Alaska doesn’t only boast some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet, but it’s also got an utterly fascinating history. Read on for a crash course that leaves out all the boring bits!
About 30,000 years ago, the build-up of ice sheets across North America caused the sea level to drop – exposing a 600-mile wide bridge known as the Bering Land Bridge (aka Beringia) which connected Alaska and Siberia. The bridge persisted until about 16,000 years ago, when the end of the Ice Age caused the ice to melt back into the sea.
Scientists are agreed on the fact that people used the bridge to cross from Asia to North America (and many lived on Beringia itself) but the Clovis theory, which held that North America’s first people arrived via the bridge, has fallen out of favor in recent years as older footprints have been discovered in several places in North and South America: most notably White Sands National Park in New Mexico.
The coastline of the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve (Photo: National Park Service, Alaska Region)
While the land bridge was submerged thousands of years ago, Alaska’s political ties to Russia are much, much more recent. In 1731, at the urging of Peter the Great who wanted to know how far the Asian landmass extended, Vitus Bering successfully crossed the strait that now bears his name, and explored the Aleutian Islands and much of the South Coast of Alaska. Bering returned with the pelts of hundreds of foxes, sea otters, and fur seals, which were all abundant in untouched Alaska. Although he died of scurvy a few months after he got home, this didn’t deter other Russian fur hunters from following in his footsteps.
So lucrative was the trade that Russia even established a small (the population maxed out at about 800) permanent presence in Alaska, with its capital at Sitka aka New Archangel. But maintaining a settlement so far from home wasn’t easy – and, once the sea otters had been decimated – it made little financial sense for Russia to hang on to Alaska.
Russian St. Michael's Orthodox Cathedral taken in the early 1900s. This church still stands in Sitka, Alaska today. (Photo: LC Carpenter Collection)
By the 1840s, Russia was dead keen to sell Alaska – but would America want to buy? This was the era of the US’s “expansion phase”: they’d acquired Oregon, Texas, and California in quick succession. In 1848, Secretary of State, William H. Seward wrote: “Our population is destined to roll resistless waves to the ice barriers of the north, and to encounter oriental civilization on the shores of the Pacific.”
Less than 20 years later, Seward got his wish when the US purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 for the princely sum of $7.2 million or $146 million in today’s money. Despite the fact that it cost the US less than two cents per acre, opponents of the Alaska Purchase referred to it as “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox”. These critics were made to eat humble pie in the 1890s when a series of gold strikes in and around Alaska left no doubt as to its worth. These days Alaska is one of the richest states in the union with billions of barrels of unexploited oil. Alaska also has important mineral deposits, most notably zinc and lead.
$7.2 million check for the purchase of Alaska, issued 1 August 1868. (Photo: National Archives)
The American flag was raised in Alaska on October 18, 1867 (now called Alaska Day), and the region duly changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. This meant that Friday, October 6, 1867 was followed by Friday, October 18, 1867!
Although the Klondike gold rush in Yukon, Canada didn’t even take place in Alaska, Alaska profited greatly as it offered by far the easiest transportation route to and from the goldfields. Towns like Skagway and Dyea sprung up from nothing.
By 1898 the Yukon’s best gold fields had all been claimed, so people began looking in Alaska. Prospectors struck gold in Nome in 1898 and near Fairbanks in 1902 – both of which grew into major towns. By 1907 there were more than 50 gold mining camps dotted across the region. The construction of the Alaska Railroad between 1915 and 1923 opened up the state enormously. (Read more about the railroad’s history on our recent blog.) And it also gave birth to Anchorage: Alaska’s largest city started off as a tented camp which served as the headquarters of the corporation which built the railroad. Since 1880, Alaska has produced a total of 50 million troy ounces of gold.
Passengers landing in Nome – a mining camp which turned to an important commercial center during the Klondike gold rush, ca. 1900. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
All this talk of Russians and Americans ignores the other – totally different – history of Alaska. When Bering and his men arrived in Alaska in 1741, around 100,000 people already lived there. Groups like the Inuit, Athabascan, Yupik, Unangan, and Tlingit had been living in Alaska for thousands of years.
