How did Alaska become a State?

Figure 1. St. Michael's Cathedral in Sitka was originally built in 1848, with the city of Sitka serving as Russia's capital in North America.

Alaska became the 49th state of the United States in 1959. By 1859, control of Alaska had been held numerous indigenous and non-indigenous colonizer, first by the Russian Empire, and settled by non-indigenous populations since at least 1730s or earlier. Alaska was blessed with rich natural resources, and this wealth encouraged the US to purchase the land in 1867. During the Cold War, Alaska became a key component of US national defense.

Why did Russia Settle Alaska?

After 1581, the Russian Empire sought to expand eastward across Siberia. By the early 1600s, it had reached the Bering Sea. Some sources claim that the first Russian settlement in Alaska was established by Semyon Dezhnyov, a Russian explorer who was the first Russian to cross the Bering Sea. The settlement may have been near the Koyuk River near Seward, Alaska. By the early 18th century, Peter the Great had begun to renew Russian expansion and colonization interests.

In 1741, Vitus Bering, the man who would lend his name to the Bering Sea, navigated across the sea and arrived near Yakutat, Alaska. Bering would eventually die from scurvy during his second expedition, but his travels were successful enough to determine that Alaska could be very beneficial to Russia. The first permanent Russian settlement was founded in 1784. Throughout the remainder of the 18th century, Russian colonies, mostly small and along the coastal regions of Alaska, were established.

The Spanish also became increasingly interested in the Pacific Northwest in the 1780s, establishing a fort in Nootka Sound in modern British Columbia. Areas in southern Alaska, such as around Valdez, Alaska, became temporarily explored and trading areas for the Spanish, although within a few years, the Spanish had effectively left the region. Spain's interest prompted Russian efforts to expand southward in Alaska.

In 1799, the Fort of Archangel Michael, later becoming Novo-Arkhangelsk and later modern-day Sitka, Alaska, was established as the capital of the Alaskan colonies. The old fort was destroyed in 1802 when native Tlingit attacked the fortification, but the site was returned to Russia control after an invasion in 1804 (Figure 1). Russian efforts became more concentrated in southern Alaska.

Russia's expansion in Alaska coincided with Russian efforts to dramatically its interests and influence in North America. Russian settlers even reached modern-day areas of California by 1812. They settled near today's Fort Ross, which is about 90 miles north of San Francisco.[1]

By the 1840s, US expansion across North America increased in earnest with the American-Mexican war. California and Oregon were also soon purchased, and future (after the Civil War) Secretary of State William Seward once stated: "Our population is destined to roll resistless waves to the ice barriers of the north, and to encounter oriental civilization on the shores of the Pacific." This belief signaled interest in areas north of modern Washington, although expansion into these regions had to wait until after the Civil War.

During this time, the Russian colonies in Alaska were financially struggling because the fur trade suffered from overexploitation. Russia's expansion efforts were sidelined after it became deeply embroiled with the Crimean War in 1853. This conflict created a major financial strain for Russia, and it was forced to look for ways to raise revenue. Russia's colonies were not profitable, and they were costing it money.[2]

Why did the United States Purchase Alaska?

Figure 2. Map from 1860 showing Russian America.

Since the late 1700s trip by Captain James Cook, British interests in the western North American increased. This interest prompted concerns in the US over possible British expansion into the region. American fur traders, originally restricted from trading in Alaska by the Russo-American Treaty of 1824, ignored this treaty and increasingly traded with Alaska after the 1820s. Native populations, particularly the Aleut, were decimated by the Russians through disease and war. Russian colonists continued to face stiff native resistance through the 1850s. The Tlingits were never conquered by Russia and threatening key settlements.

Native populations, in fact, rebounded in the 1850s as Russian power declined. As the Civil War ended, the United States had a unique opportunity to take advantage of Russia's weakness. Russia's continued financial problems set the stage for the United States to purchase Alaska in 1867. While expansion north of Washington state had previously eluded the United States, William Seward still strongly believed in Manifest Destiny for the United States. The United States purchased Alaska for US$7.2 million, about $132 million in 2020 US dollars (Figure 2), under Secretary of State Seward's guidance.

