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Office of the Governor


Commander Benjamin Franklin Tilley

February 17, 1900 - November 27, 1901


A Biographical Sketch of American Samoa’s First Naval Governor: Commander Benjamin Franklin Tilley, U.S. Navy  (Born March 29, 1848; Died March 17, 1907. Term of Office: February 17, 1900-November 27, 1901).

Prepared by Stan Sorensen, Historian, Governor’s Office Website.

Benjamin Franklin Tilley, American Samoa’s first naval governor, was born on March 29, 1848 in Bristol, Rhode Island. His parents were Benjamin and Sarah W. Easterbrooks Tilley. Benjamin was the sixth of nine children. (1a. Arnold 1894: 107; 2e. USNHC: Tilley RO)

Tilley graduated first in his class at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland on June 8, 1867, and was commissioned as an Ensign with the serial number 103. (2e. USNHC: Tilley RO; 2f. Wright-Sorensen, 12/06/1989) Lieutenant Tilley married Emily Edelin Williamson on June 6, 1878. (1a. Anonymous 1943: 1240)

On April 30, 1899 Tilley, 51 years old and now holding the rank of Commander, set sail from Norfolk, Virginia, on board USS Abarenda to deliver a cargo of coal and structural steel to the Navy's coaling station on the island of Tutuila, Samoa. (The Navy had purchased Abarenda from an English company and commissioned her as USS Abarenda (AC-13), a 4,000-ton naval auxiliary freighter. She subsequently served as the U.S. Naval Station Tutuila's first station ship until May 29, 1902, following which she served in the Atlantic Fleet and in the Asiatic Station from 1910 until 1926, after which she was sold). (1a. Gray 1960: 105; 2e. USNHC: Tilley RO; 2a. Denfeld 1989a: 6)

Commander Tilley entered Pago Pago Harbor, Tutuila, Samoa on August 13, 1899, aboard USS Abarenda, Upon arrival, Tilley became Officer in Charge of the U.S. Naval Station Tutuila, (please note that there is no comma between “Station” and “Tutuila”), which was already under construction. Abarenda’s officers and senior non-commissioned officers included Lieutenant Commander Edward J. Dorn (Serial Number 359), Ensign Louis C. Richardson (1119), Assistant Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Edward Maurice Blackwell (1760), Assistant Paymaster Charles Morris, Jr. (1991), Chief Boatswain Henry Hudson (3515), Boatswain Hjalmar E. Olsen (3550) and Warrant Machinist George L. Russell (4007). (1a. Gray 1960: 105; 2f. Wright-Sorensen 12/06/1989)

After four months on station, Tilley wrote a letter to Paramount Chief Mauga Moimoi of Pago Pago on December 6, 1899, informing him of the partition of the Samoan islands between Germany and the United States. He asked that this news be disseminated, and that the chiefs continue to maintain good order, promising that their authority, "when properly exercised, will be upheld." The next day, Tilley left Pago Pago for Auckland, New Zealand to acquire materials for the construction of a wharf and buildings at the U.S. Naval Station Tutuila. (1a. Gray 1960: 107; 1d. Bryan 1927: 45)

On February 17, 1900, Commander Tilley became American Samoa's first naval governor (until November 27, 1901), although his official designation was "Commandant, U.S. Naval Station Tutuila." (Commander Charles Brainard Taylor Moore was the first governor to be so designated as "Governor of Tutuila," on January 30, 1905. The first person designated as "Governor of American Samoa" was Commander William Michael Crose, on July 17, 1911). (2e. USNHC: Tilley RO; 1d. Bryan 1927: 46; 1a. Gray 1960: 158, 163)

On February 23, 1900, Tilley wrote to the Navy Department regarding his position as Commandant of the U.S. Naval Station Tutuila, saying that it would be better "if the officer charged with this responsibility has the explicit authority of this Government and knows its wishes." Unbeknownst to Tilley, President William McKinley had already signed the executive order giving him the authority that he wanted. Tilley did not receive his orders, and a copy of the executive order, until April 4, 1900, in Apia. Thus, he was given a great deal of freedom to carry out his gubernatorial duties, without having to wait for approval from Washington. (1d. Bryan 1927: 54, 56)

