V. THE ARMY IN ALASKA (Historic Information)
A brief statement as to the work of the Army appears desirable, owing to its extended period of occupation, and the important part played by it in the government, exploration, and development of the Territory. The general character of its services is set forth by Mr. 0. P. Austin in his valuable "Commercial Alaska," where he says:
Since the foundation of our government the lines of the Army have advanced simultaneously with the advance of the settler along our vast frontier. 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. The Army of the United States has always been the advance guard of civilization. Wherever it has gone its protection has been freely given to every American citizen.
It was General L. H. Rousseau, United States Army, who formally accepted Alaska from Russia, and occupied Sitka with a military force on October 18, 1867. Military posts were established at Kenai, Kodiak, Sitka, Tongass, and Wrangell, with detachments on the islands of St. Paul and St. George; all except Sitka were withdrawn in 1870.
The duties of the Army were neither formulated in regulations nor authorized by law. Their scope as viewed by officers was to prevent difficulties between incoming Americans and the Indians, and properly to enforce the provisions of the Indian trade and intercourse laws regarding arms and liquor. General Howard stated that it would be easy for the Army, if duly authorized, to preserve peace and establish police regulations, but authority so to do was questioned by the United States District Court, while the repeated efforts of the commanding general to secure the establishment of a civil government were steadily ignored.
The activity of the Army in carrying out its orders elicited bitter criticism. Reporting on affairs at the Seal Islands, prior to the lease of the Alaska Commercial Company, it incurred enmity by officially stating that the Pribilof natives were suffering "enslavement and robbery by an unscrupulous ring of speculators. As Indian wars give local traders patronage and contracts, the tendencies to adjust troubles peacefully with the natives were viewed askant as unmilitary and unbusinesslike. To stimulate industry among the natives, it was recommended that Indians be hired to cut wood, which resulted in attacks from interested contractors. The Army's insistence that Alaska was an Indian country, where neither firearms nor liquor could be imported, was bitterly fought by traders and politicians before the department, and it was years before the Army's point of view was sustained by Congress and the courts.
Meantime civil regulations authorized the importation by officials of liquor in "limited quantities." Sales of "surplus" liquor, with smuggling of arms and spirits, steadily proceeded, with unfortunate results. Treasury officials sold in Sitka at public auction liquor seized by the Army, and then blandly complained that the military was not suppressing the liquor traffic. Repeated requests for a steam vessel to permit raids on smugglers and liquor dealers were without avail.
Disturbed conditions due to the Stikine gold discoveries led to the reoccupation of Fort Wrangell in 1875, the impossibility of otherwise maintaining order and peace being generally recognized. Finally happy day for the service, though not for the Territory the Army sailed away from Alaska, after, as we are told by a well-known writer, a service not highly creditable. This local judgment was natural, since the business methods of many of the early Alaskan captains of industry did not accord with Army ideals as to probity and propriety.
The Army's sins of omission and commission were not specified, but what it did may be stated. It had brought the Indians into a state of submission and peace its military duty. Moreover it had fed the starving, cared for the suffering, and nursed the sick; it had largely suppressed smuggling and illegal trade in arms and liquor; it had discouraged corrupt business methods and protested against the enslavement and robbery of natives, it had vainly besought civil government and opened day schools; finally it had fostered morality by religious teaching of children, established the first native Protestant church in Alaska, and by its initiative and. petition led the Christian people of the United States to extend a helping hand to the natives of Alaska. These deeds are not strictly military duties, and while they are extra legal acts without warrant of law, they were justified by the law of emergency and impelled by the obligations of our higher moral nature.
As General Howard wrote: "The officers of the Army were denied the jurisdiction for an ordinary police, on the one hand, and held responsible for order and enforcement of the law on the other." Whether they did well or ill, at least they tried to do their duty in those early days.
Civil conditions after the departure of the Army cannot be recounted without a sense of shame. A pandemonium of drunkenness, disorder, property destruction, and personal violence obtained at Sitka, which eventuated in murder, followed by a threatened Indian uprising, and frantic appeals for protection that was temporarily accorded by a British man-of-war.
