Alaska history from the days before statehood is rich in stories of colorful charactersprospectors, settlers, heroes, and criminals. And right alongside them were judges and lawyers, working first to establish the rule of law in the territory, then, later, laying the groundwork for statehood. The Biggest Damned Hat presents a fascinating collection of stories ranging from the gold rush to the 1950s. Built on interviews and oral histories from more than fifty lawyers who worked in Alaska before 1959, and buttressed by research into legal history, the book offers a brilliantly multifaceted portrait of law in the territoryfrom laying the groundwork for strong civil and criminal law to helping to secure mining and fishing rights to the Alaska Court-Bar fight, which pitted Alaska’s community of lawyers against its nascent Supreme Court. Bringing to life a time long pastwhen some of the best lawyers had little formal legal educationThe Biggest Damned Hat fills in a crucial part of the story of Alaska’s history.
|Publisher:||University of Alaska Press|
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About the Author
Pamela Cravez is a senior research official at the Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska Anchorage.
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The Biggest Damned Hat
Tales from Territorial Alaska Lawyers and Judges
By Pamela Cravez
UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Pamela Cravez
All rights reserved.
Three Lucky Swedes and One Corrupt Judge
Before the Nome gold rush, little about Alaska lawyers and judges caught anyone's attention. But in the summer of 1900, Judge Arthur Noyes stumbled into Nome with crooked lawyers and a political boss from the Dakotas. Together they set in motion one of the most infamous legal schemes to steal mining claims.
The story starts two years earlier, with three men, Jafet Lindeberg, John Brynteson, and Erik Lindblom, who within weeks of meeting one another discovered gold in a remote area on Alaska's northwest coast and set off the rush to Nome. Called the "Three Lucky Swedes," although one was Norwegian, their heritage became as important as their discovery in plots to relieve them of gold.
Lindeberg, the youngest at twenty-four, had left Norway in early 1898 to herd reindeer in Alaska. Tall and athletic, he contracted with the US government along with more than fifty Laplanders, Finns, and Norwegians. Upon arriving he traveled to the Seward Peninsula, where a small Scandinavian community had been established just sixty miles north of Nome. When the promised delivery of reindeer fell through, Lindeberg joined others scouring Alaska riverbeds for gold, hoping for riches like those found just a year earlier in the Klondike.
John Brynteson, born in Sweden, had spent more than a decade in the copper and iron mines of Upper Michigan before signing on to find coal for the Swedish Covenant mission on Norton Sound. With no coal to be found, the twenty-seven-year-old naturalized citizen began to look for gold.
Erik Lindblom, a naturalized citizen, though Swedish by birth, was much older than his partners. The forty-two-year-old tailor had been living in San Francisco with his wife and two children when he shipped off to Alaska and found his way to Council City.
In the summer of 1898, gold discoveries on the Seward Peninsula prompted miners to organize a mining district in Council City where they filed their claims. Lindeberg, Brynteson, and Lindblom found one another among the prospectors searching nearby streams and decided to set off together downriver to the coast of Norton Sound.
In mid-September, they loaded a flat-bottomed boat with supplies and began to search streams emptying into the Bering Sea. They traveled up the Snake River and saw a large rock that looked like an anvil standing above one of the tributaries. After inspecting the streambed, they staked it, claimed it, and named it Anvil Creek. Anvil Creek would become the most lucrative gold claim in Nome.
That fall, the three, along with other Scandinavians in the area who heard about the discovery, staked claims and formed the Cape Nome mining district. Dr. A. N. Kittleson, who had been the head of the Teller Reindeer Station where Lindeberg had originally been sent, became recorder for the district and registered the claims. After rivers froze, making mining impossible, miners set up camp and prepared for the spring.
News of the Nome discovery traveled fast. Unlike the Klondike where gold had been discovered a year earlier, and which required many miles of difficult overland travel, Nome, on the Bering Sea, was just a ship's passage from West Coast ports. All winter long people dreamed of the riches they would reap in Alaska, and made plans. During the spring and summer of 1899 more than 20,000 people flocked to Nome. They set up tents on the beaches, built saloons and dance halls, and crowded Nome's single muddy street, all hoping to find their fortune.
