Alaska had to wait for civil government

Steve Haycox

One hundred years ago next month, President William Taft signed the congressional enactment authorizing the biennial election of a territorial legislature in Alaska. This was the third major element of the territorial system Congress had established for newly acquired lands at the beginning of national government, in the 1780s. This column treats the first element.

That was congressional authorization of presidential appointment of a governor, a judge and marshals, recording clerks and others. Congress took this action in 1884, 17 years after the Alaska purchase. Until that time, law and order were maintained in Alaska first by the U.S. Army, then, briefly, the Customs Office, and finally the U.S. Navy.

Congress did not rush casually or carelessly to provide civil government in new territories. There were two reasons for the wait in Alaska's case. First, while the coast was well mapped, objective, scientific information about much of the interior of Alaska was lacking. It would have been imprudent to encourage would-be settlers to venture into an unknown region where they could not be supported in an emergency. Second, few people were interested in moving to Alaska; there was no economic base to speak of. As late as 1880 there were fewer than 200 prospector/trappers in the whole of the Yukon River basin of Canada and Alaska. Settlement would need to wait on sufficient investment to create reliable employment. This came with the decision by a group of San Francisco investors to develop the Treadwell gold deposits on Douglas Island, which were discovered in 1880. As it happened, the 1880 census, the first decennial census taken in Alaska, found a mere 435 non-Natives, which, even if an undercount, would not inspire Congress to encourage migration to the region.

It was investment in the Treadwell, creating jobs, the wages from which gave mine muckers and managers the money to purchase the material norm of American culture, that persuaded Congress to implement the first stage of the territorial system here. Because of that investment, by 1881 there were more than 2,000 people at the Treadwell, and shortly afterward the four communities of Douglas, Treadwell, Juneau and Thane sprang up, dependent on the mine payroll for their sustenance. They all soon had fancy hotels with restaurants, cigar and hardware stores, dress shops and beauty salons and all the other amenities migrants to Alaska demanded. Then, as now, most migrants to Alaska lived in towns. It was the weekly payroll from the mines that provided the money mine employees and their families spent to purchase the material goods they desired that sustained the businesses in these communities. Both the Treadwell investors and a convention of patriotic citizens argued that the number of new settlers warranted implementation of the first stage of territorial government.

A second call for civil government came from the missionary Sheldon Jackson and a reform group called Friends of the Indian. This progressive nongovernmental organization, which met annually in upstate New York, asserted that Alaska Natives needed education in order to be able to assimilate into modern American culture. They feared that if Natives were unable to assimilate, they would be vulnerable to exploitation by non-Native predators flooding into the territory, and that they would die off from communicable disease, poverty and lassitude.

Responding to these twin sources of agitation, Congress passed the first civil government act for Alaska in 1884. In addition to the traditional presidential appointments of a governor, judge and minor civil officials, consistent with the history of territorial government in other territories, for Alaska Congress authorized a General Agent of Education whose responsibility it was to establish schools for Native and non-Native children "without regard to race." In 1884 America this did not mean integrated schools; it meant the agent was to establish schools for Native children in their villages and white children in their towns. Where there was a mixed population, there would be two schools, one for Natives and another for non-Natives.

Congress' action with the 1884 act was confirmed when the 1890 census showed 5,000 non-Natives in the territory, suggesting that the settler population was permanent. Next column will treat the second element of the territorial system implemented in Alaska.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.