RUSSIANS were the first white men to see and claim Alaska, and the curtain of history rolls up here in riotous Romanof color, upon a stage of Bakst decor like a setting for ” Prince Igor.” The names of the first corners are to be read in the age-old palimpsest of the land, for you can tell who came first by the names they scratched upon its early maps.
The Pacific coasts of ” Russian North America” were explored for years by the navies of half a dozen nations, as were the Atlantic coasts of eastern America. They came for the same cause that brought Columbus sailing from the Port of Palosthe search for a way between Europe and the East. Frobisher, Davis, Hudson, had attempted it from the Atlantic in the sixteenth century, but Russ and Spaniard and such Englishmen as Cook attempted the supposed passage from the Pacific side in the eighteenth century, ” grubstaked ” as was Columbus himself to find a new short cut to an old market. For a time the Inside Passage from Puget Sound north was thought to be the long-sought ” Strait of Anian,” and all the windings and twistings of this teasing water maze were patiently explored. But there proved to be no channel through, but only a strange way of beauty for their pains” divers Ilands in that Sayling and . . . people on Land clothed in Beasts skins.”
But it was the essential northern-reaching nearness of Alaska to Asia, a basic simple fact of geography, which first gave rise to persistent tales of a land to the eastward heard by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Cossack adventurers in Siberia; tales which, retold at the court of Peter the Great as tales of the Cabots had been retold in the port of Bristol, finally resulted in an expedition to verify the strange account.
Vitus Bering was the first, in 1728; and a village a glacier, a haven, an island, a river, a lake, a bay, a strait, and a sea of Alaska, all carry his name to-day in fitting monument to this man who made a final rendezvous with death upon the gray and foggy islands. He had set out in the days of Catherine I of Russia, illiterate but shrewd peasant wife of Peter the Great. Bering’s expedition was the first to make landfall of the continent from the Pacific side, but, like Columbus, he sailed at the command of an alien empress. Columbus was from Genoa, though he rode the unknown seas under the royal aegis of Spain; Venetian Cabots had been navigators for England; and Captain Commander Ivan Ivanovich Bering was the son of Jonas Svendsen by his second wife Anne Pedersdatter Bering, and was born in Jutland in 1681. His mother’s distinguished Danish family included a number of great men who had held high ministerial and judicial office, and when John Svendsen’s son Vitus entered the service of the Russian navy he took the Russianized form of name Ivanovich, John’s sonwith his mother’s surname. The insertion of the ” h ” in Bering, as often written, is merely a form of word ” made in Germany.”
Bering had been selected for the work of exploring the coast of eastern Asia by no less a man than Peter the Great himself. The first Kamchatka expedition, as it was called, set out from Okhotsk and discovered and named St. Lawrence Island in Bering Sea, sailed up through Bering Strait, rounded East Cape, and proceeded westward along the Siberian coast far enough to establish the fact that the land, which Chuck-chees had reported as lying beyond Siberia, was no part of continental Asia. So Bering Strait was on the world’s map fifteen years before the first white man, La Verendrye the French Canadian, laid eyes upon the Rocky Mountains! The results of this first ” Kamchatka expedition ” merely whetted the curiosity of the Russian Court to learn more and, if possible, to find a trade route through. Accordingly, the second Kamchatka expedition was organized, again under Bering, with Alexi Chirikof as second in command. They sailed in 1740 on the St. Peter and the St. Paul, and the plan called for the two vessels to proceed together; but they became separated soon after setting out from Avatcha Bay, and thenceforth the two commanders proceeded independently.
On July 16, 1741, Bering sighted and named magnificent Mt. St. Elias, one of the most prominent features of Alaska’s south coast and lying about half-way of present-day Seward and Juneauits 18,000 feet first climbed by the Duke of Abruzzi in 1897. Bering made a landing near Controller Bay, beneath those blue skies, blue hills and blue glaciers, and not far from the spot where to-day the coal and oil of the Bering River district have created the settlement of Katalla. Remaining but a few days in the neighborhood of Prince William Sound, he sailed to the westward along the coast, touching at several points. But Bering and the whole ship’s crew fell ill of scurvy, that greatest peril then to even master mariners, and on November fifth his vessel was wrecked upon an island of the Commander group later to be called by his name. Here Bering die , and those of his crew who survived both shipwreck and scurvy constructed another vessel from the wreck and returned to Kamchatka the following fall, bearing rare treasures of sea-otter skins and telling wild travellers’ tales of a land where savages went robed in pelts that might enrich the pomp of kings.
