Alaska (əlă´skə), largest in area of the United States but one of the smallest in population, occupying the northwest extremity of the North American continent, separated from the coterminous United States by W Canada. It is bordered by Yukon and British Columbia (E), the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean (S), the Bering Sea, Bering Strait, and Chukchi Sea (W), and the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean (N).
Facts and Figures
Area, 656,424 sq mi (1,700,135 sq km), including 86,051 sq mi (222,871 sq km) of water surface. Pop. (2010) 710,231, a 13.3% increase since the 2000 census. Capital, Juneau. Largest city, Anchorage. Statehood, Jan. 3, 1959 (49th state). Highest pt., Mt. McKinley, 20,237 ft (6,168 m); lowest pt., sea level. Motto, North to the Future. State bird, willow ptarmigan. State flower, forget-me-not. State tree, Sitka spruce. Abbr., AK
Land and People
Nearly one fifth the size of the rest of the United States, Alaska is, at the tip of the Seward Peninsula in the northwest, only a few miles from the Russian Far East; the two are separated by the narrow Bering Strait. The Seward Peninsula, chiefly tundra covered, is sparsely inhabited. The Bering Strait widens in the north to the Chukchi Sea, which slices into Alaska with Kotzebue Sound; in the south the strait widens to the Bering Sea, which cuts into Alaska with Norton Sound and Bristol Bay.
Toward the south the state again extends toward Russia in the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands, reaching a total of 1,200 mi (1,931 km) toward the Komandorski Islands; together they divide the Bering Sea from the Pacific. The Aleutian Range, which is the spine of the Alaska Peninsula, is continued in the grass-covered, treeless Aleutian Islands; the climate there is unremittingly harsh—foggy, damp, and cold in the winter and subject to violent winds (williwaws). Once traversed by Russian fur traders hunting sea otters, the Aleutians are now chiefly of strategic importance. They contain several active volcanoes.
The southern coast of Alaska is deeply indented by two inlets of the wide Gulf of Alaska, Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound; the Kenai Peninsula between them extends southwest toward Kodiak Island. The narrow Panhandle dips southeast along the coast from the Gulf of Alaska, cutting into British Columbia. It consists of the offshore islands of the Alexander Archipelago and the narrow coast, which rises steeply to the peaks of the Coast Range and the Saint Elias Mts. Winters in the Panhandle are relatively mild, with heavy rainfall and, except on the upper slopes of the mountains, comparatively little snow.
The interior of Alaska, on the other hand, has very cold winters and short, hot summers. In Arctic Alaska, north of the Brooks Range, the temperature in winter reaches -10°F to -40°F (-23.3°C to -40°C). The land there is mostly barren, cut by many short rivers and one long one, the Colville. Alaska's major river is the Yukon, which crosses the state from east to west for 1,200 mi (1,931 km), from the Canadian border to the Bering Sea. The northernmost reach of Alaska is Point Barrow.
Alaska's climate and terrain (rough coast and high mountain ranges) divide it into relatively isolated regions, and transportation relies heavily on costly airlines. The Panhandle is the most populous region; Juneau, the state's capital and third largest city, is there. The Panhandle's connection with Seattle is by ships, which ply the Inside Passage between the coast and the offshore islands. In S central Alaska, Anchorage, the state's largest city, is the center for the Alaskan RR and for airways; it is also connected with the Alaska Highway. On the Seward Peninsula and Norton Sound, Nome, founded when gold was discovered (1898) in the sands of local beaches, is now a small, isolated settlement. Southern ports including Seward, Anchorage, and Valdez are linked by highway with Fairbanks, the state's second largest (and largest interior) city. Cordova and Kodiak depend upon the ocean lanes. On the North Slope, the entire Arctic coast is icebound most of the year, and the ground remains permanently frozen.
The state abounds in natural wonders. In the Panhandle, the scenic beauty of the mountains and the rugged fjord-indented coast are augmented by such attractions as the Malaspina glacier and the acres of blue ice in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. In the Alaska Range of S central Alaska stands the highest point in North America, Mt. McKinley (Denali) in Denali National Park and Preserve. The Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands have numerous volcanoes; Katmai National Park and Preserve contains the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, scene of a volcanic eruption in 1912.
In the mid-1990s slightly over three quarters of the state's population was white and some 15% was Native American (largely Eskimo and Aleut).
Alaska has very little agriculture, ranking last in the nation in number of farms and value of farm products. The state's best arable land is in its S central region, in the Matanuska Valley N of Anchorage and the Tanana Valley (around Fairbanks). The state's most valuable farm commodities are greenhouse and dairy products and potatoes.
