Alaska State History

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General State History
Historic Figures

General Alaska State History

Peter the Great of Russia commissioned a Danish sea captain, Vitus Bering, to explore the Northwest coast of Alaska. This feat is credited with the "official" discovery by Russia and the first reliable information on the land. Bering established Russia's claim to Northwestern North America. Bering died from scurvy later that winter on an island named after him, Bering Island.

About this time the British, Spanish, and French were also exploring the coast of Alaska. Unregulated exploitation of the fur resources by rival companies led to a serious depletion of accessible fur areas and the killing and enslavement of the peaceful Aleut natives. This led to the chartering of the Russian American Company in 1799. Under the rule of it's first manager, Alexander Baranov, there was a period of about 20 years of order and systematic exploitation of the fur resources.

In 1802, the original settlement of Sitka was attacked and held captive by the Tlingit Indians. The Russians had to resort to a combined naval-military operation to drive the natives out in 1804. In 1805, the Tlingit Indians killed all of the Russian residents that were living at present day Yakutat. As time went on a significant drain was put on the Russian homeland with the cost of administering the Alaska territory. This along with the disappearance of the sea otter and fur trade brought about the end of the Russian period.

Economics of the time and the Crimean war had disastrous effects on Russian domestic affairs which brought about the Russians trying to interest the United States in purchasing Alaska in 1859. Due to the Civil War, the purchase was not completed until March 30, 1867 when the Treaty of Purchase was signed in Washington D.C., was affirmed by the Senate on April 9th, and signed by President Andrew Johnson on May 28th. Formal transfer of the territory was made at Sitka on October 18, 1867. The purchase price was $7,200,000.00. Shortly afterwards, Alaska was nicknamed Seward's Folly and Seward's Icebox.

From 1867 until 1898 was a period of total neglect in the administration of the Territory by the United States.

In 1896 the discovery of gold in the Yukon Territory of Canada fired the imagination of the world. This brought literally thousands of gold seekers through Alaska on their way to the gold fields. Another strike was found in Nome, several in the Interior of Alaska along the Yukon River. The last major discovery brought Fairbanks into being in 1902. With the vast influx of people into Alaska Congress had to apply Civil Codes and establish laws in the Territory. In 1902 the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve was created which became the Tongass National Forest in 1907.

Alaska gained Territorial status with the United States Congress on August 24, 1912. This gave Alaska a say in the laws that were being passed to administer the Territory. Expectations did not pan out though, with Territorial status there was a period of economic and population decline. The Alaska Railroad was build between Seward and Fairbanks between 1914 and 1923. Copper was shipped from the Kennecott Copper Mine to Cordova between 1911 and 1938. In 1935 Federal subsidies were provided to farmers from the Midwest and Dust Bowl to settle the Matanuska Valley Colony.

World War II brought a short lived influx of military personnel and a boom in building within the State. With the end of the war there was a decline in military personnel resulting in a short lived recession. The Cold War of the late 1940's brought about tremendous population and economic growth due to defense spending by the U.S. Government.

The most important result of all this activity was the movement for statehood. In 1949 the Alaska Statehood Committee launched a campaign which brought about the Alaska Statehood Act which was signed by President Eisenhower on July 7, 1958. On January 3, 1959, Alaska was officially proclaimed the forty-ninth state of the Union. From 1959 to present, Alaska has had economic booms with timber, oil, sea foods, and the tourism industries.

Alaska Historic Figures

Captain James Cook
1728-79: Navigator, born in Marton, North Yorkshire, N England, UK. He spent several years as a seaman in North Sea vessels, then joined the navy (1755), becoming master in 1759. He surveyed the area around the St Lawrence River, Quebec, then in the Endeavour carried the Royal Society expedition to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun (1768-71). He circumnavigated New Zealand and charted parts of Australia. In his second voyage he sailed round Antarctica (1772-75), and discovered several Pacific island groups. Thanks to his dietary precautions, there was only one death among the crew. His third voyage (1776-79) aimed to find a passage round the N coast of America from the Pacific; but he was forced to turn back, and on his return voyage was killed by natives on Hawaii.

Ernest Henry Gruening
1887-1974: U..S. senator; born in New York City. He graduated from Harvard Medical School but then proceeded to write and edit (1912--34). He edited the Nation (1920-23) and was territorial governor of Alaska (1939-53). He worked to get Alaska accepted as a state, writing The State of Alaska (1954), and became one of the new state's first two U.S. senators (Dem., Alaska; 1959-69). He cast one of the two votes in opposition to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution (1964) that committed the U.S. to pursuing the war in Vietnam, and he opposed U.S. policies there to the end. Alaska placed his statue in the U.S. Capitol.

Ferdinand Petrovich, Baron von Wrangel
1794-1870: Explorer, born in Pskov, Russia. Wrangel travelled in Arctic waters and on Siberian coasts, and made valuable surveys and observations. The reported island in the Arctic Ocean he nearly reached in 1821 was sighted in 1849, and named after him in 1867. He was Governor of Russian lands in Alaska (1829-35) and naval minister (1855-7).

William A. Egan
1914-84: Governor; born in Valdez, Alaska. Owner of the Valdez general store, he served in the territorial house of representatives (Dem., 1941-43, 1945-56), sponsoring Alaskan statehood. President of the constitutional convention (1955-56), he drafted the state charter, lobbying for congressional approval afterward. Alaska's first governor (Dem., 1959-67, 1971-75), he worked to harness the state's vast natural resources.