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Alaska's motley early governors

Posted: August 20, 2011 - 6:14pm
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Photo courtesy Alaska State Library Historical CollectionsJefferson Davis   Photo courtesy Alaska State Library Historical Collections
Photo courtesy Alaska State Library Historical Collections
Photo courtesy Alaska State Library Historical CollectionsJefferson Davis

While looking around for some interesting Alaskans I came across a list of all the governors, both military and civilian, who have served the people of Alaska. Within that list I found some really unique individuals.

There have been 10 people who have served as governor of this state over 12 distinct terms and 30 civilian and military governors during Alaska’s long history as a United States territory. Two people, William Allen Egan and Wally Hickel, were elected to multiple non-consecutive terms as governor. Hickel is also noted for a rare third party win in American politics, having been elected to a term in 1990 representing the Alaska Independence Party (AIP). The longest serving governor was Egan, who was elected three times and served nearly 12 years. The longest serving territorial governor was Ernest Gruening, who served 13 1/2 years.

The U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia on March 30, 1867 for $7.2 million. The vast region was initially designated the Department of Alaska under the jurisdiction of the Department of War and was administered by U.S. Army officers until 1877, when the Army withdrew from Alaska. The Department of Treasury then took control with the collector of customs as the highest ranking federal official in the territory. In 1879, the U.S. Navy was given jurisdiction over the department. On May 17, 1884, the Department of Alaska was redesignated the District of Alaska, an incorporated but unorganized territory with a civil government. The governor was appointed by the President of the United States. The District of Alaska was organized into the Alaska Territory on Aug. 24, 1912 and governors continued to be appointed by the president of the United States. During World War II, parts of the Aleutian Islands were occupied by Japan from June 5, 1942 to June 28, 1943. Finally, on Jan. 3, 1959, Alaska was admitted to the Union as the 49th state. The new state Constitution provided for the election of a governor and lieutenant governor every four years on the same ticket (The original constitution of 1956 created the office of secretary of state, which was functionally identical to a lieutenant governor, and was renamed to “lieutenant governor” in 1970).

Some believe the first American administrator of Alaska was a Polish immigrant Wlodzimierz Krzyzanowski, a Civil War hero. President Abraham Lincoln promoted him to brevet brigadier general on March 2, 1865. It is said the supposed posting was a reward for his performance as personal representative of U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward during the negotiations for the purchase of Alaska. James Pula, dean of graduate education at Utica College, wrote a 1978 biography of Krzyzanowski.

“Krzyzanowski does not show up in the records because he was never governor of Alaska. He never lived in Alaska, but visited in 1873 when he was stationed in Port Townsend, Washington as a Treasury Department agent,” Pula wrote.

During his time as a Treasury agent, Krzyzanowski uncovered corruption by the customs collector in Sitka, investigated reports of gold discoveries and reported the potential for revenue fraud in the area, among other achievements.

“The governor myth was accepted by virtually all of the early Polish-American historians. The error appears to stem from a bad translation or a misinterpretation of Krzyzanowski’s memoirs,” Pula wrote.

Pula believes Krzyzanowski was not intentionally padding his resume, just trying to say that he was a government employee charged with administering government policies. His work as a Treasury agent led to a more effective administration of Alaska that enabled people residing there to live in greater safety and prosperity.

The first known commander of the Department of Alaska was Brevet Major Gen. Jefferson C. Davis. He took office on Oct. 18, 1867 and remained in office until Aug. 31, 1870. Although successful in a number of Civil War battles, he is best remembered for two attributes: the similarity of his name to that of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his murder of a superior officer during an argument in the Civil War.

At the start of the Civil War, Davis had attained the rank of first lieutenant and was serving in the Ft. Sumter garrison when Confederate forces bombarded it in 1861. In August, Davis became colonel of the 22nd Indiana Infantry, which he led in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. In December 1861, he became brigadier general of volunteers, commanding the 3rd Division, Army of the Southwest, at the Battle of Pea Ridge. He commanded the 4th Division, Army of the Mississippi, at Corinth. He went on sick leave, but left his hospital bed to serve in the defenses of Cincinnati, Ohio. During this time of convalescence, on Sept. 29, 1862, Davis got into an argument with his superior officer, Maj. Gen. William “Bull” Nelson, at the Galt House in Louisville, Ky. Davis had been offended by insults on prior occasions and when Nelson slapped his face, Davis shot and killed him. He was arrested and imprisoned, but Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright came to his aid and was able to get him released from prison. He avoided conviction for the murder because there was a need for experienced field commanders in the Union Army. Davis was a capable commander, but because of the murder of Nelson, he never received a full promotion higher than brigadier general of volunteers. He did however receive a brevet promotion to major general of volunteers on Aug. 8, 1864.

On June 14, 1879 the U.S. Navy took over command of the Department of Alaska. From 1879 to May of 1884 there were eight Navy administrators. Probably the most remembered was Cmdr. Edgar C. Merriman. During his command he caused the infamous naval bombardment of the village of Angoon. The following is a brief statement describing the incident:

A whaling ship was attempting to take a whale out in Chatham Strait on Oct. 22 when the gun exploded, spraying the crewmen with fragments. One struck and killed Tith Klane, a medicine man from Angoon, according to information from the Kootznawoo Heritage Foundation. Other Native crewmen took his body ashore. The Tlingit leadership demanded 200 blankets as reparation for the loss of Tith Klane.

