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History of Alaska/Introduction

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The name Alaska comes from the Aleut word "aláxsxaq" meaning “the mainland or where the action of the sea is directed”. Alaska, the largest state in terms of area in the United States, was admitted to the Union on January 3, 1951 as the 49th state. Alaska is located in the far northwestern corner of the North American continent by the Canadian Province of British Columbia and the Canadian territory of the Yukon. To the north of the state lay the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, and to the south and south-west lies the Pacific Ocean. The population of Alaska is currently about 710 231, most of which are clustered around the city of Anchorage, located in South Central.

Before America acquired Alaska in 1867, Russia maintained control of the land. This began in 1741 when, Russian explorer, Vitus Bering first sighted Alaska. After this initial discovery, Russians began to settle Kodiak Island in 1784. The settlers thrived on the plentiful fur acquired from animals such as otters and other Nordic animals. Other countries such as Britain and Spain tried to explore Alaska, but they failed due to the dominant presence of the Russians. In 1867, U.S secretary of state, William Henry Seward bought the territory of Alaska from the Russia for 7.2 million dollars, less than 2 cents an acre. The Russian decision to sell their former colony came as a result of Russia being in a financially troubled situation, as well as due to fears that they would lose the colony without compensation, especially to the British. In 1859, the Russians approached both Great Britain and the United States and offered to sell them the colony, however, the British didn’t express any interest in buying the colony. At this time the Americans did not express any interest either, as the risk of an American civil war was a more pressing concern. Thus it wasn’t until after the civil war that the United States re-approached the Russian Empire in hopes of purchasing the colony. Many Americans were cynical about this purchase and the transaction consequently came to be known as “Seward's Folly”.

For people who are interested in travelling to Alaska, the state prides itself on countless breathtaking views as well as a coastline longer than the cumulative coastline of the contiguous state. Additionally, the wildlife in the "Last Frontier" state is unlike any other part of the United States and there are many species indigenous to Alaska that are worth viewing first hand.

Beginning[edit | edit source]

Approximately 15 000 years ago, Indigenous peoples crossed the Bering land bridge into the western part of Alaska. In general, the Tinglit and Haida peoples occupied the southern part of Alaska, the Aleuts settled in the Western hemisphere, and the Inuit and Eskimo on the Arctic Ocean coast.

Map of Alaska

Over time, the rest of Alaska's vast landscape was consumed by other Indigenous people until the European invasion. Precolonial estimates place Alaska’s population at approximately 80,000. Russian explorers arrived in Alaska during the mid-18th century, colonizing and transforming the peninsula and its surrounding islands into a fur trade hub. In the early-mid 19th century, British and American settlers arrived to establish similar enterprises, competing with Russia over dominance of the land and sea. The triangular trade relationship formed by these three nations would dictate much of Alaska’s political and economic landscape until the territory was finally purchased by the United States in 1867.

Exploration & Political Developments[edit | edit source]

In 1741, the first Russian explorers arrived in Alaska on two ships, commanded by captains Vitus Bering and Aleksei Chirikov. Chirikov survived the voyage home but Berin died after being shipwrecked on an island that would later bear his name. They brought back with them high-quality sea otter pelts, and further expeditions across the Bering Sea were launched, beginning the age of Russian American colonization. However, Russia wasn’t the only country to shown an interest in Alaska. Within the final decade of the 18th century, British sailors had already extensively charted most of the region, and Spain had successfully explored the southeastern Alaskan waters. Even France had shown interest in Alaska with an expedition in 1786 to the southeast. It wasn’t until 1798 when America itself finally joined the others on the northern peninsula.

The political landscape of late 18th-century Alaska, leading up to 1867, could be described as a series of competing company and colonial interests amongst the nations who’d staked a claim in the territory. Chief among these was the Russian American Company, which held possession of the entire landmass and divided it into six parcels. In 1824, the Russian American Company signed a treaty with the United States that would allow for equal trading privileges between both nations for a period of 10 years. It also signed a similar treaty with England the following year. After the ten-year period expired Russia forbid the United States from pursuing business interests in the territory. The English, anticipating a similar exclusion, sought to hold a part of their territory through military force, but were forced back by Russia. They negotiated a second treaty which required them to pay 2000 otter skins annually until 1867. The Hudson Bay Company, along with and America's growing whaling industry, threatened Russian dominance over Alaska throughout the 1840s. However, the greatest blow to Russian America was dealt from outside the continent, as the Crimean War and Napoleon’s continental system had turned Russia’s sole maritime territory from a boon to a burden, and in 1863, the Russian America Company failed to renew its charter.

