Alaska’s Early Governors

Military and Civilian, from 1867 to 1959

The United States purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867; before that time it was known as Russian America, and controlled by the governors and general managers of the Russian-American Company.

Department of Alaska, 1867-1884

The unorganized territory of Alaska, vast regions of which were still unexplored, was originally under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of War, administered by Army officers for the first 10 years, beginning with Col. Jefferson C. Davis (not to be confused with the Confederate President with a similar name), and continuing through eight more Army officers, who served between 21 days and two years in office. 

In 1877 the Army was withdrawn from Alaska, leaving the customs collector the only federal official in the land for two years. During this time three men served as the de facto governor of the territory, with Montgomery Pike Berry serving from June to August, 1877; Henry C. de Ahna serving from August 1877 to March, 1878; and lawyer and newspaper publisher Mottrom Dulaney Ball serving from April 1878 to June, 1879. 

In April, 1879, the U.S. Navy was given jurisdiction over the Department of Alaska and the USS Alaska, under the command of Capt. George Brown, arrived in Sitka to assume control. Two months later Capt. Lester A. Beardslee, Commander of the USS Jamestown, took over and served as executive authority. Over the next year, while serving as Commander of the Department of Alaska, he explored Alaska's waters and named Glacier Bay. 

In October, 1879, Henry Glass was promoted to commander ot the Jamestown and began serving as the senior naval officer in Alaskan waters in 1880. Edward P. Lull served as Commander of Alaska on the USS Wachusett from August to October, 1881, when Henry Glass relieved him and served a second term. Over the next three years, four more naval commanders would fill the role and exercise executive authority in Alaska. During this era the residents of Alaska repeatedly petitioned the federal government for their promised rights of citizenship, to no avail. 

District of Alaska, 1884-1912

In 1884 Congress passed the First Organic Act, which redesignated the Department of Alaska as the District of Alaska, which meant it would be an incorporated but unorganized territory with a civil government. Under this new definition the governor would be appointed by the president of the United States, and the first appointment, by Chester A. Arthur, was John Henry Kinkead, a dry goods businessman and politician who served from July 4, 1884 to May 7, 1885. 

The second governor of the District of Alaska was Alfred P. Swineford (1885-1889), who in 1898, would move back to Alaska and publish a book, Alaska: Its History, Climate and Natural Resources (1898, Rand, McNally & Co.). In his book, Swineford had some sharp words about the state of affairs in Alaska, describing the First Organic Act as a law in which: “…all the more important and valued rights, privileges and immunities of American citizenship are expressly and positively denied to them (the residents of Alaska).” 

Five more men would serve as governor of the District of Alaska between 1889 and 1913, when the Second Organic Act, passed August 24, 1912, organized the Territory of Alaska, with a legislative assembly. The governor was still appoointed by the president. 

Territory of Alaska, 1912-1959

The First Organic Act had provided a barebones framework of bureaucracy for Alaska. The Second Organic Act in 1912 authorized a legislature, which gave Alaskans a voice in the laws which were to govern them, but the federal government retained great control over laws regarding fishing and other natural resources, and the governor was still appointed by the President.

Walter Eli Clark, a newspaper publisher, had been appointed the last governor of the District of Alaska by President Taft, who considered him to be knowledgeable about the district because Clark had prospected for gold near Nome, Alaska for a short time in 1900 and he traveled through the district in 1903 and 1906. Clark retained his governorship under the new territorial status until 1913 when he resigned to make way for President Woodrow Wilson’s appointee, John Franklin Alexander Strong, a Canadian-born journalist. Strong was a veteran of the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush, and he established The Nome Nugget (1905), the Herald in Katalla (1907), and The Nugget in Iditarod (1910) before becoming publisher of Juneau's Alaska Daily Empire in 1912. 

Thomas W. Riggs Jr., an engineering graduate of Princeton University, was another Klondike veteran who worked extensively in Alaska Territory, in 1906-13 as a leader of the team which surveyed the Alaska-Canada border, and later as a Commissioner overseeing construction of the Alaska Railroad. He was appointed Governor of Alaska Territory and served from 1918 until 1921. 

The fourth Territorial Governor of Alaska, serving from 1921–1925, was Scott Cordelle Bone, appointed by President Warren G. Harding. He had been the managing editor of the Washington Post from 1888-1905, founded the Washington Herald in 1906, and was editor-in-chief of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1911 to 1918. He is perhaps best known for making the decision to use dogsleds instead of a plane to transport diphtheria antitoxin from Nenana to Nome in the 1925 Serum Run. In July, 1923, he hosted President Harding, the first President to visit Alaska.

In 1925 President Calvin Coolidge appointed George Alexander Parks, the territory's first resident governor. An engineer who had worked in the Alaska Territory for most of his career, Parks traveled extensively throughout the land, gaining an intimate knowledge of the geography and becoming acquainted with both the white and indigenous populations of Alaska. When President Harding, Hubert Work, and Herbert Hoover were visiting Alaska, Parks was assigned as a tour guide for the dignitaries. The group was impressed by their guide's detailed knowledge of the territory, and when President Calvin Coolidge was later looking for a new territorial governor, Work and Hoover, by then Presidential Cabinet members, recommended Parks. George A. Parks was the first person to serve two complete four-year terms and the first chief executive to travel extensively by air. In 1926 he initiated a contest among school children to design a territorial flag, resulting in 13-year-old Benny Benson’s design, eight stars of gold on a field of blue. 

John Weir Troy, appointed Governor of Alaska in 1933 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, first went to Alaska in 1897 to report on the gold rush for a Seattle newspaper. He’d edited and published  the Skagway Daily Alaskan newspaper and the Alaska-Yukon Magazine, and was also editor of the Daily Alaska Empire. A longtime advocate of increased Alaskan autonomy from the federal government, he served until 1939, when he resigned because of ill health. 

After Troy, President Roosevelt appointed Ernest Henry Gruening in 1939, and he served two consecutive terms, leaving office in 1953, a prominent advocate of Alaska statehood. When statehood was achieved in 1959, Gruening became a United States Senator, serving until 1969.

Benjamin Franklin Heintzleman, Governor from 1953 till 1957, spent much of his career supporting the development of Alaska Territory, largely opposed to efforts granting statehood.

Last in office before statehood, Michael Anthony "Mike" Stepovich, appointed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, served from 1957 to 1958, and was a leading advocate in the effort to gain statehood for Alaska. Born in Fairbanks, he was the territory's first native-born governor. ~•~