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Although population movement across the Bering Sea from Asia to North America took place as early as 40,000 years ago, archaeological evidence suggests that the first settlements in Alaska began around 12,000 years ago. These early settlers brought with them a Siberian culture that gradually merged into the distinct and varied cultures of precontact Alaska. Among these were the people who became the Eskimo; about 4000 years ago they moved into the Arctic region of the continent. Others became the Aleut and the various Na-Dene or Athapaskan peoples. Each of these peoples adapted to their own environment and exploited local resources.

European settlement of Alaska began with a series of Russian expeditions led by the Danish commander Vitus Bering. On his 1728 expedition he sailed through the Bering Sea, proving that North America was not connected to Asia. On Bering's second expedition in 1841, he landed in Alaska and found the sea otters that would serve as the basis for Russian colonization. At the time of European contact, researchers estimate that about 75,000 people lived in Alaska. The first Russian settlement was at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island, which became the Alaskan colonial capital. Other settlements were established along the coast, of which the most important was New Archangel (later called Sitka). New Archangel became the Alaskan colonial capital in 1806 when the Russian-American Company, which was founded in 1799 to exploit the resources of the colony, moved its headquarters there. Colonization, especially under the leadership of the autocratic Aleksandr Baranov, the chief manager or governor of the colony, brought the Russians into conflict with the indigenous population. The southeastern Alaskan settlement at New Archangel was especially prone to conflict, and in the 1800s a series of wars were fought between the Russians and the indigenous Tlingit people. The Russian settler population was never more than about 550 people, but by the end of the Russian colonial era the Native Alaskan population had declined to around 33,000, largely due to introduced diseases.

The Russians sold their Alaska colony to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million. The Russians were as eager to sell the colony as the Americans were reluctant to buy it. Russian Alaska was a drain on the Russian economy as it was not self-supporting, the colony was extremely distant from the capital at St Petersburg, and the sea otter population—the most important resource to the Russians—had substantially declined. The Russians wanted to sell the colony specifically to the United States to block British expansion in northwest North America. The US Congress, influenced largely by Secretary of State William H. Seward, finally agreed to purchase Alaska. The purchase was not widely popular and Alaska was often depicted in the media as a worthless Arctic wasteland and called such names as "Seward's Folly," "Seward's Icebox," and "Walrussia."

American perceptions of Alaska changed in the late 19th century with a series of gold rushes beginning in 1880 in Juneau and followed by similar discoveries in other parts of the territory. The largest and most influential of these rushes took place on the Yukon River in and after 1896, concurrent with the Klondike discoveries further upstream in Canada. This gold rush increased the state's population, and Alaska now came to be portrayed as a land of wealth and opportunity. Gold production declined after 1914 and the territory's population declined with it.

The next major event in Alaska's history was World War II (1939-1945) and its impact on the American government's recognition of Alaska's strategic global position. The Japanese invasion and occupation of some of the Aleutian Islands during the war prompted increased militarization of the territory in the postwar years, along with increased federal spending on infrastructure such as port facilities, highways, and airstrips. The Alaska Highway was built connecting the territory with the 48 conterminous states (through Canada) and the US government gave greater attention to Alaska's position just across the Bering Sea from the Soviet Union.

After several earlier failed attempts, Alaska became the 49th state of the United States in 1959. Under the statehood act, Alaska was allowed to select federal lands that would be conveyed to the new state and become state lands. The state government selected lands based largely on their location and economic importance, and among the selected lands were the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope. In 1968, oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay, prompting the resolution of unsettled Alaska Native claims to land. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), passed by the US Congress in 1971, granted about

12% of Alaska, along with monetary compensation, to Alaska Natives in exchange for extinguishment of their Native title. ANCSA had a major impact on the Native peoples of the state, giving them exclusive and fee simple title to land as well as capital for business investment. The discovery of oil on the North Slope also prompted the discussion of how oil was to be transported from its Arctic location to markets in the United States. The accepted proposal was to construct an overland pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to the ice-free port of Valdez in south central Alaska. Completion of this pipeline in 1977 allowed oil to flow south, where it was shipped to the lower 48 ports by oil tanker. The Exxon Valdez disaster, previously mentioned, prompted a reassessment of the costs of oil to the Alaskan environment. Exxon Corporation was forced to pay over $1 billion in settlement, but the cost of restoring the habitat in Prince William Sound was at least twice that. Today, the prevailing concerns in Alaska include conflicts over how much of state and federal lands, including lands established as wilderness preserves, to open to development and resource extraction, especially given the US government's desire for domestic sources of oil. Conflicts over subsistence rights and resources, over environmental issues, and over taxation, the Permanent Fund, and the generation of new revenues in the postoil era are emerging issues in contemporary Alaska.

Michael Pretes

See also Alaska Highway; Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA); Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA); Alaska Range; Alaska Treaty (Convention for the Cession of the Russian Possessions in North America to the United States); Aleut; Anchorage; Athapaskan; Bering Sea; Bering, Vitus; Brooks Range; Eskimo-Aleut Languages; Exxon Valdez; Gold Mining; Mount McKinley (Denali); National Parks and Protected Areas: Alaska; Russian-American Company; Tlin-git; Trans-Alaska Pipeline

Further Reading

Borneman, Walter R., Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land, New York:

HarperCollins, 2003 Hammond, Jay, Tales of Alaska's Bush Rat Governor, Seattle:

Epicenter Press, 1994 Lester, Jean, Faces of Alaska: Voices Across the State,

Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2003 McBeath, Gerald A. & Thomas A. Morehouse, Alaska Politics and Government, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994

McPhee, John, Coming into the Country, New York: Farrar,

Straus and Giroux, 1977 Naske, Claus-M. & Herman E. Slotnick, Alaska: A History of the 49th State (2nd edition), Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987

Vaughan, Richard, The Arctic: A History, Stroud, England:

Alan Sutton, 1994 Weeden, Robert B., Alaska: Promises to Keep, Boston: Little Brown, 1978

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