BY JEFF OLSON –
Alaska had quite an interesting journey on her way to becoming one of the United States. The first people came to Alaska about 15,000 years ago crossing the Bering Land Bridge. The second migration across the Bridge brought the Na-Dene and Eskimo-Aleut. They arrived in Alaska about 12,000 BC and moved through the north to populate Alaska and Canada. When the most recent ice age ended and sea levels rose to cover the Bering Land Bridge, the American populations became isolated. Of these migrant groups, the Athabaskans, Aleuts, Inuit, Yupik, Tlingit and Haida remain in Alaska. The name “Alaska” comes from the Aleut word Alaxsxaq (also spelled Alyeska), meaning “mainland” While the indigenous peoples of Alaska have been there for centuries, the modern history of this area is relatively short.
In 1578, Cossack Chieftain Yermak Timofief was on an expedition in central Russia when he heard word of rich sable and valuable furs in the east. The journeys across the steppes (a large area of flat unforested grassland in Siberia) marked the beginning of Russia’s conquest eastward. In 1639, Cossack horsemen came over the eastern mountain range in Siberia, and continued to the shore of the Okhotsk Sea. Once there, they built the first Russian Village, facing east, across the Pacific. In 1725 Peter the Great of Russia commissioned a Danish sea captain, Vitus Bering, to explore the Northwest coast of Alaska. In 1728, he discovered the Bering Strait between Asia and North America. In 1741, Bering and George Stellar led a Russian expedition in which the official discovery of Alaska was made, landing near what today is Kayak Island. It was here that Bering established Russia’s claim to Northwestern North America. By the 1770s, the Spanish were exploring parts of the region and in the late 1770s, British explorers, such as James Cook and George Vancouver, had made discoveries in Alaska. In 1799, Alexander Baranov established a Russian post known today as Old Sitka and the Russian American Company was granted exclusive trading rights.
By the mid-19th century, Russia was ready to sell its possessions in North America, but not to just anybody. This had been coming for some time due to financial difficulties in Russia, the desire to keep Alaska out of British hands, and the low profits of trade with Alaskan settlements. And, the region had proved to be of little other value, was remote, and hard to defend.
Negotiations with the United States were opened during the Buchanan administration, but ceased with the beginning of the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward,was an ardent expansionist. He was committed to the spread of American influence throughout the Pacific as a means of enhancing the nation’s trade and military standing. Seward actually began negotiations with the Russians before receiving authorization from Johnson. However, when the outline of a deal was presented to the cabinet, Seward was surprised to find little opposition, but there were still strong critics of the deal in the U.S. Senate and elsewhere. Seward refused to back down. After a week of debate, the Senate approved the agreement by a single vote. It was signed in March 1867 and the official transfer of Alaska to the United States took place at Sitka (the last capital of Russian America) 150 years ago this week. On October 18, 1867, American soldiers raised the United States flag over Sitka. Seward’s deal cost the United States $7.2 million, amounting to a price of about 2.5 cents per acre for an area twice the size of Texas.
Seward’s critics were not shy in expressing their views. The purchase became popularly known as Seward’s Folly, Seward’s Icebox or Andrew Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden. In a speech given at Sitka on August 12, 1868, Secretary Seward claimed he did not doubt “that the political society to be constituted here, first as a Territory, and ultimately as a state or many States, will prove a worthy constituency of the Republic.”
With the discovery of gold and oil, the rise of commercial fishing and other enterprises and industries, along with the evolving value of Alaska’s strategic location for national defense, history has shown more kindness and respect to Seward than his 19th century critics. Hopefully, many of his contemporaries came to realize that perhaps he was more Savvy and had more foresight than he’d been given credit for.
On January 3, 1959, The Last Frontier, the Land of the Midnight Sun entered the Union as the forty-ninth state.