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A History of the Nome, Alaska Public Schools:1899 to 1958 From the Gold Rush To Statehood
A Thesis by John Poling

Chapter I

Backgrounds: Russian and American

The history of the Nome Public Schools can be better understood in the context of a summarization of the general political history of Alaska and the development of its school system, both under the Russian and American administrations, up to the year 1901, when the City of Nome was incorporated.

On St. Elias Day, July 16, 1741, an expedition under the command of Vitus Bering, a Danish navigator in the service of the Russian crown, sighted a great mountain range on the continental coast of Alaska. The commander named an eminent peak Mount St. Elias, marking the discovery of Russian America. Four days later Kayak Island was discovered to the west of Mount St. Elias, and Bering’s men went ashore to get fresh water. They were the first known Europeans to stand on Alaskan soil.1

In the fourth quarter of the eighteenth century the explorers of three other nations, France, Spain, and England, cruised the waters of Alaska and claimed the land for their sovereigns, but only the Russians made settlements in the new discovery. Primarily the interest of the Russians was vested in the fur trade, but associated with the colonization a zealous priesthood of the Russian Orthodox Church established missions and opened schools, principally for the Russian and creole families in the employ of the Russian American Company, on the islands and coastal areas encompassed by the company trade.2

Gregor Shelikof, a founder of the Russian American Company, organized the first school in 1784 at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island, the first permanent Russian settlement in America. A church was erected there in 1796. Between 1824 and 1867, schools were opened in the chief trade centers, in the main by missionaries who established the schools in connection with their larger missions. Schools were founded in this period at Sitka, Kodiak, Unalaska, Belkovski, Nushagak, Amla in the Atkha district, St. Michael, Unga, Unimak, Akutan, and a number of other places.3

Besides these mission schools the Russian American Company maintained a colonial academy or institute at Sitka, for training Russians and Creoles in technical and commercial occupations in order to provide the company with surveyors, navigators, cartographers, engravers, accountants, shipwrights, and skilled craftsmen for every community need. When the United States purchased Alaska, her leading native born men were able to read and write in the Russian language and conduct all the necessary business of a colony.4 A number distinguished themselves in exploration, cartography, and in the Russian Orthodox priesthood for which they were trained in a theological school and seminary at Sitka during the 1840’s.5 In that same decade, which has been called "the golden age of Sitka," Lady Etolin, wife of the governor, founded a school for girls there. The young ladies were taught such essentials as needlework, geography, history, and household arts.

Russia’s defeat by England and France in the Crimean War in 1856 exposed her inability to defend Alaska. The Russian inhabitants of the territory had never numbered more than 600, with few more than 1500 creoles, and an estimated aboriginal population of 24,00 to 29,000. There was some talk in the Canadas in the period of the Crimean War of seizing Alaska to add it to the territories of the proposed Canadian union. Discoveries of gold in British Columbia added an even greater peril, the threat of a gold rush and the loss of Russian authority to a horde of American prospectors as had been the experience of the government of Mexico in California in 1849. Pragmatism dictated that Russia dispose of her American colonies.6 England was her foe; Russia preferred to thwart British expansionism in the Northwest by selling her territory to the United States. A treaty of cession was signed March 30, 1867, in Washington, D.C., by Secretary of State William H. Seward and Baron Edouard de Stoekl, the Russian envoy. The purchase price of Alaska was set at $7,200,000.

Alaska was made a military district and nominally governed by the War Department from 1867 to 1877, with posts at Sitka and Wrangell. From 1877 to 1879, by reason of withdrawal of the army units to quell an Indian uprising in Utah and Nevada, government was left by default to a lone customs collector under the Treasury Department at Sitka. A dangerous situation arose from threatening Tlinget Indians, and a Canadian warship answered an appeal for help from the citizens of Sitka in 1879. The United States government then turned over the affairs of the military district to the Navy Department which exercised control until 1884, when Congress by the first organic act created the District of Alaska. This seventeen year initial period of American ownership of Alaska as an unorganized area has been called by Ernest Gruening, Alaska’s former great governor and United States Senator, "The Era of Total Neglect."

