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Alaska and statehood

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Alaska became our 49th state in 1959, but the process began in 1867. Alaska’s wealth of timber, salmon, minerals, and fur was important to those absentee barons who could send hired hands to exploit that wealth for them.

Because of its geographical position, Alaska became yet another American frontier—one of the last in a long line of them. There was a certain romance about this, especially during the Alaskan gold rush. Following World War II, Alaska rose in importance because of its proximity to the Soviet Union.

What is not widely known is Alaska’s role in national politics. For example, the Ballinger-Pinchot fiasco (1910) wreaked havoc in the Republican Party and we still feel its effect today. A political cartel of Dixiecrats and Taft Republicans delayed Alaskan statehood because they felt it threatened the shaky Republican majority in Congress. If political intrigue, corruption, and self-serving actions that basically screw an entire population are things that you find interesting to read about, then check out our books on Alaska and its beleaguered history. Let’s give you a quick overview....

How Alaska became a state...

In 1867, the Russian Minister to the United States (Baron Edouard Stoeckl) signed an agreement with the U.S. Secretary of State (William H. Seward). This agreement, criticized as "Seward’s Folly" and "Seward’s Icebox," transferred ownership of the Alaskan territory to the U.S. for $7.2 million. Few people could see any use for the vast (586,000 square miles) frozen land, and so this was not a popular move.

Alaska became a military outpost, governed by the Navy. The First Organic Act (1884) made Alaska a civil and judicial district and provided the territory with judges, clerks, and marshals. The legal structure followed the general legal code of the Oregon (who knows why?). Thirteen officials governed a population of 32,000 people, of which only 430 were white settlers.

Despite the expectations of many settlers, Alaska did not do as the western states and move right on into statehood. Instead, it remained a territory. Remember, this was right after the U.S. Civil War, and Reconstruction was draining state and national coffers. So, people in the contiguous states had little interest in devoting resources to what they saw as a remote and barren land. Criticism of Seward remained high during this time.

The Klondike Gold Rush (1897 to 1898) began to change things. The discovery of gold in Ester, Fairbanks, and Dawson City had an effect similar to what happened in California. From 1890 to 1900, over 30,000 people moved to Alaska. However, this didn’t bring Alaska any closer to statehood, because of the colonial economy.

The wealth discovered there did not go toward investing in Alaska. Instead, it flowed out to the pockets of people like J.P. Morgan and the Guggenheims "back home." A classic carpetbagger situation emerged, and there was little the U.S. Government actually did to care for the region.

President McKinley’s administration became alarmed at this, and began working toward improvement. By the time of the Taft administration, Teddy Roosevelt and President Taft were at each other’s throats about Alaska issues. This friction in the Republican Party cost Taft his re-election in 1912. With the election of Woodrow Wilson, U.S. History changed directions.

In 1912, Congress passed the Second Organic Act. This made Alaska an official U.S. Territory and provided for an elected legislature of 8 senators and 16 house members. But, this was a weak body. Congress retained approval control over their decisions, and usually denied approval. This arrangement, a thorn in the sides of Alaskans, prompted efforts for further reform. This was, however, an uphill battle. The 46th and 47th states (New Mexico and Arizona) converted from contiguous territories in 1912. But non-contiguous, thinly populated territories (Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico) didn’t have the same cachet. And there was no political convenience working in Alaska’s favor. Consider, for example, when Nevada, with only 20,000 people, became a state in 1864. This gave Lincoln the votes he needed for re-election and for ratifying the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery).

By 1916, 58,000 people lived in Alaska. That was when the first bill to make Alaska a state went to Congress. President Harding visited Alaska in 1923, but that didn’t move things forward. A whole series of legislation that favored special interests at the expense of Alaska and its residents continued to roll out of Congress.

With the Great Depression came a calamitous drop in Alaskan revenue. Roosevelt put together some programs designed to help Alaskans: the National Reforestation Act of 1933, the 1935 Matanuska Valley colonization project, and various public works projects are examples.

Not much really came of these measures, but the reaction to Hitler and his cohorts changed all that.

After nine years of listening to lobbying efforts to provide Alaska with some serious military installations, Congress finally relented. This was in 1942, after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and occupied the Attu and Kiska islands on the Aleutian Chain. Suddenly, military mobilization became a hot issue. Congress sent billions of dollars to Alaska to build the 1500-mile long Alaska-Canada (ALCAN) highway, which ran from Fairbanks to Whitehorse (in the Yukon Territory). They spent even more to capture and fortify the Aleutian islands and build military bases throughout Alaska.

In 1940, Alaska had 75,000 residents (1,000 of them were military). Three years later, Alaska had 233,000 residents—of which 152,000 were military. After the War, the population dropped to 99,000 people. But, by 1950, the Cold War prompted growth to 138,000. Alaska’s wartime importance, as well as its growing population, got it the attention of the national press—which exposed the corruption and unfairness in the way the U.S. government administered the territory. Still the special interests had a lot of clout. Fortunately for Alaskans, two outspoken advocates for statehood took on the special interests. Those fellows were E.L. "Bob" Bartlett. and Ernest Gruening. Both had clout with Roosevelt and other influential figures. And they used it.