Despite being vastly outnumbered by the locals, Russian settlers used guns, cannons, and the Bible to subjugate indigenous Alaskans. On Kodiak Island in April 1784, for example, a Russian fur trader named Grigory Shelekhov and his men killed up to 3,000 people who refused to give him their furs, or to establish a settlement on their land. The Russians suffered no casualties in the Awa’uq Massacre, and the episode – which is sometimes referred to as the “Wounded Knee of Alaska” – broke the back of indigenous resistance in Alaska. By the time America bought Alaska, around 50,000 indigenous Alaskans had been killed by the Russians.
When America took over, things didn’t get much better – the US had perfected the art of indigenous persecution in the Lower 48 – and Alaska was declared a “military district” under the command of Gen. Jefferson Davis. True to form, indigenous Alaskans weren’t allowed to vote, own property, or file for mining claims. And in the 1860s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs teamed up with the missionary societies to try “to eradicate indigenous languages religion, art, music, dance, ceremonies, and lifestyles.”
Finally, in 1936, a law was passed allowing the formation of tribal governments, and in 1945 overt discrimination was outlawed by the Anti-Discrimination Act which banned signs such as “No Natives Need Apply” and “No Dogs or Natives Allowed,” which were common at the time.
The last fluent speakers of Gwich’in – Athabascan language spoken between Alaska and Canada – are building a dictionary to revive their native language. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
When Alaska became a state in 1959, the Alaska Statehood Act signed by President Eisenhower included an unprecedented clause “emphasizing that citizens of the new state were declining any right to land subject to native title” – which by itself was a very thorny topic because they claimed the entire territory. In 1971 President Nixon officially ceded 44 million acres of federal land to Alaska’s native populations (who numbered around 75,000). Nowadays 120,000 of Alaska’s 740,000 people are native.
Way back in 1975, the Alaska state legislature officially changed the name of Mount McKinley– which at 20,310 feet is the highest peak in North America – to Mount Denali (“the high one”), the local Koyukon Athabaskan name for the mountain. The mountain had been given its Western name in 1896 by a gold prospector who explained that “we named our great peak Mount McKinley, after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the presidency, and that fact was the first news we received on our way out of that wonderful wilderness.” (Not long afterward McKinley became the 25th US president.)
Denali Park Road (right) offers some of the most stunning views of the snowcapped Denali!
After the state had changed the mountain’s name, Alaska’s governor asked the federal government to do the same, but opposition from Ohio lawmakers (McKinley’s home state) prevented this from happening. “In an awkward compromise struck in 1980, the national park surrounding it was named Denali National Park and Preserve, but the mountain continued to be called Mount McKinley.”
The world had to wait until 2015 for President Obama to make the change official. “Today we’re returning Mount McKinley to its native name – Denali, a step to reflect the heritage of Alaska Natives,” he tweeted. To this day, some Ohio politicians are campaigning to have the name changed back.
Everyone remembers Pearl Harbor, but most of us have forgotten that Japanese forces occupied two of the Aleutian islands for more than a year – the only parts of the continental US to be occupied by an enemy nation during the war. On June 3, 1942, the Japanese attacked Dutch Harbor, a US naval base on Unalaska Island, but the US forces fought them off. A few days later, the Japanese landed on the islands of Kiska and Attu, where they overwhelmed Attu villagers. The villagers were taken to Japan, where they were interned for the remainder of the war.
The US regained Attu in May 1943 after two weeks of intense fighting and 3,929 American casualties: Next on the Americans’ radar was Kiska. From June through August, thousands of bombs were dropped on the tiny island, and the Japanese eventually fled on transport ships.
Unalaska is one of the 14 volcanic islands within the Aleutian archipelago.
Experience Denali, Anchorage, and the historic Alaska railroad on our 8-day Alaska highlights tour. Or discover even more of untouched Alaska on our 12-day Alaska by air, land, and sea expedition that includes a week-long cruise.