Michael Carey: Some Alaska immigrants felt no urgency to become citizens

By MICHAEL CAREYFebruary 18, 2013 

Immigration has played a central role in our history. That's obvious. But the link between immigration and citizenship often has been misunderstood.

For long periods of American history, many immigrants had no interest in citizenship. Some planned to return home, some saw little benefit from filing.

And there were some whose applications came only after decades of making their home in the United States.

Indifference to citizenship was common along the US-Canadian border as Americans and Canadians moved back and forth without government approval or intervention. John Strong, governor of Alaska from 1913 to 1918, was not reappointed after the Wilson Administration discovered the New Brunswick native had never become an American citizen.

The gold rush brought to Alaska men and women from all over the world. If you examine early Alaska census records you will find immigrants from the European nations, New Zealand, Australia, occasional Latin American countries and even Japan.

Ivar Peterson, who befriend my dad Fabian in the Thirties, arrived after the gold rush but his path to citizenship seems typical of the citizenship petitions I found in Alaska archives. He was not in a hurry to become an American.

Ivar was born in Sweden in Aug. 9, 1901 and arrived in New York on the steamship "Iceland" July 15, 1902. His family settled in western Minnesota -- Otter Tail County -- where they farmed. Ivar left Minnesota sometime in the Twenties. The 1930 census has him in Fairbanks as a laborer, probably on a gold dredge. He eventually became a trapper and then a trader at Fort Yukon. He died in Redding, Calif., in 1975, after retiring in nearby Red Bluff.

Ivar filed a Declaration of Intention to become a citizen in Fairbanks on May 17, 1929. He swore his Oath of Allegiance on June 5, 1936 -- more than seven years after filing the declaration.

The declaration contains interesting information about Ivar -- and his adopted country. It provides his height (five-foot nine), his weight (165) the color of his hair and eyes (brown and blue) and his assurance that he "will renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty," in particular the King of Sweden. He assured the American government he was not an anarchist, not a polygamist "nor a believer in the practice of polygamy." On a separate document filed in 1936, he listed his race as "Scandinavian."

Today, nobody would call the Scandinavians a "race." Nor in the 21st century are we as concerned about anarchists and polygamists, a preoccupation of an era mesmerized by the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and anxious about the rise of Mormonism.

The oath is a period piece yet the language is quite moving. "Renounce forever" leaves no room for hesitation, "all allegiance and fidelity" no room for ambiguity. And the word "potentate" seems lifted from the Arabian Nights, suggesting caliphs, pashas and other perfumed tyrants.

Finally, the timing of Ivar Peterson's citizenship is important. By the mid-1930s, there clearly were benefits to citizenship -- early federal programs initiated by the Roosevelt Administration for example -- and the danger of prejudice against or persecution of those who were not citizens was well known. Alaska was not immune to prejudice and persecution. There are numerous examples of immigrants deemed "undesirable" -- usually because of their political beliefs or allegedly immoral behavior -- sent back to their country of origin.

Ivar Peterson was a man on the move much of his life. As time passed, he put down an anchor in a sea of change -- American citizenship.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com.

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