The largest state admitted to the Union, Alaska became the 49th state in 1959 and is located in the northwest region of North America. Acquired by the United States in 1867, the territory was dubbed “Seward’s Folly” after the U.S. secretary of state who arranged to purchase the land from Russia. Critics of the purchase believed that the land had nothing to offer, but the discovery of gold in the 1890s created a stampede of prospectors and settlers.
Alaska is bound by the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean to the north; Canada’s Yukon Territory and British Columbia province to the east; the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean to the south; the Bering Strait and the Bering Sea to the west; and the Chukchi Sea to the northwest. The capital is Juneau.
Alaska's Native American History
The first people migrated to Alaska around 15,000 years ago, during the Ice Age. At that time, a frozen land bridge known as Beringia extended from Siberia to eastern Alaska, and migrants followed herds of animals across it. These people split into two groups: One group stayed in Beringia, while the other group migrated down into North and South America. This second group is considered the ancestors of all Native Americans in the Americas. The first permanent settlements in Alaska date to about 4,000 years ago. Most Indigenous people hunted sea mammals such as whales, although those living inland hunted caribou.
Russians first came into contact with Indigenous people in the mid-1700s. Various tribes met Europeans across different periods. Some Indigenous Alaskans were barely impacted by European colonists. Others, especially those living near the Aleutian Islands, were taken hostage by Russian colonists and forced to hunt. Many were later converted by the Russian Orthodox church. A significant number of Alaskan natives married Russians. Their offspring were called Creoles, a term borrowed from the colonial French that described people of mixed Indigenous Alaskan and Russian heritage.
With the arrival of American settlers and the diseases they brought in the 20th century, the Indigenous population began to plummet, from 45 percent in 1940 to 19 percent by 1959. Yet today, Alaska still has the highest population of American Indians and Alaska Natives of any state in the United States, at around 16 percent. There are 11 distinct Indigenous cultures in Alaska that are grouped in five regions: the Iñupiat and St. Lawrence Island Yup'ik in the Arctic; the Athabascan in south-central and interior Alaska; the Yup’ik and Cup’ik in southwest Alaska; the Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) in south-central Alaska and the Aleutian Islands; and the Eyak, Haida, Tsimshian and Tlingit in the Inside Passage.
Russian Exploration and Colonization
Russian explorer Mikhail Gvozdev mapped Alaska and the North American coastline in 1735, although strong winds prevented him from landing. In 1741, Danish-born explorer Vitus Jonassen Bering and his crew sailed between Russia and North America for Russian Czar Peter the Great and became the first Europeans to explore parts of Alaska. For the following decades, private traders known as promyshlenniki returned to hunt seasonally in Alaska for furs.
In 1784, Grigorii Shelikhov created the first Russian settlement on Kodiak Island, though he died before fulfilling his dreams of creating a fur trading empire. In 1794, Catherine the Great sent the first Russian Orthodox monks to Kodiak Island. Along with missionary priest Ivan Veniaminov, who was sent to the Aleutian Islands, they created a Russian Orthodox community that remains vibrant in Alaska.
Alaska’s fur-trading business took off when Russian czar Paul I created the Russian-American Company in 1799. The company conducted its fur-trading business from Sitka Island in Alaska and sold to wealthy Chinese. One of its founders, Nikolai Rezanov, helped the Alaskan colony survive by trading with the Spanish in California.
After British navigator James Cook sailed around Alaska in 1778, British and American fur traders established operations in Alaska. Russia eventually created trading treaties with its competition, and widespread trapping almost led to the extinction of several species.
Russia controlled most of the area that is now Alaska from the late 1700s until the mid-1800s, when the fur trade began to fail for ecological and commercial reasons, and Russia decided to focus its efforts to the east. After losing the Crimean War to Great Britain in 1856, the Russian government didn’t want to sell Alaska to the British, who wanted to add to their territory in British North America (modern-day Canada). Instead, Russia began looking to sell Alaska to the United States.
At first hesitant to make a big purchase in the aftermath of the Civil War, secretary of state William Seward eventually decided to acquire the territory under the pretext of “Manifest Destiny.” In 1867, Seward purchased Alaska for the United States for $7.2 million, or about two cents an acre. Seward was ridiculed for the purchase, and American expansion into Alaska was slow. Presbyterian and other religious missionaries began migrating to the territory and “Americanizing” Indigenous people. Nearly 100 years after the territory was purchased, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the declaration naming Alaska as the 49th state on January 3, 1959.
