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Yalies in Alaska’s History

In 1878, John Green Brady ’74 arrived in the Alaska seacoast town of Sitka to work as a Presbyterian missionary among the native Alaskans. Over the next four decades, he would become an important influence on the territory’s development. In those early days after the U.S. acquisition of Alaska, dozens of Yale alumni traveled there as missionaries, forest conservationists, explorers, and adventurers, and to seek their fortunes in mining and business. But Brady was the first Yale man to actually settle in Alaska and, indeed, its first governor.


In 1858, ten-year-old Brady took an orphan train from Manhattan to Indiana.

Brady’s life story is the stuff of rags-to-riches fiction. Born in 1848, he was, by the age of eight, a lonely runaway living on the streets of lower Manhattan. In 1857, Theodore Roosevelt’s father befriended’s Aid Society orphanage. The following year Brady went west on an orphan train to Indiana, where he was taken in by the family of Judge John Green. (According to Ted C. Hinckley, Brady’s biographer, Green had seen the orphans on the train but arrived late to choose his new farmhand. Green said later that Brady was the homeliest, least promising boy in the group.) Brady would become a farmer and a schoolteacher. He worked his way through the Waveland Collegiate Institute before entering Yale in 1870.

When he took his missionary post in Sitka, Brady believed that the best way to help the natives was to supplement religious instruction with vocational training that would help them take advantage of the territory’s economic potential. But he could not convince his board to bankroll this project, so he soon left the ministry to establish sawmills and open schools on his own. In search of financial support, Brady returned to New Haven and then Washington, D.C., in 1879. Brady’s classmate, Rutherford Hayes Platt, gave him a letter of introduction to his uncle, President Rutherford B. Hayes. One of Brady’s teachers, Professor Benjamin Silliman Jr., provided a letter of introduction to his own classmate, William Maxwell Evarts; Evarts happened to be secretary of state.

Brady was warmly received by Hayes and still more so by Evarts, who said, “We had better make you governor of Alaska.” Brady succeeded in raising the federal government’s awareness of the territory’s needs, but he was not able to raise money for his mission. He returned to Sitka and, to fund his religious and educational projects, went into business. While operating the Sitka Trading Company, he was appointed U.S. commissioner to Alaska and served from 1884 to 1889.

Evarts’s suggestion came to fruition in 1897, when President William McKinley appointed Brady as the territory’s governor. McKinley later reappointed him to a second term; remarkably, it was President Theodore Roosevelt, the son of Brady’s original benefactor, who appointed him to a third term in 1905. In his biographer’s assessment, as governor Brady was both a staunch promoter of Indian assimilation and a staunch advocate of Indian civil rights. He also reformed the civil, criminal, and tax codes. When he died, on December 17, 1918, the Alaska Native Brotherhood filled the Brady home with evergreen boughs in tribute.


Yale foresters played key roles in the management of Alaska’s natural resources.

Other Yale alumni played important roles in Alaska. William Henry Brewer, a member of the first graduating class of Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School in 1852, was an explorer who encouraged Secretary of State William Seward to purchase the territory in 1867. In 1899 Brewer, who had become a Yale professor of agriculture, explored Alaska for two months as part of the influential Harriman Expedition. Brewer and another Harriman explorer, George Bird Grinnell ’70—a distinguished naturalist and founder of the Audubon Society—contributed to the Harriman report on the region’s scientific and environmental resources.

Yale foresters played key roles in the management of Alaska’s natural resources. B. Frank Heintzelman ’10MF began work in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska in 1918; following his retirement from the Forest Service in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed him governor of the Alaska Territory. The forestry school’s founders—Gifford Pinchot ’89, the father of forest conservation; and Henry S. Graves ’92—served as the first and second chiefs of the U.S. Forest Service from 1898–1920. Through Pinchot and Graves, the Forest Service restricted the haphazard, every-man-for-himself logging and mining that had prevailed in Alaska.

In 1918, Graves made the case for sound conservation policy in the future state and for reining in the robber barons operating there: “The object of these men … is so to direct the political development and public administration of Alaska that they will be able to get what they want when they want it. … It would be the height of folly to ignore these facts in dealing with Alaska, which contains the last of the great undeveloped resources of the country.”  the end





Some Alaska Blues

Thomas T. Minor ’67MD. Surgeon on the 1868 Smithsonian expedition to Alaska.

William H. Jenks ’73. Civil engineer who laid out as towns the Indian posts of Juneau, Wrangell, and Sitka, 1898–99.

Curtiss C. Turner ’85. Railroad engineer in the Klondike. Died in the 1898 Chilkoot Pass avalanche.

Douglas Brown ’91. Physician in charge of the first U.S. Government Hospital for Natives, Juneau, 1915–17.


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