From 1943 to 1953, Gruening (as governor), Bartlett (as delegate to Congress) (Bartlett), and several of Alaska's prominent citizens pushed many legislative efforts for statehood. Gruening spoke out about how pathetic Alaska’s roads, airfields, and other infrastructure were, despite its long history as a U.S. Territory. He criticized the handling of aboriginal rights, and the plight of homesteaders who had no legal possession of land. His position was that only the representation made possible by statehood could fix these things.

Several organizations formed to push for statehood, also, and so momentum was gathering. The special interests had alienated enough people to allow the momentum to accelerate. By 1949, Gruening had an official list of 100 influential Americans backing his efforts. Eleanor Roosevelt was on that list. Bills for statehood made it through one stage or another before being killed, and this kept the battle at a fever pitch. That is, until the Korean War. That War started in June of 1950. The U.S. pulled out in 1952, and the drive for statehood resumed. The enthusiasm of Alaskan residents began to overcome the arguments against statehood. The will of the people roared.

An example of the kinds of things these people did: women on The Committee for Statehood made bouquets from the Forget-me-Not, Alaska's official flower, and sent them to Congressmen when statehood legislation was on the agenda. Other actions included letter drives, Christmas card campaigns, and the recruiting of citizens in "the lower 48" to pressure Congress. The excuse of "lack of public interest" was no longer something Congress could claim.

The big obstacle now was Republican partisanship, as many Republicans felt Alaskans would vote Democratic. They pushed statehood for Hawaii, which was obviously going to be Republican. Since the Republicans needed every vote to retain their shaky position, they weren’t keen on admitting Alaska. The press got hold of this, and the situation got rough.

The Senate proposed making Hawaii and Alaska commonwealths. The prospect of paying the same taxes as everyone else but not being represented in Congress or the Senate didn’t go over very well. And it brought things to a head.

In 1955, Alaska wrote its own Constitution, without waiting for an Act of Congress to authorize them to do so. The National Municipal League highly praised this document. The next step was to follow the Tennessee Plan. States such as Tennessee, California, Iowa, Kansa, Michigan, and Oregon had used this strategy successfully. What they did was elect a Congressional delegation—again, without empowerment from Congress. Gruening, of course, was one of the delegates—none of whom Congress officially recognized.

The "Dixiecrats" had lost power—in fact, President Eisenhower made his full endorsement of Alaskan statehood in 1958, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson promised that southern Senators would not filibuster the Alaska bill. There was some obstruction, however, but it could not withstand the momentum already generated. Various maneuvers and countermaneuvers finally boiled down to bringing up the statehood bill on "privileged status"—by a vote of 217-172.

The Senate passed the House version at the urging of Delegate Bob Bartlett, 64-20. The House then passed the bill, 210-166. A publicly acknowledged factor in this was

the friendship so many lawmakers felt for Bartlett. On January 3, 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the official declaration and Alaska joined the Union as the 49th state. Hawaii followed soon after.

 

Alaska Facts

  • Statehood: Jan. 3, 1959; the 49th state.
  • Nicknames: The Last Frontier, Land of Midnight Sun.
  • Bird: Willow ptarmigan.
  • Flower: Forget-me-not.
  • Tree: Sitka spruce.
  • Motto: North to the Future.
  • Song: "Alaska's Flag."
  • Area: 1,593,440 Square Km (615,230 Square miles); rank: 1st.
  • Capital: Juneau (1990 pop., 26,751).
  • Largest city: Anchorage (1998 pop. est., 254,982).
  • County equivalents: 27.
  • Elevations: highest:6,194 m (20,320 ft), Mount McKinley (Denali); lowest:sea level.
  • Population (1998 est.): 614,010; rank: 48th; density: 0.42 persons per (1.08 per ).
  • Distribution (1990): 67.5% urban, 32.5% rural.
  • Average annual change (199097 est.): +1.5%.
  • Public enrollment: elementary (1995):93,434; secondary (1995):34,184; higher (1996):28,000.
  • Nonpublic enrollment: elementary and secondary (1993):5,884; higher (1996): 1,000.
  • Institutions of higher education (1995): 9.
  • State personal income (1997): $15.4 billion; rank: 47th.
  • Median household income (1996 constant dollars): $52,779; rank: 1st.
  • Nonagricultural labor distribution (1997): manufacturing: 15,000 persons; wholesale and retail trade: 56,000; government: 73,000; services: 65,000; transportation and public utilities: 24,000; finance, insurance, and real estate: 12,000; construction:13,000.
  • Agriculture: income (1996): $29 million.
  • Fishing: value (1992): $1.578 billion.
  • Lumber production (1991): not available.
  • Mining, value: nonfuel (1997): $827 million; oil and natural gas (1996)$8.6 billion.
  • Manufacturing: value added (1996): $1.47 billion.
  • Services: value (1992): $3.8 billion.

GOVERNMENT (2000)

  • Electoral college votes: 3.
  • State legislature: 20 senators, 40 representatives.

Check out these Alaska posters:

 

 

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