Most people know Alaska as the largest and most northern of the 50 U.S. states. Acquired in 1867 and becoming a state in 1959, Alaska is one of the largest subnational divisions in the world and is physically separated from the rest of the U.S. by Canada. In the years since Alaska became part of the U.S., it has become a major hub of resource extraction and tourism, fueled by plentiful deposits of oil, natural gas, and gold, and marked by gorgeous vistas and unique wildlife.
While Alaska is often an afterthought in Americans’ minds, Alaska’s contributions to American history and culture bely its remote location and small population. Read on to learn more about the history of Alaska.
The History of Alaska
Prior to European and American colonization, Alaska had been inhabited by native peoples for tens of thousands of years. Over 21,000 years ago, Alaska was believed to have been connected to Asia via the Bering land bridge, a large swell of land that existed where the Bering Strait is now located, cutting the Arctic Ocean off from the Pacific. It is believed that North America was originally settled via the Bering land bridge, as prehistoric peoples migrated into the continent via Siberia. Genetic testing has shown links between some Native American peoples and indigenous Siberians and Asians.
Peoples native to Alaska include the Yup’ik, Athabascans, Haida, Tlingit, and many other groups, who formed unique folkways based on the state’s climate. Contrary to what some believe, not all of Alaska is a frozen wasteland, with the southern coasts of the state having a more temperate climate then its northerly location would suggest. However, large-scale agricultural is difficult in Alaska due to poor weather, with many native peoples subsisting off of fishing, whaling, hunting, gathering, and other nomadic and maritime activities.
Due to Alaska’s distant location, it was one of the last locations in the Americas to be discovered and settled by Europeans. Some researchers believe that Russian explorers first reached Alaska in the 1600’s, though the first confirmed contact Europeans made with the territory came in the 1700’s. The first undisputed European vessel to have reached Alaska was the Russian vessel St. Gabriel, which was captained by Mikhail Gvozdev and Ivan Fyodorov and reached the territory in 1732. These expeditions were spurred on by Russia’s eastward expansion into Siberia.
A more significant journey occurred in 1741, when Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer working with the Russian Navy, led an expedition aboard the St. Peter. Bering’s vessel returned to Russia with sea otter pelts they had harvested from Alaska’s coasts; the high quality of their fur convinced the Russian government that Alaska was a valuable colony to possess. Russia would later found the first permanent European settlement in Russia in 1784.
During the latter half of the 1700’s, Spain sent several expeditions to Alaska in an attempt to claim the region and join it to their existing colonies in the Americas. In 1789, the Spanish constructed a fort at Nootka Sound, and they would later inspire the names for modern cities located in this region, such as Valdez and Cordova. However, the Napoleonic Wars and the dissolution of Spain’s colonial empire in the early 1800’s prevented them from staking out a permanent presence in Alaska.
In 1799, Russia formed the Russian-American Company in order to colonize Alaska and defend its claims against the Hudson’s Bay Company, a British corporation that had already colonized large parts of what would become the Canadian Arctic. The Russian-American Company founded the city of Sitka (known as New Archangel from 1804 to 1867) in the Alaska Panhandle to serve as the colony’s capital. However, Russian settlement of Alaska was limited to a few thousand people, and the Russians made little effort to explore the territory’s interior due to cost concerns. Some remnants of Russian culture survive in Alaska to this day, most notably the presence of the Russian Orthodox Church in some coastal communities. The Russians also constructed trading posts as far south as modern-day San Francisco, California.
In the mid-1800’s, Russia began considering selling Alaska to another country. The reason for this was Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856. The war had largely bankrupted Russia, and the British Navy’s series of victories against the Russian Navy convinced the Russian government that they would not be able to defend Alaska should another war break out. Additionally, Alaska was not very profitable for Russia and required a large military garrison to protect.
Russia considered selling Alaska to Britain due to the fact that the territory already adjoined Britain’s Canadian colonies. However, given Alaska’s proximity to Siberia and the fact that Russia and Britain were rivals for influence in Central Asia and India, the Russians realized that giving Britain such a large coastline close to its borders would be dangerous. Additionally, Britain was uninterested in purchasing Alaska because it already had sufficient access to the Pacific Ocean via British Columbia.
