The Last Frontier
Alaska is situated in the northwest extremity of the North American continent, with the international boundary with Canada to the east, the Arctic Ocean to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the west and south. Alaska is the largest state in the United States by area. Alaska was purchased from Russia on March 30, 1867, for $7.2 million. The land went through several administrative changes before becoming an organized (or incorporated) territory on May 11, 1912, and the 49th state of the U.S. on January 3, 1959. The state capital is Juneau. The official state song of Alaska is “Alaska’s Flag”, which was adopted in 1955; it celebrates the flag of Alaska.
The name “Alaska” (Аляска) was already introduced in the Russian colonial period, when it was used only for the peninsula and is derived from the Aleut alaxsxaq, meaning “the mainland” or, more literally, “the object towards which the action of the sea is directed”. It is also known as Alyeska, the “great land”, an Aleut word derived from the same root.
Numerous indigenous people occupied Alaska for thousands of years before the arrival of European peoples to the area. The Tlingit people developed a matriarchal society in what is today Southeast Alaska, along with parts of British Columbia and the Yukon. Also in Southeast Alaska were the Haida, now well known for their unique arts, and the Tsimshian people.
The Aleutian Islands are still home to a seafaring society known as the Aleut. Western and Southwestern Alaska are home to the Yup’ik, while their cousins the Alutiiq lived in what is now Southcentral Alaska. In the northern Interior are the Gwich’in people. The North Slope and Little Diomede Island are occupied by the widespread Inuit people.
Some researchers believe that the first Russian settlement in Alaska was established in the 17th century. The hypothesis is that in 1648 several koches of Semyon Dezhnyov’s expedition were thrown to Alaska by storm and founded this settlement. This is based on a message by Chukchi geographer Nikolai Daurkin who visited Alaska in 1764–1765 and reported about a village on the Kheuveren river, populated by “bearded men” who “pray to the icons”. Some modern researchers associate Kheuveren with Koyuk River.
It is usually assumed that the first European boat to reach Alaska was the St. Gabriel under the authority of the surveyor M. S. Gvozdev and assistant navigator I. Fyodorov on August 21, 1732 during expedition of Siberian cossak A. F. Shestakov adb Belorussian explorer D. I. Pavlutsky (1729—1735)
Another European contact with Alaska occurred in 1741, when Vitus Bering led an expedition for the Russian Navy aboard the St. Peter. After his crew returned to Russia with sea otter pelts judged to be the finest fur in the world, small associations of fur traders began to sail from the shores of Siberia towards the Aleutian islands. The first permanent European settlement was founded in 1784.
Between 1774 and 1800 Spain sent several expeditions to Alaska in order to assert its claim over the Pacific Northwest. In 1789 a Spanish settlement and fort were built in Nootka Sound. These expeditions gave names to places such as Valdez, Bucareli Sound, and Cordova. Later, the Russian-American Company carried out an expanded colonization program during the early-to-mid-19th century.
Sitka, renamed New Archangel from 1804 to 1867, on Baranof Island in the Alexander Archipelago in what is now Southeast Alaska, became the capital of Russian America and remained the capital after the colony was transferred to the United States. The Russians never fully colonized Alaska, and the colony was never very profitable.
William H. Seward, the United States Secretary of State, negotiated the Alaska Purchase (also known as Seward’s Folly) with the Russians in 1867 for $7.2 million. Alaska was loosely governed by the military initially, and administered as a district starting in 1884, with a governor appointed by the president of the United States, as well as a district court headquartered in Sitka.
For most of Alaska’s first decade under the American flag, Sitka was the only community inhabited by American settlers. They organized a “provisional city government,” which was Alaska’s first city government, but not in a legal sense. Legislation allowing Alaskan communities to legally incorporate as cities did not come about until 1900, and home rule for cities was extremely limited or unavailable until statehood took effect.
Starting in the 1890s and stretching in some places to the early 1910s, gold rushes in Alaska and the nearby Yukon Territory brought thousands of miners and settlers to Alaska. Alaska was officially incorporated as an organized territory in 1912. Alaska’s capital, which had been in Sitka until 1906, was moved north to Juneau, and began to take shape with the construction of the Alaska Governor’s Mansion that same year.
During World War II, the Aleutian Islands Campaign focused on the three outer Aleutian Islands – Attu, Agattu and Kiska – that were invaded by Japanese troops and occupied between June 1942 and August 1943. Unalaska/Dutch Harbor became a significant base for the U.S. Army Air Corps and Navy submariners.
