Dispatching the U. S. Army to the Territory of Alaska

"...keeping step with the advance of American civilization."

The following article is from the final issue of Alaskan History Magazine, July-August, 2021. Back issues will remain in print.

In 1900 the United States Government Printing Office produced a book titled “Narratives of Exploration in Alaska,” consisting mainly of the records of several expeditions into Alaska under the direction and control of the military arm of the Government “…the expeditions of Raymond, 1869; Howard, 1875; Petrof, 1880; Schwatka, 1883; Ray, 1884; Abercrombie, 1884; Allen, 1885; Ray, 1897; E. Hazard Wells, 1897; Ray and Richardson, 1898; Abercrombie, 1898; Glenn, 1898, 1899; Richardson, 1899; Abercrombie, 1899; Lieutenant Herron, 1899. 

In the first chapter, titled ‘Settlement of the Frontier,’ the author notes, “Since the adoption of our Constitution it has been the uniform policy of the Government to foster the development of the country by exploring and opening up trails for emigrants and prospectors, convoying their supplies, aiding in the transmission of their mail, in all things extending a helping hand to them, and in keeping step with the advance of American civilization.”

After a briefly recounting early explorers blazing trails, emigrants crossing the prairies, and pioneer families settling the frontier west of the Mississippi, the author notes, “Wherever he went he found that somewhere or somehow the military branch of the Government had with wise, unerring foresight established posts for his protection and relief. The Army of the United States has always been the advance guard of civilization on this continent.”

Even with the extensive explorations made by the Army in Alaska, and their involvement in peace-keeping missions across the territory, it was not until the discovery of gold in the Klondike triggered a rush of prospectors, miners, and the opportunity-seekers which always accompanied such strikes, for an order to be made marking the beginnings of continuous operations by the U.S. Army in Alaska. In August, 1897, the following telegram was received by Captain P. H. Ray, Eighth Infantry, Seattle, from the War Department in Washington, D.C.: 

“The President sends you, with Lieutenant Richardson, to the Alaska gold field, to which so many are flocking, to investigate and report, as fully and frequently as you can, the condition of affairs and make such recommendations as you may deem best. Make your first headquarters at Circle City and change location as you may find advantageous. The following points especially to be covered in your report:

“Are troops necessary there, and if so, for what purpose; where should they be located, how outfitted, and what facilities for communication with the coast settlements are practicable in winter?

“Are the civil authorities affording reasonable protection to life and property?

“Are the people disposed to be law-abiding or otherwise?

“Where are the people locating, and in what numbers, and what is the probable degree of permanence of the different settlements? 

“Is there food in the country for the population to winter there?

“These and all other subjects—military, civil, and commercial—that will be of use and interest will be covered by your investigations. Keep constantly in mind the importance of having your report accurate and reliable. Observe carefully and accurately. Do not form hasty judgements or make hasty reports. The President has sent you in confidence of your ability and as a means of information to him. You are expected to justify this confidence.

“By order of the President: R. A. Alger, Secretary of War”

The rapid increase of gold-seekers and travellers on the Yukon River resulted in the establishment of a military post at St. Michael, near where the Yukon empties into the Bering Sea, in October, 1897: “By authority of the President, the land known as St. Michael Island, Alaska, with all contiguous land and islands within 100 miles of the location of the flagstaff of the present garrison on that island, is set aside from the public lands of the Territory of Alaska and declared a military reservation.”

Six months later, in February, 1898, a similar edict created Fort William H. Seward near Haines: “With the approval of the Acting Secretary of War, a military district to be known as the District of Lynn Canal is hereby established, embracing Lynn Canal, in southeastern Alaska, and all lands adjacent thereto, extending to the international boundary and within 50 miles in other directions.”

Other Army forts soon followed, including Fort Egbert at Eagle; Fort Gibbon at Tanana, and Fort Davis at Nome, all in 1899; and Fort Liscum at Valdez, in 1900. There were other camps and posts across Alaska to serve specific areas and purposes, but these six forts were the primary centers of military activity in the territory’s critical early years. ~•~ 

Dispatching the Army to Alaska

Alaska’s Forts

US Army Corp of Engineers in Alaska

Fort Egbert history


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