On January 3, 1959, the Territory of Alaska was admitted to the United States as its 49th state. The 663,268 square miles (1,717,856 km²) of land had been purchased from the Russian Empire on March 30, 1867, for 7.2 million U.S. dollars at approximately two cents per acre ($4.74/km²). The area went through several administrative changes before becoming organized as a territory on May 11, 1912. Alaska is the largest state in the United States by area, the third least populous and the least densely populated of the 50 United States. It is the northernmost and westernmost state and has the most easterly longitude in the United States because the Aleutian Islands extend into the Eastern Hemisphere. The capital city, Juneau, is situated on the mainland of the North American continent but is not connected by road to the rest of the North American highway system.
The state is bordered by Yukon and British Columbia in Canada, to the east, the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean to the south and southwest, the Bering Sea, Bering Strait, and Chukchi Sea to the west and the Arctic Ocean to the north. Alaska’s territorial waters touch Russia’s territorial waters in the Bering Strait, as the Russian Big Diomede Island and Alaskan Little Diomede Island are only 3 miles (4.8 km) apart. Alaska has a longer coastline than all the other U.S. states combined. The state is over twice the size of Texas, the next largest state, and is larger than all but 18 sovereign countries. Counting territorial waters, Alaska is larger than the combined area of the next three largest states: Texas, California, and Montana. It is also larger than the combined area of the 22 smallest U.S. states.
Approximately half of Alaska’s residents (the total estimated at 738,432 by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2015) live within the Anchorage metropolitan area. Alaska’s economy is dominated by the fishing, natural gas, and oil industries, resources which it has in abundance. Military bases and tourism are also a significant part of the economy.
The name “Alaska” (Аляска) was introduced in the Russian colonial period when it was used to refer to the peninsula. It was derived from an Aleut, or Unangam idiom, which figuratively refers to the mainland of Alaska. Literally, it means object to which the action of the sea is directed.
Numerous indigenous peoples occupied Alaska for thousands of years before the arrival of European peoples to the area. Linguistic and DNA studies done here have provided evidence for the settlement of North America by way of the Bering land bridge. The Tlingit people developed a society with a matrilineal kinship system of property inheritance and descent in what is today Southeast Alaska, along with parts of British Columbia and the Yukon. Also in Southeast were the Haida, now well known for their unique arts. The Tsimshian people came to Alaska from British Columbia in 1887, when President Grover Cleveland, and later the U.S. Congress, granted them permission to settle on Annette Island and found the town of Metlakatla. All three of these peoples, as well as other indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, experienced smallpox outbreaks from the late eighteenth through the mid-ninteteenth century, with the most devastating epidemics occurring in the 1830s and 1860s, resulting in high fatalities and social disruption.
The Aleutian Islands are still home to the Aleut people’s seafaring society, although they were the first Native Alaskans to be exploited by Russians. Western and Southwestern Alaska are home to the Yup’ik, while their cousins the Alutiiq ~ Sugpiaq lived in what is now Southcentral Alaska. The Gwich’in people of the northern Interior region are Athabaskan and primarily known today for their dependence on the caribou within the much-contested Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The North Slope and Little Diomede Island are occupied by the widespread Inupiat people.
The first European vessel to reach Alaska is generally held to be the St. Gabriel under the authority of the surveyor M. S. Gvozdev and assistant navigator I. Fyodorov on August 21, 1732, during an expedition of Siberian cossak A. F. Shestakov and Belorussian explorer Dmitry Pavlutsky (1729—1735). Another European contact with Alaska occurred in 1741, when Vitus Bering led an expedition for the Russian Navy aboard the St. Peter. After his crew returned to Russia with sea otter pelts judged to be the finest fur in the world, small associations of fur traders began to sail from the shores of Siberia toward the Aleutian Islands. The first permanent European settlement was founded in 1784.
Between 1774 and 1800, Spain sent several expeditions to Alaska in order to assert its claim over the Pacific Northwest. In 1789 a Spanish settlement and fort were built in Nootka Sound. These expeditions gave names to places such as Valdez, Bucareli Sound, and Cordova. Later, the Russian-American Company carried out an expanded colonization program during the early-to-mid-nineteenth century.
