The history surrounding the acquisition of our 49th State of the Union is quite different than those of the 48 States that preceded it. Driven by would be come to be called Manifest Destiny, those who settled our 13 original colonies and those who followed them, striking westward, wrested land from the Native Americans. They did so because they saw great, untapped value in those territories. But Alaska was another story. Its acquisition was not a theft but a product of legal negotiations between its original owner, Czarist Russia, and the United States as well as much internal angst in the ranks of American government.
In the 18th century, Russia acquired the Alaskan peninsula and offered to sell it to the United States during the administration of President John Buchanan. But the Civil War erupted, stalling negotiations for the purchase of this tremendous tract of pristine wilderness.
In 1865, U. S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, serving under the administration of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, saw unprecedented opportunities in the Alaskan wilderness. A proponent of American expansion, Seward envisioned greatness for Americans hardy enough to hew riches – Alaska’s natural resources – from a territory so huge that it can swallow Texas, California and Montana in one big gulp.
Seward thus pushed for the acquisition of Alaska, but hit road blocks with the U.S. Senate and Congress. Neither arm of our Federal legislature felt that the expense was worth it. Unlike Seward who saw tremendous opportunity, our lawmakers saw only a frozen wasteland. But Seward persisted.
With a bit of arm twisting and intelligent debate, the bill passed by a single vote! On March 30, 1867, Seward tendered a check to the Russian Government for the sum of $7.2 million dollars. This purchase of the Alaskan Territory, also known as The Yukon, equated to the steep bargain price of 2 cents an acre! On October 18, 1867, the Imperial Russian Flag was lowered and replaced by the Stars and Stripes. The U.S. kept its 49th State’s name intact, for it was derived from “alaxsxaq.” In the tongue of the Aleut, the territory’s original inhabitants, that word means “an object to which the sea is directed.” Loosely translated, it also means “great land” that includes the both the peninsula and the mainland.
Indeed the “great land,” so big is Alaska that the International Date Line had to be bent to keep the entire territory in the same day. Despite the bending, Alaska is still known as the Land of the Midnight Sun, because in some parts of the State, the sun never dips below the horizon.
But in the Senate and Congress in the late 1800s, our lawmakers were still waiting for the sun to rise over Alaska. Many scoffed at its purchase, calling it “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox” and “President Andrew Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden.” He who laughs last laughs, however, laughs longest, as the future of the territory would prove to be the buy of a lifetime.
In 1898, gold was discovered in Alaska. The promise of easy wealth created a massive exodus from the Lower 48. In flocked the white man with his booze, his cigarettes, and his machinery to spoil the land. That era in history also produced tales and legends of the wild north, which were recorded in song and story.
Robert W. Service, a former bank teller, journeyed to the Yukon to become the State’s Poet Laureate. His famous poems included The Shooting of Dan McGraw, The Cremation of Sam McGee, and The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill, to name a few. Other colorful characters created by Service included Soapy Smith, a tin-horned gambler that fleeced greenhorn miners with phony maps in Saskatchewan. But sometimes, Smith’s dirty work actually paid off! All of these poems had humble beginnings; they had entertained the gold miners in their beer halls. Later, they were recorded and published, causing Service to be named “The Bard of the Yukon.”
Some who trekked to Alaska with visions of gold dust in their eyes struck it rich. Others were sorely disappointed; many had missed the point. Alaska’s true riches were its wildlife and its pristine waters, the latter of which produced a bounty in the fishing industry. To this day, wild Alaskan salmon is considered the tastiest in the world. More than a century after the gold rush, black gold – oil! — was discovered in Alaska’s Anwar region and thus created the Alaskan pipeline system. Later still, commercial cruise lines capitalized on the stunning, untouched beauty of Alaska by mounting cruises down its clear blue waters, offering tourists means of seeing, for example, wild grizzly bears feasting on delicious wild salmon.
Home of the polar bears and the grizzly bear, Alaska hosts 90% of the grizzly population in the U.S. The environment also supports great herds of caribou, musk ox, and moose as well as sea otters and waterfowl. Unfortunately, another one of Alaska’s wildlife members lives under the threat of annihilation, even from those born and living within its borders. Thanks to legislation introduced and supported by Governor Sarah Palin and former President George W. Bush, the gray wolf is openly and unfairly hunted, including nursing mothers and pups. Palin herself enjoys aerial hunting of wolves. What chance does a wolf have against a shooter in a helicopter or a small plane with the advantage of height, speed, and a deadly weapon?
But, heartless and ignorant legislators were not the only ones to despoil Alaska’s unique natural environment. In 1989, an oil tanker named the Exxon Valdez spilled as many as 750,000 of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, courtesy of a drunken skipper sleeping it off below-decks and an exhausted crew. Although this was considered to be one of the worst environmental disasters in the world, human beings did not learn from the lesson endured by Alaska. In 2010, British Petroleum unleashed millions of gallons of oil into our Gulf, tainting the waters, the wildlife, and the livelihoods of three States.
But humans seem to fair better. As far as Alaska’s human inhabitants go, their State remains the home of the Aleuts as well as the Eskimo and the descendants of Caucasian settlers who carved homes and lives out of the beauty and starkness of the Alaskan wilderness. Women outnumber men by approximately 4 to 1 in Alaska, so if you’re a single woman and you’ve yet to find Mr. Right, he may be waiting for you in the Land of the Midnight Sun. One of Alaska’s most famous natives is the mega-star Jewel, the singer, guitarist, and songwriter who had her first commercial radio hit in 1995, at the age of 21 with, “Who Will Save Your Soul,” and who continues to this day to burn up country music and crossover charts.
Truly America’s last frontier, Alaska is still abundant in natural resources, wildlife, and resilient people willing to challenge the elements of a rugged land. If William H. Seward were alive today, he would be hailed as a leader of men. With his foresight and determination, our 2 cents an acre deal, the greatest real estate agreement ever envisioned, may have gone by the wayside.