Alaska Flag on Our Flagpole

Alaska – The Last Frontier

Introduction:

Alaska is a U.S. state in the northwest extremity of North America.

The Canadian administrative divisions of British Columbia and Yukon border the state to the east, its most extreme western part is Attu Island, and it has a maritime border with Russia (Chukotka Autonomous Okrug) to the west across the Bering Strait.  To the north are the Chukchi and Beaufort seas—the southern parts of the Arctic Ocean.  The Pacific Ocean lies to the south and southwest.

Alaska in the United States

Alaska in the United States

It is the largest state in the United States by area.

Approximately half of Alaska’s residents live within the Anchorage metropolitan area.

Anchorage

Anchorage

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.

Origin of the Name:

The name “Alaska” (Russian: Аляска, tr. Alyaska) was introduced in the Russian colonial period when it was used to refer to the Alaska Peninsula. It was derived from an Aleut-language idiom, which figuratively refers to the mainland.  Literally, it means object to which the action of the sea is directed.

Geography:

Alaska is the northernmost and westernmost state in the United States and has the most easterly longitude in the United States because the Aleutian Islands extend into the Eastern Hemisphere.  Alaska is the only non-contiguous U.S. state on continental North America; about 500 miles of British Columbia, Canada, separates Alaska from Washington.  It is technically part of the continental U.S., but is sometimes not included in colloquial use; Alaska is not part of the contiguous U.S., often called “the Lower 48”.  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.

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 apart. Alaska has a longer coastline than all the other U.S. states combined.

Alaska is the largest state in the United States by total area at 663,268 square miles, over twice the size of Texas, the next largest state.

Alaska Compared to the Lower 48

Alaska Compared to the Lower 48

Alaska 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.

Regions:

South Central:

The South Central region is the most populous region of Alaska, containing Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and the Kenai Peninsula.  Rural, mostly unpopulated areas south of the Alaska Range and west of the Wrangell Mountains also fall within the definition of South Central, as do the Prince William Sound area and the communities of Cordova and Valdez.

Southeast:

Also referred to as the Panhandle or Inside Passage, this is the region of Alaska closest to the rest of the United States.  As such, this was where most of the initial non-indigenous settlement occurred in the years following the Alaska Purchase.  The region is dominated by the Alexander Archipelago as well as the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the United States.  It contains the state capital Juneau, the former capital Sitka, and Ketchikan, at one time Alaska’s largest city.

Juneau

Juneau

The Alaska Marine Highway provides a vital surface transportation link throughout the area, as only three communities (Haines, Hyder and Skagway) enjoy direct connections to the contiguous North American road system.

Interior:

The Interior is the largest region of Alaska; much of it is uninhabited wilderness.

Fairbanks is the only large city in the region.

Fairbanks

Fairbanks

Denali National Park and Preserve is located here.  Denali is the highest mountain in North America.

Denali

Denali

Southwest:

Southwest Alaska is a sparsely inhabited region stretching some 500 miles inland from the Bering Sea. Most of the population lives along the coast.  Kodiak Island is also located in Southwest.  The massive Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta, one of the largest river deltas in the world, is here.  Portions of the Alaska Peninsula are considered part of Southwest, with the remaining portions included with the Aleutian Islands.

North Slope:

The North Slope is mostly tundra peppered with small villages.  The area is known for its massive reserves of crude oil, and contains both the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska and the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field.  The city of Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow, is the northernmost city in the United States and is located here.

Utqiagvik

Utqiagvik

The Northwest Arctic area, anchored by Kotzebue and also containing the Kobuk River valley, is often regarded as being part of this region.  However, the respective Inupiat of the North Slope and of the Northwest Arctic seldom consider themselves to be one people.

Aleutian Islands:

More than 300 small volcanic islands make up this chain, which stretches over 1,200 miles into the Pacific Ocean.

Aleutian Islands

Aleutian Islands

Some of these islands fall in the Eastern Hemisphere, but the International Date Line was drawn west of 180° to keep the whole state, and thus the entire North American continent, within the same legal day.  Two of the islands, Attu and Kiska, were occupied by Japanese forces during World War II.

