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 "Sewards Folly" and "Sewards
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 didnt 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
President McKinleys 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 others 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) didnt
have the same cachet. And there was no political convenience working in Alaskas
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 didnt
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
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 residentsof 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. Alaskas wartime importance, as well as its growing population, got it the
attention of the national presswhich 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 Alaskas 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
werent keen on admitting Alaska. The press got hold of this, and the situation got
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
didnt 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 delegationagain, without empowerment from Congress. Gruening, of
course, was one of the delegatesnone of whom Congress officially recognized.
The "Dixiecrats" had lost powerin 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.