Almanac: McKinley: Bad name evoking bad decisions

Photo courtesy of whitehouse.gov. William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States.

Photo courtesy of whitehouse.gov. William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States.

By Brent Johnson, for the Redoubt Reporter

The name “McKinley” is out in Alaska. That’s appropriate for two reasons. First, the mountain’s Koyukon Athabascan name was always better because it meant “the high one.” Second, President McKinley’s reputation in Alaska is low. Here’s why:

There once was a crook named Alexander Mackenzie, who was a Republican national committeeman from North Dakota. In 1883, McKenzie succeeded in getting the capitol of Dakota Territory moved from Yankton to Bismark, where he owned property.

McKenzie had an ear for money and learned of the gold strike in Nome. And he heard that foreigners (often called “the three lucky Swedes”) had filed first and got the best claims. McKenzie thought he could use an irritant against immigrants to steal their good fortune.

Turns out that two of the foreigners were already naturalized citizens, and also that the mining laws allowed for foreigners to participate. So McKenzie tried to change the laws to gain an opportunity to seize the mother lode based on race. When that effort failed, he simply took the law into his own hands.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service. Formerly called Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak was recently renamed Denali.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service. Formerly called Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak was recently renamed Denali.

McKenzie used his political connections with President McKinley to secure the appointment of hand-picked candidates. McKenzie’s friend, Arthur H. Noyes, was appointed federal judge to the newly created Second District of Alaska, with its seat at Nome. Others he had appointed for Nome included Joseph Wood, district attorney; R. Stevens, U.S. commissioner, and C. Vawter, U.S. marshal.

McKenzie formed the Alaska Gold Mining Co. with himself as a 51 percent shareholder. In July 1900, he traveled to Nome with fellow conspirators. His cronies filed suit, contesting the claims of the best mines. Judge Noyes then issued a judgment stopping the work at those mines, and appointed McKenzie as “receiver.”

A receiver in mining disputes typically holds the mine until legal issues are straightened out. But McKenzie began immediately to work the mines.

McKenzie and his partners intended to sell the gold under his Alaska Gold Mining Co. They would thus profit from the stolen gold and realize a gain in the value of the stock for their company.

The rightful owners of the mines scrambled to get legal help. Among the mines seized were those of the Wild Goose Mining Co. owned by Charles Lane, of California. Lane’s lawyers appealed Noyes’ decisions to the Ninth Circuit Court in California and got the decisions overturned. When his lawyers returned to Nome and presented the judge with the legal writ, Noyes quietly refused to recognize the papers. McKenzie and the thieves continued working the claims.

Lane had to hurry to San Francisco and bring two U.S. marshals to Nome. They arrested McKenzie, Noyes and the other crooks. On Feb. 11, 1901, McKenzie was found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to a year in jail.

When all other appeals failed he turned to fellow Republican, President McKinley. To his credit, McKinley refused to pardon McKinzie until he returned all the stolen gold. Once that little matter was out of the way, McKinley pardoned the wretch.

Actually, historians point out that McKenzie’s crime was conspiracy, not contempt of court, and so should have carried a much longer jail sentence. A year in jail is pretty modest punishment for so high a crime, and McKinley denied Alaskans even that satisfaction.

Author Rex Beach brought the deeds of McKenzie and his gang to a wide audience through his novel “The Spoilers,” and articles titled “The Looting of Alaska.”

In removing the name McKinley, President Obama has returned the pride deserving of North America’s highest.

Brent Johnson, of Clam Gulch, is a former president of the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association.

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Filed under Almanac, history

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