SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Canadian Tsimshian Was A Leader For Alaska Native Rights
Peter Simpson Also Owned Alaska's First Native Business


February 18, 2010

Ketchikan, Alaska - Although the vast majority of the leaders in the Alaska Native civil rights movement were Tlingits, one of the founders and early leaders was a Tsimshian, originally from Canada, named Peter Simpson (Photo).

Simpson was one of the founders of the Alaskan Native Brotherhood in 1912, the only non Tlingit among the early advocates. And many in the Native community consider him one of the forces behind Native land claims efforts.

Simpson is also given credit for operating what it is believed the first Native owned business in Alaska, a sawmill at Port Gravina near Ketchikan in 1892.

Simpson's birth date is dispute as most sources say that he was born in 1871 but a census taken when New Metlakatla was founded in 1887 listed his age as 23. He told friends that he was born on July 4, although it was in what was then called Port Simpson, now Lax Kw'alaams, a town that was the major trading post in northern British Columbia at that time.

Simpson was a member of the Killerwhale Clan and was raised by his uncle and aunt, Henry and Alice Ridley. As a youngster he lived in Old Metlakatla and was especially close to Anglican Lay Minister, Father William Duncan.

In 1985, Ketchikan Native elder Gertrude Mather Johnson collected information on Simpson's life for the Sealaska Heritage Foundation. That information was later the basis of a chapter on Simpson's life in Haa Kusteeyi: Our Culture, Tlingit Life Stories, the 1994 work by Nora and Richard Dauenhauer which is considered the standard reference biographic work on Alaska Native civil rights leaders.

Church 'Burning' Story Possibly Apocryphal

In the biography, Gertrude Mather Johnson noted that her mother was very familiar with Peter Simpson and considered him a leader, someone who would easily have been a major chief amongst the Tsimshians. Johnson also noted that Simpson was very loyal to Father Duncan.

"At Father Duncan's request he, Adam Gordon, Matthew Reeve, George Eaton and four other men went back to Metlakatla, B.C. to dismantle their church there," Johnson wrote in 1985. "They did a great deal of damage by chopping away the wooden structure and eventually burning it down to the ground. The Canadian authorities had warrants for their arrest, but the young men fled back to their homes in Metlakatla, Alaska."

Official histories of the period seem to separate the fire that destroyed the Old Metlakatla St. Paul's Church - once considered the largest church north of San Francisco and west of Chicago when it was built in the 1870s - in 1901 from an incident that occurred late in 1887, when a group of young men from New Metlakatla returned to their old village and tried to tear down the church and take parts of it with them to the new village in Alaska. Canadian authorities did unsuccessfully try to arrest the young men in that incident.

There is no indisputable evidence that men from New Metlakatla were involved when the St. Paul's Church caught fire and burned in 1901, but in his private correspondence Anglican Bishop William Ridley, laid the blame on Duncan.

In 1888, Duncan agreed to send several young men from New Metlakatla to the Sitka Industrial Training School that had been set up by Duncan's patron in moving his community to Alaska, Sheldon Jackson. It is believed that Simpson was among that group.

Port Gravina Founded in 1892

Four years later, Simpson led a small group of Metlakatla men and their families to found the community of Port Gravina, on Gravina Island just across Tongass Narrows from the small village of Ketchikan.

The site of the community was where the north end of the Ketchikan International Airport is now. (See "The Village of Port Gravina," SITNEWS, Feb. 4, 2006).

The main focus of Port Gravina was the sawmill that Simpson and Mark Hamilton operated. Alaskan historian Pat Roppel contends that it was first business in the state that was owned and operated solely by Alaska Natives.

The community also included a school and church - which was built with the help of Saxman missionary Edward Marsden (Photo). There was also a boarding house and other smaller businesses in the community. Later area histories estimate that its population had reached 100 by the mid 1890s, not that much smaller than Ketchikan at the time. A shipyard was also planned for the community.

Unfortunately, Port Gravina would not last. In 1904, a fire broke out while most of the residents were in Ketchikan celebrating the 4th of July. The sawmill, the dock and most of the other buildings along the town's wooden boardwalk were destroyed.

Johnson noted in her biography that some Native elders at the time suspected that jealous non-Natives had set the fire, but she also noted that others believed that the fire was deliberately set by the owners to collect the insurance money.

If that was the case, the plan was unsuccessful because an article in the Ketchikan Mining Journal after the fire indicated that insurance would likely cover only 10 percent of the loss.

