“Eight Stars of Gold on a Field of Blue”: Alaska Flag Day

Flag
Image credit: Benny Benson’s winning flag design entry, Alaska State Museum, from the Alaska Territorial Flag Competition, American Legion collection. Identifier: ASM-III-O-410
ASL-MS14-1-1-001

July 9th marked the 91st anniversary of the adoption of the Alaska flag. Featuring Ursa Major, or the big dipper, and Polaris, or the North Star, it stands apart as an iconic, minimalist symbol of the state as a whole. In its beautiful simplicity, it represents Alaska in a visual way that has been embraced by many.

What many people don’t know is the story of the state flag.

In 1927, the American Legion held a contest for school children to design a flag for the Alaska Territory. Up until that point, the only representative flag was that of the Russian federation. The Alaska State Library has in its collection 37 of the 145 entries digitized and available online. Some feature symbols of the mining industry, many feature polar bears. But one flag stands out in its universal representation of the state as a whole: Benny Benson’s winning design.

Benny
Image credit: From the Alaska State Library Portrait File, Alaska State Library Historical Collections. Identifier: ASL-Benson-Benny-1
ASL-P01-1921
Museum flag
The original Territory Flag on display at the Alaska State Library.

Benny Benson’s own heartrending story makes his entry all the more powerful. An Alaska Native orphan living at the Jessie Lee Mission Home in Seward, Benson was inspired by the sight of the North Star outside his window each night. In his own words on his design submission, Benson wrote that “the blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaska flower. The North Star is for the future of the state of Alaska, the most northerly in the Union. The dipper is for the Great Bear – symbolizing strength”.

On May 2nd, 1927, the Legislature of the Territory of Alaska adopted Benson’s winning design as the official flag of Alaska. Benson also received an engraved pocket watch with the flag design, and a $1,000 scholarship.

Pocket watch on display at the Alaska State Library donated by Benson himself. Watch engraved with the flag design and text that reads "Awarded 1927 Grand Prize Official Flag".
Pocket watch on display at the Alaska State Library donated by Benson himself.
Act
Image credit: Alaska State Archives, Office of the District and Territorial Governor. Identifier: ASA_A100_RG101_SR726_VS291

The flag flew for the first time on July 9th, 1927, as the Seward Gateway reports:

Alaska Flag Unfurled for First Time at Dedication of "Balto" Building Jesse Lee Home Paid for by Children of States: Bennie Benson, Designer of Flag, Under Direction Captain Ralph R. Guthrie, Attaches Territorial Emblem to Halyards- Impressive Ceremonies at Dedication Services: At the hour of 4 o'clock p.m., Saturday the official flag of Alaska was flung to the breezes for the first time on the flagpole at the Jesse Lee Home, one and a half miles north of the City of Seward. Those officiating at the ceremony were Captain Ralph R. Guthrie of the United States Signal Corps and Privates Edwin S. Diehl and Charles Harris. Bennie Benson, 13-year-old student at the Jesse Lee Home, designer of the flag, attached it to the halyards just below the national emblem and stood at attention while the multicolored folds of Old Glory and the deep violet blue of Alaska's official emblem, studded with the golden stars of the Big Dipper pointing to the North star, fluttered about him.
Image credit: July 11, 1927 issue of the Seward Gateway.

In 1935, the flag design inspired Marie Drake to pen what later became Alaska’s Flag, adopted as the official state song in 1959, and singers often perform it alongside the Star Spangled Banner at events throughout Alaska. Efforts to include an official second verse, with lyrics written by Carol Beery Davis in 1987 about Alaska Native people- and Benson himself- have as of yet not been adopted by the state legislature, yet the second verse is often sung to accompany the first.

Flag song
Image credit: From Captain Lloyd H. (Kinky) Bayers Collection, 1898-1967. Alaska State Library- Historical Collections. Identifier: ASL-MS10-4-19-120

Although Benson shied away from the press in the years since winning the flag design contest, he appeared in a series of photo opportunities once Alaska became a state in 1959- and on the official state flag was his design. By this time, Benson worked as an airplane mechanic and was largely out of the public eye. He died in 1972 at age 58, but is still remembered for his flag design: a large memorial and plaque stands today in Seward, where the flag first flew.

Memorial
Image credit: Madeline McGraw, Seward Library & Museum.

For further reading, please see the exhibit catalog and website that accompanied “Eight Stars of Gold”, the 2001 exhibit at the Alaska State Museum.

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