Chirikof also sighted the Alaska coast, probably a few hours before Bering. Commander and crew all suffered greatly from scurvy, his hone journey was beset with great difficulty because of his inability to make any landings, due to the loss of two boats full of men, sent ashore for fresh water and presumably killed by hostile natives near the site of today’s Sitka; but he finally reached Avatcha Bay in October, 1741. Flavorsome old Greek Church names scattered all up and down the coast of Alaska still show that the Russians once passed this way. Etolin and Baranof were Russian governors whose memory remains in place names; and if you care to trace the story of many a Rock or Whale, Long, Big, Spruce or Bare upon Alaska’s map, you’ll find they are but English translations of words the Russians first put thereKamenoi, Bieluga, Dolgoi, Bolshoi, Elovoi, and Goloi.
But it was sea otter that determined the further exploration and colonization of The Great Country by Russia. Catherine II became Empress, and Great Catherine found sea-otter skins most becoming to her peculiar type of beauty, and sea-otter skins she would and must have. Those Russian-American governors who wished to curry favor at St. Petersburgor, indeed, to live long in the land!saw to it that Her Imperial Majesty was well provided with sea otters! Because a certain Virgin Queen possessed a sweet tooth and coveted ” the Sugar Islands,” little England had once begun her western empire-building; and because a pretty lady with a whimsy for furs happened to sit upon the throne of Great Peter, Russia came to possess a colony in far-away America. It is impossible to overstate the part played by the now almost extinct sea otter in the early conquest of Alaska. Bancroft says:
Little would have been heard of them (these first Russian discoveries in America) for some time to come, if ever, had it not been for the beautiful furs brought back from Bering Island and elsewhere. Siberia was still sufficient to satisfy the Tsar for purposes of expatriation, and the Russians were not such zealots as to undertake conquest for the sake of conversion and to make religion a cloak for their atrocities; hence, but for these costly skins, each of which proclaimed in loudest strains the glories of Alaska, the Great Land might have long rested, undisturbed.
The first score years of Russian rule were so lull of atrocities and massacre of natives that the tale is now impossible to tell; and it is little wonder that for generations after, all white men were feared and hated by the natives, and, whenever possible, revenge for early cruelties was swiftly taken. The very name for rifle” in the Aleut language is ” Russu ” ! Some love to call this period the day of high romance in Alaska, and mourn its passing, but for the native population it was a dark and bitter chapter. “Booted Russian adventurers looted fur, hewed down majestic Sitka spruce, and worked out rich copper deposits with native slaves, while the tribes fought helplessly, hopelessly, for their homes and hunting grounds.” When Lieutenant Allen ascended the Copper River, Nicolai, ” the most intelligent of the Midnooskies,” told him something of the massacre of three Russian expeditions which had previously attempted the Atna. The Russians had forced the natives to draw their sleds up the river, in winterdriving with whip and gun, killing those who rebelled, allowing no sleep. But while the Russians slept and one alone kept watch, this armed man first and then the others were all killed. It was done but to repay unspeakable cruelties and to escape a savage slavery. As the Copper River Chief who killed Semoylof and his party is reported to have said : “We did not wantonly kill, we executed. The Russian men are murderers.” And the natives knew only a Mosaic law of eye for eye and tooth for tooth. The Russian and Indian contests were not opera bouffe wars but very real, and many an innocent pioneer later lost his life before this black page of history was completely turned. The common saying during those Russian days was, ” Heaven is highand the Tsar is far away!” Empire was indeed slowly building here, but under a rough scaffolding.