Without civil government of any kind after the transfer, the citizens of Sitka in 1867 took matters into their own hands and organized a city government by consent without the force of constitutional law. A school was opened, but taxes were hard to collect and after a stormy ten years both city government and the school died in 1877, a pattern to be repeated in essence over twenty years later at Nome.

Fortunately, the Russian government continued to subsidize its missions and schools, providing education for children of Russian and mixed descent and for some natives.7 Prior to 1844 eleven religious groups of the United States had set up mission stations with schools supported by private contributions. Two schools were maintained under lease terms in the seal islands, the Pribilofs, by the Alaska Commercial Company. The Russian church continued to provide seventeen schools at their mission sites.8 But no permanent schools had yet been established for white children of American descent.

The Organic Act of 1884 initiated the rule of Alaska under the United States Department of the Interior that continued until statehood seventy-five years later. The act provided for the appointment of a governor; a district court clerk; four commissioners with jurisdiction of courts at Sitka, Juneau, Wrangell, and Unalaska; and a United States marshall who would appoint a deputy for each of the commissioners’ jurisdictions. The governor, attorney, judge, marshall, clerk, and commissioners would be appointed by the President of the United States, subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. However, the act explicitly denied representation in Congress or any direct redress to it by the statement, "---there shall be no legislative assembly in said district, nor shall any Delegate be sent to Congress therefrom." The district was also declared a land district, with a land office located at Sitka. Questions of Indian possessory rights to lands were reserved for future legislation by Congress; provisions were made for education of children of school age; the importation, manufacture, and sale of intoxicating liquors, except for restricted uses, was prohibited; and the act was to be administered as an adjunct to a civil and criminal code, "the general laws of the State of Oregon now in force, so far as the same may be applicable and not in conflict with the provisions of this act or the laws of the United States."9

John H. Kinkead, the first governor of the district under the new act, made his initial report in the time required by the law, in 1884, only twenty-six days after his arrival at Sitka. Kinkead, a former governor of Nevada, had lived at Sitka shortly after the acquisition of the territory and was, therefore, familiar with the enormous difficulties to be confronted in the immense ungoverned colony.

Attempting to fulfill the duties of his office under the act of 1884, Governor Kinkead reported briefly on basic industries. Gold had been discovered near the present city of Juneau in the summer of 1880, and across Gastineau Channel near the present city of Douglas a year later. Kinkead reported that gold mining reduction works were near completion and that the future of the industry looked promising. Fisheries had already assumed large proportions; timber was only useful locally and interest in agriculture was at low level; the Alaska Seal and Fur Company was operating in the Pribilofs; mail was irregular and he recommended that service be increased to twice a month. All travel and transportation was by water; no land routes had been developed.10

There existed no civil government in Prince William Sound, the report continued, or on Cook’s Inlet. The people, who were descendants of Russian and Aleut families, claimed to be Christians and members of the Greek church. They regretted that they had been overlooked by the government and were eager to be placed under civil authority. For that purpose the number of commissioners and local magistrates should be increased to permit local civil government. The customs service was without revenue cutters although smuggling and illicit traffic were extensive; a revenue cutter should be constantly cruising Alaskan waters.11

"The subject of education," the Governor stated, "is one of great interest and importance to all. At present the District is literally without schools for the education of white children. Here and at Juneau this want is, to my own knowledge, severely felt….The children are all growing up in total ignorance…." He suggested further some control of liquor and a tax on the sellers to keep up a police force, and for the repair of streets and sidewalks.12

Kinkead summarized: "The immense extent of country to be supervised, the varied, complex, and to some extent conflicting interests to be brought under control, necessitate substantial aid from the home government."13 He suggested that successful government for Alaska entailed a solution of her geographical problems: the governor must have a ship for his transportation; mail service must be instituted; and seaways must be charted and fitted with aids to navigation. Also there were racial problems to solve: enlightenment and education of the natives and control of the liquor traffic. To prevent international complications from the gold discoveries in the British Columbia hinterlands adjacent to the southeastern panhandle, a joint British-American commission should survey the Alaskan approaches to the interior. The problem of maintaining civilized institutions for the few white inhabitants of Alaska was compounded by both the absence of taxation and representation.14