On March 1, 1900, Dr. Wilhelm Heinrich Solf, newly appointed as Imperial Governor of German Samoa (called "Deutsch Samoa" or simply "Samoa" by the Germans), raised the flag at Mulinu'u, Apia "in the presence of a great audience. The Kaiser's proclamation, read at the ceremony, stated: 'We hereby, in the name of the empire, take these islands under our Imperial protection.' The governor declared the islands to be German territory, and hoisted the Imperial flag of the consulate to the strains of 'Heil Kaiser, Dir,' ('Hail to you, Emperor') and a national salute from H.I.G.M.S. (His Imperial German Majesty's Ship) Cormoran and the U.S.S. Abarenda, Commander B.F. Tilley, United States Navy, Commanding. Governor Solf visited Abarenda the next day and was saluted with 13 guns." Both Solf and Tilley, independently of each other, promulgated laws which protected Samoan lands and customs. The effects of these laws were far-reaching, and continue to the present day. (1d. Bryan 1927: 43; 1a. Field 1984: 26)

On March 11, 1900, as the chiefs of Tutuila were preparing to sign the Deed of Cession, Tilley invited Tui Manu'a Elisara to add his signature, thus ceding the Manu'a Islands to the United States. The Tui Manu'a replied that he was not yet prepared to make a decision, but he invited Tilley to Ta'u for discussions. (1a. Gray 1960: 108)

On April 17, 1900, the Deed of Cession, drafted by Secretary of Native Affairs Edwin W. Gurr, was signed by the following chiefs of Tutuila, American Samoa: "Mauga of Pagopago; Leiato of Fagaitua; Faumuina of Aunuu; Pere [sic] of Laulii; Masani of Vatia; Tupuola of Fagasa; Soliai of Nuuuli; Mauga (2) of Pagopago: THE SUA AND THE VAIFANUA [Eastern District]; FOFO AND AITULAGI [Western District]; Tuitele of Leone; Faiivae of Leone; Letuli of Iliili; Fuimaono of Vailoa; Satele of Vailoa; Leoso of Leone; Olo of Leone; Namoa of Malaeola [sic]; Malota of Malaeloa; Tunaitaui [sic] of Pavaiai; Lulemana [sic] of Asu [sic], and Amituanai of Ituau." (1a. Gray 1960: 112-117)

One week later, On April 24, 1900, Tilley announced that official notification of American Samoa Government policies and activities would be accomplished by posting notices on the Naval Station bulletin board in Fagatogo. The first two regulations issued were: "No. 1: Regulation for Promulgation of Laws for Tutuila and Manu'a," and "No. 2: Notice Concerning Temporary Customs Regulations." (Noble 1931: 2; Bryan 1927: 48; Darden n.d.: 4). These and subsequent regulations had a profound impact on the future of American Samoa. "Regulation No. 4: Alienation of Native Lands" (issued on April 30, 1900) and "Regulation No. 5: A Declaration Concerning the Form of Government for the United States Naval Station Tutuila" (issued on May 1, 1900) are considered to be the most important of the many regulations that Commander Tilley issued. (1a. Noble 1931: 54-55; 1a. Darden n.d.: 4)

"Regulation No. 5-1900: Form of Government," stated that: (1) The laws of the United States of America would be in force in American Samoa; (2) "The customs of the Samoans, not in conflict with the laws of the United States concerning American Samoa, shall be preserved, unless otherwise requested by the representatives of the people;" (3) Village, county and district councils would "retain their own form or forms of meeting together to discuss affairs of the village, county or district according to their own Samoan custom." (4) "The governor, for the time being, of American Samoa, is the head of the government. He is the maker of all laws, and he shall make and control all appointments." The subsequent sections of the Regulation dealt with districts, district governors, pulenu'u, judicial administration, village and district courts, the High Court, civil and criminal procedure, the Secretary of Native Affairs, and the Departments of Public Health and Public Works. (1a. Noble 1931: 2-8)

On May 1, 1900, Tilley wrote to the Secretary of the Navy that "The government which I propose to establish for these islands is a government of the chiefs, who are to receive additional appointments to their positions from the Commandant of the Station." (Darden n.d.: 5)Thus, Tilley wisely allowed the chiefs to keep their own form of government and rule their own people, but made them ultimately accountable to the Governor.