The Signal Corps of the Army re-entered Alaska for scientific work and occupied twenty-nine different and well-distributed climatic stations, until their discontinuance was practically directed by Congress in 1884 as useless. The contributions to Alaskan knowledge by Ray, Murdock, Turner, Nelson, and Fish were the forerunners of extensive and valuable work by the various executive departments of the United States.
The second advent of the Army in Alaska arose from disturbed conditions connected with the so-called stampede to the gold placers of the Klondike. In the summer of 1897 some 20,000 men came together on the shores of Lynn Canal, a country without law, without courts, without habitations, and almost without food resources. Mostly men of character, though with many reckless adventurers, all were animated by a, single aim, to reach with speed the gold-fields of the Canadian Klondike, which could only be done by private transportation over almost unknown routes.
Conditions of hardship and lawlessness, of suffering and contention speedily arose, and the Army was turned to as the only power that could control and ameliorate the situation. Unwilling, as always, to obtrude its activities into the domain of civil government the Secretary of War acted promptly through a preliminary reconnoissance, which was sent to the upper Yukon via St. Michael. Two officers Captain (now General) P. H. Ray, and Lieutenant (now Major) W. P. Richardson were directed to investigate conditions and report promptly the lines and places of military operation best calculated to remedy matters.
In southeastern Alaska affairs steadily grew from bad to worse. Reports as to the number, character, and condition of the gold seekers near Skagway became so alarming, and complications regarding Canadian customs so involved, that the military district of Lynn Canal was established under Colonel (now General) T. H. Anderson with the 14th Infantry. As a matter of wise precaution Colonel (now General) G. M. Randall occupied the military district at St. Michael with the 8th Infantry. The presence of troops restored confidence, and affairs were discreetly and peacefully managed by the army until temporary and stable local government was organized by the miners.
In addition, reports of starvation conditions in the Klondike were circulated with such detailed assiduity by interested parties, that Congress appropriated large sums for the relief of the Klondike miners, but after considerable amounts had been spent for supplies and for reindeer transportation (an ill-advised scheme that did not originate with the army) the expedition was abandoned, as no necessity therefor ever existed.
Meanwhile Ray and Richardson were obliged to winter at Fort Yukon; their steamers, being unable to proceed farther owing to low water, landed there all their Dawson supplies. Soon a situation of great gravity arose in connection with some five hundred disappointed gold seekers, fleeing from Dawson, who arrived at Fort Yukon in straggling bands and found further travel impracticable.
All in destitute condition, and nearly all of them without money, they included in their number some of the most desperate men of the North ready for any enterprise. Unscrupulous leaders obtained possession of many of the guns, and conspired to seize and divide the stores, with the view of providing amply for themselves without regard to the commonweal.
Ray and Richardson were alone, without a single soldier, but they acted with daring promptness. Ray hoisted the American flag over the two depots of provisions, announced that he took possession of them in the name of the United States, and stated that they would be held for the benefit of all destitute persons.
An organization for the resolute defence of the stores was formed, and the battle was won. Awed by the firm attitude of the officers and by this display oi Federal authority, the lawless element abandoned their plans, and the winter passed quietly.
This adjustment of a serious trouble without bloodshed was the forerunner of the Army's policy during the occupancy of the Yukon Valley by troops under Richardson at Gibbon, Rampart, and Circle in 1898. Assuming control in all emergencies, the Army extended assistance, afforded relief, discouraged violence, and when absolutely necessary made arrests and administered condign justice.
The opening of the Nome placers and the assembling there of some 18,000 adventurous and determined men, naturally led to difficult situations. In the absence of courts, of law, and of authorized civil government, the settlement of disputed points of current and financial importance devolved on the troops, who proved equal to the occasion. Disputes involving thousands of dollars were promptly decided by officers and the decisions peacefully accepted.
The most striking instance of Army methods in the interests of order was that displayed by a young lieutenant. Several hundred disappointed and idle gold seekers called a mass meeting, naturally not attended by the busy miners, for the understood purpose of vacating all miners' locations and throwing them open to the first or in this case to the last comers, a procedure that was certain to result in a miners' war. When the discussion ended and the resolution was to be put, the resolute and clear-headed lieutenant, Oliver L. Spaulding, Jr., declared the meeting adjourned and dispersed the assembly with his squad of only seven soldiers. This ended claim-jumping by mass meeting.
