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Alaska Day and the History Behind the 49th State

When and how did this far-flung territory become part of the United States?

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  • 1898 advertisement published by the Alaska Commercial Company during the Klondike Gold Rush.Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1959, Alaska and Hawaii became the most recent admissions to the United States, bringing the total number of states up to a nice even 50. While Hawaii’s tropical resources and strategic position in the Pacific make it an understandable acquisition, the rugged Alaskan landscape, though beautiful, can seem like a bit more of a head scratcher, given its unforgiving climate and isolated northern location.

By the time Russia began colonizing Alaska, possibly as early as the mid-17th century, humans had lived there for thousands of years, having crossed the Bering Strait land bridge in ages past. The Russians took a more serious interest in the mid-18th century due to the demand for sea otter pelts, and began to colonize the land more aggressively, particularly in the southeast. But their aspirations didn’t last long. Far from the then-capital of St. Petersburg and too cold to support substantial agriculture, the eventual decimation of the sea otter population meant there was little for Russia to gain in North America.

Related: How Hawaii Became a State

Meanwhile, America was busy focusing on its western and southern borders throughout the 1840s, when the Gold Rush and war with Mexico meant the acquisitions of California, Oregon, and Texas. Once those territories had been settled, the ideals of manifest destiny were still in effect, and politicians began to look to the Arctic. 

Though Russia had failed to turn a profit, the US saw potential for the fur and fishing industries, along with the possibility of gold. There were also strategic benefits. Alaska was seen as a gateway to further trade with China, Japan, and the Pacific at large. The American government was also keen to keep Alaska out of British hands, a sentiment they shared with Russia.

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Secretary of State William Seward began negotiations with Russia in spring 1867. By the end of the year, an area larger than Texas, California, and Montana combined was purchased for $7.2 million, at a rate of approximately two cents an acre. In 2020 USD, that would come out to around $133 million for the largest state in the Union. 

American citizens were less than impressed with the deal. In the eyes of the general populace, Seward had just dropped a significant sum of money on a barren chunk of land that Russia had given up on. The purchase was nicknamed “Seward’s Folly”, and the unpopularity of President Andrew Johnson’s administration only added to the animosity. In fact, it was later revealed that Russian bribery—with Seward's knowledge—was required to get enough votes in Congress to ratify the deal.

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  • Officials signing the Alaska Treaty of Cessation on March 30, 1867.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

That tune changed when gold was discovered in Alaska in 1896. When the glittering rock was found in a tributary of the Klondike river, three decades of American ambivalence toward Alaska seemingly melted away. Up to 100,000 prospectors flocked to the Arctic territory to seek their fortunes and establish settlements throughout the vast land. 

They would discover more than just gold in Alaska’s mountains. A significant portion of America’s seafood production now comes from the northern territory, along with fur, timber, zinc, copper, and platinum. However, the most valuable resource in Alaska would turn out to be "black gold"—oil. Although production has declined since the 1980s, valuable oil can still be found underneath its stunning landscapes and national parks.

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The US also found strategic uses for Alaska, with military bases in Anchorage and Fairbanks becoming increasingly important, especially as relations with the Russians (later Soviets) soured. Its location within the Arctic circle also meant that the United States got an exclusive seat at the table for environmental discussions about the northernmost areas of our planet, along with Russia, Canada, and most of Scandinavia.

In 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Act, incorporating the territory as the 49th state. Included in the act was a clause that entitled the Alaskan Native population to some of the lands that they already occupied, a step that certainly did little to stem the tide of controversy. After all, indigenous Alaskans claimed the entire territory as their own. Nixon would later cede 44 million additional acres of land to the Native Alaskan population, which nowadays makes up around 15% of the state's total population.

how alaska became a state
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  • A Nunivak Cup'ig woman and her child, 1930.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Alaskan Natives were decimated by disease during Russian colonization, yet they never ceded their lands to the empire. America then purchased these territories directly from Russia without ever negotiating with the Alaskan Natives who had been living there for thousands of years. This all took place during the “Indian Wars” period of American history, during which ethnic and cultural genocide was all too common. Native Americans weren't granted citizenship rights until 1924; even then, some states suppressed their right to vote for decades, and discrimination persists to this day.

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Due to this appalling history, "Alaska Day" is met with protest each year. Held on October 18th, the holiday celebrates the sale and cession of Alaskan land from Russia to the United States. While the official state holiday is commemorated with the closing of schools and businesses, parades, and flag ceremonies, several Alaskan Native groups point out that the land which had been populated for tens of thousands of years was not Russia’s to sell after occupying it for mere decades. 

Their protests are part of a larger movement to replace Columbus Day—celebrated around the same time as Alaska Day—with Indigenous People’s Day instead. This holiday recognizes of the original residents of the Americas who were systematically killed by disease, war, and genocide. Alaska, with its significant Native population, is at the forefront of this movement, 60 years after it first became officially joined to the United States.