to Offer Postwar Pioneers?
The discoverer of Alaska was a Dane, Vitus Bering, in the
service of Peter the Great of Russia. Almost on his deathbed, Peter drew up in
his own hand a charter commissioning Bering to explore Siberia and discover where
Asia left off and North America began. In 1728 Bering sailed through what is now
Bering Strait, establishing the fact that this narrow channel separated Asia from
America. In 1741 Bering, then an old man, returned, and in July of that year men
of his expedition landed in south central and in southeastern Alaska. On the return
voyage Berings ship was wrecked on the island that bears his name in the
Komandorski group, and he died there.
Hearing tales of the richness of the
new land from Berings men, Russian fur traders pushed along the Aleutians
in search of the sea otter. They almost exterminated both the Aleuts and the otter,
but set up the first permanent Russian settlement in the New World on Kodiak Island
in 1784. They established the capital of Russian America at Sitka
in 1805, and soon made it the metropolis of the Pacific coast.
Robert Kennecott., a young biologist, explored Alaska for the Smithsonian Institution
and the Audubon Club of Chicago. Six years later he headed the scientific section
of the American exploring expedition which surveyed a route for a proposed overland
telegraph line to Siberia. The successful laying of the transatlantic cable stopped
work on the telegraph line, but the information concerning this almost unknown
outpost was useful to Congress and executive officials when, in 1867, Russia ceased
its expansionist policy and offered to sell Alaska to the United States. Secretary
of State Seward negotiated the purchase for $7,200,000.
From 1867 to 1880
Americans in the States did not pay much attention to Alaska. Gold was discovered
at Juneau in 1880, and in the Klondike, Yukon Territory, near Alaska, in 1898.
More than 30,000 chechakos (tenderfeet) rushed into Alaska to get rich quick.
Most of them were disappointed, and Alaska lost about 10,000 of its new population
in the ten years after the gold rush. Those who remained became sourdoughs (old-timers)
and spent their brains and muscle in the long task of building up the Territory.
about 1920 and 1940, the history of Alaska was one of slow and steady growth.
The governments plans for conserving the natural resources, protecting salmon,
seal, fur animals, and other wild life, assuring the natives medical care and
education, and building a transportation system began to bear fruit. The Alaska
Railroad and the Richardson Highway and its extensions were completed. The University
of Alaska was founded. The radio and the plane arrived to link Alaskans more closely
together. Farmers and their families from the northern midwest were settled in
fertile Matanuska Valley, and after some preliminary dissension and maladjustment;
the little community flourished.
In 1941 a new boom beganthis time
occasioned not by the discovery of gold, but by a new realization of Alaskas
military importance. The Alaska Highway, started in March 1942, was declared officially
open in November of the same yeara 1,600-mile rough pioneer
road linking a chain of airports. There was a spectacular development of Alaskan
airways. Some 20,000 civilian workers went to Alaska to do war work, and workers
in Alaska gold mines, halted by a War Production Board order, turned to wartime
activities, principally construction. An as yet undisclosed number of soldiers,
sailors, and marines saw service in Alaska.
Whether this new boom will collapse,
as have other Alaskan rushes, or whether it will be made the basis of a mighty
stride forward in the Territorys development, is a problem worth discussing.
Some facts and figures to aid in the discussion will be brought out in the section,
How Is Alaska Governed?