Below are some of the more common questions about Alaska’s past. The Alaska Historical Society has provided short answers and lists of publications from which you can learn more about each topic.

Who were the first peoples of Alaska and how did they get here?
The ancestors of Alaska’s Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts probably entered North America from Asia across a land bridge. Between 25,000 and 9,000 years ago, when sea level was much lower than it is today, land connected Alaska and Siberia. The land bridge was a thousand miles wide north and south and stretched east and west to link current Siberia with Alaska. Hundreds of years past as people lived on the land bridge and moved across it from Asia to North America. Alaska was the first part of North America these people came to. Some of the people who crossed, particularly those who came more recently, settled permanently in Alaska.

Some archaeologists think that there were three major migrations of people to Alaska. The migrations involved different groups of people and occurred thousands of years apart. The first migration occurred at least 15,000 years ago and possibly more than 25,000 years ago. These early immigrants are the ancestors of most Indian tribes in North and South America. The second group of immigrants are the ancestors of the Tlingits, Eyaks, and Athabaskans of Alaska and the Navaho and Apache people of the American Southwest. They moved from the northeastern forests of Siberia perhaps 9,000 to 14,000 years ago. The last group of immigrants moved about 6,000 to 10,000 years ago and some perhaps as recently as 4,000 years ago. They are the ancestors of the Eskimos and Aleuts. They came from the coast of northeast Siberia.

Information extracted with permission from Joan M. Antonson and William S. Hanable, Alaska’s Heritage (2d edition, 1992).

Additional Reading: Steve J. Langdon, The Native People of Alaska (4th edition, 2002)

What groups of people lived in Alaska when the first Europeans arrived?
Three groups of Alaska Natives occupied Alaska when the first Europeans came. In the far west, along the Aleutian Island chain and the southern-most portion of the Alaska Peninsula, lived the Aleuts. Most of the approximately 15,000 Aleuts at the time of first contact with Europeans depended on sea mammals for food and much of their clothing. Eastern Aleuts relied more on caribou and salmon.

The second group was the Eskimos. This group included southern populations that inhabited Kodiak and Prince William Sound; the southwestern Yupiit, who resided from Bristol Bay to the Yukon River Delta; and the Inupiat, who lived along the coast and in the Kobuk, Noatak, and Colville basin in an arch from the Seward Peninsula into the Canadian Arctic. They met their needs through harvest of the wide variety of sea mammals, salmon, caribou, moose, and smaller land furbearers.

The third group of Alaska Natives was a diverse group of Indians. Athabaskans, commonly in bands of 15 to 75 people, inhabited the vast interior of Alaska. Their domain included all but the lowest portion of the Yukon River basin, as well as the upper portion of the Kuskokwim River, and all of Susitna and Copper River drainages. Most Athabaskans depended on salmon that ascended these streams and on a nomadic search for caribou and moose. Tlingit and Haida occupied Alaska’s resource-rich southeast panhandle. Their primary food came from huge salmon runs, though they also took seals, deer, and moose, and collected a variety of berries. Theirs was the most highly structured society among Alaska Natives, including complex clan and moiety allegiances and stratified classes.

Additional Reading: Steve J. Langdon, The Native People of Alaska (4th edition, 2002)

When was oil discovered and developed in Alaska?
Oil explorers drilled Alaska’s first oil well in 1896 on the shores of Cook Inlet, southwest of present-day Anchorage. They found modest amounts of oil, insufficient to justify development. Six years later, however, a well drilled at Katalla on the Gulf of Alaska struck oil. More wells were drilled at Katalla and eventually a refinery was built. The Katalla oil field continued production until a fire crippled the refinery in December 1933. Private investors and the federal government explored for oil in many areas in the territory for the next two decades, but no production ensued until the discovery of the Kenai Peninsula’s Swanson River field in 1957. Oil companies built two refineries on the peninsula to process the oil. Drillers found numerous additional oil fields and more than a dozen gas fields in Cook Inlet. The gas, once transported by pipeline to Anchorage, dramatically reduced heating costs for the state’s largest city.

