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.
During a stop in Anchorage on Sept. 11, President Joe Biden declared, “Gov. Dunleavy, it’s good to see you. The governor and I have something in common: We’re both from Scranton, Pennsylvania.” Gov. Mike Dunleavy was indeed born in Scranton, which raises a question. How many governors of Alaska were actually born in Alaska?
Almost, but not entirely, needless to say, being Alaskan requires more than just having been born here. The willful choice to live and work here is a quality apart from an attribute like birthplace, for which a newborn has no control. Yet Alaska is also where politicians often open their campaign biographies with their in-state tenure, so the question is also eternally relevant.
From 1867 to 1884, Alaska was officially designated as the Department of Alaska and overseen by a series of 20 men with approximately the role of governors but not that exact title. None were born in Alaska. They were appointed out of the Army from 1867 to 1877, the Department of Treasury from 1877 to 1879, and the Navy from 1879 to 1884.
The first of these men, Jefferson C. Davis (1828-1879), was the commander of the Department of Alaska from 1867 to 1870. This was not that Jefferson Davis (1808-1889), the president of the Confederate States of America. This Jefferson Davis served in the Union Army, though his most notable accomplishment was killing a fellow Union officer. In 1862, Gen. William “Bull” Nelson insulted Davis’s performance as a commander. Several days later, Davis accosted Nelson and demanded an apology.
“Go away you damned puppy, I don’t want anything to do with you!” replied Nelson. Davis threw some paper in Nelson’s face. Nelson slapped Davis in return. Heated from his own childish and public escalation, Davis borrowed a pistol and shot the unarmed Nelson above the heart. Politics and a shortage of officers meant that Davis was never disciplined for the crime, though his appointment to remote Alaska was likely a form of punishment.
In 1884, with the passage of the First Organic Act, the Department of Alaska became the District of Alaska with some allowance for a civil government and governors appointed by the president of the United States. That year, John Henry Kinkead (1826-1904) became the first governor of Alaska, technically the governor of the District of Alaska, serving from 1884 to 1885. Though he was born in Pennsylvania, Kinkead is most often associated with Nevada, where he was a member of the Nevada Constitutional Convention and served as the state’s third governor from 1879 to 1883. After a brief, tumultuous, and incomplete term in Alaska, he returned to Nevada where he spent the remainder of his life.
Six men followed Kinkead as governor of the District of Alaska: Alfred Swineford (1836-1909), Lyman Knapp (1837-1904), James Sheakley (1829-1917), John Green Brady (1847-1918), the tantalizingly named Wilford Bacon Hoggatt (1865-1938) and Walter Eli Clark (1869-1950). These governors were born in Ohio, Vermont, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, and Connecticut, respectively. In 1912, the Second Organic Act renamed the District of Alaska as the Territory of Alaska and established the Territorial Legislature. So, while Alaska had been a lower-case territory since 1867, it was only an upper-case Territory from 1912 to 1959.
Walter Eli Clark continued his term and thus became the first governor of the Territory of Alaska. In 1913, he resigned in favor of President Woodrow Wilson’s appointee, John Alexander Strong (1856-1929). Strong was a bigamist and habitual liar. Among his many falsehoods, he claimed his name was John Franklin Alexander Strong, that he was born in Kentucky, and had been a major in some indistinct South American army. In fact, he was born in Queen’s County, New Brunswick, Canada, had likely never been to Kentucky and never served in any military. He added “Alexander” to his name, perhaps to sound more American.
In 1918, President Wilson appointed Thomas Riggs (1873-1945), who was legitimately born in Maryland, to replace Strong. Riggs was followed in 1921 by Scott Bone (1860-1936), who believed Alaska could comfortably maintain a million-plus population at a time when there were less than 60,000 residents. He was born in Indiana. George Parks (1883-1984) was born in Colorado and succeeded Riggs as governor. Upon his 1925 appointment, the Anchorage Daily Times described Parks as “what you would expect in a real Alaskan, tall, physically agile, ruddy and rather rough faced.” After his two terms ended in 1933, he remained in Alaska and was still alive when the Parks Highway was named in his honor in 1975.
John Troy (1868-1942) and Ernest Gruening (1887-1974), in that order, followed Parks as governor. Troy was born in Washington, while Gruening was a true New Yorker. Like Clark, Strong, and Bone before them, Troy and Gruening were experienced journalists. Troy notably spent two decades as the editor of the Alaska Daily Empire, now the Juneau Empire, a newspaper founded by Strong.
Gruening worked at several Boston and New York newspapers, including stints as editor of The Nation and New York Post before entering politics in 1933. From 1934 to 1939, he served as the director of the Division of Territories and Islands Possessions within the Department of the Interior. In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him as governor of Alaska. As with Jefferson Davis, the new position was meant as a punishment posting — in Gruening’s case, for loudly criticizing Roosevelt administration policies. Gruening made the most of the relocation and lived in Alaska for the rest of his life. He was the longest-serving Alaska governor, from 1939 to 1953, and then became one of the state’s inaugural senators.
Gruening’s successor, B. Frank Heintzleman (1888-1965) is perhaps his era’s most forgotten major Alaska politician. Born in Fayetteville, Pennsylvania, the longtime forester moved to Alaska for good in 1918. As governor, he is best known for his political losses, including his opposition to Alaska Native land claims and an initial antipathy toward Alaska statehood. In 1957, he resigned from office early, retiring from the political life. Though he lived in Alaska for most of his life, his last wishes were for a Pennsylvania burial and only a small memorial service in Juneau.
