Alaska Family History Research
This entry was originally written by Dwight A. Radford for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
History of Alaska
Vitus Bering, a Dane in the service of Russia, made the first European sighting of the Alaskan coast in 1741. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century, however, that the Russians gained control of the area.
The Russian-American Company was chartered in 1799 for twenty years, to monopolize Russian activities in America. The company did little more than develop the fur trading along the coast and among the island chains. Russians explored the Yukon and Kuskokwim region to a limited extent. Although Russian settlements had been founded, their populations were small and scattered. The Crimean War had depleted the Russian treasury, and their American colony’s expenses were mounting. It was decided that the sale of Russian America would replenish the treasury and unload an indefensible and unprofitable colony, since the fur industry had collapsed. The Russians knew of the existence of gold in the colony, and they thought that the United States might eventually annex the area just as they did California. Russia preferred that the United States gain control of the region rather than Great Britain, Russia’s principal foe. Thus, Alaska would provide a buffer between Russian Siberia and British North America.
Many Americans and Russians did not welcome the American purchase of Alaska from Russia, which, in 1867, was bought for $7.2 million, although the United States was not totally unaware of the economic potential of Alaska. American trading ships and whalers knew Alaskan waters well, and the Western Union Telegraph Company had made a survey from Canada to the Bering Strait. The Alaska Gold Rush was not a single strike; rather, it was a combination of strikes. Gold was mined at Stewart River, Forty Mile, Circle, Nome, Valdez, Fairbanks, and Dawson. Gold was found and mined in neighboring Yukon Territory, Canada, by Americans. The Alaskan Gold Rush of 1897/98 brought some 50,000 persons into the region before it began to subside in 1920. At that time, the population of Alaska dropped from 64,000 to 55,000.
Nome was founded in 1899 and Fairbanks in 1902 by gold miners. Anchorage was founded in 1915 as the headquarters of the Alaska Railroad, and Alaska became a U.S. territory in 1912. In 1943, 140,000 U.S. military personnel were stationed in Alaska. Many remained after the close of the war. However, a substantial increase in the settlement of Alaska did not begin until after World War II. Alaska became a state on 3 January 1959. Although Alaska is America’s largest state geographically, its permanent population is estimated at 640,000.
A summary of the governmental jurisdictions of Alaska is as follows: Russian American Company (1799–1861); Russian Imperial Administration (1861–67); U.S. War Department (1867–77); U.S. Treasury Department Administration for Customs (1868–77); U.S. Treasury Department Administration (1877–84); U.S. District status (1884–1912); U.S. Territorial status (1912–59); and statehood (1959-present).