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For most of its history as a U.S. possession, Alaska was known as the “last frontier,” but with the rise of environmental consciousness in the 1960s, that notion subsided. Alaska became America’s “last wilderness.”
Few Americans knew much about the region when the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. Newspaper cartoons ridiculed the purchase as “Seward’s Folly,” “Icebergia,” and ‘Walrussia.” But when informed readers discovered Alaska’s resource potential in fur-bearers and minerals, the U.S. Senate approved Secretary of State William H. Seward’s purchase treaty in the summer of 1867 by a vote of 37-2. At that time there were about 30,000 indigenous people living in the region, pursuing traditional subsistence.
The Russians were the first Europeans to establish sustained contact with Alaska Native peoples. In 1725, Peter the Great commissioned an expedition to search east of Siberia. Expedition commander Vitus Bering failed to find America on his first attempt in 1728, but, returning in 1741, made a landfall on the Alaskan coast near Cape Suckling. Over the next half-century, Russian trappers made 100 individual voyages to the American islands.
American furs and walrus ivory were very profitable, but the exploitation was costly to Alaska Natives. The Russians relied on Aleut Natives to hunt furs, holding women and children hostage in the villages while Russian overseers traveled with the hunters. The entire Aleut population was brutalized and decimated by this practice and new diseases the Russians introduced, reducing the Aleut population from 20,000 to 2,000 by 1800.
In 1799, Paul III chartered a government-sponsored private monopoly, the Russian American Company. Over the next 60 years the Company systematically exploited Alaska’s resources, primarily furs.
Russia did not attempt to establish a new society in North America; the largest number of Russians ever in the colony at one time was 823. Eventually, sale to the U.S. was the only alternative. The U.S. purchased the colony for $7.2 million. The formal transfer was conducted at Sitka on October 18, 1867, now celebrated as a state holiday in Alaska.
The 1880 census revealed 30,000 Natives and a mere 435 non-Natives. More settlers arrived quickly after investors began development of the Treadwell Mines at Juneau to exploit gold found in 1880. By 1884 Treadwell boasted the largest gold stamp mill in North America, prompting Congress to pass the first organic legislation for the region, authorizing appointment of a governor, judge and other civil officials. Sitka was named the capital.
At the same time, the U.S. Army began a systematic reconnaissance of Alaska’s interior. By 1890, the census counted over 5,000 non-Natives, most in Juneau, Sitka, and Wrangell in the southeast panhandle. A few hundred non-Native prospector/traders worked along the interior rivers trapping and trading furs among the Athabascan Indians. Two hundred ships annually worked the lucrative Bering Sea and Arctic whale fishery, trading with the coastal Inuit.
Prospectors discovered gold on the Fortymile River near the Canadian border in 1886 and on Birch Creek near Ft. Yukon in 1891. In 1896 George Carmacks and his Indian companions discovered placer deposits of unprecedented extent on tributaries of the Klondike River in the Yukon Territory, setting off the gold rush of 1897-98. Gold was found in the creeks of the Seward Peninsula in the fall of 1898, sparking a major rush and the founding of Nome. Another find in the Tanana River drainage in 1902 led to the founding of Fairbanks. The 1900 census showed 30,000 non-Natives in Alaska, a figure that would stay virtually the same until 1940.
Alaska gold production peaked in 1906. In that year, Congress authorized a non-voting territorial delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, and in 1914, a bicameral territorial legislature. At the same time, there were a number of federal conservation withdrawals, including the Tongass National Forest in 1905, the Chugach National Forest in 1907, Mt. McKinley National Park in 1917, Katmai National Monument in 1918, and Glacier Bay National Monument in 1925.
The gold rush and government support also attracted corporate investors. By 1890, 37 Pacific salmon canneries operated in Alaska, and by the end of the century, more than twice that number. The invention of the fish trap, a system of surface to seafloor netting that led fish to a central enclosure, made fishing extremely efficient and produced high profits. By the 1920s, moderate taxation of the salmon industry supplied three-fourths of territorial revenue.
