Kentucky African American Servicemen in Skagway, Alaska
Skagway [earlier spelled Skaguay] was a tent-town in 1897, but with the onset of the Klondike Gold Rush the town grew to a population of more than 30,000. Skagway was a center for mining operations that soon became a lawless town full of vice.
By 1899 the gold rush was ending and the population in Skagway decreased as quickly as it had grown. The White Pass Railroad to Skagway was completed in 1900, the year the city was incorporated as the first city in the Alaska Territory. [Alaska would become a state in 1958.]
The Military Department of Alaska was established January 19, 1900, and it was recommended that a permanent post be established at Skagway. A military post had been established at Fort Wrangel when the United States acquired Alaska from Russia in 1867; the post was withdrawn in 1870. A military presence was restored in the area in response to the lawlessness that came with the gold rush.
In 1899 U.S. Army Company L, 24th Infantry, a regiment of African American troops, was stationed in Dyea, AK. They were forced to relocate to Fort Wrangel/Skagway because of a forest fire.
According to the 1900 U.S. Federal Census, ten of the men were from Kentucky: Sargent William Hanson, b. 1851 in Shelby County; Corporal Robert R. Cotton, b. 1861 in Boyle County; Private Edgar Merritt, b. 1879 in Hopkinsville; Corporal Orselin J. Kincaid, b. 1877 in Stanford; Corporal Lafayette Coats, b. 1873 in Rowletts; Corporal Olijah Lee, b. 1877 in Paducah; Private Thomas Morton, b. 1868 in Bourbon County; Private Chester Sanders, b. 1879 in Carrollton; Private Leonard Watkins, born in Frankfort; and Private Victor Emmons, b. 1888 in Springdale. Sussie O'Connor, b. 1867 in Louisville, KY, was in Skagway with her husband, 1st Sargent Robert O'Connor. Peter Brown, who had arrived in Alaska in 1898, was a saloon keeper in Porcupine.
A picture showing Company L, 24th Infantry in the Skagway 4th of July parade is available at Alaska's Digital Archives, as are other pictures of the infantry. One picture in particular shows all the men standing at attention on the Klondike Company wharf in Dyea.
For more about the city, see Skagway, District of Alaska, 1884-1912, by R. L. S. Spude; and The Truth About Alaska, by E. McElwaine.