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In Western Alaska, a push to rename district that honors slave-owning Confederate general

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published April 25, 2015

BETHEL -- The poorest part of Alaska -- drawn as a census area, a kind of place that only exists in this state -- is named after a man who not only never set foot here but who was a slave-owning Civil War general in his home state of South Carolina.

If that's not enough to question why he's honored in Alaska, consider this: After the Civil War, the man went on to become governor by taking advantage of a terror campaign of killings that ripped through South Carolina and factored into the end of Reconstruction. The resulting black disenfranchisement in the South lasted generations.

The general's name was Wade Hampton III. And some say it was a big mistake to name a place for him in Alaska.

The Wade Hampton Census Area, essentially a recording district, has always stood out, a political oddity in Alaska. Other census areas either correspond to boroughs or geographic boundaries. There's Valdez-Cordova and the municipality of Anchorage, Dillingham and Aleutians West, Bethel and Nome. For analyzing population data, they're the rough equivalent of counties in other states.

The Wade Hampton Census Area stretches along the Bering Sea coast and up the Yukon River. It includes Emmonak, St. Mary's and Russian Mission.

Hampton, who went on to become a U.S. senator, was a wealthy slave owner with plantations in South Carolina and Mississippi, a hunter and horseman who toward the end of the Civil War became senior commander of the Confederate cavalry.

His election to governor in 1876 was propelled by killings and disruption by the Red Shirts, a white paramilitary arm of the Southern Democrats that embraced violence to overthrow the Reconstruction government run by Republicans, the party of President Abraham Lincoln, said Ehren Foley, a South Carolina historian and expert on post-Civil War Reconstruction.

Some sources consider the Red Shirts domestic terrorists. Their group included former Ku Klux Klan members and their strategy of restoring white power through violence and intimidation was the same, historians say.

Hampton, who died in 1902, never came to Alaska. But his son-in-law did and, after a dramatic arrival in Nome, used his position as a territorial judge to name a mining district for his late father-in-law, according to a history of the town of Marshall.

Now some Alaska Native leaders say the Hampton name and all it represents should be stripped away.

"The more people hear or know about it, the more angry they are going to be that we're called the Wade Hampton Census Area," said Myron Naneng, president of the regional Native nonprofit organization, the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents.

Historians say Hampton was a moderate among Southern leaders of the era. But to Naneng, whose home village, Hooper Bay, is in the census area, the name is about as bad as it gets.

"Would you want to be named after Adolf Hitler?" he asked.

A mysterious connection

Few Alaskans have ever heard of Wade Hampton. Even in South Carolina, where a county, a town, two high schools and dozens of streets are named for him, the particulars of his story are unknown by many, said Foley, the historian. There's a 15-foot-tall equestrian statue of Hampton at the South Carolina State House. A World War II cargo ship named for him was sunk off the coast of Greenland by a German U-boat.

Still, the name, if not the Alaska connection, is familiar to Alaska demographers, economists and other researchers who use data from the U.S. Census.

"I've been shaking my head about that for my entire career," said Gunnar Knapp, director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He figured out early on that the area was named for the Confederate general but puzzled over how it happened.

The Wade Hampton Census Area is the poorest part of Alaska and one of the most impoverished in the country, according to census tables compiled by Knapp.

It has the highest rate of unemployment in the state and the fourth highest in the country. More than half the households receive food stamps, the highest level in the state and the country. One-third of the families with children live below the federal poverty line, again the most in Alaska and in the top 10 percent nationally. On those measures, it's a lot like some rural parts of the Deep South.

About 95 percent of the people there are Alaska Native, according to the census data. Many in the region still live by subsistence, fishing, hunting and gathering wild foods.

The area first showed up in U.S. Census records in 1920 as a recording district, the U.S. Census Bureau said in response to questions. By 1960, it was an election district used for the census. In 1970, it was folded into the Bethel land recording district but remained its own census area.

The census area isn't listed in Orth's Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, the bible of named physical features in Alaska first published by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1967.

"This is not a geographic place. This is a construct," or an administrative designation, said Jo Antonson, state historian.

Unhappiness over the name has been quiet so far, Naneng said, but he wants that to change.

"It's going to come out to the surface," he said.

A double-edged sword

Hampton was born into one of the wealthiest families of the pre-Civil War South. His grandfather was a Revolutionary War soldier and U.S. congressman who amassed a fortune with plantations worked by slaves. The family's Millwood plantation was considered the political center of South Carolina, historians said.

Hampton was a burly, bushy-faced man with a passion and skill for bear hunting.

