Benny Benson - Alaska's Flag
John Ben "Benny" Benson was 13, a 7th grade orphan at a mission school in Seward when he created the flag for the Territory of Alaska in 1927. He entered a contest arranged for children in grades 7 through 12 by Alaska Territorial Governor George Parks. On a visit to the U.S. Post Office building in 1926 he had noticed that, while there were flags for every state displayed, the territory of Alaska had none.
The rules called for 8½ x 11-inch paper, color or plain ink. Each community formed a panel to select the 10 best entries, which were then forwarded to the final committee in Juneau.
Benson looked to the sky, choosing the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and the North Star for his symbols. He described his choices: "The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaska Flower. The North Star is for the future state of Alaska, the most northerly of the union. The dipper is for the Great Bear symbolizing strength." His sentiments are echoed in the state song.
Benny actually drew more than one entry. One had a dogsled and two huskies on a bright green backdrop. A second was a massive mountain rising in front of a yellow sun. And the one that won, had the number 1867 under the Big Dipper on a royal blue background.
Benny Benson was born in Chignik in 1913, part Russian-Aleut and part Swedish. His father put him in an orphanage, the Jesse Lee Home in Unalaska, at the age of 3 when his mother died. The home moved from Unalaska to Seward in 1925.
Benson learned about his win in March 1927. “One day our teacher’s husband came in the room and he brought a telegram,” Benson recalled in 1971. “She just looked at it and her mouth dropped open. She was speechless. … And I darned near fell out of my seat, I guess.”
The only change that was made in his design was the removal of the “1867.” His design was favored over about 700 entries from schoolchildren around the state. Many of the other entries had variations on polar bears, gold pans, the state seal, the midnight sun, or northern lights. Until his flag was chosen, Alaskans had flown only the U.S. flag since the territory was purchased from Russia in 1867. The Territory of Alaska became a state in 1959.
Benson spent most of his adult life in Kodiak, where he worked for Kodiak Airways. He had two daughters and several stepchildren and grandchildren. In later years, Benson sewed custom, autographed Alaska flags for legislators, dignitaries and each Miss Alaska. He later said that his greatest thrill was the standing ovation he received at the Alaska constitutional convention. He died of a heart attack on July 2, 1972., at the age of 58.
For his feat, Benson won a gold watch with his design engraved on the back and $1,000 that he later used for diesel-engine repair school. The watch he donated to the Alaska State Museum in 1963. The original flag, made of blue silk and appliquéd gold stars, was first flown July 9, 1927.
If you visit Seward, you can find the Benny Benson Memorial at Mile 1.4 of the Seward Highway.