The U.S. Lend-Lease program involved the flying of American warplanes through Canada to Fairbanks and thence Nome; Soviet pilots took possession of these aircraft, ferrying them to fight the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The construction of military bases contributed to the population growth of some Alaskan cities.
Statehood for Alaska was an important cause of James Wickersham early in his tenure as a congressional delegate. The statehood movement gained its first real momentum following a territorial referendum in 1946. The Alaska Statehood Committee and Alaska’s Constitutional Convention would soon follow. Statehood supporters also found themselves fighting major battles against political foes, mostly in the U.S. Congress but also within Alaska. Statehood was approved by Congress on July 7, 1958. Alaska was officially proclaimed a state on January 3, 1959.
The 1968 discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay and the 1977 completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline led to an oil boom. Royalty revenues from oil have funded large state budgets from 1980 onward. That same year, not coincidentally, Alaska repealed its state income tax.
Other places and informational links for Alaska:
Some of Alaska’s popular annual events are the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race that starts in Anchorage and ends in Nome, World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks, the Alaska Hummingbird Festival in Ketchikan, the Sitka Whale Fest, and the Stikine River Garnet Fest in Wrangell. The Stikine River features the largest springtime concentration of American Bald Eagles in the world. The Alaska Native Heritage Center celebrates the rich heritage of Alaska’s 11 cultural groups.
Alaska has few road connections compared to the rest of the U.S. The state’s road system covers a relatively small area of the state, linking the central population centers and the Alaska Highway, the principal route out of the state through Canada. The state capital, Juneau, is accessible only by car ferry. The western part of Alaska has no road system connecting the communities with the rest of Alaska.
One unique feature of the Alaska Highway system is the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, an active Alaska Railroad tunnel recently upgraded to provide a paved roadway link with the isolated community of Whittier on Prince William Sound to the Seward Highway about 50 miles (80 km) southeast of Anchorage at Portage. At 2.5 miles (4.0 km) the tunnel was the longest road tunnel in North America until 2007. The tunnel is the longest combination road and rail tunnel in North America.
Built around 1915, the Alaska Railroad (ARR) played a key role in the development of Alaska through the 20th century. The Alaska Railroad was one of the last railroads in North America to use cabooses in regular service and still uses them on some gravel trains.
In northern Southeast Alaska, the White Pass and Yukon Route also partly runs through the state from Skagway northwards into Canada (British Columbia and Yukon Territory), crossing the border at White Pass Summit. This line is now mainly used by tourists, often arriving by cruise liner at Skagway. Alaska Rail Marine provides car float service between Whittier and Seattle.
Many cities, towns and villages in the state do not have road or highway access; the only modes of access involve travel by air, river, or the sea. Anchorage, and to a lesser extent Fairbanks, are serviced by most major airlines. Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, and Juneau are also served by daily jet service through Alaska Airlines flights originating in Seattle and terminating in Anchorage.
Alaska’s well-developed state-owned ferry system (known as the Alaska Marine Highway) serves the cities of southeast, the Gulf Coast and the Alaska Peninsula. The ferries transport vehicles as well as passengers. The system also operates a ferry service from Bellingham, Washington and Prince Rupert, British Columbia in Canada through the Inside Passage to Skagway. The Inter-Island Ferry Authority also serves as an important marine link for many communities in the Prince of Wales Island region of Southeast and works in concert with the Alaska Marine Highway.
In recent years, cruise lines have created a summertime tourism market, mainly connecting the Pacific Northwest to Southeast Alaska and, to a lesser degree, towns along Alaska’s gulf coast. The population of Ketchikan may rise by over 10,000 people on many days during the summer, as up to four large cruise ships at a time can dock, debarking thousands of passengers.
Because of limited highway access, air travel remains the most efficient form of transportation in and out of the state. Most areas are accessible via some form of air travel. Many communities have small air taxi services. These operations originated from the demand for customized transport to remote areas.
Alaska is not divided into counties, as most of the other U.S. states, but it is divided into boroughs. Many of the more densely populated parts of the state are part of Alaska’s 16 boroughs, which function somewhat similarly to counties in other states. However, unlike county-equivalents in the other 49 states, the boroughs do not cover the entire land area of the state. The area not part of any borough is referred to as the Unorganized Borough.