Alaska - History and Heritage


Scholars believe that Alaska's Native peoples descended from nomadic hunters and gatherers who crossed from Siberia to North America over the Bering Land Bridge some 20,000 years ago. Then in 1741 Danish explorer Vitus Bering encountered Alaska on a voyage from Siberia. His party came into contact with Alaska's Native peoples (the Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts), who were hunters and gatherers. Today many Alaska Natives have retained their customs, language, hunting and fishing practices and ways of living since "the creation times," and as the state continues to grow, they are finding it more important than ever to celebrate their heritage and educate visitors about Alaska's first people. Alaska Natives today represent approximately 16 percent of Alaska's residents and are a significant segment of the population in more than 200 rural villages and communities.

The Russian culture also has had a major influence throughout Alaska since Bering's arrival in 1741. His expedition spurred a number of Russian explorers, including Grigori Shelekhov, who in 1784 founded the first permanent settlement on Kodiak Island. Dozens of Russian fur hunters followed, establishing homes on the Kenai Peninsula and Sitka, which became the Russian capital. The Russian period lasted from 1741 to 1867, when the Russians sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million. While there were no more than 500 Russians in Alaska at any given time, Alaska Natives felt the effects of contact with them and were introduced to Russian customs, religion and language. The Russian Orthodox Church remains a vital aspect of Native culture in Southwest, Southcentral and Southeast Alaska. The church's familiar onion-shaped domes can be seen in Kodiak, Juneau, Unalaska, Kenai, Anchorage, Sitka and other smaller Alaska communities.

Gold! This was a call heard all around the world in 1896. There was a single log cabin in Skagway, that year. The next, miners shipped a ton of gold from the Klondike to Seattle. By the spring of 1898 between 15,000 and 25,000 would-be gold prospectors had migrated north from Seattle and the site of the isolated cabin became a lawless community of numerous tents and false-fronted buildings.

While the Klondike may have been one of the most famous gold rushes, there were many recorded gold strikes in Alaska that brought prospectors to Alaska in the 1890s. Many of the prospectors took steamships to Skagway, where they began their trek by land to the Klondike. One of the most famous photos from the gold rush era shows a long line of miners struggling up the Chilkoot Pass on the Chilkoot Trail near Skagway. Far to the north, the discovery of gold at Anvil Creek in 1898 brought thousands of fortune seekers—including Wyatt Earp—to Nome where gold was discovered on the beaches.

Gold rushes gave many communities their start, including Juneau, Fairbanks, Haines, Valdez, Talkeetna, Wasilla and Hope. Gold fever is still alive and well in Alaska. It is a part of practically every visitor's experience whether they stay at a historical hotel in Skagway, visit the Independence Mine in Palmer, the gold exhibit at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum of the North or actually pan for gold in a number of places throughout the state.

After the gold rush and during the Depression era, most of America was preoccupied and thought very little of the vast Alaska territory. But during World War II, Alaska again became a valuable asset as a strategic staging area in the North Pacific. On June 3, 1942, the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor and proceeded to occupy the islands of Attu and Kiska. The yearlong war on American soil was just as much a war against the harsh weather as it was against the enemy. During this time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Alaska Highway in only eight months to supply a land route for military equipment and supplies.

Alaska became the 49th state on January 3, 1959, creating the largest state in the union (more than twice the size of Texas). The nation again recognized the assets in this young state when oil was discovered in 1968 at Prudhoe Bay, North America's largest oil field. The 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez was built between 1974 and 1977. Today, Alaska is treasured for its beauty and vast supply of natural resources.

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