Some of the men sent out from Russia were real builders, however, iron men of destiny; and this was necessary, for capricious Catherine did not have a clear field in Russian America. It was not a case of to have and to hold, but rather to get and to keep. The Spanish were not long in hearing the news of goings-on in the North Pacific, and Spain remembered well that Balboa had waded out waist deep into the waters of this ocean and claimed all the shores washed by it. So there were Spanish expeditions galore, outfitted from Mexico and California, and little cities and great bays along the south coast of Alaska resound today with Spanish names put there by Perez and Quadra. If the Spaniards had but guessed the El Dorado that lay hidden behind the glacier-thundering coast range, how completely the entire history of our Pacific Northwest might have to be rewritten! But George Carmack was not yet born, and all that ever reached California from Alaska in these far days were a few inferior sea-otter pelts which the Romanof disdained, monastery bells for Franciscan Missions cast in bronze at Kokiak, and shiploads of ice to cool the hot wines of New Spain.
But the Russian exploration in Alaska did make the Spaniard ” look down his nose “and up the mapand take the only real interest he had so far shown in holding the land to-day called California. To meet the southward-sweeping Russians, Spain occupied and outfitted San Diego, Monterey, and Yerba Buena on San Francisco Bay. California’s pastoral period of the great missions paralleled the numbered days of Alaska’s Russian colonization, and California grew up side by side with Alaskaneighbor children of widely different parentage but of the same age. And though their home folk were not any too friendly (and the grasping far-sailing Russians in the North were feared in California’s early days only second to the grasping far-sailing Yankees in the East), the children of the households would play together, as neighbor children do. Mother Spain was always ordering these sons of Russia away, but they always came right back; and even Spain, that still great naval mistress, could not keep the little Russian ships of Baranof’s colonials from San Francisco Bayfrom trading there and swapping jackknives with her own children.
Baron Rezanof, ” Chamberlain of the Russian Court and Commander of all America,” appeared in Sitka in these days to investigate the doings of the Russian-American Fur Company, study Alaska with a view to extensive colonizing schemes, and establish trade relations with Japan that lay so close below the Aleutians. He was the first of Alaska’s real “boosters,” for he saw the latent bigness of the country and .it appealed to his on big empire-minded imagination. Baranof had flogged with the knout a settler who brought him gold quartz, for he was there to get out furs for Catherine; but Rezanof sent out mining engineers to search for that Island of Gold the natives told ofperhaps the golden Treadwell on the Gastineau. Ostensibly to get fresh foodstuffs to relieve some of his Russians who had scurvy, but really with a view toward extending Russian claims down the Pacific as far as Mexico, he made a trip to San Francisco Bay, taking with him in the Juno a shipload of furs and bronze bells from the spiritual outposts of the Emperor Paul, to trade with other spiritual outposts at Father Junipero Sera’s California Missions. It is supposed that a bell found only recently near Los Angeles, in an orange grove at Camulos by Mrs. Harriman the campanologist, is from that very cargo brought down in Alaskan bottoms by the romantic Rezanof; and this may very well have been ” the first Mission bell to sound the tintinabulation of Christianity in the West” Its Russian inscription reads, ” This big bell was cast on the Island of Kokiak in the month of June, 1796 (about the time when George Washington was deciding that he did not choose to run again as President), by Eugene, Arch-abbot of Russia. . . . Baranof.” Some old friar has chiselled into bronze the added line of Spanish”De San Fernando.”
Arriving at Yerba Buena, the princely Rezanof found that the vice-regent of Mexico had forbidden all trade with the Russian-Americans. But Rezanof stayed on and spent many months in that little town now known as San Francisco. Nor was he idle. His amiable and courtly ways not only won the Governor, but he courted too the Governor’s daughter, Dona Concepcion de Arguello, and the story of that wooing has been told by Bret Harte, you will re-member. But one day when the Governor’s back was turned, Rezanof loaded up his little ship with all the grain and foodstuffs he could cram on board herfanegas of wheat and oats, pease and beans, large quantities of flour and salt and tallowand sailed back into the North. Returning to St. Petersburg from Sitka that winter, by way of Siberia, to report on Alaskan conditions and recommend a more enlightened and forward-looking policy for the new-world colony (and also ask his friendly sovereign’s permission to wed the lovely Spaniard) his horse broke through thin ice just forming, while crossing a stream, and he was forced to camp in the snow. Rezanof was half frozen from the exposure, and this gay Russian cavalieran empire builder with a dreamdied with his work but half completed.