During his governorship, Tilley authored many laws and regulations, which affected many aspects of Samoan life. These included marriage, divorce, firearms licenses, observance of the Sabbath, and many others. (For a complete list of laws and regulations
authored by Governor Tilley, click here). 

Tilley made many attempts to persuade Tui Manu’a Elisara to cede the Manu’a Islands to the United States. The first of these was on March 11, 1900, a month before Tutuila was ceded. Tilley invited the Tui Manu’a to sign the Deed of Cession, but he replied that he was not yet prepared to make a decision. (Gray 1960: 108) He invited Tilley to Ta’u for discussions, and on March 12, Tilley, accompanied by Luther Wood Osborn, the American Consul General in Apia, met with Elisara and the other Manu’an chiefs. Tilley reported that the Tui Manu’a addressed him “very courteously, giving me a hearty welcome to Manua, but at the same time giving me plainly to understand that he did not wish any interference with his ‘kingdom’ by any outside power.” Tilley also observed that the Tui Manu’a and the other chiefs “seemed suspicious and somewhat sullen” because they “feared that I would take away their lands and other property”. Later that evening, Tilley rejoined his hosts, and “found them in a very different frame of mind”. At the conclusion of the evening meeting. Tui Manu’a handed Tilley “a letter, accepting gratefully for himself, the chiefs and the people the sovereignty and protection of the United States of America, for the island[s] of Manua. I felt much gratified with the result of the day’s work.” (1d. Bryan 1927: 46) Despite Tilley’s best efforts, Manu’a was not formally ceded until July 16, 1904. (1d. Bryan 1927: 49)

Tilley’s fairness to the Samoans, and his desire to protect them from unscrupulous businesspeople, earned him the enmity of several local traders. One of these was William Blacklock, who was issued a license to sell liquor in the bar of his newly built Oceanic Hotel on December 6, 1900. The license was signed in Tilley’s absence by his executive officer, Lieutenant Commander E.J. Dorn. Five days later, the United States Postmaster General received a complaint from Mrs. Isobel Field Strong (Robert Louis Stevenson’s stepdaughter-in-law) about Samoans drinking in the Oceanic Hotel Bar. Mrs. Strong brought it to the attention of Secretary of the Navy John Davis Long, who subsequently directed Tilley to revoke Blacklock’s license, despite Tilley’s assurances that the Samoans were “safeguarded by law” from drinking there. (1a. Gray 1960: 135-139; 2a. Thompson 1990: 5-6) Blacklock thus blamed Tilley for the revocation of the license, even though the Governor was only following Secretary Long’s orders.

Some of Tilley’s other enemies saw this as a chance to exact vengeance upon him for past grievances, both real and imaginary. Many of them resented Tilley’s championing the rights of the Samoans, and his issuance of regulations which outlawed the unscrupulous business practices that the traders used (e.g. cheating the Samoans when they came to sell copra and other agricultural items). One of the most prominent of these was Harry Jay Moors, prominent Apia businessman and friend and biographer of the late Robert Louis Stevenson. On July 29, 1901, Moors wrote a letter to Secretary of the Navy John Davis Long, accusing Tilley of "scandalous conduct, both in Samoa and in Auckland," and stating that Edwin William Gurr, as a British subject, should not be employed as an American judge. (2f. Letter, Moors-Long: 07/29/1901)

On August 31, 1901 Tilley wrote a letter to Secretary Long, in response to the accusations and character assassinations made against him and Gurr by Moors. Tilley said  that "Although my unfortunate experience in San Francisco was widely published in the newspapers, many of the accounts were entirely untrue. There was nothing in the affair to warrant the unjust accusations, contained in this letter, against myself." (He did not explain what the "experience" was). Regarding Gurr, he wrote that "Mr. E.W. Gurr has been employed in Tutuila as Legal Adviser and Secretary to the Commandant. He was highly recommended and has performed his duties well. Besides this, he is the only man whom I know who is competent to perform the special duties of the position he occupies. I am sorry he is not an American. He has taken the oath of allegiance to the U.S. Unfortunately, he brings with him to his new position the enmities resulting from the bitter quarrels in Samoa." (2f. Letter, Tilley-Long: 08/31/1901)

