Meet Benny Benson, The 13-Year-Old Who Designed Alaska's State Flag

For its first 60 years as part of the United States, Alaska did not have its own flag and flew only the American flag, according to the Alaska Historical Society. The U.S. had purchased the region from Russia in 1867, and for most of the next century, Alaska was a U.S. territory, like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are today. (By the way, they both have flags.) Alaska wouldn't become a state until 1959, according to the Library of Congress.

In 1926, when Alaska was still a territory and decades away from statehood, territorial governor George Parks and the local American Legion decided that the territory needed a flag. What's more, they outsourced the design of the flag to the state's teenagers; children in grades 7-12 were asked to come up with a design to represent the territory moving forward, per the Alaska Historical Society.

The Alaska American Legion received several dozen submissions, according to Netstate, many that referenced certain aspects of the state and might have made an equally good choice. But at the end of the day, the winning design, which today remains as the Alaska state flag, was made by a 13-year-old boy named John Bell ("Benny") Benson.

The winning design

The committee that considered the flag submissions from Alaska's teenagers fielded quite a few that were variations on the same thing, according to Netstate. The Alaska territorial seal figured prominently in many designs, polar bears in others — including at least one that depicted a polar bear atop a globe. Some referenced the state's fishing and mining industries.

Benny Benson's design scratched the committee right where it itched, however. It depicted the Big Dipper constellation, itself a part of Ursa Major (the Great Bear), a reference to Alaska's bears. Another star represents the North Star, reflecting Alaska's position in the North and its quest for statehood; if and when it became a state, it would be the northernmost. The blue background represents not just the night sky, but also the forget-me-not, Alaska's state flower. "Benny Benson made a tremendous impact on Alaska history when he submitted his entry that featured the Big Dipper and the North Star. His story is a wonderful example of how one young person can really make a difference. The flag story continues to remind us of the importance of listening to the ideas and opinions of young people," said Alaska Lieutenant Governor Fran Ulmar in 2002, per Netstate. For his efforts, Benson received a $1,000 award (a princely sum in those days) and a watch, according to the Alaska Historical Society.

Benny Benson's difficult life

Benny Benson's decision to lean into Alaska's night sky, the Big Dipper, and the North Star may have been just what the territory needed for their flag, but Benson himself lived in an orphanage. As the University of Alaska explains, he was born to an Aleut-Russian woman and a Swedish fisherman father. In Benson's day, Alaskan natives were at risk from repeated epidemics, and when Benson was three years old, his mother died, so his father sent him to live in the Jesse Lee Home orphanage.

After graduating high school, Benson reunited with his father and took whatever work he could get. However, when work dried up, he moved to Seattle and he used his money from the flag contest to fund his education as a diesel mechanic. He later married, had children, divorced, returned to Alaska, and became an airplane mechanic. He also reunited with at least one of his siblings, had his leg amputated, and in 1972, married another former resident of the Jesse Lee Home. That same year, he died of a heart attack at 58 years of age.