Some iron was smelted and some coal and copper mined for local use during the Russian regime, and German coal miners were put in charge of one mine, it is said, where fifteen hundred feet of tunnel was driven. But the only real search for gold under the Russians was directed by an Imperial mining engineer who, after two years’ work, reported adversely on Alaska as a mining country!
The Russians were good boat builders, and they built and delivered at an early date fine vessel to the order of the Friars of Dolores, and the very first steamboat to ply inland California’ waters was a product of Sitka’s Alaskan shipyards.; The Russian colonists were craftsmen, too, and made the plows and hoes for the Spanish Mission in Monterey. They carried grain from the Sacramento Valley to Sitka, in Russian bottoms, to be. ground in Russian-built mills (for the Russians were ” faculized ” where the Spanish, as a rule, were not) and returned again with flour. And, because the flour took up so much less room than grain did, they took along an extra cargo of ice for ballast. But, alas, the one thing the Russians did not like about California was its climate, and there were no California! Chambers of Commerce then to give these statements the lie. Russians of Sitka, the Russian capital of ” frozen Alaska” (as the world so falsely calls it) wrote back long accounts of the ” vile weather off the California coast.” They actually did !
Sitka was the queen city of the North then, and it remains to this day one of the loveliest towns of Alaska, though shorn of its capitoline prestige by modern near-by Juneau. The first Settlements of Alaska, as of New England, were all concentrated upon the coast and on the lower reaches of the one great navigable stream, the Yukon; and they are still distinctly maritime in character, as civilization continues here her old-time way of following arteries made by geology. Sitka on Baranof Island (with the Twins, or Dvoini bratef,twin brothers; the islets at the entrance to her harbor) was once a Thlingit stronghold and later was made Baranof’s city; but while the Iron Governor made New Arch-angel, as she was formerly called, Sitka had and has her own touch of natural and heavenly beauty. Her National Park is uncommonly quaint, with its sixteen totem poles donated to the United States by the modern Indians of southeastern Alaska, who feel that this old stronghold of their ancestors is the fitting place in which to preserve their totems; and her islands, her extinct volcano, her snow-topped mountain ‘cones, green valleys and island-studded bay blend in a charm incomparable where little friendly waves slap upon gray-green rock in Sitka harbor.
Here was the Governor’s castle rock, where Baranof in the coat of chain mail which he always wore beneath his cloak (no idle gesture this, for his life was often threatened) lorded it over northern land and sea, for at that time Sitka was the chief port on all the western coast. Cruel in many public acts, as were also our own Stuarts, the Russian rulers were often charming socially; and in the early nineteenth century there were formal balls in Sitka finer by far than anything then going on at our own Charleston or Philadelphia, and quite as ceremonious too,though warmed by Russian love of pageantry and color,led by those men and women reared in a rich exotic court that knew the height of luxury in living. Jewels and candle light were here, velvets and fine music; and through it all the tragedy of that mythical Princess who, forced to marry against her will, disappeared during her wedding banquet, took poison, and nowpoor ghosthaunts in her rustling silken bridal garments the northwest chamber of the castle, wringing her lovely bejewelled hands, and leaving behind the perfume of wild rose wherever she may pass. This same room is said to have been used by Lady Franklin When she came North in the middle of last century, in forlorn hope of tracing her intrepid husband, lost in a fruitless search for Northwest Passage. This room was also used, they say, by Secretary Seward”, upon the occasion of his visit to the newly acquired American territory.
Here in the Russian Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel, before the ikon of Our Lady of Kazan, it is hard indeed to believe that, as is often said, ” the Russian Church is the treasure house of Alaska’s cash, the prison house of the native’s soul.” Pierpont Morgan is reported to have offered $25,000 for this fine Byzantine pieceand been refused. Inside the church are paintings, banners, color, rich embroideries, and the deep ritual chants of the Greek Church, so unlike any music of the West. Outside, the golden-green curly spire and dome bespeak exotic eighteenth-century Russia, making one feel as blatantly Saxon as Hengest or Horsa. Outside, too, in the old town, hand-hewed log buildings, the fine workmanship of Baranof’s men, seem like a Russian ballet set and make one think that Russian dancers in high color costume might any moment outburst from these doorways, low lintels under moss-green roofs, to whirl and stamp in wild and glamorous abandon.