According to a report to the U.S. Congress in late November of 1882 by Lt. M.A. Healy, the commanding officer of the Sitka-based Revenue Cutter Corwin, the superintendent of the whaling station at Killisnoo, J.M. Vanderbilt, arrived in Sitka on Oct. 23 — the day after Klane’s death — and told Navy officials he feared for his safety because the Angoon Natives had essentially “taken over” the Killisnoo station, demanding a repayment of 200 blankets for the life of Klane. Vanderbilt also claimed that two white employees of the company had been taken hostage by the villagers.

“If the demand (for the reparations) was not met the Natives threatened to burn the company’s store and buildings, destroy its boats and put to death the white prisoners,” Healy reported the Navy was told by the whaling station superintendent. (There is some question of Vanderbilt’s truthfulness concerning the prisoners.)

Capt. E.C. Merriman, besides being the administrator, was the commander of the largest Navy ship in Alaska, the USS Adams. He ordered the Corwin and a whaling company tugboat called the Favorite — which was armed for the mission — to respond to the situation. Merriman’s reasons for taking the other two ships was that he felt the Adams would be too large to effectively maneuver in the shallow waters near the village.

Healy reported after anchoring, “some of the ring leaders were captured and the release of the property effected.”

Then Merriman demanded that the Natives turn over 400 blankets to the Navy. Healy reported that the Navy threatened to destroy the village if the demand was not met. When the Natives did not meet the demand (Angoon records state that the villages offered 82 blankets), some 40 canoes were destroyed and the village was shelled and burned. Bill Jones, a nephew of Tith Kane, who was 13 when the attack occurred, was an eyewitness.

“They left us homeless on the beach,” he said.

Jones also told the anthropologist that his mother told him smoke from the fires suffocated six village children. With winter coming on, the villagers were in a desperate situation.

“The people of Angoon nearly starved to death, all of them,” he said. “How much we suffered.”

Jones said the villagers made temporary shelters and searched the beaches at low tide for anything they could eat; shellfish, gumboots, even the parts of fish left over from sea lion kills. He said it was nearly five years before the village recovered.

The shelling immediately caused a stir in Congress which — even though it was just six years removed from the 7th Calvary “massacre” at the Little Big Horn — was beginning to question the validity of how the U.S. military had been treating Native Americans in recent decades. There was discussion in Congress about an official investigation into the bombing, but no investigation was undertaken.

Two years later, in 1884, steps were taken to remove Alaska from under military control. In the Alaska Organic Act of 1884, Congress allowed for a limited form of local civilian government to take root. The act called for a district of Alaska court system, school system and a small administrative branch existing primarily of a “governor” and few other officials. The military would remain in Alaska but only in a support, rather than in a governmental function.

During the period from May 17, 1884 to April 18, 1913 there were seven governors appointed by the president of the United States. One of the more interesting governors was John Green Brady, who was selected by President William McKinley and took office on June 23, 1897 and remained until March 2, 1906.

Brady moved to Alaska first as a Presbyterian minister, missionary, lawyer and co-founded what is now Sheldon Jackson College as a school for training Alaska Natives in 1878. He was introduced to the infamous Alaskan bad man Soapy Smith, in his first year as governor, during the July 4, 1898 festivities in Skagway. Brady was made aware of Soapy’s criminal activities and offered him a position as a deputy U.S. marshal in Sitka if he would quit Skagway. Soapy turned down the position and Brady noted it in a personal letter. Four days after meeting him, Soapy died in the famed shootout on the Juneau wharf.

The district of Alaska was organized into the Alaska Territory on Aug. 24, 1912. However, the last governor selected under the district of Alaska was Walter Eli Clark and he remained in office until April 18, 1913. Thus, not only was he the last governor under the district but he also was the first governor of the new Alaska Territory.

On April 18, 1913, John Franklin Alexander Strong was appointed as governor by President Woodrow Wilson. The nomination was in keeping with a 1912 Democratic plank calling for territorial governors to be area residents. The new governor was sworn into office on May 21, 1913. Soon after becoming governor, Strong was faced with a financial crisis. The territory’s salmon canneries, claiming the recently enacted tax on canned salmon was illegal, refused to pay. The tax was a major source of income for the territory and the lack of funds thus created severely limited Strong’s ability to implement development projects. This issue continued until after the governor left office.

Wilson declined to reappoint Strong to a second term as governor and his final day in office came on April 12, 1918. According to U.S. Senator and Alaskan history expert Ernest Gruening, this was because the president had been given information indicating the Canadian-born Strong had never been naturalized as a U.S. citizen.

The last governor appointed by a president was Waino Edward Hendrickson who was appointed as acting governor on Aug. 9, 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and remained in office until Jan. 3, 1959 when Alaska became a state. Since then there have been 10 governors. During that time we have had some pretty interesting governors. After reviewing each, I have decided to wait for another time to write about their exploits.

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