Today, however, when most people discuss Alaskan oil, they are referring to oil produced on the state’s North Slope. Atlantic Richfield struck oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968. The Prudhoe Bay field is the largest oil field ever discovered in North America. After necessary government studies and obtaining necessary federal legislation, the oil companies began constructing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in 1974. Three years later the 800-mile-long pipeline was completed, at the time the most expensive privately funded construction project ever built. Oil flowed south through the pipeline to Valdez, where it was loaded onto tankers to be shipped south to the contiguous states. Oil companies have also discovered and developed other oil fields on the North Slope, including the Kuparuk field, the second largest field discovered on the continent.

Information extracted with permission from Joan M. Antonson and William S. Hanable, Alaska’s Heritage (2d edition, 1992) and Robert W. King, “Without Hope of Immediate Profit: Oil Exploration in Alaska, 1898 to 1953” Alaska History, Spring 1994, 19-36.

Additional Reading:  Robert W. King, “Without Hope of Immediate Profit: Oil Exploration in Alaska, 1898 to 1953,” Alaska History, Spring 1994, 19-36.

Peter A. Coates, The Trans-Alaska Pipeline Controversy: Technology, Conservation and the Frontier (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1993)

When and how did Alaska become a state?
Alaskans long chafed at control over nearly all of Alaska’s land and much of their territorial government by a U.S. Congress thousands of miles distant and in which Alaskans had no representative. To gain greater control over their own destiny, some Alaskans had advocated statehood from early in the twentieth century. In 1916 James Wickersham, Alaska’s non-voting delegate to Congress, introduced the first Alaska statehood bill in Congress. Like many subsequent efforts, the bill gathered little support.

In 1955, the territorial legislature passed legislation authorizing a constitutional convention. Alaskan voters elected fifty-five delegates from across the territory. They met at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks in November 1955 to write a constitution for the proposed state. Alaskans voted approval of the constitution in April 1956. The new constitution was to take effect when and if Congress granted statehood for Alaska.

Voters approved another proposition in the same election at which they accepted the constitution. This proposition was called the “Alaska-Tennessee Plan.” It was so named because Tennessee had successfully used a similar scheme to obtain statehood for itself. The plan called for election of two Alaskans to serve in the United States Senate and one in the United States House of Representatives. The voters selected Ernest Gruening and William A. Egan as its senators and Ralph Rivers as its representative. Congress refused to recognize these unauthorized delegates, but Gruening, Egan, and Rivers acted as effective lobbyists in Washington.

Lobbying efforts finally paid off in 1958. That year, Congress approved statehood for Alaska. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Bill into law on July 7, 1958. Alaskans accepted statehood as presented in the federal law the following month and elected their first state officials in November. On January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower proclaimed Alaska to be the forty-ninth state of the United States.

Information extracted with permission from Joan M. Antonson and William S. Hanable, Alaska’s Heritage (2d edition, 1992).

Additional Reading: Claus-M. Naske, A History of Alaska Statehood (1985)

How did World War II affect Alaska?
The clash of powers begun by Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan in the 1930s reached every corner of the globe. World War II affected Alaska in several profound ways: a massive, and what has been a permanent, increase in the military’s presence; significant expansion of Alaska’s transportation system; and war itself. Concern with Japan’s growing strength and belligerence in the late 1930s prompted the U.S. government to look to Alaska’s defenses. American strategists realized that the shortest distance between Japan and the West Coast states followed the Great Circle route near Alaska’s shoreline. To guard against such an advance, the government built naval air, destroyer,and submarine bases in Sitka, Kodiak, and Dutch Harbor in 1939 and 1940. The Army established forts and air fields at Anchorage and Fairbanks. By the end of September, 1941, Alaska’s military population was 35,000, dramatically up from only about 1,000 eighteen months earlier. At the height of war activity in Alaska, men and women in uniform numbered well over 100,000. Civilian population also grew during the war, as contractors and the robust economy near the military posts provided jobs.