Disappointment met most who came for gold. Nome's most valuable parcels had been claimed, and the "three lucky Swedes," Lindeberg, Brynteson, and Lindblom, became targets of resentment.
Angry men, desperate not to leave Nome empty-handed, jumped claims, claiming ownership of the land for themselves. Some claims, it was reported, were jumped a dozen times. Some claim jumpers were paid off by original owners so that mining could resume. Others were not so easily dissuaded.
Lindeberg and his partners formed the Pioneer Mining Company as they drew thousands of dollars of gold from Anvil Creek claims daily. Guards kept claim jumpers at bay, ensuring work and assets remained protected.
By July, though, with the short mining season more than half over, rumors that Scandinavians could not legally own US land were proving irresistible. Although US law clearly provided ownership rights to noncitizens, the opposite had been repeated so often that hundreds of disgruntled miners agreed it must be true, and it suited their needs nicely. They called a miners' meeting — a formal meeting often governed by parliamentary rules of order, used by prospectors to resolve disputes.
Prior to the meeting, Dr. Kittleson, still the recorder for the district, alerted military officers stationed at St. Michaels. With tempers high and violence imminent, the officers charged with preserving order attended the meeting. When the vote was called to declare all of the Scandinavians' claims void, Lieutenant Spaulding interrupted and ordered the resolution withdrawn, threatening to "clear the hall" if the miners didn't acquiesce. Although not withdrawn, the lieutenant effectively made the motion to adjourn, "declared it carried and the meeting adjourned."
And then, everything changed. Gold was discovered on Nome's beaches.
Bars emptied, shops closed, and streets cleared as people sifted the sands for gold. Although there were greater gold rushes producing more money and more gold, none offered such an enticing prospect as Nome's beaches. By the end of the summer of 1899 the shores yielded $2 million worth of gold.
That fall, as winter closed in on Nome, the one judge appointed to serve all of Alaska, Judge Charles Johnson, traveled hundreds of miles from his post at Sitka to Nome. He ruled against those challenging the Scandinavians' claims, confirming that non-US citizens had the legal right to own land. Judge Johnson encouraged Nome citizens to organize their own government. They did, electing a mayor, city council, and chief of police — enough to maintain order among the hardy souls who would spend the winter of 1899 to 1900 in Nome.
As the days grew colder and shorter most of the 20,000 who'd come to Nome for the summer left on ships. The three lucky Swedes landed in Seattle with nearly $2 million in gold. They'd held the first claim jumpers at bay and had begun to see just how much they stood to make from their claims. They, however, were not the only observers of this great wealth. While Lindeberg, Brynteson, and Lindblom celebrated their success and planned for the next season, an elaborate plan was already in motion to relieve them of their gold.
Alexander McKenzie: Judge in One Pocket, Gold in the Other
Alexander McKenzie, dubbed "Alexander the Great" for his physical presence and political clout, entered Nome in the summer of 1900 and within days took over the Anvil Creek claims, leaving original owners tangled in a legal web. McKenzie never looked back, letting Nome lawyers and an unscrupulous judge handle the Scandinavians while he took the gold.
At six feet tall and over two hundred pounds, McKenzie had spent the past thirty years bullying his way to power, taking charge of people and situations to become one of the most influential Republican committeemen in the country. Born in Canada in 1850 or 1851, he left before learning to read and write and laid track for the Northern Pacific Railroad. Elected sheriff in the new town of Bismarck, North Dakota, he used his brute strength to maintain order. After six consecutive terms, he retired from law enforcement. Determined and ambitious, with a keen sense of opportunities and human vulnerabilities, McKenzie built a powerful network of friends and allies.
A political cartoon shows McKenzie sitting across the table from six men, each describing how they will deliver votes for an upcoming election. The contractor will deliver money, the chamber of commerce member will boost the price of grain just before the election, the harvester trust will have his agents and banker work for the ticket, and the railroad will guarantee all section hands' votes.
In 1899, at nearly fifty years old, McKenzie's accomplishments included engineering the transfer of North Dakota's capital to Bismarck, and selecting governors, state legislators, US representatives, and senators. With investments in real estate and public works, he'd put his weight into making North Dakota and its neighboring states fertile ground for large corporations and big business.
