Eight Stars of Gold on a Field of Blue
In 1926 Territorial Governor George A. Parks decided an important step on Alaska’s path from territorial status to statehood was having a flag. Since the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 the only flag which had flown over the land was the U.S. Stars and Stripes; every other territory had its own flag, so why not Alaska? Governor Parks engaged the Alaskan Chapter of the American Legion, and a plan was soon formulated to hold a contest, open to Alaskan schoolchildren in grades 7 through 12, to design a flag for the territory of Alaska.
Contest rules were circulated throughout the territory in January, 1927. The rules stipulated that the first stage of the competition would take place at a local level, with each town setting up a panel of judges to determine the ten best local designs. These would be forwarded to Juneau, where the final competition would take place. The idea proved popular and more than 700 entries were submitted. Finally, after months of deliberation, 142 designs were chosen and sent to Juneau for final consideration by the selection committee. Among them was a simple blue flag with eight gold stars, designed by a 13-year-old Aleut boy from Seward.
John Ben Benson Jr. was born in Chignik, a small village on the south shore of the Alaska Peninsula. His mother, Tatiana Schebolein, was of Aleut and Russian descent, and his father, John Ben Benson, was Swedish-American. When Benny was three years old his family lost their home in a fire, his mother died of pneumonia, and due to his own ill health and other circumstances, Benny’s father was unable to care for his children, forcing a breakup of the family. Benny and his younger brother Carl were sent to the Jesse Lee Home for Children in Unalaska; a sister was sent to Oregon. In 1925 the Jesse Lee Home was moved to Seward, where Benny was living at the time of the flag design contest.
Benny’s design was adopted by the Alaska Territorial Legislature in May, 1927. He was awarded a gold watch engraved with his flag design, and $1,000, equal to about $15,000 today, to apply to his education. Benny’s description submitted with his design explained: "The blue field is for the Alaska Sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaskan flower. The North Star is for the future of Alaska, the most northerly in the union. The Dipper is for the Great Bear – symbolizing strength.”
Benny applied his monetary award toward schooling in diesel mechanics in Seattle. He married, returned to Alaska, and made his home in Kodiak, where he raised two daughters and worked as a master carpenter and an airplane mechanic for Kodiak Airways. He died of a heart attack in 1972.
The words to the song “Alaska's Flag” were written by Marie Drake, a long-time employee of the Alaska Department of Education, and set to music composed by Elinor Dusenbury, whose husband was commander of Chilkoot Barracks at Haines from 1933 to 1936. The Territorial Legislature adopted “Alaska's Flag” as Alaska's official song in 1955. ~•~