the 49th state
March 30, 1867
No one knows exactly how long human beings have lived in America. But most scientists believe that the first Americans walked across a land bridge from Asia into what is now Alaska about 15,000 years ago. In the 1700's, when whites first arrived in the Alaskan region, three groups of people--Inuit, Aleuts, and Indians--were living there.
The Inuit lived in the Far North and West. From Alaska's north coast to Greenland, Inuit hunted such large sea mammals as whales, seals, and polar bears. Some small groups of Inuit inhabited inland areas and hunted caribou.
The Aleuts, closely related to the Inuit, lived on the Aleutian Islands and the Alaska Peninsula. The Aleuts were skillful sea hunters.
The largest Indian groups, the Tlingit and Haida, lived along the coast, where fish and game were plentiful. Some Tsimshian Indians also lived there. The Athabaskan Indians lived in the interior, a rugged region without the rich natural resources of the coast. The Athabaskans fished and hunted caribou.
The Russians were the first Europeans to become interested in the Alaskan region. In 1648, a group of Russians, led by Semen I. Dezhnev, sailed through the strait separating northeastern Asia and northwestern North America. In 1725, Czar Peter the Great of Russia commissioned Vitus Bering, a Danish navigator, to explore the North Pacific region. Bering and his crew traveled more than 6,000 miles across Russia and Asia. Then they built a ship and in 1728 sailed through the strait navigated earlier by Dezhnev. This body of water later became known as the Bering Strait. But Bering did not sight the North American mainland because of fog.
In 1741, Bering and Aleksei Chirikov, a Russian explorer, led a second expedition to the region. Bering's party sighted Mount St. Elias in southeastern Alaska and landed on what is now Kayak Island.
Expeditions from England, France, and Spain soon reached Alaskan waters. Most of these explorers sought a sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Members of the second Bering expedition returned to Russia with sea otter furs. Russian traders and hunters then developed a brisk fur trade on the Aleutian Islands and later on the mainland. Fur traders enslaved the Aleuts and, by overhunting, nearly destroyed populations of fur-bearing animals in the Aleutians. In 1784, Gregory Shelikof, a trader, established the first white settlement in Alaska, then called Russian America, on Kodiak Island.
In 1799, Russia chartered the Russian-American Company, a trading firm. Alexander Baranof became the firm's chief manager. Baranof moved the company's headquarters to Novo Arkhangelsk (New Archangel, now Sitka), which he captured from the Tlingit Indians. Novo Arkhangelsk became the largest town in Russian America. Baranof managed company affairs profitably for the stockholders, and he established good relations with many native groups. The Russian-American Company sent Russian Orthodox priests to convert the native Alaskans to Christianity.
In 1818, Baranof retired, and the company began to lose money. Russian naval commanders then ruled the colony.
In 1824 and 1825, Russia signed separate treaties with the United States and Great Britain. These pacts recognized latitude 54 degrees 40 minutes as the southern boundary of Russian territory in America. As part of the agreements, Russia gave the United States and Britain trading rights along Alaska's Pacific Coast.
The Russians tried to develop several industries, including coal mining, shipbuilding, and whale hunting. But by the 1850's, the fur trade had declined and the company's other enterprises had begun to fail. After the Crimean War (1853-1856) weakened Russia, the country became eager to sell Alaska. United States Secretary of State William H. Seward agreed to buy the region for $7,200,000, about 2 cents per acre (5 cents per hectare). On March 30, 1867, he signed the Treaty of Cession of Russian America to the United States. Some Americans opposed the purchase. They called Alaska such names as Seward's Folly, Seward's Icebox, and Icebergia. But many Americans favored the acquisition. Congress approved the purchase, and American troops raised the U.S. flag at Sitka on Oct. 18, 1867.
Congress did not provide for an Alaskan government during the next 17 years. Alaska was administered first by the War Department, next by the Treasury Department, and then by the Navy Department. These three agencies had little interest in the local problems of the region.
A few American companies became interested in Alaska's rich salmon fisheries. In 1878, they built the first canneries in Alaska.
In 1884, Congress passed the first Organic Act. This act established Alaska as a "civil and judicial district." It provided for a governor, a code of laws, and a federal court. But the laws were the laws of Oregon, and they were not adapted to Alaskan conditions. Congress kept the power to make laws for Alaska.
SOURCE: IBM 1999 WORLD BOOK
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