U.S. State History: Alaska

Alaska is the largest state (according to area) of the United States. It was admitted to the union as the 49th state in 1959 and it lies at the extreme northwest area of the North American continent.

Acquired by the U.S. in 1867, the territory was known as “Sewards Folly” after U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, 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 to this “useless land”.

Alaska is bounded 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.

Going Back Farther in the History of Alaska

The history of the land dates to the Upper Paleolithic period around 14,000 BC when nomadic groups crossed the Bering land bridge into what is now known as western Alaska. At the time of European contact by the Russian explorers, Alaska Native groups populated the area. The name of the state derives from the Aleut word Alaxsxaq (also spelled Alyeska), meaning “mainland” (literally, “the object toward which the action of the sea is directed”)

The Prehistory of Alaska

Paleolithic families moved into the northwester part of North America between 16,000 and 10,000 BC across the Bering land bridge in Alaska. Alaska became populated by the Inuit and a variety of other Native American groups. Today, early Alaskans are divided into several main groups. the Southeastern Coastal Indians (the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian), the Athabascans, the Aleut, and the two groups of Eskimos, the Inupiat and the Yup’ik.

The migrants from Asia were probably the first wave of humans to cross the Bering Land Bridge in western Alaska. Many of them ended up settling in the interior of what is now known as Canada. The Tlingit were the most populous of the group, and they claimed most of the coastal Panhandle by the time of European contact. They are the northernmost of the group of advanced cultures of the Pacific Northwest Coast, renowned for its complex art and political systems as well as their ceremonial and legal system known as the potlatch.

The southern part of Prince of Wales Island was settled by the Haidas who fled persecution by other Haidas from the Queen Charlotte Islands (which are now a part of British Columbia). The Aleuts settled the islands of the Aleutian chain approximately 10,000 years ago.

The Statehood of Alaska

By the turn of the 20th century, there was a movement to approve Alaska for statement, but in the 48 states, legislators were concerned that Alaska’s population was too low distant and isolated, and that their economy was too unstable for it to be a worthwhile addition to the United States. WWII and the Japanese invasion highlighted Alaska’s strategic importance, and the issue of statehood was taken more seriously. But it was the discovery of oil at Swanson River on the Kenai Peninsula that proved how strong Alaska truly was. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Act into United States Law on July 4. 1958, which paved the way for Alaska’s admission into the Union on January 3, 1959. Juneau, the territorial capital, continued as a state capital, and William A. Egan was sworn in as the first governor.

More Facts About the Chilling Yet Beautiful State of Alaska

  • In the 1890s the gold rushes in Alaska and the nearby Yukon territory brought thousands of people to Alaska. The land was granted territorial status in 1912 by the United States.
  • In 1942, two of the outer Aleutian Island, Attu and Kiska, were occupied by the Japanese and their recovery for the U.S. became a matter of national pride. The construction of military bases contributed to the population growth of many Alaskan cities.
  • Alaska was later granted U.S. statehood on January 3, 1959.
  • In 1964, a massive “Good Friday Earthquake” killed around 131 people and leveled several villages.
  • In 1968, the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay and the 1977 completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline led to an oil boom. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez hit a reef in Prince William Sound, spilling between 11 and 34 million US gallons of crude oil over 1,100 miles of coastline. Today, the battle between philosophies of development and conservation is seen in the continuous debate over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.