On March 30, 1867, Secretary of State William H. Seward agreed to purchase Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million dollars, about two cents an acre. A check for $7,200,000.00 was issued on August 1, 1868 and made payable to Edouard de Stoeckl, the Russian Minister to the United States.
The press mocked the purchase as “Seward’s Folly”, “Seward’s icebox,” and Andrew Johnson’s “polar bear garden.” The discovery of gold in the late 1890s increased Alaska’s value as a U.S. possession and boosted its population. (Today, Alaska is primarily known as a producer of black gold, or oil.)
In 1912, the region was granted territorial status. Alaskans approved statehood in 1946 and adopted a state constitution in 1955. On January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower announced Alaska’s entrance into the Union as the 49th state. It has a land mass larger than Texas, California and Montana combined.
Alaska has more public land owned by the federal government than any other state. Approximately 65% of Alaska (222 million acres) is owned and managed by the U.S. federal government as public lands, including a multitude of national forests, national parks, and national wildlife refuges. The state of Alaska owns 101 million acres. Another 44 million acres are owned by 12 regional, and scores of local Native corporations created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Various private interests own the remaining land, totaling about one percent of the state. Alaska is, by a large margin, the state with the smallest percentage of private land ownership when Native corporation holdings are excluded.
The state flag of Alaska was officially adopted in 1959. The golden stars represent the Big Dipper and the North Star, or Polaris (representing Alaska’s northern location). The pattern was chosen from a contest in 1926 won by a 13-year-old Native American boy named Bennie Benson. Bennie was from the village of Chignik; he received a 1,000-dollar scholarship and a watch for winning the contest.
Today, Alaska has a population of some 730,000 people and 30,000 bears. Of the 20 highest peaks in the United States, 17 are in Alaska. Mt. Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley), the highest peak in North America, is 20,320 ft. above sea level. Denali, the Indian name for the peak, means “The Great One.”
Alaska also is home to the third longest river in the U.S. (The Yukon), and an estimated 100,000 glaciers. It boasts the northernmost (Point Barrow), the easternmost (Pochnoi Point on Semisopochnoi Island in the Aleutians), and the westernmost (Amatignak Island in the Aleutians) points in the United States.