In light of these problems, Russia decided to sell its territory. In 1859, the Russians approached both England and the United States with offers to sell them the colony. England declined, but America, which had been expanding across the continent and had prosperous whaling industry, showed an interest in buying. In 1867, U.S secretary of state William Henry Seward bought the territory for 7.2 million dollars. This marked the official end of the Russian America experiment and the beginning of post-Russia Alaska. The acquisition of Alaska by the United States marked a detour in domestic policy: before its purchase, all territories inducted into the United States were expected to eventually join the Union. Alaska would be an exception, and would not officially join the United States for yet another century.

Becoming a State[edit | edit source]

After the Alaskan purchase, the territory was officially incorporated into the United States of America as the Department of Alaska. The Department of Alaska lasted from the territory’s incorporation in 1867 up until May 12, 1884, when it became the District of Alaska. During the department era, Alaska fell under the jurisdiction of the US army, the Department of the Treasury, and the Navy respectively. In 1884 the First Organic Act was passed which allowed the territory to become a judicial district, with judges, clerks, and other government positions being appointed by the Federal government. Alaska then became known as the District of Alaska up until 1912, where it was organized into a territory. The territory of Alaska was created on the 24th of August, 1912. By this time, the population had swelled considerably due to the many gold rushes which took place in the late 19th and early 20th century. Alaska officially became the 49th state of the United States on January 3, 1959. President Eisenhower signed a proclamation and Alaska became part of the union. It was not easy for it to become a state; residents had to convince Congress they were good citizens and were able to sustain the future of the state. Legislators were concerned that the population level was too low, the land was isolated and there was no economic potential. However, by the end of World War II, Alaska had gained recognition for the valuable wartime advantages it gave and the movement towards statehood officially began. Despite the legislators' concerns, they still took the chance regardless because of the massive amount of land it has and its advantages during the war.

Geography[edit | edit source]

Situated at the North West corner of the North American content, Alaska prides itself on its gorgeous landscape, peaceful environment and physical characteristics. The geography and weather of Alaska is such that overland travel was, and still is difficult. However, the development of aircraft allowed for an influx of settlers into the interior of the region, as well as rapid transportation of goods and peoples.

Aside from the Canadian territory to the east, the state is almost completely surrounded by water. The Arctic Ocean feeds the Beaufort Sea which encompasses the Northern Alaskan coast, while the Gulf of Alaska and Pacific Ocean covers the southern border. To the West, the Bering Strait and Chukchi Strait separate Alaska from the Asian content. About 30% of the state lies within the Arctic Circle.This explains why the northern part of Alaska is mostly filled with glaciers and icebergs, which contains the majority of the world's fresh water. However, global warming has increased seasonal temperatures causing glaciers and polar ice caps to melt, thus endangering many animals such as polar bears and sea otters.

In addition, Alaska is filled with a variety of landforms such as mountains, hills, and valleys. Many of the mountains have different altitudes ranging from 2000-20 000 feet. It also consists of many lakes and rivers all across. Moreover, It has a very rugged landscape and has thick regions of forest that consist of diverse wildlife. Additionally, there are many active volcanoes throughout Alaska.

The climate varies in Alaska across different regions. In the winter, it tends to snow quite a bit and there are many blizzards and snow storms. It is freezing cold and temperatures normally reach between minus 15 to minus 20. In the summer it rains a lot and thunderstorms are common. During this season, temperatures are relatively higher, usually around 10-15 degrees Celsius.

Alaska is the United States' link to the Arctic and allows the nation to be one of the eight nations globally that own land inside of the Arctic Circle, according the U.S. Geological Survey.6 Alaska is the gateway to the Arctic for the world's most powerful nation and therefore plays a huge role in climate change diplomacy. Many internal disputes between settler communities and Alaskan natives have arisen due to the importance to the regions climate.

Demographics[edit | edit source]

Due to its far north location as well as having an arctic climate, Alaska is one the most sparsely populated and least dense subnational territories in the world. Having a population just below three-quarters of a million people in 2016, Alaska would be the United States' 19th most populous city with an area the cumulative size of the twenty two smallest states. Being as sparse as Alaska leads to harder living conditions for the state's residents.

