team by the people of Alaska. The constitution made the governor's position an unusually powerful one by allowing him to make all appointments within the executive and judicial branches of government.

William A. Egan, of Valdez, had served in the territorial legislature before being elected an Alaska senator"" under the Tennessee Plan. Then he became the first governor of the State of Alaska."
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, Early Prints Collection.
Alaskan voters chose William A. Egan, from Valdez, to be their first state governor. First elected to the territorial legislature in 1940, Egan served in the 1941 and 1943 legislatures, and then returned in 1947. In 195, Egan presided over the convention that wrote Alaska's state constitution and was elected one of the two "Tennessee Plan" senators. After serving 3 years and 11 months in term as governor, Egan went on to a second term of a full four years. Courts ruled that since his first term had not covered a full four years, he could run a third time. In that 1966 election, Republican Walter J. Nickel defeated him. Hickel served three years of his four-year term before resigning to accept an appointment as United States Secretary of the Interior. Nickel's lieutenant governor, Keith Miller, stepped up to the governorship. Egan defeated Miller to win a third term as governor. His service as governor came to an end in 1974 when Republican Jay S. Hammond defeated him in a race for governor. Hammond stayed in office eight years and was succeeded in 1982 by Democrat William Sheffield.

Executive branch consists of not more than 20 departments

In addition to the governor and lieutenant governor, the executive branch was to consist of no more than 20 departments. The governor could propose the departments he wanted, but the legislature had to approve them. The 1959 legislature set up a government of 12 departments. These were administration, commerce, education, fish and game, health and welfare, law, labor, military affairs, natural resources, public safety, public works, and revenue.

Judicial branch starts with four types of courts

The judicial branch of government consisted of courts where crimes and civil cases could be tried. The supreme court, with five members, was at the top of the branch. Under it, in turn, were superior, district, and magistrate courts. Depending on the nature of the case, a legal matter might begin at the magistrate or district court level, be appealed to superior court, and be finally decided by the supreme court. In 1980, an appeals court at a level between the superior and supreme courts was added to this system.

Constitution provides for local governments

The constitution also provided for political subdivisions of the state. Various types of boroughs, covering large areas and including several communities with common interests, were one category. Various classes of cities were another category of political subdivisions of the state. Powers of the various classes of boroughs and cities differed. Voters could choose to organize one with only the ability to organize a school system, or one with the ability to provide a full range of public services. Eventually a third category of political subdivisions of the state, home-rule municipalities, was created to combine borough and city government in geographically large and densely-populated areas. By the 1980s, Alaska had 12 boroughs ranging from the tiny Haines Borough to the 88,000-square-mile North Slope Borough, several home-rule municipalities such as Anchorage and Juneau, and over 100 other cities.

Statehood brings financial concerns

Supporters believed that achieving statehood would bring increased control of Alaska's natural resources and policies, more in keeping with Alaskan views. The state constitution clearly stated how natural resources were to be managed. All were to be developed for "maximum use consistent with the public interest." Renewable resources, such as fish, game, and timber, were to be managed to assure adequate harvests in the present and in the future.

Alaskans soon discovered that statehood cost money. Federal grants made to aid in the change from territory to state status ended in 1964. The state had to find several million additional dollars to pay for government services Alaskans had come to expect. Funds were so scarce that the state proceeded slowly in selecting lands to which it was entitled under the statehood act. State administrators knew that there was no money to manage the lands properly once the state had taken possession. Land selection also proceeded slowly for another reason: lack of adequate inventories of Alaskan lands.

The land transfer situation put the new state in a trap. Without money, it could not select and manage the lands to which it was entitled under the statehood act. Without those lands, it had few ways to raise money to provide services for its citizens. The administrations of Alaska's first three governors limped along on limited revenues from mineral sales, industry taxes, and income taxes.

Oil enriches Alaska

In 1968, the Atlantic-Richfield oil company drilled a successful well tapping the approximately 10-billion barrel Prudhoe Bay oil reservoir on Alaska's arctic coast. State lands surrounded the discovery, and in 1969, the state sold oil and gas leases in the area for over $900 million. Many Alaskans believed that the state's financial problems were solved. Consultants warned, however, that $900 million would have to be spent to place the state on a comparable basis with other states in terms of public services. The lease sale money was soon spent, but Alaska did become wealthy because of income from other lease sales and royalties on oil produced from arctic wells.

In 1973, many of the oil-exporting countries of the world formed an organization to control the price of oil. Many European nations and Japan, which used a great deal of oil but produced practically none, were forced to pay the higher prices. The United States, although it produced oil itself, also imported a great deal and could not keep the price low. The result world-wide was that the price of oil rose. Alaska's oil fields unexpectedly produced more money than anticipated.

Alaskans create a permanent fund

In 1976, Alaskan voters approved a constitutional amendment that created a permanent fund. The amendment stipulated that at least 25 percent of "all mineral lease rentals, royalty sale proceeds, federal mineral sharing revenue, and (mineral-related) bonuses received by the state shall be placed in a permanent fund, the principal of which shall be used only for those income-producing investments specifically designated by law." The intent of the amendment was to save money for the day when oil revenues declined as oil fields were exhausted.

Debates over how best to use income produced by the permanent fund dominated Alaskan politics during the last years of the 1970s and the first year of the 1980s. In a unique political experiment, the fund paid dividends directly to individual Alaskans. Dividend supporters believed that this would make Alaskans conscious of how the public money was being spent. More money put in the permanent fund would mean more permanent fund income and therefore higher dividends. More money spent in other ways would mean less permanent fund income and therefore lower dividends. Dividend opponents argued that money spent on payments to individuals would do more good if spent on public projects. The arguments intensified in the mid-1980s. By this time, the end of production for existing Alaskan oil fields, such as Prudhoe Bay, was in sight. World-wide, oil prices were declining as a result of new oil discoveries and conservation measures that caused an oversupply of oil on the market.

Efforts to control the fur trade had dominated Alaskan politics and government in the nineteenth century. Efforts to control other natural resources such as fisheries and lands had dominated Alaskan politics and government during the first 75 years of the twentieth century. It appeared that efforts to control oil revenues would dominate Alaskan politics and government during the last 25 years of the twentieth century.