History:

Pre-Colonization:

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.  At the Upward Sun River site in the Tanana River Valley in Alaska, remains of a six-week-old infant were found.  The baby’s DNA showed that she belonged to a population that was genetically separate from other native groups present elsewhere in the New World at the end of the Pleistocene.  Ben Potter, the University of Alaska Fairbanks archaeologist who unearthed the remains at the Upward River Sun site in 2013, named this new group Ancient Beringians.

Tlingit Art

Tlingit Art

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 18th through the mid-19th 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.

Colonization:

Some researchers believe that the first Russian settlement in Alaska was established in the 17th century.  According to this hypothesis, in 1648 several koches of Semyon Dezhnyov’s expedition came ashore in Alaska by storm and founded this settlement.  This hypothesis is based on the testimony of Chukchi geographer Nikolai Daurkin, who had visited Alaska in 1764–1765 and who had reported on a village on the Kheuveren River, populated by “bearded men” who “pray to the icons”.  Some modern researchers associate Kheuveren with Koyuk River.

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 Belarusian 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.

Russian Settlement of Kodiak

Russian Settlement of Kodiak

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-19th 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.

Russian America 1860

Russian America 1860

On March 30, 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire for the sum of $7.2 million.  It was not until October of that year that the commissioners arrived in Sitka and the formal transfer was arranged.  The formal flag-raising took place at Fort Sitka on October 18, 1867.  The original ceremony included 250 uniformed U.S. soldiers, who marched to the governor’s house at “Castle Hill”.  Here the Russian troops lowered the Russian flag and the U.S. flag was raised.  This event is celebrated as Alaska Day, a legal holiday on the 18th of October.

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.

Territory:

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.

Chilkoot Trail 1898 Klondike Gold Rush

Chilkoot Trail 1898 Klondike Gold Rush

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 Aleut 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.

Battle of Attu 1943

Battle of Attu 1943

The United States Lend-Lease program involved the flying of American warplanes through Canada to Fairbanks and then 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:

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.

Good Friday Earthquake:

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.

Kodiak Before and After Earthquake

Kodiak Before and After Earthquake

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.

Discovery of Oil:

The 1968 discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay and the 1977 completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System led to an oil boom.

Alaska Pipeline

Alaska Pipeline

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 of crude oil over 1,100 miles 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.

Economy:

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.

Prudhoe Bay Oil Field

Prudhoe Bay Oil Field

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.  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.

Transportation:

Roads:

Federally funded highways in the Interstate System in Alaska include: A1, A2, A3, and A4.

Alaska Interstate Highways

Alaska Interstate Highways

Alaska has few road connections compared to the rest of the U.S.  The state’s road system covers a relatively small area of the state, linking the central population centers and the Alaska Highway, the principal route out of the state through Canada.  The state capital, Juneau, is not accessible by road, only a car ferry, which has spurred several debates over the decades about moving the capital to a city on the road system, or building a road connection from Haines.  The western part of Alaska has no road system connecting the communities with the rest of Alaska.

Rail:

Although there are important freight rail lines in Alaska, there are no dedicated passenger services.  Some rail lines for tourists exist however.

Marine Transport:

Alaska’s well-developed state-owned ferry system (known as the Alaska Marine Highway) serves the cities of the southeast, the Gulf Coast and the Alaska Peninsula.

Alaska State Ferry System

Alaska State Ferry System

The ferries transport vehicles as well as passengers.  The system also operates a ferry service from Bellingham, Washington and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, in Canada, through the Inside Passage to Skagway.  The Inter-Island Ferry Authority also serves as an important marine link for many communities in the Prince of Wales Island region of Southeast and works in concert with the Alaska Marine Highway.

In recent years, cruise lines have created a summertime tourism market, mainly connecting the Pacific Northwest to Southeast Alaska and, to a lesser degree, towns along Alaska’s gulf coast.  The population of Ketchikan may rise by over 10,000 people on many days during the summer, as up to four large cruise ships at a time can dock, debarking thousands of passengers.

Air Transport:

Anchorage and, to a lesser extent Fairbanks, is served by many major airlines.  Because of limited highway access, air travel remains the most efficient form of transportation in and out of the state.  Anchorage recently completed extensive remodeling and construction at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport to help accommodate the upsurge in tourism.