"The loss of Gravina was certainly a loss for Peter Simpson," Johnson wrote. "According to Isabella Brady (his granddaughter), Peter originally left British Columbia because it was impossible for him to own land there due to his tribal status. Now he could do little about the loss of Gravina, and because he did not hold United States citizenship, he could not own land in Alaska."

While most of the residents of Port Gravina either moved to Ketchikan or Metlakatla, Simpson headed north to Juneau, where - according to Johnson - he worked on a ferry boat between Juneau and Douglas. He eventually moved to Sitka and joined up with another group of young men he knew from Metlakatla when they moved to Sitka to attend the training school, according to Johnson. During his second time at the training school, Simpson studied parliamentary procedure and organization, Johnson wrote.

First ANB President

In 1912, Simpson was involved with a committee to establish the Alaska Native Brotherhood. In one way the group intended to form a fraternal lodge because Natives were kept out of Alaska's other fraternal groups. Even the ubiquitous Redmen Lodges were non-Native at the time.

But another important aspect of the organization was to work for Native social and property rights in Alaska, a situation that had been driven home to Simpson when Port Gravina had burned, years before.

According to Johnson, Simpson was convinced that only through organizing and by using the rules of parliamentary procedure, could Alaska's Native gain their civil rights.

Simpson's grasp of parliamentary procedure and organization led the ANB to select him as Grand President for its first three years, 1913 to 1916. He later served another term in 1923-24.

"In expressing his devotion to the ANB, Peter would say 'When I die, if you cut my heart open you will see ANB written on it,'" Johnson wrote in 1985.

"Isabella Brady remembers him also saying a variant of this, 'If you cut my body open, you'll see the ANB with the arrow running through it from my heart.'"

Johnson also noted that Simpson was considered the early "peacemaker" in the organization, especially when discussions would grow heated. She noted he would usually call for a recess and ask the members to sing "Onward Christian Soldiers" and then pray. When the recess was over, the tempers had usually cooled.

'Then Fight For It'

Simpson was also noted for his impassioned speeches urging the ANB and especially its younger members to continue to press for Native land claims. He and fellow Native leader William Paul engaged in one of the most famous discussions in Alaska Native History regarding land claims. It was summarized by William Paul's son Frederick in a 1991 biography of his father, entitled "Then Fight For It."

"During the 1925 (ANB) Convention, Peter took Dad (William Paul) aside and asked him 'Willie, who owns this land?' Frederick Paul wrote. "After a long pause," Dad replied 'We do.' 'Then Fight For it,' Peter, in a sense, commanded, like the laying on of hands. Thus was born the Alaska land claims movement."

Four years passed before the ANB agreed to take on the challenge, and then it took another 42 years for the Native land claims to become law, but Simpson had planted the first seed.

Simpson was also concerned about the living conditions of Natives in Alaskan communities. When a group of "Native mothers" in Ketchikan sent a letter to the Ketchikan City Council in the late 1920s asking the council to shut down the Creek Street red light district because of the social troubles it was creating in what was called "Indian Town" (the area south of Ketchikan Creek), the first and most prominent name on the petition was "Peter Simpson."

Back in Sitka, Simpson continued his long association with Sheldon Jackson (Photo) and the school that would eventually become Sheldon Jackson College. In 1935, he helped build a sawmill at the school.

"By all accounts, Peter Simpson was a mechanical genius with a gift for scrounging scrap materials and all kinds of things, restoring them and recombining them for something new," Johnson wrote in 1985. She also noted that he was a skilled boat builder and completed many boats, some of which were still operating in Alaskan waters in the 1980s.

One boat in particular that was built by Simpson was the SJS, the school workboat that was designed and built in 1936-1937. It also became a fishing boat, a seiner, that was used by such future Native leaders as Andrew Hope and Walter Sobeleff.

The SJS was the first seiner in the Sitka area with a galley on deck and the first to be powered by a high speed diesel engine, according to Johnson. It was used as a US Navy patrol boat during World War II.

Simpson was married to Mary Sloan, a Sitka Tlingit. They had 15 children. By the time Simpson was in his 70s in the 1940s, he had outlived his wife and all of his children, but several of his grandchildren, including Isabella Brady, were still alive.

According to Johnson, Simpson made a brief trip to Metlakatla in the late 1940s to visit his surviving sisters, Betsy Baxter and Mary Haldane. They urged him to remain in his home town, but he chose to return to Sitka to live with his grandchildren.

He died on December 27, 1947 and was buried in Sitka.

In an obituary in the Alaska Weekly of January 16, 1948, he was referred to as the "Father of the Alaska Native Brotherhood."


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Historical Ketchikan... Historical Alaska - More Feature Stories by Dave Kiffer

Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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