Aviation had a significant impact on Alaska. Perhaps more than in any other part of the country, in roadless Alaska the airplane permitted access, provided hope in times of medical emergency, and greatly speeded mail delivery. Bush pilots quickly became genuine heroes.
World War II transformed Alaska economically as the government invested $3 billion in 300 new military installations in the territory and brought in 300,000 military personnel. In June 1942, Japanese forces captured two Aleutian Islands. In a dramatic battle on American soil in May 1943, a combined American-Canadian force of 14,000 retook Attu Island, suffering 500 killed and 900 wounded. The Japanese abandoned Kiska before the American invasion there.
Alaska gained population quickly during World War II. Afterward, Cold War strategic defenses in the territory included airfields for long-range bombers, and the Distant Early Warning radar net across the Arctic. The Atomic Energy Commission used Amchitka Island in the Aleutians for large-scale nuclear tests and contemplated using nuclear explosions to create a new harbor on Alaska’s Arctic coast. Federal spending became the basis of the regional economy.
Shortly after the war, territorial leaders began a campaign to achieve statehood for Alaska. They conducted an aggressive national campaign and presented Congress with a progressive, uncomplicated state constitution, following a convention in 1955-56. Statehood became official January 3, 1959.
The statehood act entitled the new state to select 104 million acres of unoccupied, unreserved land from Alaska’s 375 million acres. When the state began to select its land, Native groups protested. By 1965, despite Native protests, the BLM had transferred 12 million acres to the state, including land at Prudhoe Bay on the North (Arctic) Slope. By then, however, Native claims blanketed the entire state. Secretary of the Interior Steward Udall halted all further transfers until Native land claims could be sorted out.
That process had just begun when, in December 1967, Richfield Oil Co. discovered North America’s largest oil field at Prudhoe Bay. A 789-mile hot oil pipeline would be necessary to transport the oil from the Arctic Coast to Prince William Sound. Natives worked with state and industry leaders and the U.S. Congress to craft the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971.
ANCSA did not guarantee construction of the pipeline, however, for national environmental groups sued to halt the project. Following the OPEC embargo on oil exports to the U.S. resulting from the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, however, Congress passed the Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act, and construction began.
The state established a comprehensive tax structure for oil production, and by the 1980s oil taxes produced 85 percent of public state revenue. So dependent was the state on oil money that a contraction of the price per barrel from $40 in 1981 to $15 in 1986 eliminated thousands of jobs and led to a 600,000 outmigration from the state in 1985-86.
In 1976 Alaska voters approved creation of a publicly owned state investment fund made up of 10 percent of all state oil revenue, the Alaska Permanent Fund. In 1982 the state legislature mandated that about half of the earnings on the Fund be paid annually to all state residents. In 2000, the dividend payment was near $2,000 for each Alaska citizen.
ANCSA also included a provision for Congress to establish new federal conservation units in Alaska within eight years. The battle over the Alaska lands act was bitter and protracted, but in 1980, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), reserving 104 additional Alaska acres in new conservation units. Mt. McKinley Park was renamed Denali National Park.
Americans’ new embrace of wilderness values generated both horror and anger when the fully-loaded oil tanker Exxon Valdez went aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound in March 1989, spilling 10.8 million gallons of oil.
Alaska mirrors a long-standing debate in America over the proper balance between natural resource extraction and resource preservation. The coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is presumed to contain significant oil deposits, which most Alaskans wish to see developed. But the area is considered wilderness by most Americans. The future of the refuge rests with Congress, where, at century’s end, vigorous debate continued.
– Stephen Haycox, University of Alaska AnchorageProf. Stephen Haycox is an American cultural historian at UAA. He specializes in the relationship of Alaska to the history of the American West. He has published widely on Alaska Native history. His two most recent books are Frigid Embrace: Politics, Economics and Environment in Alaska, and Alaska: An American Colony. He recently won the prestigious Edith R. Bullock Prize, given by the University of Alaska Foundation.
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