During the ensuing fourteen years appointed officials made some efforts to conduct the affairs of Alaska in accordance with the act of 1884. The governors in that era were J. H. Kinkead, 1884-1885; A. P. Swineford, 1885-1889; L. E. Knapp, 1889-1893; and James Sheakley, 1893-1897. By the end of Governor Sheakley’s term of office destiny turned north, dramatically expressed by Jeannette Paddock Nichols in her superb historical work Alaska:

In August of 1896, there leapt out from an obscure creek on the upper Yukon near Dawson, Canada, a tiny tongue of flame—a flame not of fire, but of gold and the news of gold. It quickly grew, and mounted high enough for all the world to see, and spread far enough for countless men to feel the desire to come and enjoy the warmth of it. It crossed the boundary into Alaska (1897), ran down the Yukon, and circled the sands at Nome (1899). In Alaska other flames of gold had appeared and would appear; but none quite as strange and bold as this. This startling phenomenon was to have a far-reaching effect upon the industrial and political future of Alaska.15

Meanwhile, the organization of public education under the Organic Act was set in motion. Specifically, the act provided:

That the Secretary of the Interior shall make needful and proper provision for the education of children of school age in the Territory of Alaska, without reference to race, until such time as permanent provision shall be made for the same, and the sum of twenty-five thousand dollars, or so much thereof as may be necessary is hereby appropriated for this purpose.

As no one knew how to distribute the money, none of it was spent.

The Secretary of the Interior drew up rules and regulations which on March 2, 1885, gave the general management of the public schools to the United States Commissioner of Education, and also provided for a territorial board of education of three members: the Governor, the judge of the United States Court, and a general agent, who, with the approval of the commissioner, had the authority to appoint teachers, prescribe their duties, fix salaries, and make rules and regulations for the operation and administration of schools.16 Appointment of a man of the highest administrative ability to the position was essential to success in organizing a territorial school system over an area so vast and with stringent means.

Sheldon Jackson, a missionary agent for the Presbyterian Church, had first visited Alaska in 1877 and had identified himself with the region through his letters to the Department of the Interior and by widespread press comment on his activities.17

"Prior to the consecration of P. T. Rowe as Bishop of Alaska for the Protestant Episcopal Church in America (1896)," says Jeannette P. Nichols, "Sheldon Jackson was for all practical purposes the sole recognized guardian of education, of the Protestant faith, and of the uplift of the natives in Alaska."18 Dr. Jackson was the man selected by Commissioner of Education John Eaton, in April, 1885, as general agent for education in Alaska. Sixteen years hence, Dr. Jackson would establish the first tax supported public school in Nome, a city yet unborn.

With the cooperation of missionary groups, Dr. Jackson aided new and already established American mission schools with government contracts. Although his method aroused controversy, it was pragmatic, and by the winter of 1887-1888, there was the slender beginning of a far-flung school system in Alaska.19 In southeastern Alaska sixteen school were functioning, only four of them independent public schools established through civic initiative. To the westward across the Gulf of Alaska, other than the Russian mission schools and the two government schools on the Pribilof Islands, public schools were in operation at Kodiak, Afognak, and Unga. Mission schools were active along the Kuskokwim River, at Unalakleet and St. Michael on Norton Sound, and elsewhere in the north and northwest. Although government contracts with church sponsored schools were withdrawn in 1893, on constitutional grounds of separation of church and state,20 the use of mission buildings and teachers through federal subsidy was a prime mover in the immediate establishment of an operational territorial system of schools.

By 1894, from an estimated 10,000 children of school age only 1,438 were enrolled in the 24 schools functioning in the territory. Some mission schools continued on their own resources and some were closed, but more than 20 of them were taken over by the Bureau of Education to be managed directly by the agents of the federal government.21 Little change was to be made from this time until the gold rush of 1898 and the subsequent long overdue laws necessary for change that would be wrested from Congress.