Sitka, renamed New Archangel from 1804 to 1867, on Baranof Island in the Alexander Archipelago in what is now Southeast Alaska, became the capital of Russian America. It remained the capital after the colony was transferred to the United States. The Russians never fully colonized Alaska, and the colony was never very profitable. Evidence of Russian settlement in names and churches survive throughout southeast Alaska.
William H. Seward, the United States Secretary of State, negotiated the Alaska Purchase (also known as Seward’s Folly) with the Russians in 1867 for $7.2 million. Alaska was loosely governed by the military initially, and was administered as a district starting in 1884, with a governor appointed by the President of the United States. A federal district court was headquartered in Sitka. For most of Alaska’s first decade under the United States flag, Sitka was the only community inhabited by American settlers. They organized a “provisional city government,” which was Alaska’s first municipal government, but not in a legal sense. Legislation allowing Alaskan communities to legally incorporate as cities did not come about until 1900, and home rule for cities was extremely limited or unavailable until statehood took effect in 1959.
Starting in the 1890s and stretching in some places to the early 1910s, gold rushes in Alaska and the nearby Yukon Territory brought thousands of miners and settlers to Alaska. Alaska was officially incorporated as an organized territory in 1912. Alaska’s capital, which had been in Sitka until 1906, was moved north to Juneau. Construction of the Alaska Governor’s Mansion began that same year. European immigrants from Norway and Sweden also settled in southeast Alaska, where they entered the fishing and logging industries.
During World War II, the Aleutian Islands Campaign focused on the three outer Aleutian Islands — Attu, Agattu and Kiska — that were invaded by Japanese troops and occupied between June 1942 and August 1943. During the occupation, one Alaskan civilian was killed by Japanese troops and nearly fifty were interned in Japan, where about half of them died. Unalaska/Dutch Harbor became a significant base for the United States Army Air Forces and Navy submariners.
The United States Lend-Lease program involved the flying of American warplanes through Canada to Fairbanks and thence Nome; Soviet pilots took possession of these aircraft, ferrying them to fight the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The construction of military bases contributed to the population growth of some Alaskan cities.
Statehood for Alaska was an important cause of James Wickersham early in his tenure as a congressional delegate. Decades later, the statehood movement gained its first real momentum following a territorial referendum in 1946. The Alaska Statehood Committee and Alaska’s Constitutional Convention would soon follow. Statehood supporters also found themselves fighting major battles against political foes, mostly in the U.S. Congress but also within Alaska. Statehood was approved by Congress on July 7, 1958. Alaska was officially proclaimed a state on January 3, 1959.
In 1960, the Census Bureau reported Alaska’s population as 77.2% White, 3% Black, and 18.8% American Indian and Alaska Native.
On March 27, 1964, the massive Good Friday earthquake killed 133 people and destroyed several villages and portions of large coastal communities, mainly by the resultant tsunamis and landslides. It was the second-most-powerful earthquake in the recorded history of the world, with a moment magnitude of 9.2. It was over one thousand times more powerful than the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. The time of day (5:36 pm), time of year and location of the epicenter were all cited as factors in potentially sparing thousands of lives, particularly in Anchorage.
The 1968 discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay and the 1977 completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System led to an oil boom. Royalty revenues from oil have funded large state budgets from 1980 onward. That same year, not coincidentally, Alaska repealed its state income tax. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez hit a reef in the Prince William Sound, spilling over 11 million U.S. gallons (42 megaliters) of crude oil over 1,100 miles (1,800 km) of coastline. Today, the battle between philosophies of development and conservation is seen in the contentious debate over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the proposed Pebble Mine.
The 2007 gross state product was $44.9 billion, 45th in the nation. Its per capita personal income for 2007 was $40,042, ranking 15th in the nation. According to a 2013 study by Phoenix Marketing International, Alaska had the fifth-largest number of millionaires per capita in the United States, with a ratio of 6.75 percent. The oil and gas industry dominates the Alaskan economy, with more than 80% of the state’s revenues derived from petroleum extraction. Alaska’s main export product (excluding oil and natural gas) is seafood, primarily salmon, cod, Pollock and crab.
