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The laws of Alaska

As The Legal Genealogist prepares for the Federation of Genealogical Society cruise to Alaska starting later this week, it’s clear that folks with roots in Alaska sometimes think that there are some amazingly strong parallels between the laws of Oregon and their own laws there in the Last Frontier.

AlaskaEvery time you look at, say, one of the early laws of Alaska as to justices of the peace, you might think that it seems to be identical or very nearly identical to the law in effect on the same such in Oregon.

And you’d be right.

Start with the fact that there wasn’t any American law governing Alaska of any kind before 1867. That’s when the United States bought Alaska from Russia for the grand sum of $7.2 million.1

At that point, Alaska became American territory — and essentially lawless.

Oh, the act of 27 July 1868 purported to extend some of the laws of the United States to the newly-acquired land — but only “the laws … relating to customs, commerce and navigation.”2

There was, then, no land law — no way to obtain legal title to land. No probate law, and no probate courts. “In short, there was neither civil nor criminal jurisdiction in any part of Alaska. Even murder might be committed, and there was no redress within that colony.”3

It wasn’t until 1884 that a general legal system was imposed in Alaska, by what’s called the 1884 Organic Act: “An Act providing a civil government for Alaska.”4 For the first time, there was to be a governor with authority to see that laws were enforced, a district court with civil and criminal jurisdiction, a clerk to record deeds, mortgages and mining claims — and, in a most unusual provision — a set of laws imposed on the territory:

the general laws of the State of Oregon now in force are hereby declared to be the law in said district, so far as the same may be applicable and not in conflict with the provisions of this act or the laws of the United States…5


Even today, two days by fast car away from Alaska and its capital.


There’s no definitive source explaining why Oregon law was chosen, rather than the law of any other jurisdiction. One source suggests that several aides of the then Secretary of the Treasury recommended that some of the laws of Oregon be adopted simply to avoid the expense of developing a new code for the new territory.6

Whatever the justification, Oregon law became the law of Alaska. But any changes adopted by Oregon weren’t included. And Alaska law continued to develop after 1884.

First came the Alaska Criminal Code, adopted by Congress 3 March 1899.7 A civil code followed in 1900.8

It was not until 1912 that Alaska was actually given some degree of self-government. In the second Organic Act, which became law 113 years ago yesterday, Alaska was finally given the status of a territory, with its capital at Juneau and the right to establish a territorial legislature.9

And, of course, it was not until 1959 that Alaska became a state, with all of the rights of self-government attached to statehood.10

With remnants, still, of early Oregon law…


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Ceded territory,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 19 Aug 2015 ( : accessed 24 Aug 2015).
  2. §1, “An Act to extend the Laws of the United States relating to Customs, Commerce and Navigation over the Territory ceded to the United States by Russia, to establish a Collection District therein, and for other Purposes,” 15 Stat. 240 (1868).
  3. Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of Alaska, 1730-1885 (San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft & Co., 1886), 603-605; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 24 Aug 2015).
  4. “An Act providing a civil government for Alaska,” 23 Stat. 24 (17 May 1884).
  5. Ibid., §7.
  6. Claus M. Naske & Herman E. Slotnick, Alaska: A History, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011), 115.
  7. “An Act To define and punish crimes in the District of Alaska and to provide a code of criminal procedure for said district,” 30 Stat. 1253 (3 Mar 1899).
  8. Act Making further provision for a civil government for Alaska, and for other purposes, 31 Stat. 321 (6 June 1900).
  9. “An Act To create a legislative assembly in the Territory of Alaska, to confer legislative power thereon, and for other purposes,” 37 Stat. 512 (24 Aug 1912).
  10. “An Act To provide for the admission of the State of Alaska into the Union,” 72 Stat. 339 (7 July 1958), effective 3 Jan 1959.
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