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History of Alaska

Some historical information on the state of Alaska. Click on any link  for more information.

Name: "Alaska" came from an Aleut word for "great land," though some believe the Aleut word meant  "mainland," referred to it by those residing on the Alaska Peninsula. Scientist and surveyor William Healey Dall wrote in 1870: "This name, now applied to the whole of our new territory, is a corruption, very far removed from the original word . . . called by the natives Al-ak-shak or Al-ay-ek-sa. From Alayeksa the name became Alaksa, Alashka, Aliaska, and finally Alaska. We have, then Alaska for the territory, Aliaska for the peninsula."

Alaska today refers to the entire state as well as the Peninsula. "Alyeska" is still around, though, as the name of a ski resort in Girdwood, as well as the name of the Anchorage consortium overseeing the trans-Alaska pipeline company.

Other names for Alaska:

bulletTerritory of Baranov, for Alexander Baranov, the early Russian leader on this continent.
bulletRussian America, before it was purchased by the United States in 1867.
bulletSeward's Folly, or Seward's Icebox, for Secretary of State William Seward, who proposed the often-ridiculed purchase and the official acceptance of the name "Alaska."

Sources: Alaska Place Names Dictionary, Alaska Volcano Observatory

Purchase:  William Henry Seward was secretary of state under President Abraham Lincoln when he began negotiating a deal for the United States to buy Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million--or 2 cents an acre.

Seward, born May 16, 1801,  served as New York state senator from 1831 to 1834, then as the state's governor from 1839 to 1843. Lincoln appointed him secretary of state in 1861. During Lincoln's presidency, he began negotiating the purchase of Alaska, then Russian America. Zachary Kent, in "William Seward: the Mastermind of the Alaska Purchase," reports how Seward invited senators to dinner parties at his home. According to Kent, "While the senators enjoyed fine food and wine, Seward described how beautiful Russian America was reported to be."

The purchase agreement was signed by Seward on March, 30, 1867, and approved by the U.S. Senate May 27, 1867. President Andrew Johnson signed the final treaty the following day and the transfer was made Oct. 18, 1867, in Sitka. In 1917, the third Alaska Territorial Legislature created Seward's Day to mark the signing of the treaty. That same year, lawmakers also designated Oct. 18 "Alaska Day."

Many Americans of the period called the purchase "Seward's folly" or "Seward's icebox," thinking Alaska a snowy, icy wastelands. Of course, that was before Alaska was discovered by gold seekers, oil companies and tourists.

Many streets throughout Alaska have been named after William Seward. A city on the Kenai Peninsula bears his name, and Alaska has a glacier, a passage, a peninsula, a creek, a highway and mountains named for him as well.

And what about William Seward himself? The night John Wilkes Booth fatally shot Lincoln, a Confederate veteran named Lewis Payne entered Sewards bedroom and attacked him with a large knife. Fortunately, the blows were blunted by a neck brace Seward was wearing (according to The Lost Museum, a Web site sponsored by the City University of New York and George Mason University.). Seward continued to serve as secretary of the state under President Johnson, and it was during Johnson's administration that Seward completed the negotiations with Russia.

Statehood: Alaska (October 18, 1867) was first a district, becoming an organized territory on August 24, 1912. Alaska became the 49th state on January 3, 1959.

Capital: The state capital is Juneau, located in the southeast region of Alaska. In 2002 it had a population of 30,684.

Motto: "North to the Future" (1967) Our motto was chosen in 1967 during the Alaska Purchase Centennial and was created by Juneau newsman Richard Peter. The motto is meant to represent Alaska as a land of promise. Sidebar: "North to Alaska" was a 1960 Western-comedy movie featuring John Wayne as a turn-of-the-century prospector sent from White Mountain, "just a little southeast of Nome," to fetch his partner's sweetheart from Seattle. When he finds the sweetheart already married, he invites a beautiful dancer to be her replacement -- and he falls in love with her himself. The movie's ballad, also called "North to Alaska," became a hit in 1960 for Johnny Horton.

Nickname: "The Last Frontier"

Seal: The state seal includes images of the aurora, icebergs, mining, farming, fisheries, fur seals and a railroad. The state seal was originally designed and adopted in 1910 while Alaska was still territory, not a state. The rays above the mountains represent the Northern Lights. The smelter symbolizes mining. The train stands for Alaska’s railroads, and ships denote transportation by sea. The trees symbolize Alaska’s wealth of forests, and the farmer, his horse, and the three shocks of wheat represent Alaskan agriculture. The fish and the seals signify the importance of fishing and wildlife to Alaska’s economy. If you click on the link at the beginning of this paragraph, you can see a picture of it.

Song: "Alaska's Flag" became the state song in 1955. Follow the link for the words.

Holidays: (official state ones)

bulletSeward's Day: Usually the last Sunday in March. Seward's Day commemorates the signing of the treaty by which the United States bought Alaska from Russian, signed on March 30, 1867.  The Monday following is a state holiday for government workers.
bulletAlaska Day: October 18. Alaska Day is the anniversary of the formal transfer of the territory and the raising of the US. flag at Sitka on October 18, 1867.

Follow this link for information on the Symbols of Alaska, like her state bird, state sport, etc.

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