Gunboats North: How the Navy Brought Law and Order to Alaska

By Gault, Owen | Sea Classics, May 1999 | Go to article overview

Gunboats North: How the Navy Brought Law and Order to Alaska


Gault, Owen, Sea Classics


When the Army failed to tame the wild and wicked land of the midnight sun the US Navy was given the unenviable task of bringing law and order to America's newest frontier

Squaring his shoulders, Cmdr. Lester A. Beardslee nodded as Secretary of the Navy Robert Thompson rose from his imposing mahogany desk to offer him Godspeed and good luck on his challenging new assignment. Beardslee would need the Navy Department's blessings, for with Thompson's earnest handshake he had just accepted his toughest appointment in 29 years as a naval officer.

With a vague smile and scribble of his quill pen Thompson signed the order that placed the 43-year-old veteran seaman in charge of an area roughly one fifth the size of the United States -- the sprawling far distant land of the midnight sun better known as the Alaskan territory.

"I don't have to mention that this is not exactly a coveted assignment, Commander," Thompson advised. "Six other officers have turned down the job; the Army has given up on this frozen wasteland, and the Treasury Department wants no part of it. So it's up to you to end the chaos up there."

Beardslee knew exactly what the Secretary implied. The Alaskan territory was a political hot potato which the Hayes Administration wanted as little to do with as possible. All Washington still debated the wisdom of `Seward's Folly'- the 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia negotiated by Secretary of State William H. Seward for $7,200,000. Almost a thousand miles distant from the continental United States, the Alaskan frontier was regarded as an inhospitable half-frozen alien land of tundra, ice and blinding `williwaw winds.' Worse yet, it was riff with the problems of lawless settlements, hostile native tribesman and waterways dangerous to navigate.

A never ending series of new crises mandated that law and order be brought to this unwanted largely uncultivated region where only fools, rogue miners, and hearty fishermen dared tread. Severely criticized by what many in Washington regarded as near open rebellion between the settlers and native Indians, President Hayes' cabinet reasoned that the only service able to meet the demands of the situation was the United States Navy. That many before Beardslee had failed at the task made him fully aware that the success or failure of this monumental undertaking could forever alter his distinguished career.

COULD THE NAVY SUCCEED WHERE THE ARMY FAILED?

It was an unenviable assignment calling on all the resources and vigor Beardslee possessed. In taking command of the Alaska Station he was assuming the arduous duties and responsibilities of the governor of a wild and unshorn territory in which no law and little order existed. A tough, hard-bitten line officer with an outstanding Civil War record, sailor Beardslee was to become the sole marshal, judge, jury and magistrate of a land where murder and mayhem were commonplace; where disputes were settled with fists, knives and pistols. A tall order for any individual; it was up to Beardslee, without a single precedent setting instruction, to establish harmonious relationships between the white settlers and Indians. His orders were curt and brief. He was to exercise his own discretion in all emergencies that might arise.

With Thompson's 8 May 1879 orders in hand, Beardslee proceeded overland to the West Coast where at Mare Island, California, he assumed command of the 18-gun Sloop of War USS JAMESTOWN. Built and commissioned in 1844 at the Gosport, Virginia, Navy Yard, the 163-ft. JAMESTOWN boasted a history as robust as that of its new captain. First engaged in suppressing the slave trade off South Africa, the sloop next served the humanitarian role of bringing foodstuffs to Ireland when the failure of that country's potato crop threatened the entire nation with starvation.

The Civil War saw her attain prominent status with the Atlantic Blockade Squadron where she singlehandedly captured, burned or sank five Confederate privateers.

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