McKenzie bound his friends to him by "hoops of steel" and never forgave or forgot his opponents. Even after moving to St. Paul, Minnesota, he remained North Dakota's Republican national committeeman, his influence extending all the way to Republican President William McKinley.
Observing the contested gold claims in Nome and the power vacuum in the new territory, McKenzie turned his efforts toward securing the gold for himself. He began by having Henry Clay Hansborough, senator from North Dakota, and Thomas Carter, senator from Montana, introduce language making "alien" ownership of land in Alaska illegal.
In the spring of 1900, mindful of the growing economic interest and inadequate laws and federal presence to provide order, Congress took steps to extend the civil and criminal codes of Oregon to Alaska. Although the Oregon code specifically allowed "aliens" to own land, Senator Hansborough and Senator Carter's amendment would change this.
Senators from other mining states blocked the amendment, concerned that it would open questions about ownership not just in Alaska, but elsewhere. They took action at the prompting of Charles Lane, a longtime California miner with an interest in the Nome claims. Lane, who had purchased a number of claims from Scandinavians in Nome in the summer of 1899, and invested heavily in developing his Alaska Wild Goose Mining Company, relied upon the original owners' legal rights to sell their claims. Lane's Wild Goose Mining Company and the "Lucky Swedes"' Pioneer Mining Company together held the valuable Anvil Creek claims.
Conceding that they would not be able to change the language of the law, Senators Hansborough and Carter took another tack. They persuaded their colleagues to delete all language concerning "alien" ownership. Here they had success.
With no language specifically allowing foreigners to own land in Alaska, lawyers were free to argue that the Scandinavians could not own the claims. Although a quick review of precedent would show alien ownership to be permitted throughout the country, a judge would be called upon to make this ruling.
McKenzie's next step was to recommend a judge for Nome who would interpret the laws for his benefit.
That winter Congress not only extended additional laws to Alaska, it also created two more federal judgeships, one for the area including Nome and another at Eagle, near the Canadian Klondike. McKenzie recommended Arthur H. Noyes for the Nome judgeship.
Judge Arthur Noyes: Providing Legal Cover
On paper, Arthur H. Noyes appeared well qualified for the Nome district court judgeship. Born in Wisconsin into a prominent family, Noyes was a Son of the American Revolution through his mother. His father had served as a captain in the Civil War and later became a respected lawyer in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Noyes and his brother received law degrees from the University of Wisconsin and began practicing law together in 1878. They moved to Grand Forks in the Dakota Territory in 1882, and five years later to Minneapolis and St. Paul. An active Republican, Elk, Mason, Shriner, and Knight Templar, Arthur Noyes was well known in the Minneapolis legal community. He and McKenzie had known each other for years and had many friends in common.
By the late 1890s, Noyes had seen a number of his legal partners gain appointments to prestigious judicial posts, including two district court judgeships for Minneapolis and chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court. He, too, had applied for a Minnesota judgeship, but was defeated.
When the Nome judgeship became available, Noyes not only had the qualifications necessary to be appointed judge, he also had the vulnerabilities that would make him a valuable asset to McKenzie. In addition to the recent defeat, he had drinking and money problems.
McKenzie spent thousands of dollars securing Noyes' appointment. He also secured appointments for the district attorney and US marshal. In July 1900, McKenzie traveled by ship to Nome with the coterie of court officials who would do his bidding.
The ship laid anchor outside of Nome on July 19, and McKenzie went ashore. He visited the law offices of Hubbard, Beeman, and Hume. The firm represented claim jumpers' cases and owned half interests in nearly one hundred claims. Hubbard was already well acquainted with McKenzie, having met him in Washington, DC. He'd hoped McKenzie's influence would be enough to change the law. When Congress failed to declare alien ownership illegal, Hubbard threw his lot in with McKenzie. Now McKenzie came to convince Hubbard's partners, Beeman and Hume, to sign over their interest in claims to him as well.
Within the day, Hubbard, Beeman, and Hume became shareholders in McKenzie's Alaska Gold Mining Company, a company he'd set up with capital stock of $15 million before arriving. The lawyers took leadership positions in the company and further entwined themselves in McKenzie's scheme by giving court officials a stake in their law firm.