"By the time of his death, Hampton's reputation as a mighty hunter had grown to the level of mythology; even Republicans fell victim to its spell," Rod Andrew, a Clemson University history professor, said in his 2008 biography, "Wade Hampton: Confederate Warrior to Southern Redeemer." "Theodore Roosevelt once wrote that Wade Hampton had killed 'thirty or forty' bears with a hunting knife." But Hampton's grand-nephew explained that happened just once, when Hampton was trying to protect young dogs who had a bear at bay, the biographer wrote.

As a senator in the state Legislature, Hampton opposed the South seceding from the Union, according to historical accounts. But with the coming of war, Hampton resigned his seat and enlisted in the Confederate Army as a 42-year-old private. He had no military experience but was commissioned as an officer because of his social standing.

He organized his own legion and carried a 4-foot-long double-edged sword. The saber was considered outdated, but Hampton wielded his in battle with the cavalry, Robert Ackerman wrote in his 2007 biography of Hampton. In what became known as the "Beefsteak Raid," his troops captured 304 prisoners and 2,400 head of cattle, providing much-needed meat for a poorly provisioned Southern army.

When he finally surrendered, he was a lieutenant general and senior commander of the Confederate cavalry. He also was in financial ruins, according to historians. Union Gen. William T. Sherman's soldiers had burned the family home of Millwood. Hampton's former slaves were free men and women.

Domestic terrorists

In 1876, Hampton ran for governor on what was then a conservative Democratic Party ticket. In those days, the Republican Party represented the North. In the South, it was made up of blacks and transplanted Northerners -- called carpetbaggers by Southerners -- and it held political power. Federal troops had withdrawn from most Southern states but still were garrisoned in some South Carolina cities as part of Reconstruction. The Democrats wanted the troops removed as a symbol of the party's regained political control, Foley said.

That summer, the paramilitary Red Shirts -- whites fighting to return white Democrats to power -- led a campaign of violence against black-led militias and black leaders. Massacres and riots in town after town left dozens dead, suppressed the black vote and opened the way for Hampton's election, said historian Foley.

"He couldn't have won without fraud and violence and yet he always at least publicly took a strong stand against that," said Andrew, the Clemson historian.

The campaign was murderous and also politically messy, historians say. The state Supreme Court issued a ruling that resulted in Hampton being declared the winner, but the incumbent, Republican Daniel Chamberlain, set up a rival government, according to a summary by the National Governors Association.

Hampton only was seated only after a series of political deals. President Rutherford Hayes effectively recognized his victory by withdrawing federal troops from South Carolina in April 1877, Andrew said. It appeared to happen as part of the unofficial, unwritten national Compromise of 1877 that resolved the disputed presidential election of Hayes -- and ended Reconstruction.

"It was the end of this period of hope and opportunity for African-Americans in the South," said Eric Emerson, director of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. "It doesn't happen overnight. It's a gradual process after Hampton wins the election."

While Reconstruction already was over in some states, Hampton's election "is the event that buries it," Emerson said. Rights for black Americans were turned back by Jim Crow segregation laws. Blacks wouldn't regain voting rights and equal treatment in law for nearly 100 years, not until the reforms of the 1960s, he said.

By today's standards, Hampton was a white supremacist, but at the time he was a typical Southern aristocrat, Andrew said.

"To say that Wade Hampton is a white supremacist isn't saying very much," he said.

People saw him as "a good, decent man," Andrew said. Hampton saw himself as a patriarchal, benevolent planter.

"He's sort of the symbol of restoration of white control, yet he is considered to be a moderate," the historian said.

As governor, Hampton supported basic rights for black people and appointed more than 100 black men to office, "which is kind of a surprising fact," Andrew said.

Schools were segregated but black schools received as much funding per student as white schools, which meant more money to black schools than white ones since there were so many more black students, he found.

Two years after his election to governor, Hampton was elected U.S. senator by the South Carolina Legislature, before senators were elected directly by the people. On the same day, he lost a leg due to complications from an injury suffered when he was thrown off a mule while deer hunting.

Some sources portray Hampton as belonging to the secretive Ku Klux Klan, known for hoods that shielded the identity of members and became a symbol of terror. A brief biography on the National Park Service website, for instance, calls him "a South Carolina Dragon" of the Klan.

But South Carolina historians said there is no evidence he belonged to the Klan.

Hampton did, however help raise money for the defense of KKK members, believing that charges had been trumped up as an excuse to bring in federal troops, Andrew said.

"Clearly he was wrong. It was a real failure of statesmanship on his part," the historian said.

From Virginia to Nome

More than a decade after Hampton's death, his son-in-law, John Randolph Tucker of Bedford, Virginia, in 1913 was named by President Woodrow Wilson as a territorial judge in Nome and quickly shook things up.