Initially, many in the Americans ridiculed the purchase, leading people to call the purchase Seward's folly. The first day the US gained power in Alaska was October 18, 1867, today known as Alaska Day. The importance of Alaska as a defensive possession soon became evident. The US Army, US Department of the Treasury, and US Navy were tasked with governing the territory which was called the Department of Alaska until 1884. Sitka remained as the main settlement for the US during this time.

In 1884, the Department of Alaska changed to the District of Alaska as civilian rule was now extended across the state. The 1896 Yukon Gold Rush (or known as the Klondike Gold Rush), which was mostly in neighboring Yukon, Canada, benefited Alaska as more settlers moved inland and exploration of the interior hastened. Towns along the Alaska-Canada border became established. In 1899, gold was found near Nome, Alaska, prompting the construction of the Seward-Nome railway and the establishment of towns such as Fairbanks.

Throughout the early 20th century, mining and fishing expanded throughout the state, in particular western Alaska. The wildlife of Alaska began to greatly suffer, particularly seals and whales that were over-hunted.[3]

How did Alaska become a State?

The Second Organic Act in 1912 formally made Alaska a United States territory. Still, there were only 50,000 in the region. Additionally, the 1930s was a challenging economic time for Alaska. There were multiple crashes in mining and fishing prices for Alaskans, which depressed the economy. However, some US settlers came as President Roosevelt saw the region near modern Anchorage, Alaska, as being conducive for agriculture. Some Americans were convinced to settle in the area to develop agriculture in the state.

The 1930s and 1940s saw the airplane become the essential vehicle of transport, as the lack of roads and railroads made this the easiest way to move around the state. This technological advance helped Alaskans expand across the state.

World War II turned Alaska into a critical component of US national defense policy. First, it was the invasion of Japanese in World War II, with the occupation of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian Islands, during the war increasing US military commitment. Throughout Alaska, defensive embankments and fortifications for an anticipated, more massive invasion can be seen in different parts of the state. The Alaska–Canada Military Highway, was used to supply the USSR during the war with US war materials. It was built in 1942, connecting Alaska to the mainland US via a highway system for the first time. One could now drive from Minnesota to Fairbanks, Alaska, which also helped increase trade and the population of the state.

The city of Anchorage in the 1940s became Alaska's largest city as it expanded due to military personnel being based in Alaska and increasing the number of bases built. The discovery of oil in the Kenai Peninsula in 1957 and the rise of the Cold War in 1945 increased the value of Alaska and pushed the desire to turn Alaska into a state. In 1958, President Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Act that formally brought the territory to statehood in 1959. Many worried Alaska would not be able to support itself financially as a state.

The 9.2 1964 Good Friday (March 27) Earthquake, North America's largest-ever recorded earthquake, while devastating, demonstrated that Alaska was resilient. It quickly recovered financially from the tragedy, and its bountiful resources played a key role. These resources also became a significant draw for corporate investment. This helped cement the state's population growth and drove the push for statehood.

Unfortunately, Alaskan law openly discriminated against Native Americans until 1945. The Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 curbed discrimination in the state against Alaskan Natives.

Because the state was admitted relatively late in US history, Native rights have been better protected. Today, much of the state is still owned by Native populations. For instance, in the 1958 statehood Act, the provision made it illegal for land to be taken away from Native titleholders. This legal provision did not apply in any of the lower 48 states.[4]

Summary

Alaska was always seen as a resource-rich land that drove, first Russia, then the Spanish, English, and later US settlers to its vast lands. Native Alaskans, similar to other regions in North America, endured hostility, disease, and war, but relative to their peers in other parts of the US, they have been able to control much of the lands in their native regions. Relative to the entire population of the state, about 120,000 of the 740,000 people in the state claim indigenous ancestry. Alaskan Native Corporations have also helped the state's native population to benefit financially from the state's wealth.

References

  1. For more on Russian colonization and settlement in Alaska, see: Black, L. (2004). Russians in Alaska, 1732-1867. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Fairbanks.
  2. For more on the period right before the purchase of Alaska by the US, see: Farrow, L. A. (2016). Seward’s folly: a new look at the Alaska Purchase. Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Press.
  3. For more on the early history of US governing in Alaska and Native perspectives, see: Haycox, S. W., & Mangusso, M. C. (Eds.). (1996). An Alaska anthology: interpreting the past. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  4. For more on the years before statehood and how the push for statehood developed, see: Naske, C.-M., & Slotnick, H. E. (1987). Alaska: a history of the 49th state (2nd ed.). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.