And why not? Russia set the tune upon this coast for nearly a century and a halfa period of history quite as long as many eastern colonies knew before the American Revolution. Young Alaska was born a cub both of The Great Bear and The Bear That Walked Like a Man; and any bear must dance to tunes if he wear an iron ring in his nose. Baranof forged that iron ring and he forged it right here in lovely Sitka, historically the most significant town of all Alaska.
Practically all the early settlements center around the work of this Iron Governor, usurper and user of power. At first he was an independent trader on the Anadir, then agent for the Shelikof Company, and later the driving autocratic manager of the Russian American Company which exercised practically an absolute sway over Alaskan destinies for sixty-seven yearseven more so than the Hudson Bay Company in its domination of the early Canadian Northwest. Bancroft pays this unstinted tribute: ” Alexander Baranof was no ordinary man. . . . To him was due, more than to all others, the success of the Russian colonies in America; by him they had been founded and fostered, and but for him they would never have been established, or would have had, at best, a brief and troubled existence” Baranof built savagely but he built securely; though undoubtedly unscrupulous and arrogant to a degree, he was yet far-sighted and extremely energeticand he needed to be, for he must face the world’s greatest naval power as rival. Had Russian supremacy under Baranof failed in the late eighteenth a early nineteenth centuries, then England’s very active efforts to obtain the territory for herself would undoubtedly have been successful; and if England had once secured Alaska, rest assured that Uncle Sam could never have bought his attic, at any price.
England sent her most famous navigator, Captain James Cook, to sail up the western coast of North America in 1778 and secure there either a northwest trade route or another New England, to offset the losses already well begun at Lexington and Concord. He made his first discovery on the present Alaska coast near the present site of Sitka, and he named the cape and mountain at the entrance to Sitka Harbor after the mouth of Plymouth HarborEdgecumbe. Here was a new pilgrim for a new Plymouth with a vengeance, a Captain Miles Standish type and one accustomed to success.
But Cook, though he sailed north up to the ice-pack of that insuperable paleocrystic sea; and though he left his British names of sweethearts, friends and rulers upon the headlands, bays and rivers of Alaska to carry a remembrance of his exploits; although he skirted westward and reestablished the fact that there was no direct land touch between Asia and North America; now he flung himself down the globe to winter at the Sandwich Islands, which he named in honor of the Earl. Then, in a moment, all was over with the great voyager. He lay upon that far Hawaiian beach, still and slain, to the despair of his wondering men. Here was one of our own kin and one most memorable; take him for all in all, a man among the noblest of his kind. It is well that his name, too, is written into the cartography of The Great Country.
Trained as midshipman under Cook, George Vancouver now took up the work, sailing from England in 1791. A careful-navigator; he painstakingly filled in the reconnaissance sketched so grandiosely in a big salient way by his predecessor, and named some of the outstanding mountains of our western coast for his own sturdy British admirals. Upon the explorations of Cook and Vancouver, England based her claim to all of northwestern North America.
But the Russians were on the ground, with colonists and an iron rule, and not even Great Britain could budge them.
” Manifest Destiny,” however, had begun to march. In 1789 Captain Robert Gray, a Yankee skipper, sailed out of Boston round to the Pacific Coast, and three years later he discovered and entered the mouth of a very fine large river there, which he named Columbia in honor of his own good ship. By virtue of Gray’s discoveries and those of the Lewis and Clark land expedition to the Pacific coast, in conjunction with the rights acquired from France by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and from Spain by the Florida Purchase in 1819, the United States laid claim to a vast area on the Pacific coast roughly known as the Oregon Tract. In 1824 Russia agreed to make no settlement south of 54° 40’ and the United States agreed to make none north of that line, while in the next year Russia and Great Britain came to a similar agreement, thus settling the boundaries of Russian America. The United States was becoming a great power in her own right. Extensive actual settlements by American citizens in the Oregon Tract after 1832 made Uncle Sam’s claim perfect up to the forty-ninth parallel, and above that we had no valid claim, except perhaps as against Russia.
