The lower 48’s current fascination with anything Alaskan probably started in 1990, with the first episode of Northern Exposure set in the fictional town of Cicely. Now there are shows from the sublime The Last Alaskans to the ridiculous Alaskan Bush People. Reality shows like Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch and Alaska: The Last Frontier, or National Geographic’s Alaska State Troopers, to name just a few of dozens, have carried on to the point where many folks are more familiar with the map of Alaska than the one of their home state.
On March 30, 1867, 150 years ago, under the administration of President Andrew Johnson, the United States agreed to buy the Alaska territory from Russia. Secretary of State William H. Seward negotiated for what seemed like an astronomical cost for what was thought to be useless land. At the same time, when such arguments held little weight with the big governments involved, the native Alaskans, including the Tlingit and Aleuts, argued that the land wasn’t the Russian’s to sell. In August of the next year, after a lot of wrangling in Congress, a check for $7,200,000.00 was given to the Russian Minister to the United States, one Eduard de Stoecki. Alaska was called “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Icebox” and other less polite names. The price worked out to about two cents per acre, and like such deals as the purchase of the Louisiana territory or the Danish Virgin Islands, “Seward’s Folly” proved to be a wise investment.
The Russians, then ruled by Peter the Great, first went east to Alaska in the mid-1700s. They used the name Alaska, an Aleut word we now use to name the entire state, for just the long Aleutian peninsula and chain of islands that curve westward toward Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. They had little idea of the vast oil and mineral resources there. Having depleted their own resources of it, they were primarily interested in that great essential in frigid northern countries: fur. They even went as far as the Farallon Islands off the California coast, west of San Francisco, establishing outposts and stations for the harvest of fur seals, sea otters, and other animals. For the Russians, the territory, mostly populated on the coasts, was hard to reach and hard to defend, and eventually they were happy to sell it.
Many Russians married the native people, and they have thousands of descendants. Attesting to their legacy, Russian names identify many places and families. In areas off the beaten tourist path, some people still speak in a Russian dialect, and in certain coastal areas they still adhere to the Russian Orthodox religion. Prime examples of Russian architecture are the onion-domed cathedrals, churches, and chapels, many of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. Located in Sitka, Juneau, Anchorage and hamlets like Ninilchik, they are reminders of the century or more that the Russians occupied the territory.
Alaska, at over 663,000 square miles, is the biggest state in the union. It boasts a lot of impressive statistics. Being the largest, it boasts the longest coastline, the most lakes, the largest oil field, and the smallest population density. Three of its islands were the only places in North America occupied by the Japanese during World War II. North America’s highest mountain, Denali, once known as Mt. McKinley, is in the Alaska Range, north of Anchorage. And of course, Alaska has more Bald Eagles than any other place in the world.