Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Once upon a time, there was an Alaska governor who loved to lie. The April 18, 1913, banner headline for the Alaska Daily Empire read, “Major Strong to be Governor.” The article stated, “The announcement last night of the appointment of Major J.F.A. Strong to be Governor of Alaska, has caused much elation among the Alaskans in this city.” Strong had established the Empire in 1912 and was still its editor as of that date. He may have even written the article that went to great lengths to praise him. If responsible for the plaudits, he was also guilty of several included lies, some explicit and some by omission.
First, he was not an actual major in any army. Military titles were often used then as nicknames for people of authority regardless of any previous service, but Strong claimed he had served in some indistinct South American army. This was a complete fabrication. Second, the “J.F.A.” were initials for John Franklin Alexander. However, that was not exactly his real name. The Franklin part was fake, something he added decades after his birth, perhaps to add a greater sense of dignity to his name.
Third, Strong was not, as the article stated, from Kentucky, let alone the son of a Kentucky colonel, as he sometimes claimed. This is the most important of the explicit lies in the article. He was not even American, though he went to great lengths to pretend as such. He may have added Franklin to his name in order to sound more American.
John Alexander Strong was born in Queen’s County, New Brunswick, Canada on Oct. 15, 1856. Little is known of his early years. On Dec. 31, 1879, he married Elizabeth Aitkens (1851-1925) in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Their first child was born the next year, a daughter named Janie. Another daughter, Elizabeth, followed in 1884. Their first son, Robert, was born in 1886.
By the late 1880s, after some business failures in New Brunswick, he moved to Washington state, where he worked in newspapers. In 1896, Strong married the American Annie Hall (1870-1947). His first wife was still alive, and they had not divorced. Elizabeth never remarried and, in a 1911 census, described herself as widowed. Strong not only abandoned his Canadian family but was a bigamist, a rather severe lie of omission.
While in Washington, Strong began telling people he was an American. There is no evidence that Strong ever attempted to become naturalized. He was definitely not an American citizen as of his tenure as governor. Nor was Kentucky his only false birthplace. For the 1900 census, he said he was born in Georgia. In 1923, five years after the end of his run as governor, he was a passenger on a ship bound for New York City. On arrival, he described himself as a British citizen born in Canada.
Like thousands of other fortune hunters, he caught the Klondike Gold Rush fever. In 1897, he departed for Skagway, though he arrived too late in the season to make the trip inland to Dawson. More or less trapped in Alaska, he reverted to his established profession and worked for the Skagway News, where he was a dedicated enemy of local crime lord Jefferson “Soapy” Smith.
Strong spent the next 15 years as an itinerant journalist, bouncing from one boom town to another. In 1899, he and his wife finally made it to Dawson, where he briefly worked for the Dawson Daily News before moving on to Nome before the year was out. There, he bought the Nome Chronicle and rechristened it the Nome Nugget. Over the next decade, he worked at newspapers in Iditarod, Katalla and Greenwater, California. In 1912, he founded the Alaska Daily Empire, with the first issue published on Nov. 2. That newspaper is still going, today known as the Juneau Empire.
Supported by his newspaper connections, Strong became increasingly political during his time in Alaska. In 1912, he was an Alaska delegate to the Democratic National Convention, where he supported nominee and eventual president Woodrow Wilson. By all appearances, Strong made a good impression at the convention, and in 1913, President Wilson appointed him as governor of Alaska.
Endorsements from across Alaska had poured into Washington, D.C., for Strong. As the admittedly biased Empire declared, “the Territorial Legislature, the Delegate to Congress, the Democratic organizations, Democratic clubs, commercial organizations, and citizens generally in unofficial position and in unofficial capacity — miners, fishermen, businessmen and professional men, employers and toilers everywhere, had joined in one unanimous demand for his selection.”
Several notable events marked his five-year tenure as governor, including the 1915 founding of Anchorage. He disliked the new town’s name, preferring something with “more significance and local associations,” not that he had the power to force a change. Yet, he did suggest an alternative: Matanuska. Some residents advocated the town be named Strongov in honor of the governor.
The Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, now the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was founded in 1917, though the first classes did not happen until 1922. Prohibition in Alaska passed by referendum in 1916, was approved by Congress in 1917 and took effect at the beginning of 1918. While under his editorial control, the Nome Nugget had called for “disgraceful enterprises” like dance halls, saloons and brothels on Front Street to be moved farther from the town center so that “mothers, wives, daughters and those near, dear, and consequently respected” could avoid the “many repellant and often disgraceful scenes.”
In 1916, the Portland Oregonian, in an article reprinted across much of Alaska, revealed Strong’s secret Canadian origin, stating “That though he asserts he was born in Franklin County, Kentucky, no record him is obtainable there, and that in reality he is a native of New Brunswick.” The move was politically motivated. Strong, an avowed Democrat, had hired or appointed several Republicans to well-compensated positions. He also backed the Republican James Wickersham as the Alaska delegate to Congress.
While the Democratic and Republican parties of the 1910s bear no resemblance to their 2023 counterparts, politics then could be familiarly partisan. Many of his allies had known the circumstances of his birth for years but assumed he had been naturalized. Strong’s support for Republicans turned fellow Democrats against him, not his years of lies.
Perhaps the foremost friend turned enemy was John Troy, who followed Strong at the Alaska Daily Empire and later was governor himself in the 1930s. Troy hired a detective agency to investigate Strong’s background. Witnesses from across the United States and Canada, including Strong’s brother, were interviewed, and the results were first published in the April 13, 1918, Empire. Strong’s Canadian citizenship was confirmed along with the public reveal of his bigamy.
The article was essentially a celebratory dance on Strong’s grave. By then, the governor’s political career was already over. Before printing his findings, Troy traveled to Washington, D.C., where he offered his evidence to anyone and everyone with influence to prevent a reappointment. His efforts paid off. That March, President Wilson appointed Thomas Riggs as governor. Congress confirmed Riggs before the scathing article was published. Strong quietly and quickly exited the public sphere.
The power of lies is eternal. People, including politicians, lie because it is an effective ploy. A repeated falsehood, especially when stated by a supposed authority, effectively tricks many people into accepting a fraudulent claim. The more someone hears a particular lie, the more familiar the message becomes. The more familiar a message becomes, the more it overrides logic and knowledge on the way to acceptance. This tendency is known as the illusory truth effect.
When Strong died of a heart attack in 1929, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner described him as “born in Kentucky” without mentioning Canada or his first wife. The Seward Daily Gateway likewise said he was “born in Kentucky.” The Anchorage Daily Times avoided the issue of his birthplace and bigamy but said he resigned as governor only after “his political enemies launched an attack upon him,” transferring blame away from Strong and onto his accurate critics. Sometimes the past seems very different from today. Other times it feels tragically similar.
Gates, Michael. “A Canadian Poser Governed Alaska for Five Years.” Yukon News, July 17, 2009.
“Death Claims Major Strong; Heart Attack.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 29, 1929, 1.
“Facts Concerning Strong’s Citizenship.” Alaska Daily Empire, April 13, 1918, 1, 5.
“Former Alaska Governor Dies Seattle Home.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, July 29, 1929, 1.
“Former Governor Strong, Alaska, Passes, Seattle.” Seward Daily Gateway, July 29, 1929, 1.
“Major Strong to be Governor.” [Juneau] Alaska Daily Empire, April 19, 1913, 1.
“More About the Charges Against Governor Strong.” Iditarod Pioneer, February 12, 1916, 3.
“Sourdough Suggests ‘Strongov’ for New Town.” Seward Gateway, August 23, 1915, 2.