And then, just after the Civil War, we bought Alaska from Tsar Alexander for the cheapest song in history. There was more back of this purchase, on both sides, than the history books usually tell; but in the memoirs of the Russian Court, in the re-ports of Hudson Bay officials, and in the biographies of such American statesmen as Seward, Blaine and Franklin K. Lane, the inner and perhaps more interesting story may be read. The Russian Government initiated the matter and undoubtedly desired more earnestly to sell than the United States, deeply in debt after a long hard-fought war, desired to buy. But why did Russia wish to sell this hard-won province of Baranof? And why was the United States, even at bargain-sale prices, willing to pay out $7,200,000 in gold for another northwest, ” a vast area of rocks and ice,” when our nearer northwest was as yet undeveloped and gold was still at a high post-war premium? The answer is the old X to many a problem” Tertium quid.”
Tsar Alexander was not only “stony broke ” and wanted very much to sell something, to somebody, but he also mistrusted England. Might not this too-distant Asia-touching province of his be seized one day by England, from closely-adjoining Canada, and be used for a base against him as another Crimea? Having in mind a ” Slavic drive to the south which might bring him again in collision with the Mistress of the Seas,” why not turn a penny honestly, right now, in friendly barter with a friendly Uncle Sam, as Napoleon had done earlier with Louisiana, rather than run the risk of having the goods taken later, willy-nilly? The gold rush of ’49 had brought to the Pacific coast of the United States and the British Canadian provinces a hardy pioneering people, and it became increasingly evident that the Russian Government must either invest a great deal more in its non-contiguous Alaskan province to hold it securely, or soon this might indeed become a British possession. Eyes were certainly being cast in that direction. Besides, the sea otter were going fast, were almost gone even then, as he well knew; and the Russian American Fur Company had already fallen into the discard. And, too, Uncle Sam owed Tsar Alexander a favor; and so Alexander would put the matter up to him, and urge Stoeckl t0 push it through before the British got wind of the affair. Why not?
During the War Between the States just finished there had been some very dark days for ” Mr. Lincoln’s Government,” and one of the darkest clouds always overhanging had been the lowering attitude of Great Britain, complicated as it was by the close contacts of many southern planters with England and the close interweaving strands of King Cotton’s kingdom of trade. In those very darkest hours, when we were ” enacting a history which no man yet thoroughly comprehends,” and when the North had need of friends as seldom before, a strange partnership of interests had led the Russian Tsar to send his fleet on a mission of good cheer and encouragement, to visit his democratic friend Uncle Sam; and British sympathizers with the South, enthusiastic over the success of the Shenandoah, had found their spirits dampened by a simultaneous display of friendly Russian men-of-war in New York Harbor and San Francisco Bay. General Banks said: ” Who knew how many more there were on their voyage here? From that hour France on the one hand and England on the other receded, and the American Government regained its position and power.”
However, Alaska did not really cost $7,200,000 but only $1,400,000. Prior to the Civil War there had been some dickering about a possible purchase of Alaska. The British Hudson Bay Company (backed by tremendous capital, the ” Standard Oil ” of that day, a great trust to exploit natural resources) had already leased the coastal strip for fur trade, and for many years Great Britain had been coveting the Panhandle of Alaska. Both Russia and Uncle Sam knew this. What followed is described in his ” Letters,” by Franklin K. Lane, a war Secretary like Seward, but of our own day:
During the war the matter lay dormant. We had more territory than we could take care of. When England, however, began to manifest her friendly disposition toward the Confederacy, and we learned from Europe that England and France were carrying on negotiations for the recognition of the Southern States, and possibly of some manifestation by their fleets against the blockade which we had instituted (and which they claimed was not effective and merely a paper blockade), we looked about for a friend, and Russia was the only European country upon whose friendship we could rely. Thereupon Secretary Seward secured from Russia a demonstration, in American ports, of Russian friendship. Her ships of war sailed to both of our coasts, the Atlantic and Pacific, with the understanding that the expense of this demonstration should be met by the United States, out of the contingent fund. It was to be a secret matter.
The war came to a close, and immediately thereafter Lincoln was assassinated and the administration changed. It was not longer possible to pay for this demonstration, secretly, under the excuse of war, but a way was found for paying Russia through the purchase of Alaska. The warrant for $1,400,000 was the warrant for the purchase of Alaska, the warrant for $5,800,000 was for Russia’s expenses in her naval demonstration in our behalf; but history only knows the fact that the United States paid $7,200,000 for this territory, which is now demonstrated to be one of the richest portions of the earth in mineral deposits.
