Books

‘Buffalo Soldiers in Alaska’ explores a little known chapter of Black history in Alaska

Buffalo Soldiers in Alaska: Company L Twenty-Fourth Infantry

By Brian Shellum, University of Nebraska Press, 386 Pages, 2021. $29.95

Black history in Alaska is woefully underexplored. Shortly after America purchased Alaska, Black people were among those trickling north seeking opportunity or simply to escape conditions back home. Black prospectors took part in the Gold Rush at the end of the 19th century, and there are firm historical accounts of Black residents living in such remote locations as McCarthy and Wiseman by the 1930s. Black people were here.

Yet the presence of Black Alaskans and their contributions to our shared history has mostly been overlooked. For most early Black Alaskans, we don’t know when they arrived, where they came from or what they found when they got here. Simply by virtue of their race and position in a rigidly stratified society, they experienced pioneer-era Alaska differently than White immigrants and Indigenous residents did. Yet we cannot fully know Alaska without knowing their stories, just as we will never fully understand the America we live in until we open ourselves to Black history.

This is a gap that military historian Brian Shellum steps into with his recent book “Buffalo Soldiers in Alaska.” It delves into a piece of Alaskan history that even most Alaskans are unaware of. From 1899 to 1902, Company L, a unit of the famed all-Black Buffalo Soldier regiments of the late 19th century, served as the federal government’s de facto security force in Skagway. In the process they became a part of the still-new community. A far from integrated part, but a mostly accepted and sometimes even admired part.

Shellum begins by placing the men in the context of their time and place, meaning the late 19th century Army. A few of them were old enough to have been slaves as children, but most were part of the first generation born into emancipation. Of course, that freedom rarely translated into economic opportunity, and the Service was one of the few somewhat safe bets for a young Black man.

In the years prior to the Gold Rush, America was fighting Native Americans across the West, and some of the soldiers who arrived in Alaska were veterans of those battles. Others had seen action in Cuba during the then-recent Spanish-American War. Military service was an only somewhat safe bet for Black men. Or anyone else.

The United States military was strictly segregated at the time, and Black soldiers were assigned to their own units and placed under white command. For Company L, this meant that they were led by Capt. Henry Hovey, assisted by Lt. Isaac Jenks. Hovey, in particular, thanks to his official reports, left an extensive paper trail of his time in Alaska, so the book by nature of this is heavily slanted to his viewpoint.

Hovey does seem to have been a good man, and for his time, relatively progressive on race issues. It’s easy today to view as exploitive a white man commanding a company of soldiers who, owing to skin color alone, could not enjoy the basic freedoms offered by the country they were serving. But in 1899, Hovey would have been ahead of his time. The papers authored by him that Shellum quotes indicate that he viewed his charges primarily through the lens of military protocol, and he was generally pleased with them. As with all things historical, Hovey’s choice to command this company needs to be seen in the context of his times. It was foremost an advancement opportunity for a career military officer, but he appears to have been eager to have taken it on.

Shellum carefully documents the three years that Company L spent in Skagway, with brief stops in Dyea and Wrangell. They arrived shortly after the Gold Rush had passed its peak, a time when the population of Skagway was plummeting, and the town was looking for new ways to keep itself alive. Soldier’s pay, even a Black soldier’s, was welcome currency for struggling businesses.

The company’s mission was never entirely clear. Alaska had yet to even be organized as a territory, and America was still trying to figure out what to do with it. An ongoing dispute over the location of the border with Canada was one reason soldiers were sent. They were there to show the flag. They were also tasked with assisting law enforcement, though under federal legislation, their powers in this regard were severely curtailed.

Strict color lines existed in Skagway; Black people were barred from numerous businesses and saloons. Yet other shop owners welcomed them. Sporting events, and especially baseball, seem to have been where the closest thing to integration occurred. Pointing to photographs from the 1900 July 4 celebration, where Black soldiers are seen mingling with locals, Shellum concludes, “This points to a form of recognition if not total acceptance.”

Most of Shellum’s account is drawn from military records and contemporary newspaper reports, and it’s clear that Black soldiers were of great help with fires and flooding. They were also sent to quell an uprising of longshoremen. Some were drawn to the seedy side of Skagway and ran afoul of local law. It’s unfortunate that while their records remain, their fellow troops who never got in trouble are a lot harder to trace.

That limitation, no fault of Shellum’s, does weigh on this book. According to 1900 census data he references, all the men in Company L were literate. They must have written letters home. What did they say to family and close friends about their experiences? If any of those letters have survived, they’d be a gold mine for the next historian to take up this tale.

Shellum has provided an invaluable and detailed examination of the Skagway that Black soldiers inhabited. How they interacted with it on a personal level is the next thing to be learned. Finding answers would be a worthy objective for an upcoming Ph.D. candidate in history. And in finding them, they could help us better know and understand Alaska’s history, both for Black Alaskans and for everyone else.

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

Sponsored