The Klondike gold rush at the end of the 19th century lead to thousands of men and women drifting and begin permanently residing in Alaska, mostly in Juneau, where gold had been discovered some two decades earlier. Population growth continued in Alaska for the next few decades and by 1940, there were nearly seventy-five thousand individuals living in the territory. Approximately forty-five percent, or thirty-four thousand, of the people living in Alaska in 1940 were Native peoples. However, by the early 21st century, Native peoples only made up fifteen percent of the nearly seven hundred thousand Alaskans.

Economy[edit | edit source]

Wild berries from the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge. Natural resources and tourism play a large role in the Alaskan economy.

The economic history of Alaska is primarily rooted in natural and non-renewable resources. After William Seward initiated the purchase of Alaska in 1867, US settlers migrated to the new region to pursue the economic potential of the land's plentiful hunting and fishing.

Travel and Roadways[edit | edit source]

Alaska has a much less comprehensive road system than the forty-eight contiguous to the south. For example, the states capital, Juneau, is not accessible by road. Many cities have small airports to help shorten travel times over the large region as well as to make smaller cities more easily accessible. The difficulty to travel to many of the communities within the state leads Alaskans to have one of the highest costs of living in the developed world as companies charge high prices to reach the rural regions, especially in the western regions of the state.

Alaska is heavily dependent on tourism, and though it has seen some success in this industry in the past, the state will have to develop a more sustainable and internal economy in order to become more prosperous and rely on the federal government less. However, the lack of usable infrastructure, including roads and railways, as well as the harsh climate leads Alaska to being a seldom chosen vacation destination among not only American's but other nations as well.

In the 1990s Alaska faced great economic uncertainty due to a decrease in oil production as well as a decline in the production of many of the other non-renewable resources the state's economy had been based on for decades. This lead Alaska to rely more on tourism as well as federal government spending. With much of the economy based on non-renewable resources as well as being a point of low interest for travelers, means Alaska's old way of economic survival may not last much longer.

Already being the least urban of states, Alaska will continue to fall behind in many senses in the coming years unless a change comes about.

Animal Fur[edit | edit source]

Alaska has a diverse range of animals across its lands. International demand for fur from animals such as seals, sea otters, foxes and other mammals led to The Fur Trade becoming Alaska's primary export and source of income. The fur was used for coats, hats and other clothing.

Deforestation and Fishing[edit | edit source]

Likewise, deforestation and fishing provided huge income to Alaska. As national and international demand for lumber increased, many leaders turned their attention to Alaska because of the tremendous amount of forests. This resulted in a huge increase in local employment as Alaska created a huge labour force in logging and forestry to adhere to the international needs.

In addition, commercial fishing was very prevalent in Alaska because it is surrounded by large bodies of water. There are large fishing ports all around and this was an in-demand commodity at the time.

Mining[edit | edit source]

Alaska's economy, and subsequently their population, began to explode with the multiple discoveries of gold between 1880-1890. In 1880, the first deposit of gold was discovered by Richard T. Harris and Joseph Juneau near the modern-day capital of Juneau. While the Juneau mining community continued to grow, George W. Carmack discovered more gold in 1896 along an offshoot of the Klondike River. News of this discovery reached mainland America in 1897, and the gold rush began. Between 1890-1900 the population of Alaska doubled as thousands of families migrated north in pursuit of financial gain. By 1904, Alaska had the largest gold mine in the world. An estimation of about 100 000 migrated and over 1 million pounds of gold had been mined. A lot of people who travelled there chose to stay and settle, thus increasing the natural population.

The effects of the gold rush had a profound impact on Alaska's position within the American economy and subsequently American politics. With an influx of American people into a primarily native population, the question of Native-American citizenship arose. Although the rush had integrated Alaska into the US economy, it remained unclear if the number of American settlers was significant enough to grant the territory political significance.

Fishing and mining remained the essential economic sources for Alaska's settlers until World War II. Brief Japanese occupation of the Aleutian Islands persuaded the Roosevelt administration to implement new infrastructure projects to strengthen the northern territory. These projects included communication initiatives, such as telephone lines and transportation infrastructure such as roads and airports. These projects established reliable access to oil and other natural resources to the American mainland.

Thousands of workers migrated to Alaska to take advantage of the numerous job opportunities these projects created. Of all the projects, The Alaska highway project (ALCAN) required the majority of involvement. The ALCAN was a proposed 1450 miles, connecting Alaska to mainland America through the Canadian territory.

Klondike Mining Camp

The US government passed the 100-million-dollar project in February 1942. Following Canada's approval in March, General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. was given the sole responsibility of executing the plan on May 1, 1942.