Alaska leads the nation in the value of its commercial fishing catch—chiefly salmon, crab, shrimp, halibut, herring, and cod. Anchorage and Dutch Harbor are major fishing ports, and the freezing and canning of fish dominates the food-processing industry, the state's largest manufacturing enterprise. Lumbering and related industries are of great importance, although disputes over logging in the state's great national forests are ongoing. Mining, principally of petroleum and natural gas, is the state's most valuable industry. Gold, which led to settlement at the end of the 19th cent., is no longer mined in quantity. Fur-trapping, Alaska's oldest industry, endures; pelts are obtained from a great variety of animals. The Pribilof Islands are especially noted as a source of sealskins (the seals there are owned by the U.S. government, and their use is carefully regulated).
In 1968 vast reserves of oil and natural gas were discovered on the Alaska North Slope near Prudhoe Bay. The petroleum reservoir was determined to be twice the size of any other field in North America. The 800-mi (1,287-km) Trans-Alaska pipeline from the North Slope to the ice-free port of Valdez opened in 1977, after bitter opposition from environmentalists, and oil began to dominate the state economy. The Alaska Permanent Fund, created in 1977, receives 25% of Alaska's oil royalty income. The fund is designed to provide the state with income after the oil reserves are depleted and has paid dividends to all residents.
Government—federal, state, and local—is Alaska's major source of employment. The state's strategic location has generated considerable defense activity since World War II, including the establishment of highways, airfields, and permanent military bases. Alaska's tourism increased dramatically with the help of improvements in transportation; it now follows only oil among the state's industries. The Inside Passage, Denali National Park, and the 1000-mi (1,600 km) Iditarod sled-dog race are major attractions.
Government, Politics, and Higher Education
Alaska operates under a constitution drawn up and ratified in 1956 (effective with statehood). Its executive branch is headed by a governor and a secretary of state, both elected (on the same ticket) for four-year terms. Alaska's bicameral legislature has a senate with 20 members and a house of representatives with 40 members. The state sends two senators and one representative to the U.S. Congress and has three electoral votes.
Democrats at first dominated state politics, but Republicans have gained gradual ascendance since 1966. A Democrat, Tony Knowles, was elected governor in 1994 and reelected in 1998. The GOP recaptured the governorship in 2002 when Frank Murkowski was elected to the office. In 2006 Republican Sarah Palin was elected governor, defeating Murkowski in the primary and Knowles in the general election. She was the first woman to win the governorship. She resigned in 2009 and was succeeded by Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, also a Republican. He was elected to the office in 2010 but lost in 2014 to independent Bill Walker.
Alaska's educational institutions include the Univ. of Alaska, with divisions at Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Juneau; and Alaska Pacific Univ., at Anchorage.
The disastrous voyage of Vitus Bering and Aleksey Chirikov in 1741 began the march of Russian traders across Siberia. The survivors who returned with sea otter skins started a rush of fur hunters to the Aleutian Islands. Grigori Shelekhov in 1784 founded the first permanent settlement in Alaska on Kodiak Island and sent (1790) to Alaska the man who was to dominate the period of Russian influence there, Aleksandr Baranov. A monopoly was granted to the Russian American Company in 1799, and it was Baranov who directed its Alaskan activities. Baranov extended the Russian trade far down the west coast of North America and even, after several unsuccessful attempts, founded (1812) a settlement in N California.
Rivalry for the northwest coast was strong, and British and American trading vessels began to threaten the Russian monopoly. In 1821 the czar issued a ukase (imperial command) claiming the 51st parallel as the southern boundary of Alaska and warning foreign vessels not to trespass beyond it. British and American protests, the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine, and Russian embroilment elsewhere resulted (1824) in a negotiated settlement of the boundary at lat. 54°40′N (the present southern boundary of Alaska). Russian interests in Alaska gradually declined, and after the Crimean War, Russia sought to dispose of the territory altogether.
Early Years as a U.S. Possession
In 1867, Russia sold Alaska to the United States for $7,200,000. The U.S. purchase was accomplished solely through the determined efforts of Secretary of State William H. Seward, and for many years afterward the land was derisively called Seward's Folly or Seward's Icebox because of its supposed uselessness. Since Alaska appeared to offer no immediate financial return, it was neglected. The U.S. army officially controlled the area until 1876, when scandals caused the withdrawal of the troops. After a brief period, during which government was in the hands of customs officials, the U.S. navy was given charge (1879). Most of the territory was not even known, although the British (notably John Franklin and Capt. F. W. Beechey) had explored the coast of the Arctic Ocean, and the Hudson's Bay Company had explored the Yukon.
