There’s Mili Vanilli – remember them? They won the 1990 Grammy for the best new artist – and then were exposed as frauds and discredited. Their Grammy was taken away.
There was Grey Owl, also known as Wa-sha-quon-asin. He was an Ojibwa who had been a trapper, wilderness guide and forest ranger. He wrote extensively and was known as a champion of the Canadian conservation movement.
But Grey Owl was a fraud, too, without one drop of Ojibwa blood. He was actually an Englishman, named Archibald Stansfield Belaney, who had always wanted to live a native lifestyle.
He wrote a number of successful books, and went on speaking tours in Britain in the 1930’s, but after his death in 1938, he was exposed as an impostor. It set back the conservation cause in Canada by many years.
Then there was J.F.A. Strong, the governor of Alaska. So who was he, and how did a fraud manage to rise to the highest position in the territory? Why would we care? I suggest you read on.
Starting in the late 1880s, John Franklin Alexander Strong worked for a variety of newspapers in Spokane, Bellingham, Tacoma and Seattle. In 1896, while the editor of the Tacoma Ledger, he married Annie Hall from Seattle. Fifteen years his junior, she was his constant companion and partner in his newspaper and other activities for the next 33 years.
Annie was an accomplished musician who spent five years studying music in Paris and Berlin. She taught music and German at the University of Washington before she met and married JF.
Strong, like thousands of others, was caught up in the excitement of the Klondike mania, and he and his new wife headed north along with thousands of others in 1897, but he didn’t make it to the Klondike – at first.
Arriving in Skagway too late in the season to make it to Dawson City, Strong was hired as the associate editor of the newly founded Skagway News. He had plenty to write about.
The law-abiding citizens of Skagway were getting fed-up with the antics of Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, leader of the gang of thieves and thugs and confidence men that had terrorized Skagway for several months. Strong became the voice of the citizens who objected to Smith’s criminal activities.
One day, a Smith emissary appeared in Strong’s office and offered him a bribe of $100 a day to lay off the criticism. Strong refused, and increased his attacks on the Smith gang. He joined forces with a number of others in forming a vigilance committee to take action.
When Smith tried to crash a mass meeting being held by the committee on a wharf on the Skagway waterfront, he was gunned down by Frank Reid. It was later learned that J. A. Hornsby, the editor of the competing newspaper, the Daily Alaskan, was in Smith’s pocket. Hornsby was driven from town along with all the other members of the Smith gang.
In 1899, Strong and his wife headed for the Klondike, where he worked for the Dawson Daily News for a short time before moving on to Nome, where he started the Nome Nugget on January 1, 1900. The Nugget, incidentally, is still in business.
From there, he moved to Katalla, then Iditarod, starting newspapers there, before establishing the Alaska Daily Empire in Juneau, which still publishes to this day. Always a community booster, he became active in politics.
In Nome he championed civic improvements including the establishment of a school, a pure water supply and proper waste disposal. He attacked federal incompetence in governing Alaska and he railed against Seattle businesses that made a fortune in Alaska, but invested little in the North.
Strong was an active advocate on behalf of the promising future of the territory of Alaska.
In 1912, he was a member of the Democratic National Convention. The following year, he was appointed governor of Alaska by President Woodrow Wilson. In a newspaper article at the time, he was described as a native of Kentucky, educated at Brown University.
Strong’s appointment was a popular choice. According to the Alaska Daily Empire, which could hardly be described as unbiased, he was heralded as being the unanimous selection of “Democratic clubs, commercial organizations, citizens generally… miners, fishermen, businessmen and professional men, employers and …toilers.”
One of Strong’s achievements was the founding of the agricultural college and school of mines in Fairbanks that later became the University of Alaska.
In the 1916 election, Strong supported the Republican James Wickersham for delegate to congress over a Democrat candidate. This angered many hardcore Democrats, who vowed to get him.
The charge was led by John W. Troy, who, though initially a strong friend and supporter of Strong, turned on him. When Strong supported Republican Wickersham, Troy turned the editorial voice of Strong’s former newspaper against him and started calling for his removal from office.
In 1917, with Strong’s appointment as governor up for renewal, Troy advanced the cause of another Democrat, Thomas Riggs, as Strong’s replacement. Strong’s opponents tried to discredit him, but he had strong allies in Washington. When that strategy failed, his enemies took another approach common to politics everywhere: dig up the dirt.
In early 1918, Troy engaged the services of the Thiel Detective Agency of St. Louis, Missouri to dig into Strong’s past. What they uncovered heralded the end of Strong’s political career.
First of all, they discovered that Strong had been married before, in 1874, and that he had three children: two daughters and a son. Further, Mrs. Strong the first had never sought a divorce nor remarried. JFA Strong was a bigamist!
But that wasn’t the worst of it; his detractors determined something else even more politically devastating.
The inner circle of Strong supporters had been aware of his foreign birth, but had assumed that Strong was a naturalized American. James Alexander Strong was actually born in Salmon River, New Brunswick, in 1856; he added the patriotic sounding middle initial much later.
James Strong was a Canadian. In fact, Strong’s detractors were able to uncover documentation that proved that long after he was assumed to have become an American, he had signed a document that asserted that he was still a British subject.
That put an end to his political career. He resigned and was replaced by Riggs, who completed the remainder of the governor’s term.
The Strongs left Alaska, spending their summers in Seattle, their winters in Los Angeles, and travelling extensively around the world.
John and Annie remained married until his death. I could find no evidence that he ever sought a divorce from his first wife, nor any indication that he had sought American citizenship or was charged with bigamy. There is nothing in what I read that indicates what the second Mrs. Strong thought of all this.
John F.A. Strong died in Seattle July 27, 1929, thus ending the strange story of the Canadian who reached the office of governor of Alaska!
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based