Of the thousands of the Army Corps of Engineers that were enlisted to construct the road, one third were African American. Initially, black troops were employed to service the white soldiers, since authority figures assumed the African Americans were incapable of functioning in the cold. However, due to a lack of labourers and a pressing schedule, black troops were assigned to traditional white tasks. In the end, the African American soldiers were critical in constructing the strategic milestone in only eight months and twelve days.

Oil[edit | edit source]

In addition, oil is a significant part of Alaska's economy. Economic interest in Alaska surged once again in 1968 upon the discovery of the largest oil field in North America, Prudhoe Bay. Upon discovery, this oil field was estimated to contain 40 billion barrels of oil trapped beneath the Arctic Ocean. In 1969, eight oil companies, including the discovering parties, Atlantic Richfield Company and Humble Oil proposed forging of a 900-million-dollar pipeline stretching 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to the more accessible Valdez port.

This discovery brought forth long-standing complications regarding land ownership between the US government and the Native peoples.Before the pipeline could continue, the stakeholders had to establish clear ownership rights regarding land ownership and the distribution of resources of this land. The Nixon administration appeased this conflict by introducing the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. This agreement permitted the exchange of 960 million acres of established Native land for 962 million dollars and 45 million acres in other parts of the state.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline System

With the land dispute settled, construction on the Trans-Alaska pipeline began in 1974.

Being an oil rich state, Alaska relied on the expansion of pipelines to transport the oil from the north into the continental United States hundreds of miles south. This caused more disputes between Native Alaskans and brought up concerns for the regions environmental future. Oil transportation also created concerns for Alaska's other economic sectors that rely on the regions natural resources, specifically agriculture.

The discovery of oil had singlehandedly made Alaska one of the wealthiest states in America. Alaska sold its rights and made agreements with oil companies so they can create a pipeline and drill for oil. Alaska made billions of dollars from its oil reserves. This also helped stimulate the economy financially by increasing the amount of well-paying jobs in the oil sector. The price of oil dropped as a result. Many people, who were jobless and poor, were now acquiring jobs to help support their family and make a decent living.

Alaskan Permanent Fund[edit | edit source]

As the completion of the Trans-Alaskan pipeline neared, legislative leaders such as Hugh Malone and Governor Jay Hammon developed the idea of a permanent fund to extend the revenues from nonrenewable resources to future generations. This plan came to fruition in 1976, when Alaskans voted to amend their state constitution and place at least 25 percent of all mineral revenue into a fund for future generations.

With the completion of the Trans Alaskan pipeline in 1977, business in Alaska began to boom, and the political leaders discussed the optimal method to distribute the fund. In 1980, the Alaskan legislature established The Permanent Fund Dividends, making the nest egg more accessible Alaska's citizens. By 1982, eighty-six percent of state revenues came from the oil industry and by 1992 the fund was worth fifteen billion dollars. Details of this can be found here: Alaska Permanent Fund

World War I[edit | edit source]

The first World War drastically slowed down the economic expansion of Alaska, and brought an economic depression to the area, many individuals lost their jobs or were enlisted to fight overseas. Many of the male Alaskan residents left to fight in the war. Of those who returned to America, many were unlikely to return to Alaskan territory. Post-war, the prices for Alaska's two main exports, copper, and salmon, lost value dramatically. The decline in price for these two major exports had a major effect on the economy and Alaskan standard of living as a whole. The economic downturn leads the abrupt stop in the Alaskan Railroad, limiting migration from the US mainland to the north. This had major implications for Alaska's population. Post World War I marked an all-time low for Alaska’s economy.

World War II[edit | edit source]

Alaska, being extremely close to Russia and Japan, made for, arguably, the most important strategic position for the United States of America during both World War II and the Cold War. America, however, did not realize their advantage until General William Mitchell fought for air defence in Alaska and said, “He who holds Alaska holds the world” in Congress in 1935. Due to their forced realization and the General’s fight for a stronger defence, America built naval bases such as Dutch Harbour and Kodiak to protect their weak northwestern front.Planes leaving from these harbours could not travel far enough out west; thus, refuelling stops were built on the Aleutian Islands strategically to allow for further travel out west. The Lend-Lease Act passed in 1941, which allowed their then ally, Russia, to fly American planes through the Alaska-Siberia route to use the planes in the battle against the Germans on Russia’s western front.