On October 1, 1901, William Blacklock closed the Oceanic Hotel, which was unable to show a profit after its bar was closed. (1a. Gray 1960: 137)

On October 2, 1901, Dr. Edward M. Blackwell, former Chief Medical Officer of the U.S. Naval Station Tutuila, was ordered to report to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Frank Hackett, who informed him that former Naval Station Commandant Benjamin Franklin Tilley was to be court-martialled for "drunkenness and immorality." (1a. Gray 1960: 137)

On November 9, 1901, in Pago Pago Harbor, Governor Tilley's court martial (for being "in a state of intoxication," for "[lying] down amongst a number of native Samoans, both male and female," and for "[comporting] himself in a familiar and undignified manner with said natives" aboard USS Abarenda, en route from Apia to Pago Pago on May 15, 1901) began at 1:15 p.m., aboard USS Solace, with the battleship USS Wisconsin, flagship of Rear Admiral Silas Casey, lying at anchor nearby. Rear Admiral Robley D. ("Fighting Bob") Evans presided. The other members of the court were Captains Henry Glass, P.H. Cooper, P.F. Harrington, C.M. Thomas, George C. Reiter, and J.F. Merry, all of the U.S. Navy. The judge advocate was Captain J.T. Myers and the provost marshal was Captain H.C. Davis, both U.S. Marine Corps officers. Navy Surgeon William R. DuBose acted as Tilley's counsel. The Naval Station's surgeon, Dr. Edward Morris Blackwell, was the first witness to testify against Tilley. He was unable to prove that Tilley was intoxicated; only that he was walking "unsteadily" on Abarenda's deck. (4.Anonymous 1901: 1-2; 1a. Gray 1960: 139)

On November 12, 1901, Tilley’s court martial was concluded. He was acquitted of all charges, and the presiding officer, Rear Admiral Robley D. ("Fighting Bob") Evans, said that he was unable to "hide his disgust with the affair, or his pleasure at the outcome." (4. Anonymous 1901: 57-60; 1a. Gray 1960: 139)

On November 22, 1901, "By invitation of Leiato, County Chief of two of the largest counties of the District of Falelima East, and his people---being the largest number of chiefs and people under any of the County Chiefs of the United States Naval Station, Tutuila---[the recently promoted] Captain B.F. Tilley and wife, accompanied by other guests, including myself, visited the Town of Fagaitua...for the purpose of attending a feast given in honor of, and the presentation of a house to, Captain Tilley. There was a most enthusiastic welcome extended by the people who are building the McKinley Memorial Road referred to in other letters sent by this mail. There was much speaking, kava drinking---which is a Samoan custom accompanying almost every gathering of this kind,---an elaborate feast, 'taalolo' and 'siva.'" (Lieutenant J.L. Jayne, Acting Commandant, U.S. Naval Station Tutuila, wrote this letter to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in support of Captain Tilley, who had been the subject of attacks by Harry Jay Moors and others). (2f. Letter, Jayne-AsstSecNav, 11/27/1901)

On November 27, 1901, Captain Benjamin Franklin Tilley completed his term as American Samoa's first naval governor. (6. Sorensen 2003: 1)

On September 13, 1902, David Starr Jordan, President of Stanford University, wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt about his recent visit to Samoa. He commented on former Naval Station Commandant  Benjamin Tilley's court martial and acquittal (November 9-12, 1901) by saying that "The virulent attack on Captain Tilley, justified by no facts of importance so far as I could find out, was largely the work of local gossips, set going by traders. Captain Tilley seems to have handled Tutuila with great wisdom." (2a. Thompson 1989: 6)

On March 17, 1907, Rear Admiral Benjamin Franklin Tilley, American Samoa's first naval governor (February 17, 1900-November 27, 1901), died on active duty at the Philadelphia Navy Yard at age 59, and was buried at Annapolis, Maryland with full military honors. (2e. USNHC: Tilley RO)







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