"The people at the top of what was called the federal brigade, the federal officers in Alaska, pretty much had carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. Particularly judges," said Steve Haycox, professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Tucker, who agreed to resign his seat in the Virginia Senate to take the post, barely made it to Alaska on schedule.

"Did Judge Tucker Miss Last Boat?" asked the Oct. 23, 1913, headline in The Richmond Times-Dispatch. He ended up sailing on the steamship Victoria. But when he got to Nome, his predecessor refused to leave until he received his full salary and the U.S. marshal had to "forcibly remove" him, according to the old Fairbanks Daily Times.

In Nome, Tucker made headlines for shutting down bars at midnight on Saturdays so they'd be closed all day Sunday.

"Nome and other Bering Sea towns are gasping because John Randolph Tucker of Virginia, new Federal Judge, has clapped down the lid for the first time since white men inhabited the shores of Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean," said a Jan. 7, 1913, story in The Baltimore Sun.

There was little publicity about the more mundane act of naming a new recording district.

Knapp, the ISER economist, said he's always wondered how Wade Hampton was named. When a reporter asked earlier this month, his research brought him to the Marshall history by Jeanne Ostnes Rinear and Eleanor Ostnes Vistaunet, published on the ExploreNorth website.

"After arriving in Nome some of his first few official acts dealt with the large St. Michael mining district south of Nome," the women write of Tucker. "He divided the district in half. The new recording precinct was named for his wife's father, Wade Hampton."

By January 1914, the "Wade Hampton recording and mining district" was a new designation written on territorial records now kept by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

In 1917, Tucker left Alaska. The Nome Chamber of Commerce honored him with a big farewell dinner and lifetime honorary membership.

Tucker didn't leave a big mark in Alaska otherwise.

A new name?

As far as the Census Bureau is concerned, changing the name from Wade Hampton would be a simple process. The state simply must send a letter to the head of the Census Bureau telling the new name, the agency said in response to questions.

"After the Census Bureau receives notification of the name change, the census area name will change in Census Bureau publications," the agency said in a written statement.

The matter already is on the radar of the state demographer, Eddie Hunsinger. His office in the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development heard concerns last year from the staff of state Sen. Donny Olson, the Democrat from the Nome area.

The Census Bureau told his office that a directive from the governor or a state office would suffice. Hunsinger said he researched the name and it seems wrong. He wants it changed by the 2020 census and if the community pushes to make that happen earlier, he will work with it. The state just needs to show a consensus for a new name, he said.

Wade Hampton Miller, a folk musician who lives in Chugiak, didn't know anything in Alaska was named for the man he called his "distant kinsman" when he arrived in Alaska on a state ferry in 1982. Miller grew up hearing about the general but said he is named after another relative, his great-great-grandfather, who fought for the Union in the Civil War and was a cousin of the more famed Hampton.

Miller soon learned about the census area. He said he supports efforts to change the name to something connected to Alaska. But he also said that Hampton's legacy should be viewed through the lens of the time.

"I don't think we need to blacken the name of Mr. Hampton to change the name," Miller said. "It's not like he came up with the idea of enslaving people."

The name has racial implications that are significant today in a way they weren't back then, said Terrence Cole, a history professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who researched it after Alaska Dispatch News asked.

"We must be wary of one time judging another," he said. But that doesn't mean the name shouldn't be changed, Cole said, if that's what residents want.

Some communities already have gone down a similar path. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta village of Nunam Iqua abandoned its old name of Sheldon Point in a 1999 community vote. It had been named after "some old man who used to have a saltery," said Edward Adams, who led the effort. Sheldon was a white man.

"People don't know who he is," Adams said. "I thought maybe we should take back the original name." Nunam Iqua means "tundra's end."

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been filing bills for years to rename Mount McKinley as Denali, an Athabascan word for "The Great One" or "The High One." But she has been repeatedly blocked by members of Congress from Ohio, the home state of William McKinley, the former Ohio governor and 25th president of the United States.

She's heard rumblings from the region and will work to change the Wade Hampton name "to a title that reflects the people who live there and their proud heritage," her communications director, Matthew Felling, said in an email.

State Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, said he heard concerns in passing a year or so ago.

"I just did a Google and found out all the history. This guy was a KKKer from that era," Herron said.

The Legislature doesn't oversee place names, Herron said. But he said he wants to put attention on the matter and will work on it between legislative sessions. He may introduce a non-binding resolution next year.

Maybe the name should be generic, like the Coastal or Lower Yukon district, Naneng said in an email Friday. Maybe school kids could come up with something.

"It would be whatever the region would want and I would assume it would be a Yup'ik name," Herron said. "But it would always have the asterisk: 'This used to be Wade Hampton.'"

Michael Carey contributed to this story.

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