Under such emergencies the Army continued its alert and supervisory control over affairs, until Congress passed the Alaskan Civil Code and established courts at Nome and on the Yukon in 1900. This unauthorized exercise of general police authority over interior and western Alaska was not only accepted as indispensable for the security of person and property, but was also viewed as fully justified by the law of the frontier. Moreover, it was so impartially and judiciously administered as to give almost universal satisfaction, and, indeed, a desire for a return of military sway was not infrequently heard during the first unfortunate and stormy year of jurisdiction of the Federal court at Nome.
Commercially the greatest service rendered Alaska by the Army, was the construction and operation of a military telegraphic service, open to private telegrams, which brings every important business interest of the Territory in connection with the world. The system aggregates about 4,500 miles at present, and extends from Seattle via Sitka, Skagway, and Valdez to Nome in the west and to Eagle on the Canadian frontier in the east. (See Chapter XXVII.) These lines are due to the acumen of Secretary of War Root in approving the plans and securing the money, especially for the Seattle-Skagway cable; to General G. M. Randall for urging the system and very greatly facilitating construction work by the line of the Army, and to the activities and energy of the men and officers of the Signal Corps, of which the writer was the Chief, during the four critical years of construction and installation, This system has made modern Alaska possible, as without it not one-quarter of the present business could be satisfactorily and economically done. The extent and importance of the service may be judged from the fact that the tariffs on private telegrams amount to about $250,000 annually, while government telegrams amount to at least $100,000 additional in tariff value. The invaluable services rendered by the Army road commission are considered in Chapter IV.
In exploration the Army began early and did much. Raymond fixed the boundary line of the upper Yukon in 1868, which checked Canadian aggression and caused the abandonment of Fort Yukon. He also made a valuable map of the Yukon Valley, having determined astronomically several points therein. Ray during his notable service at Point Barrow discovered the Endicott Mountains in 1882, and the next year Schwatka traced and mapped the Yukon from its source to the sea. Later Abercrombie and Glenn did work of importance with Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet as their bases. Of geographic work done by the Army, Brooks states that the expedition of Lieutenant H. T. Allen, from March to September, 1885, "was one of the most remarkable in the annals of Alaskan explorations, being provided with few men, an inadequate equipment, and at times in a half-starved condition, as they were dependent on the country for food. Brooks adds:
No man through his own explorations has added more to a geographic knowledge of interior Alaska than Lieutenant Allen. Throughout his journey he made careful surveys and noted all facts which came within his observation; and within one season he made maps of three of the larger rivers (Copper, Tanana, and Koyukuk) of the Territory, which, until accurate surveys were made twelve years later, were the basis of all maps. His reports are the work of a careful, painstaking observer.
The forces of the army now in Alaska consist of one regiment of infantry and one company of the Signal Corps. Two companies of infantry are stationed at each post, namely: Fort Davis, at Nome; Fort Egbert, at Eagle; Fort Gibbon, at Tanana; Fort Liscum, near Valdez; Fort St. Michael, on St. Michael Island; and Fort William H. Seward, at Haines, near Skagway. The men of the Signal Corps are in charge of the widely distributed telegraph stations, from Nome to Skagway and from Sitka to Eagle.
Duty in Alaska is confining and restricted to the post, except that done along the military telegraph system. While it is monotonous and irksome, it has been performed in such a manner as to elicit general commendation from the inhabitants. Under the law the army has unique and embarrassing duties devolved on it, as in Alaska (and nowhere else) it is subject to the call of the governor (or courts) as a posse comitatus, again, officers of the army are liable to jury duty, and have even been summoned to either pay or work out a road tax.
On several occasions in recent years the army has been ordered to quell disturbances, guard property, and protect lives. Fortunately in these cases of labor strikes and of civil disturbances, the obligatory and efficacious services of the army have been free from measures of violence.
In season and out of season, the officers of the army have proclaimed the obligations of the United States toward the natives of Alaska; and in default of an authorized system and in the absence of civil officials have assumed the difficult task of conserving, as far as possible, the interests and rights of the natives.
Bibliography. Annual Reports Commanding General, Department of Columbia, 1869-1878, 1889-1908. Compilation of Narratives of Explorations in Alaska. Fifty-eighth Congress, 1st Session, Senate Report, No. 1,023, 1900.