Waino Hendrickson (1896-1983), then the territorial secretary, briefly became the acting governor of the Territory of Alaska until the president could appoint one. Born in Juneau, the lifelong Alaskan is the answer to a trivia question: the first governor of Alaska born within his jurisdiction, though he was neither appointed nor elected.
While Heintzleman struggled for public approval, his official successor, Michael “Mike” Stepovich (1919-2014), was his opposite, a public darling. He was handsome, charming, and witty, a perfect salesman for Alaska statehood in the last legs of that lengthy campaign. Time magazine put him on their June 9, 1958 cover. On Jan. 19, 1958, he appeared on the popular game show “What’s My Line.” Celebrity contestants, including Ricardo Montalban of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” fame, had to guess his occupation. He described being governor as “the easiest job I’ve ever had. I had people doing everything for me.”
Like Hendrickson, Stepovich was born in Alaska, the son of immigrants. His Montenegrin father and Croatian mother were in Fairbanks seeking their fortune. However, he grew up in the Lower 48 and only returned to Alaska as an adult, after World War II, to practice as a lawyer. So, he was the first appointed governor of Alaska born in Alaska.
Stepovich’s tenure as governor was short as he resigned on Aug. 1, 1958 to run for Senate, a campaign he lost to fellow former governor Gruening. Hendrickson once again served as acting governor, thus becoming another bit of trivia, the last governor of the Territory of Alaska.
William “Bill” Egan (1914-1984) continued the streak when he won the election to become the first governor of the State of Alaska. Born in Valdez, he lived an unassailably Alaska life, working in road construction, tourism and at a cannery before entering politics. He served three terms as governor, from 1959 to 1966 and from 1970 to 1974, retiring from politics after losing a campaign for a fourth term.
The next governor, Walter “Wally” Hickel (1919-2010), was famously not from Alaska, as highlighted by his frequently repeated origin story of arriving in the territory with only 37 cents in his pocket. He was born in Ellinwood, Kansas and served as governor from 1969 to 1970, and again from 1990 to 1994.
By this time, the governors of the past become more familiar to modern Alaskans, figures of recent history and legend. Keith Miller (1925-2019) was born in Seattle and was governor from 1969 to 1970, completing Hickel’s first term after he left to serve as secretary of the Interior under President Richard Nixon. Jay Hammond (1922-2005) was born in Troy, New York, and served as governor from 1974 to 1982. Bill Sheffield (1928-2022) was born in Spokane, Washington, and served as governor from 1982 to 1986. Steve Cowper was born in Petersburg, Virginia in 1938 and served as governor from 1986 to 1990, declining to run for reelection.
Tony Knowles was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1943 and served as governor from 1994 to 2002. From a family of oilmen, he moved to Alaska in 1968 to work on a Cook Inlet drilling rig but soon transitioned to a new profession: restauranteur. In 1969, he co-founded Grizzly Burger in Anchorage, with an original location at Northern Lights Boulevard and C Street. He later co-owned The Works and Downtown Deli.
He opened Grizzly Burger shortly before the proliferation of fast-food chains in Anchorage during the 1970s. The first McDonald’s here opened in 1970. The first Burger King followed in 1975. In a rare example of 1970s Anchorage radio commercials, Ronald McDonald tries and fails to explain how Grizzly Burger could sell significantly larger fish sandwiches. Ronald cried out, it’s “discrimination against out-of-town clowns.”
Frank Murkowski was born in Seattle, Washington in 1933 but grew up in Ketchikan. He served as governor from 2002 to 2006. While Sarah Palin may well be the most famous Alaskan today, she was born in Sandpoint, Idaho in 1964. Her family moved to Alaska when she was only a few months old. She served as governor from 2006 to 2009. Sean Parnell was born in Hanford, California in 1962. He served as governor from 2009 to 2014.
After 40 years of governors not born in Alaska, Bill Walker was elected in 2014. He was born in Fairbanks in 1951 and grew up in Alaska. And as noted by President Biden, Mike Dunleavy was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
The final tally is four governors of Alaska born in Alaska: Hendrickson, Stepovich, Egan, and Walker. If you want to eliminate non-acting governors, there is only Stepovich, Egan, and Walker. And if you only care about elected governors, then there is just Egan and Walker. Who will be the next governor of this state born here?
Biden, Joe. “Remarks by President Biden to Service Members, First Responders, and Their Families on the Anniversary of 9/11.” September 11, 2023. Anchorage, Alaska. White House.
Dunham, Mike. “Stepovich, Statehood Champion, Dies at 94.” Anchorage Daily News, February 15, 2014, A1, A8.
“Facts Concerning Strong’s Citizenship.” [Juneau ] Alaska Daily Empire, April 13, 1918, 1, 5.
Fry, James B. Killed by a Brother Soldier. New York: C. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1885.
“More About the Charges Against Governor Strong.” Iditarod Pioneer, February 12, 1916, 3.
“‘Real Alaskan’ is Selected as Governor of the Territory of Alaska: Parks Gives Interview.” Anchorage Daily Times, March 26, 1925, 6.
“State Flags at Half Staff for Governor Heintzleman.” Anchorage Daily Times, June 25, 1965, 1.