January 3, 1959 – Alaska Joins the Union as the 49th State

Alaska became the 49th state of the Union, pursuant to Public Law 85-508, 72 Stat. 339, enacted July 7, 1958 and signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower the same day, allowing for official statehood on this day in history. Overall, Alaska’s land area is 16.1 percent of the entire United States. (Nevertheless, in 2014, Alaska averaged only 1.3 people per square mile, in contrast to 90.2 people per square mile nationally.)

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Alaska was famously purchased from Russia on March 30, 1867, when the United States agreed to purchase Alaska for $7.2 million, or for a price of about two cents an acre. The treaty was negotiated and signed by Secretary of State William Seward and the Russian Minister to the United States. Critics of the deal to purchase Alaska called it “Seward’s Folly,” “Seward’s Icebox,” or “Andrew Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden.” Opposition to the purchase of Alaska subsided with discoveries of gold in Alaska in the 1890’s and 1890’s. Today, of course, Alaska is valued for, inter alia, its black gold, or petroleum. (See summary of the sale and document collection on the Library of Congress web site, here.)

Portrait of Secretary of State William H. Seward.  Brady National Photographic Art Gallery

Portrait of Secretary of State William H. Seward. Brady National Photographic Art Gallery

The United States flag was raised on October 18, 1867, now called Alaska Day, and the region changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Therefore, for residents, Friday, October 6, 1867 was followed by Friday, October 18, 1867 — two Fridays in a row, because of the date-line shift.

During the “Department Era,” from 1867 to 1884, Alaska was variously under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army (until 1877), the United States Department of the Treasury from 1877 to 1879, and the U.S. Navy from 1879 to 1884.

In 1884, the region was organized and the name was changed from the Department of Alaska to the District of Alaska.

After the gold rushes in Alaska and the nearby Yukon Territory brought thousands of miners and settlers to Alaska, Alaska was granted territorial status by the U.S. in 1912. But most Alaskans date Alaska’s territorial status from the Organic Act of 1884, Act of May 17, 1884, 23 Stat. 24, which established Alaska as a public land district and provided that the laws of the United States relating to mining claims were to have full force and effect. The Act of August 24, 1912 extended the laws and Constitution of the United States to Alaska and created a territorial legislature. Acts of the legislature were subject to review by the U.S. Congress.

Official state flag of Alaska, adopted in 1959.

Official state flag of Alaska, adopted in 1959.

The Alaska Statehood Act was only approved following more than ten years of active congressional consideration. Major objections to statehood included the lack of contiguity with the rest of the states, a small population, and economic dependency on Federal Government expenditures.

The House report on the Statehood Act indicated that the intent of statehood status was to enable Alaska “to achieve full equality with existing States, not only in the technical juridical sense, but in practical economic terms as well.”

Significantly, Section 4 of the Statehood Act required that “the State and the people of Alaska disclaim any rights to any land, the right or title to which is held by the United States, except for those lands granted or confirmed by the Statehood Act.11 Alaska also disclaims any rights to any lands or other property (including fishing rights) that are held by Alaska Natives or by the United States in trust for them. The United States retains absolute jurisdiction over these Native lands.”

Settlement of any Native land claims was expressly deferred.

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As of July 1, 2014 Alaska had 19 organized boroughs, which are equivalent to “counties” in the rest of the United States, with some 80% of the population in just five of the boroughs. Owing to the state’s low population density, most of the land – some 56 percent – is located in the “Unorganized Borough” which, as the name implies, has no intermediate borough government of its own, but is administered directly by the state government. For statistical purposes the United States Census Bureau has divided this territory into ten census areas.

At the time Alaska was granted statehood, the population was barely over 225,000. 2015 census estimates put the population at 737,625, with over half residing in the Anchorage region.

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Global warming has brought new problems to Alaska. According to a recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey, average annual statewide temperatures have increased significantly over the past 50 years. Across Alaska, significant shifts in vegetation composition and production have already been observed.

Climate change has also affected the sport for which Alaska is perhaps best known, the annual (since 1973) Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. It is traditionally run in early March from Settler’s Bay to Nome. Mushers and a team of 21 dogs cover the distance in 9–15 days or more.

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But as the LA Times reported:

As the winters have warmed, the Iditarod has become not just a colorful Alaska tradition but a vivid window into the uncertainties presented by the changing climate.”

In 2014, low snow and muddy conditions caused crashes and damaged sleds that ended the race early for some mushers. In 2015, low snow prompted officials to move the start of the race 300 miles north to Fairbanks. Again in 2016, there was very little snow in Anchorage. Race organizers tried hauling snow in by train, but it was mixed with too much debris.

Less snow means higher speeds, and a change in the nature of the race.

Other attractions of Alaska include Denali National Park, the one of the largest in the United States and encompassing North America’s highest mountain; Tracy Arm Fjord; Kenai Fjords National Park; the northern lights; and other natural wonders.

Denali National Park

Denali National Park

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