Alaska is a state in the western United States, located on the country’s west coast’s northwest corner. It shares a maritime boundary with Russia’s Chukotka Autonomous Okrug to the west, just across the Bering Strait, and borders the Canadian province of British Columbia and the territory of Yukon to the east. The Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi and Beaufort seas are to the north, while the Pacific Ocean’s Chukchi and Beaufort seas are to the south and southwest.
Alaska is the largest state in the United States by area, with more land area than the following three states combined (Texas, California, and Montana), and the world’s sixth-largest subnational division.
Let’s now dive into the history of the state.
The beginning of time
Alaska has been inhabited since 10,000 BCE. Migrants followed herds of animals across a land bridge that stretched from Siberia to eastern Alaska at the time. The Athabaskans, Aleuts, Inuit, Yupik, Tlingit, and Haida are the only migrant tribes that have remained in Alaska.
Native peoples of Siberia recorded the existence of a large chunk of land to the east as early as 1700. In 1728, a Russian voyage commissioned by Tsar Peter I (the Great) and headed by Vitus Bering, a Danish mariner, discovered that the new continent was not connected to the Russian peninsula, but the expedition was unable to identify North America due to fog.
The peak of Mount St. Elias was observed on Bering’s second expedition, in 1741, and men were put ashore. During the following century, sea otter furs returned to Russia sparked a burgeoning fur trade between Europe, Asia, and the Pacific coast of North America.
The settlement with the Russians
Russians built the first European settlement in Three Saints Bay, near present-day Kodiak, in 1784. Many Aleuts were slain by the intruders or overworked in the fur seal hunting with the entrance of the Russian fur traders. Many more Aleuts died as a result of diseases introduced by the Russians.
Kodiak served as Alaska’s capital until 1806, when the Russian-American Company, founded in 1799 under Emperor Paul I’s charter, relocated its headquarters to Sitka, where sea otters abound. Aleksandr Baranov, the company’s chief operating officer (basically the governor of the Russian colonies), was a brash administrator.
The Tlingit destroyed his initial attempt to construct a village at Old Harbor near Sitka. His second attempt, in 1804 in Novo-Arkhangelsk (now Sitka), was successful. But it was not without a fight that culminated in the Battle of Sitka, the first significant military encounter between Native Alaskans and Europeans.
(However, Native Alaskans continued to press for land rights, and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 ultimately met part of their requests.) Despite this, the Russian-American Company had comparatively strong connections with the Aleuts and aboriginal peoples of the southeast. As well as the Yupik of the lower Yukon and Kuskokwim river valleys, compared to earlier Russian fur traders.
It was not commonplace for Aleuts to marry Russians and convert to the Russian Orthodox faith, and the Russian-American Company employed a number of Aleuts with Russian surnames. During this time, the firm faced competition from British and American merchants.
In 1824, Russia signed separate treaties with the United States and the United Kingdom that defined trade boundaries and economic restrictions, ending a period of intense competition among fur traders. Alaska was governed by the Russian-American Company until it was purchased by the United States in 1867.
Possession by the United States
Russia’s desire to cede Alaska to the United States was influenced by the near extinction of the sea otter and the political ramifications of the Crimean War (1853–56). Secretary of State William H. Seward oversaw the acquisition of the land and negotiated a deal with the Russian ambassador to the US. Seward’s formal proposal of $7.2 million was granted by the US Congress after significant popular opposition, and the American flag was flown at Sitka on Oct. 18, 1867. Critics dubbed the Alaska Purchase “Seward’s Folly” because they believed the territory had little value.
Alaska was ruled by military commanders for the War Department until 1877 when it became a US property. There was little internal development during these years, but a salmon cannery established in 1878 was the start of what would become the world’s greatest salmon industry. Alaska was designated as a judicial land district in 1884, and federal district courts and a school system were established.
Alaska elected its first nonvoting delegate to Congress in 1906, and Congress established the Territory of Alaska with an elected legislature in 1912. Meanwhile, gold was discovered in 1861 on the Stikine River, 1880 near Juneau, and 1886 on Fortymile Creek.
In 1897–1900, a stampede to the Atlin and Klondike placer goldfields in neighboring British Columbia and Yukon territory resulted in the establishment of the new Alaska cities of Skagway and Dyea (now a ghost town), which served as jumping-off locations to the Canadian sites. Gold was discovered in Nome, Alaska, in 1898, bringing prospectors back from Canada, and in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1903. The gold rush alerted Americans to the land’s economic potential, which had hitherto been overlooked. The panhandle’s big hard-rock gold mines were developed, and McCarthy’s copper mine was discovered in 1898. In the Tanana River valley, gold dredging began in 1903 and lasted until 1967.
In 1903, an Alaska Boundary Tribunal resolved a dispute between the United States and Canada about the border between British Columbia and the Alaska panhandle. The United States’ position that the border should run along the crest of the Boundary Ranges was accepted, and by 1913, most boundary charting had been accomplished. A narrow-gauge railroad was built via White Pass between 1898 and 1900 to connect Skagway and Whitehorse, Yukon, and the Cordova-to-McCarthy line was laid along the Copper River shortly after.
The approximately 500-mile (800-km) Alaska Railroad, which connected Seward with Anchorage and Fairbanks in 1923, was another railway milestone, and the only one of these lines currently in operation. Dairy cattle herds and crop farming were established in the Matanuska valley near Anchorage, as well as in the Tanana and Homer regions when the government sponsored an agricultural program in 1935.
During World War II, Japanese forces invaded the Aleutian chain’s Agattu, Attu, and Kiska islands, bombing Dutch Harbor on Unalaska. This hostility encouraged the development of huge airfields as well as the Alaska Highway, a 2,400-kilometer route that connects Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and Fairbanks, Alaska. Both later proven to be extremely valuable in the state’s commercial development.
During the war, the US army removed most Aleuts from the Aleutian Islands and transferred them to internment camps in Juneau or on the southeastern islands to work in canneries, sawmills, hospitals, and schools. During this time, many Aleuts died from disease, mainly influenza, and tuberculosis. Many Aleuts returned to the Aleutians after the war, while others stayed in southeastern Alaska.
Alaska has been a state since its inception.
Alaskans voted for statehood in 1946, and a constitution was enacted in 1956. The Alaska statehood measure was approved by Congress in 1958, and the state was formally admitted to the union in 1959.