A Brief History of Alaska

By Tim Lambert

Early Alaska

The first human beings arrived in Alaska in about 13,000 BC. At that time Alaska was part of a land bridge that extended across to Siberia. People followed the herds of animals they hunted. Europeans arrived in the area in the 18th century.

In 1741 a Dane called Vitus Bering led a Russian expedition to Alaska. They discovered there was great wealth in Alaska in the form of animal furs. Unfortunately, they also brought diseases to which the native people had no immunity. The British arrived in 1778 when Captain Cook sailed there. (Cook Inlet is named after him). George Vancouver sailed to Alaska in 1794.

Meanwhile, in 1772 the Russians made a settlement at Unalaska. Then in 1784, they made a settlement on Kodiak Island.

However, by the 1860s, the Russians had lost interest in Alaska. Over-hunting had depleted the supply of furs and it was difficult to supply bases such a long way off. So they decided to try and sell Alaska to the Americans. In 1867 US Secretary of State William Henry Seward signed a treaty to buy Alaska for $7.2 million – less than 2 cents an acre. However, it took 6 months to persuade Congress to ratify the treaty. Alaska formally passed to the USA on 18 October 1867.

Modern Alaska

The new area was at first called the Department of Alaska. In 1884 it was changed to the District of Alaska. Meanwhile, in 1878 the first cannery opened in Alaska.

In 1880 gold was discovered in Alaska, in Juneau. Then in 1896 gold was discovered in Yukon but the easiest way to reach it was to sail to Skagway in Southeast Alaska. In 1899 gold was discovered in Nome in Northwest Alaska. Another gold rush began in 1902 when gold was discovered near Fairbanks.

In a single decade, the population of Alaska soared. In 1890 the population of Alaska was just over 32,000 but by 1900 it had surpassed 63,000. Then in 1912, Alaska became a territory. Anchorage was founded in 1915 and Denali National Park was created in 1917. The Alaska Railroad was completed in 1923. President Warren G Harding went to Alaska to drive in a golden spike in a ceremony to mark the event.

Women in Alaska were given the right to vote in 1913. In 1937 Nell Scott became the first woman to serve in the Alaska legislature.

An Agricultural College and School of Mines opened in 1922. It became the University of Alaska in 1935.

In June 1942 the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. They also took the islands of Kiska and Attu. The Americans landed on Attu on 11 May 1943. By 30 May they had retaken the island. The Japanese abandoned the island of Kiska in August 1943. During the Second World War, military bases were built in Alaska and as a result some Alaskan towns greatly increased in size. Meanwhile, the Alaska Highway was built in 1942.

In 1957 oil was discovered in Alaska at Swanson River, on the Kenai Peninsula. Then on 30 June 1958, the Senate passed the Alaska Statehood Act. On 3 January 1959, Alaska became the 49th state of the union. The first governor of Alaska was William A Egan.

On 9 July 1958, an earthquake in Alaska caused a tsunami 524 tall in Lituya Bay.

Then on 27 March 1964 (Good Friday), Alaska was struck by a devastating earthquake. It measured 9.2 on the Richter Scale making it the most powerful earthquake recorded in North America. It killed 131 people.

But Alaska soon recovered and in 1968 oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Coast. To be exploited the oil would have to be transported by pipeline to Valdez and to build the pipeline disputes with the native people over land would have to be settled. They were settled by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. The native people relinquished their claims in return for nearly $1 billion and 44 million acres. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline was completed in 1977. As a result, the 1980s were a time of prosperity for Alaska.

However, on 24 March 1989, a tanker called the Exxon Valdez ran aground spilling 11 million gallons of oil. Since then the oil industry in Alaska has declined in importance. However, today tourism is a major industry in Alaska. Meanwhile, in 2006 Sarah Palin was elected the first woman governor of Alaska.


A totem pole in Sitka

A Timeline of Alaska

c. 13,000 BC

The first human beings arrive in Alaska


Vitus Bering leads an expedition to Alaska


The Russians make a settlement at Unalaska


The Russians settle on Kodiak Island


The USA purchases Alaska from Russia


The first cannery opens in Alaska


Gold is discovered in Juneau


Gold is discovered in Nome


Juneau is incorporated


Fairbanks is incorporated


Alaska becomes a territory


Anchorage is founded


Denali National Park is created


The Alaska Railroad is completed


The University of Alaska is founded


Alaska Highway is built. The Japanese invade the Aleutian Islands.


US troops liberate the Aleutian Islands


Anchorage International Airport opens


Oil is discovered at Swanson River


Alaska is struck by an earthquake


Fairbanks suffers a flood


Oil is discovered on Prudhoe Bay


The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is completed


A tanker called the Exxon Valdez runs aground

Last revised 2024