Along with other notable historic figures like Katlian, Seward, and Lincoln, there’s a street in Sitka named for Jeff Davis — but he’s not the Jeff Davis most people think he is.
Although he has the same name as the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Columbus Davis was an enlisted man who rose through the ranks of the Union Army to become a general, and later, the military governor of Alaska.
And as historian Michael Dunham told the Sitka Chamber of Commerce this week (6-14-17), Jeff Davis was a man of formidable talents and temper.
Former broadcaster and Anchorage Daily News reporter Michael Dunham was in Sitka as part of the Sesquicentennial Speaker Series, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Alaska Transfer this year. He’s written a pair of books — “The Man who Sold Alaska,” and “The Man who Bought Alaska.” You can listen to his chamber presentation in its entirety here.
Projected on screen in the front of the room is one of those Civil War-era portraits. A Union officer. Crazy beard. Eyes that look like he’s giving the photographer about 2 minutes to live.
“The true most ferocious leader of the most ferocious tribe in Alaska was probably this dude.”
Michael Dunham is talking about Jeff Davis.
“He was an Indiana farm boy who dreamed of being a polar explorer one day. When the Mexican War broke out he enlisted as a private and went on to win fame in the Battle of Buena Vista.”
Davis was single, and considered an eligible bachelor among the gentry of Charleston, South Carolina, where he was stationed on the eve of the Civil War. When Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumpter in 1861, Davis resort to diplomacy. He fired back. It turns out Davis had a bit of a hair trigger in any case, and he rose quickly through the ranks.
“By 1862 he was a general himself under the command of General Bull Nelson in Kentucky. William Nelson was in fact a bully. He insulted Davis, who demanded an apology. Nelson refused, whereupon Jeff Davis shot Bull Nelson dead.”
Dunham says that Davis was spared punishment, and was given a command under William Tecumseh Sherman, leading the rearguard during Sherman’s famous march through Georgia.
After the war, Davis longed to head west to become an Indian fighter, but the Army sent him to Sitka in 1867 instead. Dunham says that Davis developed a grudging, mutual respect for Sitka’s Tlingit people.
“They were not the kind of Indians he expected at all. He praised their industry, and their intelligence, and above all, their respect for the law, which was incredibly important for him.”
But it wasn’t always an easy peace. The wall that separated the Russians and the Tlingit now separated the Americans, and cannons stood ready to be trained on Sitka’s Tlingit village. Dunham tells the story of a visiting Tlingit chief Koh’Klux of the Klukwan Chilkat who arrived in Sitka in 1868 with 50 warriors to test the mettle of the Americans.
“And on New Year’s Eve — or New Year’s Day, probably — Koh’Klux showed up way after curfew with some friends. When the sentry challenged him, he snatched the gun away and walked off with it laughing.”
Dunham says that Davis understood the nature of the challenge, and that it called for a proportional response. Although he could have leveled the Tlingit village, he chose another course of action.
“So finally, he walks into the Indian town alone, while his soldiers, who are terrified, stay up on the parapet. He knocks on the door where he knows Koh’Klux is staying and puts him under arrest… One of the sergeants said it was the bravest thing I ever saw done in my life, and only one man could have done it.”
But when cultural conflict escalated to bloodshed, Davis could be ruthless. Following a dispute involving the death of a Tlingit, and the retaliatory killing of two non-Native prospectors, Davis ordered the village of Kake burned to the ground — a matter that remained unresolved until the arrival in Alaska of former Secretary of State William Seward, who negotiated with Koh’Klux himself in the Klukwan Whale House.
Jeff Davis was reassigned to California in 1873, where he put an end to the California Indian wars by capturing and executing the chief of the Modoc.
The “most ferocious leader of the most ferocious tribe in Alaska” died in Chicago in 1879.
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