With their interests aligned, McKenzie had the law firm draw up motions contesting ownership of the richest claims and asked the court to appoint McKenzie receiver while it decided ownership.
Before Judge Noyes opened court, McKenzie and the lawyer Hume presented the judge with all of the papers in his hotel room. When asked later why the motions were not properly filed and a summons issued to the other side, lawyer Hume told the court, "We could not find the clerk at that time. ... Everything was in confusion then, and we simply left the papers with the court; that is all we could do."
On July 23, Noyes signed the orders making McKenzie receiver and requiring him to pay $5,000 bond for each claim, much less than just one day's yield from each. The judge ordered owners not to interfere with the receiver and that the gold should be preserved subject to further orders of the court.
With the judge's order in hand, McKenzie and a crew of hired laborers descended upon claims on Anvil Creek. Owners watched in outrage as McKenzie and his armed men took over their mining camps, confiscated gold, and started mining claims.
The Pioneer and Wild Goose Mining Companies on Anvil Creek had been producing tens of thousands of dollars' worth of gold daily. With McKenzie's men standing guard, the owners could not even see how much was being taken from them.
The next day, July 24, the owners provided proof of their ownership to Judge Noyes and asked that McKenzie be stopped from mining the claims. Noyes took the matter under advisement, stalling more than two weeks before denying the motions. With no other court in Alaska to appeal to, the original owners asked Judge Noyes, on August 14, for an order allowing an appeal to the Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The judge ruled that his order was not appealable. He then solidified McKenzie's position as receiver in a second order, giving McKenzie the power to take "all sluice boxes, dams, excavations, machinery, pipe, boarding houses, tents, buildings, safes, scales and all other personal property fixed or moveable ... all gold, gold dust, precious metals, money, books of account, and each and all personal property" of all owners, employees, and anyone claiming a right to the property.
With Nome judge, lawyers, district attorney, and US Marshal promised a share from illegally mined claims, the "three lucky Swedes" had no hope of getting justice in Alaska's legal system.
Circuit Court of Appeals Reviews "Shocking Record"
The distance between Nome and San Francisco where the Circuit Court of Appeals sits is 3,000 miles. Each day of travel by ship between Nome and San Francisco, each day necessary to petition the court for hearing, each day the Circuit Court judge took to make a decision, each day required for the judge's order to travel by ship from San Francisco back to Nome, and each day that the order remained on ship outside Nome's harbor as stormy seas held it hostage represented thousands upon thousands of dollars of gold lifted from the land and into McKenzie's pockets.
The appellate court's order that McKenzie cease mining activities arrived on September 24, a full month after Judge Noyes' last denial. McKenzie had amassed a quarter of a million dollars in gold by then. Determined to continue, he ignored the order, claiming later that his lawyer had told him it was not enforceable.
Judge Noyes also tap-danced around the order, refusing to enforce it, and instead placed guards at the bank to "protect" the gold, which had the effect of keeping the rightful owners from taking it from McKenzie.
Excerpted from The Biggest Damned Hat by Pamela Cravez. Copyright © 2017 Pamela Cravez. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1 Three Lucky Swedes and One Corrupt Judge 7
2 Wickersham Chafes under Eagle's Slow Pace 19
3 George Grigsby's Biggest Damned Hat 23
4 Becoming Norman Banfield 35
5 W. C. Arnold: Territorial Alaska's Most Powerful Lobbyist 55
6 Mildred Hermann and Dorothy Haaland: Independent Thinking Women 61
7 Hellenthal Chooses Anchorage 79
8 Tales of the Silver Fox 97
9 Judge George Folta: License to Hunt 111
10 Remembering Judge Folta and Ketchikan's Red Light District 117
11 Influence and Discipline: Policing Territorial Lawyers 125
12 Buell Nesbett: Navigating Territorial Waters 137
13 Anchorage Lawyers: Creating a Better System 147
14 Rocky Seas: The Great Alaska Court-Bar Fight 157
15 Nesbett's Surrogate 169
18 Grace Berg Schaible and the Tanana Valley Bar 177
17 More Frontier Stories 187