Mounting dissatisfaction with federal neglect culminated, in 1890, in a non-partisan convention in Juneau. Hoping to seat an elected delegate in Congress, the convention drew up a memorial to Congress reciting Alaska’s wrongs:

We are denied representation in Congress. Our jurisprudence is a distortion. Our judicial system is faulty. We have no title to land. We have no voice in the control of public schools. We have neither local self-government, nor the means by which to establish it. Our liquor law is obnoxious. Our postal service is inefficient. Our government buildings are in decay or altogether lacking.22

Although commercial interests, mining, fisheries, and trading and transportation companies largely ruled the Territory by lobby in Washington and opposed home rule of any kind, the rush to the Klondike in 1897, and the greatest stampede of all to Nome in 1899-1900 were to bring in a wave of Americans that could not be suppressed.23

"Within the past three years," wrote Sheldon Jackson in his report of 1898-1899 to the Commissioner of Education, "thousands of white men have settled in Alaska, many of them taking their families with them. The population of the older settlements has largely increased and several new towns have sprung up which are clamoring for school facilities. If Congress regards it as the duty of the Secretary of the Interior to continue to provide schools for the white population of Alaska, I cannot state too emphatically that it is absolutely necessary that the appropriation for education in Alaska be largely increased."

Jackson suggested $60,000 for education for the 1899-1900 budget, a figure doubling the meager congressional allotment of the reported year.24 Typifying the indifference of official Washington, his advice went unheeded.

Pressed by strong public opinion and an Alaska lobby growing out of gold rush conditions, Congress enacted three important laws for the new American treasure-house that Alaska had become between 1898 and 1900. Provisions for the acquisition of land for townsites and commercial purposes had been incorporated in a rider to the Timber Culture Act of 1891 and remained, until 1898, the only law under which title to land in Alaska could be obtained.25 In 1898 a Transportation and Homestead Act was enacted; a Criminal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure, the Act of March 3, 1899, instituted a tax system on all businesses and repealed the liquor prohibition of the Organic Act of 1884 with a high license on dealers and saloons, but all monies derived reverted to the United States Treasury. As representation in Congress was still denied, this Act created great dissatisfaction and added impetus to the movement for home rule.26

The third of these enactments, The Act of June 6, 1900, A Civil Code and Code of Civil Procedure, provided for Alaska an entire legal system for the prevention of crime and the enforcement of civil rights. It included provisions for the government of municipalities in an incorporation law, restricted municipal indebtedness to one percent of the valuation of property, and made provision for schools, both municipal and district. Fifty percent of the tax monies collected from business licenses within each corporation was to be used for school purposes under the direction of the city council.

Section 28 of the Act stated:

The Secretary of the Interior shall make needful and proper provisions and regulations for the education of the children of school age in the district of Alaska, without reference to race, and their compulsory attendance at school, until such time as permanent provision shall be made for the same.

Governor Brady reported to the Secretary in October, 1900, "Juneau and Skagway have become incorporated and their funds for all school purposes will be ample." Showing estimates of the municipal income of these two incorporated towns, the first under the new law, the Governor stated the problem induced by the law with regard to unincorporated towns and district schools,27 which then included Nome:

Here, then, we will have two towns spending as much money for schools as Congress is willing to vote for all the rest of Alaska. This is hardly fair to the children beyond incorporated limits. If 50 per cent of the license money which is collected, excluding the amount from incorporated towns, could be used by the Secretary of the Interior, he could nearly comply with the law in furnishing the proper educational facilities for the children of school age who should be in school. If Congress will not adopt this method of providing the expenses of schools, it is recommended, then, that it be urged to increase its appropriation to $75,000.

Trouble was in store. Congress appropriated $30,000, contrary to the Governor’s thoughtful advisement, for Bureau of Education schools under Dr. Jackson’s domain for the 1900-1901 budget year.

Against this background the lusty young mining camp of Anvil City now burgeoned into a city of more than 12,000 and officially christened Nome by the consent government, struggled with its growing pains: crime, litigation, development, a corrupted district court, and impeded efforts to secure incorporation and support for a public school for its children.