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport

Regular flights to most villages and towns within the state that are commercially viable are challenging to provide, so they are heavily subsidized by the federal government through the Essential Air Service program.  Alaska Airlines is the only major airline offering in-state travel with jet service (sometimes in combination cargo and passenger Boeing 737-400s) from Anchorage and Fairbanks to regional hubs like Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, Dillingham, Kodiak, and other larger communities as well as to major Southeast and Alaska Peninsula communities.

The bulk of remaining commercial flight offerings come from small regional commuter airlines such as Ravn Alaska, PenAir, and Frontier Flying Service.  The smallest towns and villages must rely on scheduled or chartered bush flying services using general aviation aircraft such as the Cessna Caravan, the most popular aircraft in use in the state.  Much of this service can be attributed to the Alaska bypass mail program which subsidizes bulk mail delivery to Alaskan rural communities.  The program requires 70% of that subsidy to go to carriers who offer passenger service to the communities.

Because air travel is such an essential transportation service, Alaska hosts at least 27 airports recognized as primary commercial airports by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Bombardier Dash 8

Bombardier Dash 8

Many communities have small air taxi services.  These operations originated from the demand for customized transport to remote areas.  Perhaps the most quintessentially Alaskan plane is the bush seaplane.  The world’s busiest seaplane base is Lake Hood, located next to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, where flights bound for remote villages without an airstrip carry passengers, cargo, and many items from stores and warehouse clubs.  In 2006 Alaska had the highest number of pilots per capita of any U.S. state.

Other Transport:

Another Alaskan transportation method is the dogsled.  In modern times dog mushing is more of a sport than a true means of transportation.  Various races are held around the state, but the best known is the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a 1,150-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome.

Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

The race commemorates the famous 1925 serum run to Nome in which mushers and dogs like Togo and Balto took much-needed medicine to the diphtheria-stricken community of Nome when all other means of transportation had failed.  Mushers from all over the world come to Anchorage each March to compete for cash, prizes, and prestige.  The “Serum Run” is another sled dog race that more accurately follows the route of the famous 1925 relay, leaving from the community of Nenana to Nome.

In areas not served by road or rail, primary transportation in summer is by all-terrain vehicle and in winter by snowmobile or “snow machine”, as it is commonly referred to in Alaska.

Flag of Alaska:

The flag of Alaska consists of eight gold stars, forming the Big Dipper and Polaris, on a dark blue field.  The Big Dipper is an asterism in the constellation Ursa Major which symbolizes a bear, an animal indigenous to Alaska.  As depicted on the flag, its stars can be used as a guide by the novice to locate Polaris and determine true north, which varies considerably from a magnetic north.

The design was created by Benny Benson of Seward and selected from among roughly 700 entries in a 1927 contest.

Flag of Alaska

Flag of Alaska

More than 30 years before Alaska was to become a state, the Alaska Department of the American Legion sponsored a territorial contest for Alaskan children in grades seven through twelve.  Winning the contest in 1927, the design of Benny Benson, a 13-year-old Alaska Native residing at the Jesse Lee Home for Children in Seward, was chosen to represent the future flag of the Territory of Alaska.  Up to that time, Alaskans had flown only the U.S. flag since the territory was purchased from Russia in 1867.  Benson’s design was chosen over roughly 700 other submissions from schoolchildren territory-wide in grades 7–12.  Most other entries featured variations on the territorial seal, the midnight sun, the northern lights, polar bears, and/or gold pans.  To celebrate his achievement, Benson was awarded $1,000 and an engraved watch.

Benny looked to the sky for the symbols he included in his design. Choosing the familiar constellation he looked for every night before going to sleep at the orphanage, he submitted this description with it:

“The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaskan flower.  The North Star is for the future state of Alaska, the most northerly in the union.  The Dipper is for the Great Bear—symbolizing strength.”

The Alaska Legislature adopted Benson’s design as the official flag for the Territory of Alaska on May 2, 1927.  The first flag made based on Benny’s design was made of blue silk and appliquéd gold stars.  It was first flown July 9, 1927.  It was retained as the state flag upon statehood in 1959.

State Nickname:

Alaska’s official nickname is “The Last Frontier.”

Alaska State Quarter

Alaska State Quarter

This refers to the late admission of Alaska as a state, its remoteness, and its lightly populated vast territory inviting further exploration.

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