To assure supply of these military installations, especially if Japan was able to endanger or block coastal shipping, the U.S. built a series of airfields from Montana, north through Canada, to Fairbanks. The Japanese threat to mainland Alaska and to its coastal shipping never became that dire. The airfields served a very significant role, though, in ferrying nearly 8,000 fighters and bombers from U.S. production plants to be used by our Soviet Union allies against Nazi Germany. To support the airfields and to further link the Alaskan outpost to the rest of the country, the army punched a rudimentary road, the Alcan Highway (now improved and called the Alaska Highway) through Canadian and Alaskan wilderness from northern Alberta to link up to the Richardson Highway at Delta, Alaska. During the same period a spur road (the present-day Glenn Highway) was built to link Anchorage to the Alcan.

War itself also came to Alaska. During the first week of June, 1942, Japanese aircraft bombed Dutch Harbor and Japanese troops occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska in Alaska’s westernmost Aleutian Islands. This invasion marked the first time since the War of 1812 that an invading army had occupied American soil. A small naval party on Kiska and Aleut villagers on Attu were taken prisoner and transported to Japan. Concern that the war would come to other far western islands prompted the American government to evacuate residents from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands and to destroy many of the islanders’ homes, rather than let the invaders use them.

American aircraft and ships struggled with the Japanese forces and the treacherous Aleutian weather, first to isolate the invaders and then to destroy them. The Battle of the Commander Islands in March 1943, in which navy ships intercepted and turned back a Japanese flotilla seeking to bring more reinforcements, signified achievement of the first goal. For two and half weeks in May, 15,000 American troops clambered ashore at Attu and overcame stiff resistance from 2,400 Japanese defenders. Kiska held 6,000 Japanese, so the American command assembled a force of nearly 100 ships and an invasion force of over 34,000 American and Canadian troops. But in late July the Japanese had managed a brilliant escape; while U.S. ships chased mysterious radar contacts 200 miles south of the island, eight enemy naval ships dashed to Kiska and carried away the emperor’s soldiers. Not realizing this, however, the American and Canadian force attacked what proved to be a deserted island on August 15. Thus, the Japanese deserted their Alaskan gains two years before the end of the war.

Information extracted with permission from Joan M. Antonson and William S. Hanable, Alaska’s Heritage (2d edition, 1992).

Additional Reading: Heath Twichell, Northwest Epic: The Building of the Alaska Highway (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992)

Alaska at War, 1941-1945: The Forgotten War Remembered, edited by Fern Chandonnet (Anchorage: Alaska at War Committee, 1995)

Brian Garfield, The Thousand-Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians, revised edition (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1995)

When and how did the United States come to own Alaska?
The United States bought Alaska from Russia in 1867. This is a summary of how that came to pass. American political leaders had expressed interest in acquiring Alaska as early as the 1840s, during the height of the nation’s fascination with its “Manifest Destiny” to expand its control across the continent. American traders and whalers were frequent visitors to Alaska’s shores, and many spoke highly of its resources. Exploratory steps were taken in 1860 to determine whether Russia would sell Alaska to America. But the question had to await the conclusion of the Civil War. In 1866, a year after the war’s end, the Czar’s advisors indicated that the Russian-American Company, the semi-official arm of the Russian government that managed the Russian colony in Alaska, was nearing bankruptcy. It would need direct government aid to survive. The advisors also said that Russia’s American colony was impossible to defend. The Russian treasury could not afford either a rescue of the company or a war with the United States or Britain over a colony on another continent. Russia’s minister to the United States, Edward de Stoeckl, in early 1867 opened negotiations for the sale of Alaska to America.

On March 29, 1867, Stoeckl informed Secretary of State William Henry Seward that the Czar had agreed to sell Russian interests in Alaska to the United States. The Russian minister and Seward drafted a treaty that same night. On June 20 President Andrew Johnson signed the treaty and sent it to the United States Senate for confirmation.

The treaty provided for a purchase price of $7.2 million in gold. All private property was to be retained by its owners–there wasn’t much–and Russian Orthodox Church members were to assume title to churches built in Alaska by the Russian government or the Russian-American Company. The United States Senate approved the treaty by a large majority. On October 18, 1867, transfer ceremonies occurred at Sitka and Alaska became a United States possession.

Information extracted with permission from Joan M. Antonson and William S. Hanable, Alaska’s Heritage (2d edition, 1992).

Additional Reading: Paul S. Holbo, Tarnished Expansion: The Alaska Scandal, the Press, and Congress, 1867-1871 (1983)