II. GOVERNMENT AND LAWS (Historic Information)
In the early years of Alaska's history as a part of the United States, it suffered from the utter neglect of Congress as regards law and government, so that there were grounds for the application to the Territory of Kipling's aphorism that
Never a law of God or man Runs north of Fifty-three.
Article III of the treaty of cession, ratified by the United States May 28, 1867, contains the provision that
The inhabitants of the ceded territory ... if they should prefer to remain in the ceded territory, they, with the exception of the uncivilized tribes, shall be admitted to the enjoyment of all the rights and immunities of citizens of the United States, and shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty, property, and religion. The uncivilized tribes will be subject to such laws and regulations as the United States may from time to time adopt in regard to aboriginal tribes of that country.
For seventeen years Congress took no action regarding Alaska save to protect financial interests, which it did July 27,1868, by extending to it laws relative to customs, revenue, and navigation, and their enforcement by the courts of California, Oregon, and Washington. In 1869 it established the Seal Islands as a reservation and authorized their lease the year following. Then for fourteen consecutive years Alaskan legislation was totally neglected.
The President took action by sending the Army in 1867 to protect Alaska (see Chapter V), but after ten years of stormy experiences it was entirely withdrawn and Alaska was left to its fate.
Murder, rapine, and lawlessness followed, and the citizens of Sitka in one extremity appealed for aid to British Columbia and for a time were protected by the British Navy. Later the Revenue Marine Service and the United States Navy alternately assumed control of local affairs.
Of conditions in Alaska from 1867 to 1897 a most competent authority, W. H. Dall, writes.
A country where no man could make a legal will, own a homestead or transfer it, or so much as cut wood for his fire without defying a Congressional prohibition, where polygamy and slavery and the lynching of witches prevailed, with no legal authority to stay or punish criminals; such in great part has Alaska been for thirty years.
He properly adds:
It will be a perpetual testimony to the character of the early American settlers in Alaska, that under the circumstances they bore themselves so well.
This tribute to Alaskans confirms statements often made by the writer, based on his frequent visits to and long experiences with Alaska, that as a whole its inhabitants are the most law-abiding body of men that he has ever known.
Seventeen years after the cession, the Act of May 17, 1884, extended the laws of Oregon to Alaska, authorized a governor, established district courts and commissioners, created a land district, prohibited importation of liquors, granted mining rights, looked to inquiries regarding the Indians, and provided for schools, legislation that was at least a beginning, though most inadequate in means and extent.
Where moral obligations failed, material interests prevailed. The discovery of gold and the influx of miners impelled Congress to act, and on May 14, 1898, railway rights were granted. On March 5, 1899, thirty-two years after the cession, Congress gave Alaska its first penal code and also a code of criminal procedure, both drawn from the statutes of Oregon. The Act of June 6, 1900, providing for a civil government, made the Territory a civil and judicial district, and established the seat of government at Juneau. It enlarged the powers of the governor and other civil officials, provided for the insane, established district courts for each of the three judicial divisions of Alaska, provided for public records, extended coal-land laws, confirmed the rights to lands actually used by Indians, schools, and missions, provided for secondary education, and established a system of licenses on all classes of business.
The law of May 14, 1898, being inoperative as to homesteads as there are no surveyed lands in Alaska it was amended March 3, 1903, so that a homestead can now be entered on unsurveyed lands.
Since May 7, 1906, when Alaska was recognized as a Territory, it has representation through a delegate in Congress.
While the Territory now has executive and judicial officers, it is without any legislative body, and so depends on Congress for all laws and legislation.
Judicial provisions are still inadequate to the needs of the country. In default of a supreme territorial court, appeals necessarily go to the Ninth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals, causing serious delays and enhanced expenses. The Aleutian Islands are practically without courts, and the enormous area of the third judicial district, the Tanana and Yukon valleys, overtaxes the judge, delays trials, and enormously increases costs. Minor causes are tried before United States commissioners stationed at about forty points who are appointed, and are removable by the district judges. The power of the commissioners is great, as they are committing magistrates, can try civil cases involving values to one thousand dollars, and criminal cases of certain classes where not exceeding a year s imprisonment may be imposed. They are also empowered to perform almost every kind of judicial acts pertaining to their own localities.
All things considered, governmental provisions for Alaska have been wonderfully improved within the past decade, and future advances will be made whenever there is practical unanimity of recommendation on the part of Alaska's leading citizens.