The guv wasn't a major - or citizen

John Franklin Alexander Strong The first Territorial governor of Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The governing of Alaska has had many faces. After its discovery in 1741 by Vitus Bering on behalf of Russia, it was governed by executives of the Russian America Company, such as Alexander Baranof. The capital was first at Kodiak and later moved to Sitka. When the United States purchased Alaska in 1867, it was considered "annexed." Its first administrator was its military commander, Major General Jefferson Davis. In 1884, it became a District, and John Henry Kinkead was appointed first District governor. In 1912, the region became a Territory of the Union. The first Territorial governor was John Franklin Alexander Strong.

Strong possessed a military bearing and an aggressive, magnetic personality. He was sometimes known as "Major" Strong, although he seems to have unearthed this title from the same rich vein of imagination that "Col." Soapy Smith mined for his.

Little is known about Strong's early life, according to a biography authored for the Alaska State Library by R. N. DeArmond. But it is clear that he was born in 1856 in Salmon Center, New Brunswick, and graduated from a New Brunswick normal school. He worked as a teacher for several years. Apparently he deserted his first wife and family about 1889 and moved to British Columbia where he became a reporter. He next moved to Washington State where he started the Whatcom County Independent about 1891. In 1896 in Tacoma, he married his second wife, Anna or Annie Hall, a concert pianist.

Joining stampeders to the Klondike Gold Rush, he became editor of the Skagway News in 1897 and helped rid the town of Soapy Smith and his gang. In 1898 he moved on, becoming editor of the Dawson News. Two years later, the restless man shipped his machinery and type down the Yukon River to Nome upon hearing of the Anvil Creek strike. The first issue of The Nome News appeared Oct. 9, 1899. Strong seems to have taken over The Nome Nugget some time after it was founded in 1901. In 1907 he moved his press to Katalla, established as a terminal to the area's coal fields and copper mines. He launched the Katalla Herald in August of that year.

The town of Iditarod was founded after the Otter Creek discovery of 1908. Strong and many others believed there was a great future in store for Iditarod, foreseeing that a railroad would be built from Seward to the boomtown. Consequently, he moved there and founded the town's third paper, the Iditarod Nugget, in 1910. It was published on Wednesdays and sold for two bits a copy. The paper's banner prophesied that "an inland empire" would rise from the moss and swamp.

Strong had a colorful prose style; the Nugget specialized in one-liners such as "A Sourdough: A Cheechako with his brains frozen." Strong made many friends during these peripatetic years and later wined and dined them in Juneau.

About this time Democrats were searching for a candidate who could defeat Judge James Wickersham in his bid for re-election as delegate to Congress in Washington. Strong was under consideration. However, the Nugget published its last issue on Aug. 30, 1911, and Strong and his wife left Alaska for a year to travel, chiefly in Europe.

The Strongs settled in Juneau in 1912, and Strong founded the Alaska Daily Empire. He served as the District's delegate to the Democratic National Convention, and a year later cut short his association with the Empire after he was appointed governor by President Woodrow Wilson.

Strong wanted Alaskans to have greater say over the administration of the territory. The second session of the legislature began at Juneau on March 1, 1915. In his address to lawmakers, Strong compared their powers unfavorably to those of Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. He hoped legislators would take steps to induce Congress to enlarge Alaska's jurisdiction. On the other hand, he doubted statehood would come easily, as Alaska did not abut any other American territories.

During his administration, construction was begun on the Alaska Railroad out of Seward and the Richardson Highway was completed. Coal mining - which had been engaged in by Russians and American ships' captains in a desultory manner - was made possible through a federal leasing system. As evidence of declining marine resources surfaced, funds were set aside for fish hatcheries and a Board of Fish Commissioners was created.

Two bills that Strong signed into law as governor (1913-18) are well known. On May 3, 1917, he approved a bill that created the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines in Fairbanks. On March 31, 1915, he signed a bill placing a $10 bounty on wolves.

When Strong's first four-year term as governor was nearly up, his opponents rummaged for skeletons in his closet. They found he was not a naturalized American citizen and therefore should never have been appointed governor. Secretary of the Interior Lane requested his resignation. As the Juneau Empire summed up on April 3, 1919, "Strong was not born in the state of Kentucky, as he often has declared, and the story of his being a major in a South American army is mere moonshine." Strong died of a heart attack in Seattle on July 27, 1929. He may have been the only foreigner to serve as governor of a U.S. Territory. When Annie Strong died in 1947, her will specified a 10-year tobacco fund for the Pioneers' Home in Sitka.

More about J.F.A. Strong can be found in William Hunt's "North of 53."

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