It was not until after the discovery of gold in the Juneau region in 1880 that Alaska was given a governor and a feeble local administration (under the Organic Act of 1884). Missionaries, who had come to the region in the late 1870s, exercised considerable influence. Most influential was Sheldon Jackson, best known for his introduction of reindeer to help the Alaska Eskimo (Inuit), impoverished by the wanton destruction of the fur seals. Sealing was the subject of a long international controversy (see Bering Sea Fur-Seal Controversy under Bering Sea), which was not ended until after gold had permanently transformed Alaska.
The Gold Rush
Paradoxically, the first gold finds that tremendously influenced Alaska were in Canada. The Klondike strike of 1896 brought a stampede, mainly of Americans, and most of them came through Alaska. The big discoveries in Alaska itself followed—Nome in 1898–99, Fairbanks in 1902. The miners and prospectors (the sourdoughs) took over Alaska, and the era of the mining camps reached its height; a criminal code was belatedly applied in 1899.
The longstanding controversy concerning the boundary between the Alaska Panhandle and British Columbia was aggravated by the large number of miners traveling the Inside Passage to the gold fields. The matter was finally settled in 1903 by a six-man tribunal, composed of American, Canadian, and British representatives. The decision was generally favorable to the United States, and a period of rapid building and development began. Mining, requiring heavy financing, passed into the hands of Eastern capitalists, notably the monopolistic Alaska Syndicate. Opposition to these "interests" became the burning issue in Alaska and was catapulted into national politics; Gifford Pinchot and R. A. Ballinger were the chief antagonists, and this was a major issue on which Theodore Roosevelt split with President William Howard Taft.
Juneau officially replaced Sitka as capital in 1900, but it did not begin to function as such until 1906. In the same year Alaska was finally awarded a territorial representative in Congress. A new era began for Alaska when local government was established in 1912 and it became a U.S. territory. The building of the Alaska RR from Seward to Fairbanks was commenced with government funds in 1915. Already, however, gold mining was dying out, and Alaska receded into one of its quiet periods. The fishing industry, which had gradually advanced during the gold era, became the major enterprise.
Alaska enjoyed an economic boom during World War II. The Alaska Highway was built, supplying a weak but much-needed link with the United States. After Japanese troops occupied the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska, U.S. forces prepared for a counterattack. Attu was retaken in May, 1943, after intense fighting, and the Japanese evacuated Kiska in August after intensive U.S. bombardments. Dutch Harbor became a major key in the U.S. defense system. The growth of air travel after the war, and the permanent military bases established in Alaska resulted in tremendous growth; between 1950 and 1960 the population nearly doubled.
Statehood to the Present
In 1958, Alaskans approved statehood by a 5 to 1 vote, and on Jan. 3, 1959, Alaska was officially admitted into the Union as a state, the first since Arizona in 1912. On Mar. 27, 1964, the strongest earthquake ever recorded in North America occurred in Alaska, taking approximately 114 lives and causing extensive property damage. Some cities were almost totally destroyed, and the fishing industry was especially hard hit, with the loss of fleets, docks, and canneries from the resulting tsunami. Reconstruction, with large-scale federal aid, was rapid. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971) gave roughly 44 million acres (17.8 million hectares; 10% of the state) and almost $1 billion to Alaskan native peoples in exchange for renunciation of all aboriginal claims to land in the state. In 1989 the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, releasing 11 million gallons of oil into the water in the worst oil spill in U.S. history up to that time and severely damaging the ecosystem. A jury in 1994 found Exxon Corp. (now ExxonMobil) and the ship's captain negligent, but the amount of punitive damages ($507.5 million) to be paid to some 33,000 commercial fishermen and other plaintiffs was ultimately fixed by a Supreme Court decision in 2008, which severely reduced the original award ($2.5 billion).
See C. C. Hulley, Alaska, Past and Present (3d ed. 1970); B. Keating, Alaska (2d ed. 1971); H. W. Clark, History of Alaska (1930, repr. 1972); B. Cooper, Alaska, the Last Frontier (1973); Federal Writers' Project, A Guide to Alaska, Last American Frontier (1940, repr. 1973); L. Thomas Jr., Alaska and the Yukon (1983); R. W. Pearson and D. F. Lynch, Alaska: A Geography; J. Strohmeyer, Extreme Conditions: Big Oil and the Transformation of Alaska (1993).