The Alaska Gold Rush and Exploration
Gold was discovered in 1872 near Sitka, Alaska, leading more than 60,000 people to arrive in Alaska in 1888. After gold was discovered near the Klondike River in Canada's Yukon Territory, prospectors began flooding into Alaska from 1896 to 1897. The Klondike Gold Rush brought more than 100,000 prospectors to Alaska, including author and journalist Jack London. It led to more than 50 gold-mining camps over the next decade. While many prospectors came up empty-handed, major strikes in Nome and Fairbanks led to the development of larger towns.
American railroad magnate Edward Henry Harriman turned a hunting trip into one of the most famous scientific explorations of his time when he brought 126 researchers and artists on a two-month trip to Alaska in 1899. Known as the Harriman Expedition, the group discovered 240 species of plants and published stunning photos of the landscapes and Indigenous people that raised national interest in the territory.
Civil Rights Movement
Women have long played an important role in Alaskan society. The wives who accompanied their husbands to Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries were often educated, self-sufficient and enterprising. During the Klondike Gold Rush, working women were standard in Alaska. Women ran boardinghouses, restaurants and mining companies. Some established boarding schools, hotels, banks and telephone and water companies. Indigenous women frequently married immigrant men and helped them survive by providing food and clothing and establishing relationships with local people.
Given women’s role in Alaskan society, it’s perhaps no surprise that women’s suffrage passed in Alaska in 1913, seven years before the 19th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution. In the 1940s, Tlingit activist Elizabeth Peratrovich fought to end discrimination against Indigenous Alaskans, who didn’t have the same access to businesses and rights under the law as white citizens. Her engagement helped ensure the passage of the Alaska Equal Rights Act of 1945, which preceded the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by nearly two decades.
Industry and Immigration
As fur trading declined in the mid-1800s, fishing and canneries became the predominant industries in Alaska. By the early 1900s, Alaska produced half of the world’s canned tuna.
When the Alaska Railroad was built between 1915 and 1923, with Anchorage as its base, new workers and merchants migrated to the area. The installation of military bases and defense industries in Alaska during World War II reshaped the local economy. But it wasn’t until oil was found in Prudhoe Bay in 1968 that significant numbers of new people migrated to Alaska, mostly white people from the west coast of the U.S. Beginning in the 1980s, the population diversified as more Filipinos and Pacific Islanders began migrating to Alaska.
Date of Statehood: January 3, 1959
Population: 733,391 (2020)
Size: 664,988 square miles
Nickname(s): The Last Frontier; Land of the Midnight Sun
Motto: North to the Future
Tree: Sitka Spruce
Bird: Willow Ptarmigan
- During World War II, the Japanese occupied two Alaskan islands, Attu and Kiska, for 15 months.
- Alaska contains 17 of the 20 highest peaks in the United States. At 20,320 feet, Mt. Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley) is the tallest mountain in North America.
- Alaska has roughly 5,000 earthquakes every year. In March of 1964, the strongest earthquake recorded in North America occurred in Prince William Sound with a magnitude of 9.2.
- The most powerful volcanic explosion of the 20th century occurred in 1912 when Novarupta Volcano erupted, creating the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in Katmai National Park.
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- The temperature dropped to a record -80 degrees Fahrenheit at Prospect Creek Camp in 1971.
- The state of Rhode Island could fit into Alaska more than 420 times.
- More than 100 million acres of land throughout Alaska was preserved and protected with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980.
- Over 11 million gallons of oil poured into 1,300 miles of Alaska’s coastline when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran into a reef in the Prince William in 1989. The spill killed thousands of animals, including seabirds, sea otters, killer whales and seals, with lingering oil pockets found in the waters more than three decades later.
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Seward’s Folly, loc.gov
Why We Don't Use the Word Eskimo Anymore, sinchi-foundation.com
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Native Peoples, loc.gov
Alaska Native Communities on Harriman's Route, pbs.org
Alaska Natives Before Statehood, pbs.org
Alaska Native Culture, travelalaska.com
Alaska Native Peoples, nativefederation.org
American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) Youth, youth.gov
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Russian Colonization, loc.gov
Alaska Fur Trade, loc,gov
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Russian-American Company Created, prlib.ru
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American Early Development, loc.gov
What Was the Klondike Gold Rush?, nps.gov
Gold Rush, loc.gov
Popular Culture, loc.gov
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Pioneer Women, loc.gov
The 19th Amendment, Elizabeth Peratrovich, and the Ongoing Fight for Equal Rights, nps.gov
Alaska Migration History 1900-2018, depts.washington.edu