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date: 19 June 2018


The Oxford Companion to United States History

Claus-M. Naske


In March 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William Henry Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million, including the property of the Russian American Company. Ridiculed by some as “Seward's Folly” but approved by most, the treaty added to the United States a vast arctic and subarctic subcontinent of grandeur and substantial natural resources. The purchase encompassed 586,412 square miles, one-fifth the size of the present contiguous United States.

After a period of military government, Congress passed in 1884 the first Organic Act, which made Alaska a judicial district with a severely restricted form of territorial government. Meanwhile, in 1880, Richard T. Harris and Joseph Juneau discovered gold near the present site of Juneau. Soon, Juneau, the first American town in Alaska, developed into a booming mining community. In 1896, George W. Carmack and his Indian companions discovered gold on the Klondike, a tributary of the Yukon River, in Canada's Yukon Territory. The discovery triggered a massive gold rush in 1897 with thousands of men and women converging on the Klondike. Many of those people eventually drifted into Alaska where some discovered gold in various localities. Congress granted Alaska a voteless delegate to Congress in 1906 and six years later, with the second Organic Act, gave Alaska a limited form of territorial government.

By 1940, Alaska's population, dependent on seasonal salmon fishing and mining, stood at approximately 72,000, of whom more than 34,000 were Native peoples. During World War II, the federal government spent more than two billion dollars to fortify Alaska and built the Alaska Highway connecting the territory with the contiguous states. During the war, the Japanese briefly occupied two islands in the Aleutian Chain, Attu and Kiska. By 1950, Alaska's population had reached nearly 130,000.

The statehood movement, launched in 1943, culminated in 1958, when Congress admitted Alaska as the forty-ninth state. Much of the state's subsequent history has revolved around issues of land and natural resources. To put the new state on a solid economic footing, Congress granted Alaska the right to select more than 100 million acres of land from the vacant, unappropriated, and unreserved public domain and 800,000 acres from the National Forests for community expansion. Soon, state land selections alarmed Alaska's Natives, who claimed much of the lands and resources by ancestral rights. The Tundra Times, founded in 1962 and edited by Howard Rock, an Eskimo artist, championed Native land claims as did the Alaskan Federation of Natives, established in 1966. In 1966, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall halted all land conveyances in Alaska until the Native land claims were settled.

In 1968, the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) and Humble Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon), prospecting at Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's North Slope, discovered what proved to be the largest oilfield ever found in North America. In 1969, a consortium of eight oil companies proposed an eight hundred-mile pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to the ice-free port of Valdez on Prince William Sound. Since the pipeline would cross public domain lands, the oil companies sought a waiver from the land freeze. The new secretary of the interior in the Richard M. Nixon administration, Walter J. Hickel, a promoter of economic development and former governor of Alaska, attempted to lift the land freeze but Congress resisted.

In 1970, five Native villages filed suit, claiming land the proposed pipeline would traverse. After difficult negotiations, Congress in 1971 passed, and the President signed, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). In return for the extinguishment of aboriginal title, including hunting and fishing rights and any pending statutory claims, the Natives received $962.5 million and 40 million acres in fee simple title. Twelve regional corporations and 220 village corporations were to manage this settlement for the Natives and their descendants. The trans-Alaska pipeline was built, and in June 1977 the first oil flowed southward to Valdez.

In 1980, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which added 104.3 million acres to conservation systems. As oil revenues soared, Alaska's economy boomed. By 1982, fully 86.5 percent of state revenues came from the petroleum industry. In 1976, Alaskans amended their state constitution to place at least 25 percent of all mineral lease bonuses, royalties, and rentals into a permanent fund, to be used only for “income-producing investments.” The idea was to convert a part of the state's nonrenewable oil wealth into a renewable source of wealth for future generations. In 1980, the legislature enacted into law the innovative concept of “permanent fund dividends,” to distribute a portion of the earnings of the permanent fund directly to Alaska's citizen shareholders. After several court battles, Alaskan shareholders received their first permanent fund dividend check in 1982. In 1997, with the market value of the Alaskan Permanent Fund standing at $22.1 billion, the dividend checks amounted to $1,296.54. A major oil spill by the tanker Exxon Valdez in 1989 revived the controversy over Alaska's oil industry and its impact on the state.

Heavily dependent on tourism; federal, state, and local government spending; and income from its natural resources (many of them nonrenewable), Alaska in the 1990s faced an uncertain economic future. Once the oil ran out, many feared, the boom-and-bust economic cycles would return.

See also Conservation Movement; Federal Government, Executive Branch: Other Departments; Gold Rushes; Indian History and Culture.


Claus-M. Naske and Herman E. Slotnick, Alaska: A History of the 49th State, 2d ed., 1987.Find this resource:

Morgan B. Sherwood, Exploration of Alaska, 1865–1900, 1992.Find this resource:

Nikolai N. Bolkhovitnov, Russian-American Relations and the Sale of Alaska, 1834–1867, trans. and ed. Richard A. Pierce, 1996.Find this resource:

Claus-M. Naske