Overall History of Alaska

Indigenous Alaskans – Athabascans, Aleuts and Inuit, and coastal tribes of Tlingits and Haidas – migrated over the Bering Strait land bridge 35, 000 years ago. In the 18th century, waves of Europeans arrived: first British and French explorers, then Russian whalers and fur traders, naming land formations, taking otter pelts and leaving the cultures of Native Alaskans in disarray.

With the Russians’ finances badly over­extended by the Napoleonic Wars, in 1867 US Secretary of State William H Seward was able to purchase the territory from them for $7.2 million – less than 2¢ an acre. There was uproar over ‘Seward’s Folly, but the land’s riches soon revealed themselves: initially whales, then salmon, gold and finally oil.

After Japan bombed and occupied the Aleutian Islands in WWII, the military built the famous Alcan (Alaska–Canada) Hwy, which connected the territory with the rest of the USA. The 1520-mile Alcan was constructed in less than nine months and contri­buted greatly to postwar Alaska becoming a state in 1959. The Good Friday Earthquake in 1964 left Alaska in a shambles, but recovery was boosted when oil deposits were discovered under Prudhoe Bay, resulting in the construction of a 789-mile pipeline to Valdez.

With Prudhoe Bay’s oil reserves drying up and the battle over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) still raging in Washington, DC, Alaska suffers from budget deficits and one of the country’s highest unemployment rates. An escalating price for oil has eased the pain in recent years, while residents are pinning their economic hopes on possible new North Slope oil fields outside ANWR and increased mining activity elsewhere in the state. The future is still fuzzy in the Last Frontier, but one thing is clear. With their economy centered on resource extraction, whether it’s oil, gold or salmon, Alaskans will always be mired in a boom-and-bust way of life.

Alaska Purchase

William Henry Seward was secretary of state under President Abraham Lincoln when he began negotiating a deal for the United States to buy Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million–or 2 cents an acre.

Seward, born May 16, 1801,  served as New York state senator from 1831 to 1834, then as the state’s governor from 1839 to 1843. Lincoln appointed him secretary of state in 1861. During Lincoln’s presidency, he began negotiating the purchase of Alaska, then Russian America. Zachary Kent, in “William Seward: the Mastermind of the Alaska Purchase,” reports how Seward invited senators to dinner parties at his home. According to Kent, “While the senators enjoyed fine food and wine, Seward described how beautiful Russian America was reported to be.”

The purchase agreement was signed by Seward on March, 30, 1867, and approved by the U.S. Senate May 27, 1867. President Andrew Johnson signed the final treaty the following day and the transfer was made Oct. 18, 1867, in Sitka. In 1917, the third Alaska Territorial Legislature created Seward’s Day to mark the signing of the treaty. That same year, lawmakers also designated Oct. 18 “Alaska Day.”

Many Americans of the period called the purchase “Seward’s folly” or “Seward’s icebox,” thinking Alaska a snowy, icy wastelands. Of course, that was before Alaska was discovered by gold seekers, oil companies and tourists.

Many streets throughout Alaska have been named after William Seward. A city on the Kenai Peninsula bears his name, and Alaska has a glacier, a passage, a peninsula, a creek, a highway and mountains named for him as well.

And what about William Seward himself? The night John Wilkes Booth fatally shot Lincoln, a Confederate veteran named Lewis Payne entered Sewards bedroom and attacked him with a large knife. Fortunately, the blows were blunted by a neck brace Seward was wearing (according to The Lost Museum, a Web site sponsored by the City University of New York and George Mason University.). Seward continued to serve as secretary of the state under President Johnson, and it was during Johnson’s administration that Seward completed the negotiations with Russia.