Alaska has a rich and fascinating history. Four distinct native cultural regions have existed in Alaska since long before the first Europeans arrived. Today remnants of those native cultures still exist and there are villages where the traditions and values of each is still found:
•Inuit or Eskimo culture is found along the Arctic shores of far northern Alaska. Their ancestors are believed to have been among the later arrivals coming across the Bering Sea land bridge from Siberia. In Alaska the term Eskimo is appropriately used, but across the border in Canada they are known as Inuit. Living in the cold Arctic, their culture has been predicated upon hunting seal, whale and in summer caribou. They were primarily hunters, and today are still allowed to hunt species that are off limits for the rest of us. Government subsidies and alcohol have had an impact upon Eskimo life, but they have retained much of their pride and still maintain many traditional values. One of the most important contributions to the settlement of Alaska by Europeans was the use of the dog sled, a piece of Eskimo technology.
•The mid portion of Alaska, namely the Yukon River plain was settled by scattered hunting tribes, many speaking Athabascan languages, the same linguistic family found in Arizona and New Mexico among the Navajo and Apache. They were an offshoot of the Yukon River tribes who migrated into the American Southwest around 800 years ago.
•The coastal region of Alaska was inhabited by the most sophisticated people, tribes that lived in villages of wood houses, carved elaborate poles detailing their mythology and history and basing their livelihood upon fishing the coastal waters primarily for salmon. These tribes such as Tlingit, Haida, Salish and others thrived until the middle of the 19th century when disease and alcohol introduced by Europeans disrupted their social order.
•Out on the Aleutian Islands, a hardy people called the Aleut developed a lifestyle based upon fishing the treacherous offshore waters, and many of these people are little changed today because the Europeans found it too difficult to settle.
The Russians were the first Europeans to attempt settlement in Alaska, coming across the Bering Sea from their outposts in Siberia’s far eastern reaches. The first Russian village is believed to have been the result of having been blown ashore by a gale in 1648, but this story is still disputed. The most accepted belief is that Shestakov and Pavlutsky were the first navigators to explore the coast in 1732. But the most celebrated expedition was that of Vitus Bering who explored the coast in 1741. He brought back a wealth of fine quality sea otter pelts and this began what was akin to a gold rush of colonists. By 1784, a small settlement was established on Kodiak Island, later moved to present day site of the town of Kodiak. And in 1799, Sitka was founded, later to become the capital of Russian Alaska.
Bering’s accomplishments are the ones lauded in world history, yet other Russian explorers pre dated him and still other followed and were the ones who opened up Alaska to colonization. Bering’s expedition was the first official naval voyage. He did found the port of Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia prior to sailing across the sea that would ultimately carry his name. And he did recognize the potential for exploitation of resources in Alaska, especially from his second voyage, which the Russians kept to themselves for a long while following his death in Alaska..
Spain, which had settled coastal California, attempted to counter Russian settlement in Alaska, and established a few trading and trapping outposts of their own between 1774 and 1800. There are place names such as Valdez and Cordova that attest to Spanish attempts. But ultimately the Russians came to dominate, trapping and fishing and sending Eastern Orthodox priests to bring Christianity to the coastal tribes. To this day from the Aleutian Islands to the panhandle towns, Russian Orthodox churches still minister to the people of the coastal towns, many a cross between Native American and European bloodlines.
Russia found it difficult to colonize Alaska. It was too distant from the core of the empire, requiring a long overland journey across Siberia just to get to the Pacific coast. And Siberia itself was so vast and unexplored that there was really no need for further expansion into North America. By the late 1860’s, Russia was ready to sell its Alaska holdings to the United States. Secretary of State William Seward managed to negotiate a transfer of the territory for the sum of $7,200,000, which may appear to be insignificant today, but which was a large amount of money to pay for essentially what amounted to wilderness. Many Americans referred to Alaska as either “Seward’s Ice Box” or “Seward’s Folly” for years afterwards.
At first Alaska fell under military jurisdiction, later in 1884 it became a district with an appointed governor, and in 1912 it achieved full territorial status with a measure of home rule. What brought Americans to Alaska was the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Most of the gold was discovered in Canada, but it did help establish the port of Skagway where people began their climb over Chilkoot Pass into Canada. And prospectors eventually discovered gold in Juneau and other sites along the panhandle, thus bringing ultimate settlers. Until the gold rush, the few Americans who had come to Alaska were on Baranof Island around the old Russian capital of Sitka. In 1906, because of its gold discoveries, Juneau replaced Sitka as the capital of Alaska.
In addition to seeking gold, logging and fishing soon proved to be the real gold of Alaska. Agriculture has always been limited by geography, as the summers are too short and cool and the topography restricts the amount of level land. Farmers did ultimately grow vegetables for local consumption in the fertile Matanuska Valley north of Anchorage, capitalizing on the long summer days to offset the shortness of the season.
When Japan began to emerge as a great military power in eastern Asia, the security of Alaska became a major concern. Military bases were expanded in Alaska to strengthen the territory’s defenses in the event Japan should ever turn its attentions northward. Ultimately the Japanese did attack and occupy Attu, Agattu and Kiska Islands in the Aleutians and they bombed the naval base at Unalaska Island’s Dutch Harbor.
Also during the war, U. S. aircraft being lent to the Soviet Union were flown via Whitehorse to Fairbanks, on to Nome and then flown by Soviet pilots across the Bering Straits into the U. S. S. R. The war brought more focus upon Alaska and it did connect the territory with the lower mainland via the Alcan Highway, built primarily through Canada, but by the U. S. Army Corp of Engineers.
The wartime focus upon the strategic importance of Alaska is what ultimately helped the people in their bid for statehood. Not every resident was in favor of the change in status, but Congress approved statehood on July 7, 1958 and on January 3, 1959 President Dwight Eisenhower signed the official proclamation.
Two catastrophic events have occurred since statehood. The first was the Good Friday Earthquake that spawned a massive tsunami. At 9.2 on the Richter scale, it was the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded, having shaken the coastal region for over five minutes. The combined devastation from both the earthquake and tsunami was considerable, but fortunately the Anchorage area was not heavily populated at the time. On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez came aground and the rip in its hull resulted in the worst oil spill to have occurred in the history of the United States. The cleanup effort did fortunately restore much of the land to nearly pristine levels, but it drove home the point that as an oil producing state, Alaska is vulnerable to ecological disasters. Alaskans today are divided over expansion of oil drilling as opposed to maintaining greater protection of the state’s environment. And with regard to the importance of tourism, the natural landscape is Alaska’s greatest asset.
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