This meant that the U.S. was the only country that Russia could feasibly sell Alaska to. Russia also had a vested interest in improving relations with the U.S. because they could serve as a useful ally against Britain. While Russia had approached the U.S. about purchasing Alaska during the early 1860’s, America was embroiled in the Civil War at the time and did not respond to the offer.
After the war ended, negotiations between Russia and the U.S. over Alaska began. On March 30, 1867, the sale was finalized, with the U.S. purchasing Alaska for the sum of $7.2 million. The sale was brokered by Secretary of State William Seward and met with some opposition due to the perceived uselessness of Alaska, with some referring to the Alaska Purchase as “Seward’s Folly.” On October 18 of that year, the Russian-American Company was dissolved and Alaska was formally transferred to American control.
Alaska was initially governed by the U.S. military as the Department of Alaska before being reorganized into the civilian District of Alaska in 1884. Sitka remained the Alaskan capital and for much of the 19th century was the only community where Americans bothered to settle. Alaska’s extreme climate, remote location, and lack of resources acted as disincentives for further settlement.
All this changed with the Klondike gold rush in neighboring Yukon in 1896. Gold deposits were discovered in interior Alaska, drawing thousands of Americans and Canadians to the region. The rapid growth of Alaska led the government to reorganize it as the Alaska Territory in 1912. In 1906, Alaska’s capital was moved from Sitka to Juneau in order to better manage the area’s growing population. Also in 1903, the U.S. settled a longstanding border dispute with Canada over Alaska’s border, with the British (who controlled Canadian foreign relations at the time) ruling in favor of the U.S., expanding the size of the Alaskan Panhandle.
While the gold rush faded in the early 20th century, Alaska assumed new importance as a hub of military aviation. During World War II, Japanese troops captured the islands of Attu, Agattu, and Kiska in the southwestern part of the territory. The occupation lasted from 1942 to 1943, when American forces successfully led a counter-attack. The U.S. Navy base at Dutch Harbor also became a significant staging ground for attacks against the Japanese. Alaska was also used as a transfer point for the Lend-Lease Act, with airplanes and other materiel shipped to the Soviet Union via the territory. During the war, Alaska was also finally connected to Canada and the mainland U.S. road network via the Alaska Highway, which runs from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to just south of Fairbanks.
Following the end of the war, Alaska continued to grow, spurred on by military expansion related to the Cold War as well as resource development. The 1940’s and 1950’s saw a movement to make Alaska into a U.S. state following a referendum in 1946. Despite significant opposition from members of Congress, Alaskan statehood was passed into law in 1958. Alaska would formally join the U.S. as the 49th state in 1959, the first state admitted since Arizona joined the Union in 1912.
In 1964, Alaska was hit with the Good Friday earthquake, which killed 133 people and caused massive damage to cities along the state’s southern coast, both from the earthquake proper and tsunamis that erupted afterwards. With a magnitude of 9.2 on the Richter scale, the Good Friday earthquake was the second-strongest earthquake recorded in history, after the Valdivia earthquake that occurred in Chile in 1960.
In the 1960’s, Alaska saw a major economic expansion after the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay, along the state’s North Slope, in 1968. The 1977 completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and the Dalton Highway saw a major boom in the state’s population and economic output. In 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez hit a reef in the Prince William Sound, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean and causing severe damage to Alaskan wildlife.
Today, Alaska remains one of the wealthiest states in the U.S., with high wages and a booming job market. While it is one of the smallest states in the U.S. by population, the oil industry continues to fuel economic growth. Tourism in Alaska has also become a major industry, as many travelers flock to see natural wonders such as the Northern Lights and the mountain of Denali. Alaska also remains an important hub of military activity and may assume new importance in the future due to growing interest in Arctic economic development and trade.
Alaska’s contributions to American history and culture cannot be overstated. Despite its small population and distant location, Alaska has played important roles in America’s energy industry and its wars overseas. While the future is always uncertain, it is clear that Alaska’s bounty of natural resources and strategic location mean it will play a significant part in America’s future.