Mottrom Dulaney Ball

De facto governor of the territory from March, 1878 to June, 1879, his legacy includes his many years of work as a founding father of the forty-ninth state.

A lawyer, newspaper publisher, Confederate Army officer and collector of customs for the United States Department of the Treasury. From March 27, 1878 to June 13, 1879, he was the highest-ranking federal official in the Department of Alaska, making him  de facto governor of the territory.

“Mottrom Dulany Ball was one of the earliest and strongest advocates for the establishment of civil government in Alaska. He was the first person elected to public office from Alaska, and his legacy includes his many years of work as a founding father of the forty-ninth state.” 

One of the most unusual statesmen in Alaska’s history is the little-known Mottrom Delany Ball, who was raised in a genteel southern family, fought as a Confederate colonel in the Civil War, and was among the earliest and strongest advocates for the establishment of civil government in the territory, becoming the first person elected to public office in Alaska. 

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. After the purchase 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. 

The U.S. Customs House, formerly the U.S. Army Headquarters, was Mottrom Ball and his family’s residence in Sitka. [Photo credit: Eadweard Muybridge, circa 1868. Alaska State Library, Historical Collections, Juneau, AK.] 

In 1877 the Army was withdrawn from Alaska, leaving the customs collector the only federal official in the land for two years.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.

 He was an unlikely candidate for such a position, being from a genteel southern family in the wake of the Civil War, but Mottrom Ball possessed many sterling qualities with which he would serve Alaska well. In Volume 20 of The Shield, the official publication of Theta Delta Chi, one of the oldest of the college fraternities, founded in 1847 at Union College in Schenectady, New York, the following entry is found on page 375:

Mottrom Dulaney Ball, recorded as class of 1853, was born at “Oak Mount,” Falls Church, Virginia, on the 23rd day of June, 1835. His father, Spencer Mottrom Ball, and his mother, Mary Dulany, were both of old Virginia families and their son was reared amid the usual surroundings of comfort and ease in ante-bellum Virginia. At an early age Mottrom was sent to the Episcopal High School near Alexandria, Va., where he was prepared for college. In the fall of 1852 he was matriculated at the College of William and Mary where he remained for two years, graduating A. B. on the 4th of July, 1854.

Meanwhile he had become a member of Theta Delta Chi, being one of those named in the charter issued on May 13th, 1853. Returning to Fairfax County, he remained there for several years, marrying on the 17th of October, 1860, Miss Sallie Lewis Wright.

Needless to say the defense of his native state claimed his service, and the end of the War found him Colonel of the Eleventh Virginia Cavalry. Upon the return of peace he decided totake a law course, and as a result was graduated as an L.L.B. from the College of William and Mary on the 4th of July, 1867. 

Shortly after this he was appointed Collector of Customs for the District of Alaska and later the United States District Attorney for the same district. The rest of his life was spent in Alaska, with intervals in Virginia and Baltimore, where he practiced his profession. He entered the Great Omega on the 13th of September, 1887, at Sitka, Alaska. He is survived by his wife and nine children, the former now living at East Falls Church, Va. 

Mottrom Dulany Ball was born in Fairfax County, Virginia, and was educated at the College of William and Mary. At the outbreak of the Civil War he formed a cavalry company and rose to the rank of Colonel in the Confederate Army. After the war, he returned to find his family home and estate destroyed; he was found there by his younger brother, “sprawled out on the lawn... dazed and unable to realize that actually all was lost.”

Mott Ball moved to Alexandria and practiced law and with his uncle, William Heath Dulany, and their practice flourished. Ball was a gifted orator, frequently called on to speak at public events, but the post-war era was a volatile time in Virginia, and when Mott Ball, who understood the critical need for change, switched political parties and began to support the Republican Reconstruction efforts via his newspaper, he became embroiled in several contentious affairs and was even labeled “The Prince of Scalawags” by a rival editor. 

The U.S. Customs House at Sitka, with the parade grounds in front. Baranof’s Castle sits on Castle Hill above the roofline. The building on the right is the former U.S. Army Barracks. [Line sketch is from a photo circa 1880, below.]

In January 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes, in appreciation of Ball’s steadfast support of Hayes’ campaign, called on Mottrom Ball to be the Collector of Customs at Sitka, Alaska, which was a prized presidential appointment. In addition to a $2,500 salary, the Collector of Customs received a percentage of the customs duties he collected, and because his position as an agent of the U.S. Treasury made him the chief representative of the United States government in Alaska, Mottrom Dulany Ball became the de facto Governor of the territory. 

It was a contentious time in Alaska as well. The U. S. Army had withdrawn from Alaska entirely and Sitka had descended into a state of near anarchy, with unrest from the indigenous Tlingit causing havoc. Ball and his deputies were declared the only semblance of law in the territory, but with no territorial charter, laws, or even presence of the army for protection, civil administration was nearly impossible. Mott Ball, familiar with hardship, accepted the challenge, and his efforts won the support of the people of Sitka. 

After a tense situation with the Tlingit which became known as the “Osprey Incident,” administrative authority was turned over to the United States Navy, and in June 1879, Commander Lester A. Beardslee, Captain of the U.S.S. Jamestown, assumed legal authority over the territory of Alaska. Mott Ball continued to serve as Collector of Customs, but he no longer had administrative authority of the territory. In July 1881, President James A. Garfield failed to reappoint Mottrom Ball as Collector of Customs in spite of a petition of support signed by nearly all of the citizens of Sitka. 

On September 5, 1881 Alaska held its first election where 236 out of 294 votes cast approved Mottram Dulany Ball of Sitka as Alaska's first unofficial delegate to Congress. The election was not recognized by the congressional committee on elections, however, so Ball was not seated in the House. 

Ball served as U. S. District Attorney for Alaska from 1885 until his death in 1887, and he worked with Senator Benjamin Harrison (who later became president) to convert the "Department of Alaska" into the "District of Alaska" in 1884. In November, 1885 Mott founded the Alaskan, a Sitka newspaper, and served as its first editor. Although he was the U.S. District Attorney for Alaska, Mott continued his own private law practice, and in August, 1887, he became a founding member of the Alaska Bar Association.

In the summer of 1887 Mottrom fell ill and his breathing became difficult. In early September he told a district court judge, “Be as patient as you can, for with me the sands of life are nearly run through the dial and I shall soon be gathered to the land of my fathers.”

A few days later Mott and his family left for California on the S.S. Ancon, and the venerable statesman died at sea on September 13, 1887, at the age of 52. His wife accompanied his remains back to Virginia, and he was buried in his hometown of Falls Church, Virginia, in the cemetery where his parents—and later his wife—were also interred.

Mottrom Dulany Ball was one of the earliest and strongest advocates for the establishment of civil government in Alaska. He was the first person elected to public office from Alaska, and his legacy includes his many years of work as a founding father of the forty-ninth state.

Biography, Fairfax, VA history newsletter

Theta Delta Chi entry

Strangest Names

Mottrom Dulany Ball at Wikipedia