Alaska News

It's now the Kusilvak Census Area in Western Alaska as federal bureau drops slave owner's name

BETHEL – A village asked for it. State legislators, a U.S. senator and residents of Bethel supported it. The governor started the process. Now the U.S. Census Bureau has changed the name of a Western Alaska census area from that of a slave owner who never came to Alaska to one chosen by locals that represents the highest mountains in the region.

The bureau announced Tuesday that it was following up on a July 1 letter from Gov. Bill Walker initiating the effort.

"After this notification, the Census Bureau changed the name of Wade Hampton Census Area to Kusilvak Census Area for all Census Bureau publications and products starting with those referenced to 2015," the bureau said.

Census areas exist only in Alaska and are the statistical equivalents of counties in other states. The area previously known as Wade Hampton is the poorest part of Alaska and one of the most impoverished in the country.

Wade Hampton was a plantation master and Confederate general who was propelled to the office of South Carolina governor after a terror campaign intended to suppress the vote of former slaves. He later became a U.S. senator. After his death, his son-in-law became a territorial judge in Nome and named a mining district for him. The area first showed up in census records in 1920 as a recording district.

In South Carolina, a county, a town, two high schools and dozens of streets are named for Hampton. There's a statue of him on a horse at the state Capitol and another statue of him in the U.S. Capitol. As South Carolina's state House now considers whether to take down the Confederate battle flag, discontent over the Hampton legacy there is beginning to brew.

The Wade Hampton connection has long been a sore point for Myron Naneng, president of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents and originally from Hooper Bay, the biggest village in the region. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski along with state legislators backed his effort to change the name.


The tribe and city of Hooper Bay passed resolutions supporting a change to Kusilvak Census Area, after mountains that are not big by Alaska standards but that stand out in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

And now that is how an area that stretches along the Bering Sea coast and up the lower Yukon River will be known.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.