Agriculture represents a very small fraction of the Alaskan economy. Agricultural production is primarily for consumption within the state and includes nursery stock, dairy products, vegetables, and livestock. Manufacturing is limited, with most foodstuffs and general goods imported from elsewhere.
Employment is primarily in government and industries such as natural resource extraction, shipping, and transportation. Military bases are a significant component of the economy in the Fairbanks North Star, Anchorage and Kodiak Island boroughs, as well as Kodiak. Federal subsidies are also an important part of the economy, allowing the state to keep taxes low. Its industrial outputs are crude petroleum, natural gas, coal, gold, precious metals, zinc and other mining, seafood processing, timber and wood products. There is also a growing service and tourism sector. Tourists have contributed to the economy by supporting local lodging.
In January 1934, the Honolulu Society petitioned the United States Post Office Department to issue a stamp commemorating the bicentennial of the birth of King Kamehameha on June 11, 1936. The request was turned down but in December it was announced that a series of commemorative stamps covering various territorial possessions of the United States, including Alaska, would be released. A formal announcement by the Post Office Department was made on July 28, 1937, giving information on the Hawaii stamp. Further details were announced in mid-September, giving the first day of issue for this stamp as October 18, 1937, in Honolulu. The three remaining stamps in this series (Alaska, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands) were announced in an official notice on September 30:
“Postmasters and employees of the Postal Service are hereby notified that the special stamp in the 3-cent denomination in recognition of Alaska in the Territorial commemorative series will be first offered for sale at Juneau, Alaska, on November 12, 1937. … The Alaska stamp will be valid for postage purposes at all post offices where United States stamps are used.
“The Alaska stamp is 0.84 by 1.44 inches in dimensions, arranged horizontally. It will be purple in color and printed in sheets of 50, by the rotary process.
“The central subject of the stamp is a reproduction of Mount McKinley in the distance, while in the foreground are depicted views symbolizing present-day developments in this Territory. In a narrow panel with dark ground across the top of the stamp is the inscription: ‘‘U. S. Postage — Three Cents’ in white gothic. The numeral ‘3‘ appears in a square panel with dark ground in each lower corner of the stamp. In a narrow panel with dark ground at the center of the lower edge of the stamp is the name ‘Alaska‘ in white roman.
“Mail for Alaska is dispatched from Seattle regularly every Saturday, arriving at Juneau on the following Tuesday. To insure careful handling and return by next steamer following the first day of sale, covers should reach Seattle in time for dispatch on October 30. The canceled covers will be dispatched from Juneau on November 15, and are due to arrive in Seattle on November 18. No air-mail service is available between Juneau and Seattle, but covers endorsed “Air Mail” bearing two or more of the Alaska commemorative stamps will receive air-mail service from Seattle to the office of destination.”
On September 8, 1937, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing submitted two designs for the three-cent Alaska stamp. On September 18, S.W. Purdum, Acting Postmaster General, approved the design by Victor S. McClosky Jr., based on a photograph supplied by the Department of the Interior showing Mt. McKinley in the distance. To the foreground, Bureau artists added a view depicting present-day development in the Alaska Territory. Carl T. Arlt engraved the vignette on the master die, while the frame and lettering was executed by W.B. Wells.
Scott #800 was printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing on the rotary press from 200 subject plates, divided into panes of 50 by horizontal and vertical gutters. The perforated unwatermarked sheets (gauge 10½x11) were cut through the center of these gutters into panes of 50, and so issued to post offices. Some 75,000,000 copies of the stamp were ordered. Printing was started with plates 21714 and 21715 going to press on October 19, 1937. The two remaining plates used for this stamp, 21716 and 21717 were first put to press on October 21. The first delivery was made to the Post Office Department on October 25 and they were placed on sale in Juneau on November 12. The first day sale in Juneau was under the supervision of Otho L. Rogers of the Philatelic Agency in Washington, D.C., and consisted of 395,550 stamps. On that day, 230,370 first day covers were canceled.