File:AS Route.jpg
Alaskan-Siberian Route

The Lend-Lease Act proved successful, making up 12% of the Red Air Force and devastating Hitler’s troops, showing Alaska’s value as a strategic base during World War II. Not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, the valuable Dutch Harbour was bombed by the Japanese in 1942. While ignored in history, the Japanese went as far as occupying the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska as part of their plan to expand in North America; though many historians will also argue that the occupation of the islands was merely a distraction for a more significant attack on Midway Island in the middle of the Pacific. This marked the first time that a foreign force has occupied American land since the war of 1812. Due to this occupation, 44 Americans were taken as prisoners by Japan, 17 of them dying. Given the occupation of the Aleutian Islands, it is arguable that the Alaskan people were reasonably suspicious of Japanese-Americans and the possibility of them betraying the country. Therefore, as was seen in the most of America, many Japanese-Americans were taken to internment camps from their homes in Alaska. This fear came along with the anxiety of a larger attack by the Japanese which led to food rationing and obligatory blackouts. In May 1943, American troops arrived to get rid of the Japanese occupation in the Aleutian Islands. Almost unbeknownst to history was the combat that took place on Alaskan soil.

Alaska Highway

The actual fighting during the battle of the Aleutian Islands lasted for nineteen days, and by the end of the occupation of Attu, only 29 Japanese prisoners remained of the initial 2600 that had fought against the Americans.As for the Island of Kiska, the other occupied island, before American troops could even arrive to push the Japanese out of the land, the Japanese had already evacuated. Thus, after making sure the island was secure, the only World War II battle ever fought on American soil officially ended two months after it began, in August 1943.

As a result of Alaska’s involvement in World War II, a supply route had to be built. The Alaska Highway, then called the Alcan Highway, was built by 11 000 troops in 1942 connecting Alaska to the rest of America through Canada. At this time, black soldiers were still deemed to be incapable of frontline duties; however, their work on the Alaska Highway greatly contributed to the historic integration of the army, which occurred in 1948. Due to the new connection and newfound jobs at the naval bases in Alaska, there was a population boom, and by just the end of the 1940s, the population had gone from 72 000 to almost 129 000. By the end of World War II, Alaska had gained recognition for the valuable wartime advantages it gave and the movement towards statehood officially began.

The Cold War[edit | edit source]

As the American people were just beginning to recover from World War II, the fear of a Soviet attack grew rapidly, and the Cold War began. Russia had built four-engine powered bombers which could reach Alaska on a one-way trip across the north pole. The American government believed that if Russia captured even one of Alaska’s islands, it could be used as a refueling point to extend Soviet bomber range, resulting in unimaginable harm to the American people. Thus, given Alaska’s proximity to Russia and the possible danger this presented, the state was thrust onto the frontline of the Cold War. Just as it had been during World War II, Alaska once again became an active air defense center.

Distant Early Warning Line in Alaska

During World War II, Alaska focused on fighting the Japanese coming from the south, not an enemy coming from the north. When the Cold War began, new bases needed to be built that could defend America from their northern foe. As a result, new Air Force bases were constructed strategically to combat their new enemy, Russia. In 1949, when the Soviet’s detonated their first atomic bomb, the American government panicked, and new technological advancements were funded to combat Soviet progress. From 1951 to 1958, Aircraft Control and Warning systems were constructed to detect Soviet bombers and stop them in their path, 18 of these systems were placed in Alaska.

Convair B-36 Peacemaker in flight

However, the system proved unsuccessful in giving an early warning. Thus, the Distant Early Warning Line was constructed, twenty-four of them stationed in Alaska. The “Mile 26” base, renamed Eielson AFB in 1948, was modified to accommodate the planned deployment of Strategic Air Command intercontinental bombers. The massive Convair B-36 "Peacekeeper" bomber was the largest bomber in the US Air Force’s inventory, and the largest hangar on Eielson today was originally built to house two B-36 bombers. The existing west runway was expanded in 1946 to a length of 14,500 feet, making Eielson the Air Force base with the longest runway in North America, and consequently the most well known base in Alaska at the time. Strategically, by using polar routes, Eielson's location allows units based here to respond to hot spots in Europe faster than units at bases on the East Coast. The same is true for Korea and the Far East, where Eielson based units can respond quicker than many units based in California.

Artist's Depiction of Sputnik in Orbit

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICMB), followed by the world’s first satellite, Sputnik. This change in strategies by the Russians decreased the use of bombers. Thus there was less of a need for Alaska’s military bases. As ICMBs became a more imminent threat, warning radar bases providing incoming missile warnings became Alaska’s primary job throughout the rest of the Cold War.