And that is how the Bear Cub became a ward of Uncle Sam, and that is how Uncle Sam showed his gratitude for Russia’s once friendly turn. Then it could not be told, nor yet for years thereafter; but Sumner and Seward knew, and Sumner and Seward pushed the purchase with all the might of two dominant personalities. Through them Uncle Sam was able to keep his gentleman’s agreement and save the honor of his word. He handed Russia the seven millionsand none too gracefully accepted title to ” Seward’s Folly,” ” Walrussia.” Thirty years of neglect followed, and then a leaky wooden tramp steamer came limping into that sawmill town of Seattle,which now, thanks in good part to Alaskan exports, is the commercial metropolis of the Northwest,and the wires of the world hummed to an electric word, ” Gold!” But not until George Carmack and Indian Kate went fishing that day up Klondike River did Uncle Sam do anything but wish himself well rid of ” a bad bargain.”
Of those thirty years I shall say nothing, for there is nothing to say which any sensitive American can read with pride. Our Government having made a bargain, as it were against its will, promptly forgot about Alaska. Worse than nothing was done to build a stable government here, and the land sank back far beyond the point to which Baranof had raised it by his energy and thrift. The best we can do is to pass quickly over those years, remembering only, when we weigh Alaska in any balance, that nothing Uncle Sam can do to-day to open up the North generously and sanely can over-compensate for that critical period of slight and neglect, at the time when the new land most needed help and guidance. Alaska is young, but in her formative years she had no friend at all, and even her legal guardian forsook her. Heaven was still very high, Alaskans found, and Washington was quite as far away as ever St. Petersburg had been. ” Then was then and now is now; but hungry generations cry out for the same liberties and against the same restraints, nor will they be put off with soft answers and hard taxes! ” Accustomed to the liberties and privileges of citizens of the United States, American residents in Alaska were very naturally discontented with being a ” crown colony ” and wished ” dominion status.” The only excuse for this great sin of listlessness on the part of our government was that successive Washington administrations were passing through their own Tragic Era of reconstruction in the South, with all the complex attendant problems. These were for Alaskans ” the years that the Locust hath eaten.”
Presidential messages were sent to Congress each year, drawing attention to the fact that Alaska had not yet been granted the protection and civil rights guaranteed in the treaty with Russia. Innumerable petitions were forwarded from the new North-west. Over thirty bills were drafted in Congress to give a civil form of government to Alaska, but with no result. In 1882 American colonists threatened to unite their cause with that of the Russians who had remained, and make an appeal to the Tsar. Since Uncle Sam had just severely lectured several foreign governments for their failure to protect the Jews, Armenians and other dwellers within their borders, undoubtedly the Tsar, if anywise human, would have relished a chance to memorialize our government on similar subjects.
So, in 1884, a bill providing civil government for ” The District of Alaska ” was finally enacted into law, and Alaska later became a Territory with the passage in 1912 of what is known as the Organic Act. The people of the Territory had no representation in the National Legislative body until 1906 (nor does this delegate have a vote to-day) and no local self-government of any kind until 1912, when an elective legislative assembly, but with stout strings running back to Washington, was authorized by Congress. Only this legislative department, how-ever, is under the control of the people of Alaska, and then only in the matter of selecting the members. All acts of the Alaska legislature are subject to veto by the Governor (who is appointed by the President, as New England’s colonial Governors were appointed by the King) or to nullification by Congress. We have here, you see, the old, old question of popular assemblies and royal governors. No governor of Alaska has been or can be really ” popular ” until he is elected by popular vote, and, as in the days of Andros, the people have ” caught at everything to lessen the prerogative.” We American citizens of Alaska are not yet considered to be of age; we are held as wards in chancery.
And yet, with the stores of Uncle Sam’s resources belowstairs, that once seemed limitless, now beginning to be numbered, he may well soon turn his eyes with a quite different look up to his well-stocked attic. As Burke once said, moving for conciliation with another too-lightly-prized colony, who knows but that, with suitable nurture and in suitable time, ” This child of your old age . . . with a true filial piety, with a Roman charity . . . may put the full breast of its youthful exuberance to the mouth of its exhausted parent? “