Admission is free, but we welcome donations.
Above: The Judge painting his fence.
(Alaska Digital Archives, Alaska State Library, the University of Alaska Archives)
No other man has made as deep and varied imprints on Alaska’s heritage … a federal judge, member of Congress, attorney and explorer … present-day Alaska is deeply in debt to him. —Evangeline Atwood, author, Frontier Politics
The life and times of James Wickersham (1857-1939)
James Wickersham—statesman, author, historian and scholar—was born in Illinois in 1857. After earning a law degree, Wickersham and his wife Deborah moved to Tacoma, Washington Territory, where Wickersham practiced law and later served in the Washington State House of Representatives.
Extensive travels. In 1900, President William McKinley appointed Judge Wickersham to head the newly created Third Judicial District of the Alaska territorial court. He brought the first law to Interior Alaska, a huge district covering 300,000 square miles between the Alaska Range and the Brooks Range. Headquartered in Eagle City on the Yukon River, he traveled throughout the region by foot, steamer, dog team and revenue cutter to oversee judicial proceedings. In 1903, he moved the headquarters to the newly formed town of Fairbanks and completed seven terms as U.S. District Court Judge.
He took time in 1903 to become the first white man to attempt to climb Mt. McKinley. He was thwarted by a sheer rock wall that now bears his name—the Wickersham Wall.
The Congressional years, a new university, and the road to Alaska statehood. Wickersham was elected Alaska’s delegate to Congress in 1908. Although he could not vote, he successfully lobbied Congress to pass the Organic Act of 1912, which granted Territorial status and allowed Alaska to have an elected legislature.
Wickersham served as delegate to Congress until 1920. During that time, he secured funding for the Alaska Railroad (1914) and the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (1915). He secured Land Grant status for the new college in association with the creation of the Alaska Agricultural Experiment Station. Land surveyed near Fairbanks for the experiment station became the campus of the new college, and eventually the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
After dedicating the new campus location, Judge Wickersham held an historic meeting with the traditional chiefs of the Tanana River Valley to begin discussions of land use as miners and homesteaders moved into the area. He was a strong proponent of statehood for Alaska and introduced the first statehood bill in 1916, more than 40 years before it became a reality.
Advocacy for Alaska Natives. Wickersham won re-election to Congress in 1931. He continued to advocate for statehood and also worked on a bill that proposed allowing Native Alaskans in Southeast Alaska to bring suit in court to recover fair value of hunting grounds and homes.