20¢ Alaska Statehood
Issue Date: January 3, 1984
City: Fairbanks, AK
Printed By: American Bank Note Company and J.W. Ferguson and Sons
Printing Method: Photogravure
This issue commemorated several events in Alaskan history. It highlighted the 25th anniversary of Alaskan statehood, the 200th anniversary of the first permanent settlement in the state and the 100th anniversary of the first civil government.
Most scientists believe the first people to live in America walked across a land bridge that connected Asia to Alaska more than 20,000 years ago. When Russian explorers first reached the area, they found four groups of people living there. The Eskimos lived mainly in the Far North and West. They hunted whales, seals, and polar bears. The Aleuts, who are closely related to the Eskimos, lived in the Aleutian Islands and the Alaska Peninsula. They hunted on the seas. Several Indian groups lived in Alaska. The largest were the Tlingit and Haida.
Semen I. Dezhnev led a group of Russians across the narrow body of water that separates Asia from Alaska, in 1648. In 1725, Russian Czar Peter the Great commissioned Vitus Bering of Denmark to explore the North Pacific. Bering’s expedition traveled more than 6,000 miles across Russia and Asia. In 1728, they built a ship and sailed through the strait which Dezhnev had navigated. Because of fog, Bering was unable to spot North America. He gave his name to this body of water, known today as the Bering Strait.
In 1741, Bering and the Russian explorer Aleksei Chirikov led a second expedition to the Bering Strait. Bering spotted Mount St. Elias in southeastern Alaska. The expedition landed on what is now known as Kayak Island. Bering returned to Russia with sea otter furs. Within the next few years, explorers from England, France, and Spain came to the region in search of a water passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.
Fur brought Russian hunters and traders to Alaska. On the Aleutian Islands, and later on the mainland, a lucrative fur trade was developed. Fur traders enslaved the Aleuts, forcing them to supply more furs. As a result, the populations of fur-bearing animals were decimated. The first white settlement in Alaska was established on Kodiak Island, in 1784. It was founded by Gregory Shelikof, who called it Russian America. Russia chartered the Russian-American Company to conduct trade in 1799. The firm’s manager, Alexander Baranof, captured a town from the Tlingit Indians and named it Novo Arkhangelsk (New Archangel), today’s Sitka. This became the largest town in Russian America. The Russian-American Company sent Russian Orthodox priests to the region to preach Christianity.
Russia signed treaties with the United States (1824) and Great Britain (1825), recognizing proper boundaries in America. The treaties gave these nations trading rights along Alaska’s extensive coastline.
“Seward’s Folly” – America Purchases Alaska
Russia attempted to build several industries in Alaska, including coal mining, ship building, and whaling. However, once the fur trade became less profitable, interest in the area declined. Russia’s economy was damaged by the costly Crimean War (1853-56). As a result, Russia decided to sell Alaska in 1867.
U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward agreed to buy Alaska for $7,200,000 – a cost of about 2¢ per acre. Today, with the perspective of history, Seward’s purchase is seen as a stroke of genius. At the time, many Americans opposed the purchase. In fact, some called it Seward’s Folly, and referred to Alaska as Seward’s Icebox and Icebergia. However, not all Americans opposed the purchase, and Congress approved the treaty. On October 18, 1867, U.S. troops raised the American flag at Sitka.
U.S. Administration of Alaska
Alaska had no independent government for the next 17 years. The territory was administered by the War Department, then the Treasury Department, and finally the Navy Department. No attention was given to local matters. Salmon first attracted U.S. companies to Alaska. The first cannery was built in 1878. Congress passed the first Organic Act in 1884, establishing Alaska as a distinct “civil and judicial district.” Alaska was provided with a governor, a code of laws, and a federal court. However, Alaska’s laws were identical to Oregon’s, and did not fit Alaska’s conditions. Congress remained in control of lawmaking for Alaska.
Joseph Juneau and Richard T. Harris discovered gold in southeastern Alaska in 1880. The city of Juneau was founded in the subsequent gold rush. Gold was later discovered in the Klondike region of Canada’s Yukon region. Discoveries followed in Nome in 1898 and Fairbanks in 1902. Thousands flocked to Alaska to prospect and mine for gold. Between 1890 and 1900, Alaska’s population almost doubled, reaching 63,952 people.
Gold brought government attention to Alaska. A Board of Road Commissioners was created to build roads, trails, bridges, and ferries throughout the populated areas of the territory. In 1906, Alaskans were allowed to elect a representative to Congress. This representative could speak before the Congress, but could not vote. In 1912, the second Organic Act provided Alaska with a territorial legislature, with limited power.
Invaded During World War II
In 1942, the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands and occupied the islands of Kiska and Attu. These islands were the only parts of North America invaded during World War II. The actions brought greater recognition of Alaska’s economic and strategic importance. Thousands of workers were sent to Alaska to build and maintain military bases and installations. The Alaska Highway was completed in 1942 – its main use was as a military supply road. By 1943, U.S. forces had recovered Kiska and Attu, and over 150,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Alaska.
The 49th State to Join the Union
World War II changed perceptions about Alaska, and movements for statehood were initiated. Several bills were introduced between the mid-1940s and the late 1950s. In 1958, Congress finally voted to admit Alaska into the Union. On January 3, 1958, Alaska achieved statehood. It was the first new U.S. state since 1912.
Alaska’s Oil Riches
In 1968, a giant oil field was discovered in Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Coastal Plain. This field has North America’s largest oil reserves. The discovery created a gigantic source of revenue for the state. A pipeline was constructed between Prudhoe Bay and the port of Valdez to facilitate shipping oil.
Alaska continues to improve its infrastructure, updating transportation and public services. A great deal of effort has been made to manage and preserve public lands. Alaska’s vast natural resources and great beauty assure this state a bright economic future.