This Week in History recalls memorable and decisive events and personalities of the past.

3rd January 1959 – Alaska is admitted as the 49th US state

In 1784, the Russian empire established its first permanent settlement in the region which today we call Alaska. For decades starting around 1732 the Russians had entered the region and established temporary outposts for fur hunting and trading in Alaska, fighting with and trading with the local native American tribes. Otter fur was particularly prized.

In 1799 the region was granted to the Russian-American company who received a charter from the Tsar to hunt for fur animals in the region, although the territory was not made an official Russian colony. There were only around 700 Russians in the region to assert their control and a few thousand natives who were mostly not under Russian control.

By the mid-19th century, the Russians had killed most of the otters in the region and the fur trade was drying up. The Russian empire had also just been defeated by the French, Ottomans and British in the Crimean War and was short of money. The discovery of gold in California and the massive rush of British and American settlers to California worried the Russians who feared that if gold were discovered in Alaska the same thing would happen and the Russian population would be overwhelmed.

Fearing this loss of control of Alaska and also being unable to defend the territory in the event of a British invasion from Canada, the Russian government of Tsar Alexander II decided to sell the region to the United States.

The treaty was signed on 30 March 1867 and Alaska was sold to the United States for $7.2 Million, which is equal to about $132 million in today’s money. Initially the purchase was viewed by some Americans as a corrupt deal that had involved kickbacks to the politicians. Others saw it as simply the first step in the project to annex British Columbia, which is today part of Canada and was at the time claimed by the British but still largely unsettled by them.

In 1890 gold was discovered in the territory and thousands of settlers arrived from other parts of the United States and Canada to try their luck.

Miners and prospectors climb the Chilkoot Trail during the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush

This sudden growth in the population led to the territory becoming incorporated as an Organized Territory of the United States in 1912, an important step on the road to statehood.

During the Second World War, a chain of Islands called the Aleutian Islands which stretch south-west from Alaska and are part of the territory were occupied by the Japanese army.

US troops navigate snow and ice during the Battle of Attu in May 1943

This, together with America’s use of Alaska as a base for ships and troops, made most Americans far more familiar with the region and encouraged goodwill towards the territory.

This was seized on by the statehood proponents who began advocating for Alaskan statehood in the aftermath of the war. Some Alaskans feared increased immigration into the region and others feared a rise in taxes and so opposed statehood. However, a referendum in Alaska in 1946 saw a majority of residents vote for statehood.

At the time, there was growing support among Republicans for statehood for Hawaii, as the territory was solidly Republican. Seeing Alaska as a safe Democrat state, some Democrats in the Senate tied the admission of Hawaii into the US to Alaska’s admission as a state. Eventually President Eisenhower endorsed Alaskan statehood in 1958 and congress came round to the proposal, voting for statehood for both Alaska and Hawaii.

On 3 January 1959, Alaska became the 49th American state.

The centre of state government in Juneau [Picture: pdx3525 – Juneau SkylineUploaded by xnatedawgx, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7075186]

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