The Rich and Mysterious History of Alaska


Early History

The early history of Alaska dates back to round 14,000 BC, when foraging groups crossed the Bering land bridge into what is now Western Alaska. Today, early Alaskans are divided into several main groups: the Southeastern Coastal Indians (the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian), the Athabascans, the Aleut, and the two groups of Eskimos, the Inupiat and the Yup’ik. The coastal migrants from Asia were probably the first wave of humans to cross the Bering land bridge in western Alaska, and many of them initially settled in the interior of what is now Canada. The Tlingit were the most numerous of this group, claiming most of the coastal Panhandle by the time of European contact and are the northernmost of the group of advanced cultures of the Pacific Northwest Coast renowned for its complex art and political systems and the ceremonial and legal system known as the potlatch. The southern portion of Prince of Wales Island was settled by the Haidas fleeing persecution by other Haidas from the Queen Charlotte Islands (which are now named Haida Gwaii and part of British Columbia). The Aleuts settled the islands of the Aleutian chain approximately 10,000 years ago. Cultural and subsistence practices varied widely among native groups, who were spread across vast geographical distances.

Late Medieval Invasions

On some islands and parts of the Alaskan peninsula, groups of traders had been capable of relatively peaceful coexistence with the local inhabitants. Other groups could not manage the tensions and perpetrated exactions. Hostages were taken, individuals were enslaved, families were split up, and other individuals were forced to leave their villages and settle elsewhere. In addition, eighty percent of the Aleut population was destroyed by Old World diseases, against which they had no immunity, during the first two generations of Russian contact.

In 1784, Grigory Ivanovich Shelikhov arrived in Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island, operating the Shelikhov-Golikov Company. Shelikhov and his men killed hundreds of indigenous Koniag, then founded the first permanent Russian settlement in Alaska on the island’s Three Saints Bay. By 1788 a number of Russian settlements had been established by Shelikhov and others over a large region, including the mainland areas around Cook Inlet.

The Russians had gained control of the habitats of the most valuable sea otters, the Kurilian-Kamchatkan and Aleutian sea otters. Their fur was thicker, glossier, and blacker than those of sea otters on the Pacific Northwest Coast and California. The Russians, therefore, advanced to the Northwest Coast only after the superior varieties of sea otters were depleted, around 1788. The Russian entry to the Northwest Coast was slow, however, due to a shortage of ships and sailors. Yakutat Bay was reached in 1794 and the settlement of Slavorossiya was built there in 1795. Reconnaissance of the coast as far as the Queen Charlotte Islands was carried out by James Shields, a British employee of the Golikov-Shelikhov Company. In 1795 Alexander Baranov, who had been hired in 1790 to manage Shelikhov’s fur enterprise, sailed into Sitka Sound, claiming it for Russia. Hunting parties arrived in the following years and by 1800 three-quarters of Russian America’s sea otter skins were coming from the Sitka Sound area. In July 1799 Baranov returned on the brig Oryol and established the settlement of Arkhangelsk. It was destroyed by Tlingits in 1802 but rebuilt nearby in 1804 and given the name Novo-Arkhangelsk (New Archangel). It soon become the primary settlement and colonial capital of Russian America. After the Alaska Purchase, it was renamed Sitka, the first capital of Alaska Territory.

Spanish claims

Spanish claims to Alaska dated to the papal bull of 1493, but never involved colonization, forts, or settlements. Instead there were various naval expeditions to explore the region and claim it for Spain. In 1775, Bruno de Hezeta led an expedition; The Sonora, under Bodega y Quadra, ultimately reached latitude 58° north, entered Sitka Sound and formally claimed the region for Spain. The 1779 expedition of Ignacio de Arteaga and Bodega y Quadra reached Port Etches on Hinchinbrook Island, and entered Prince William Sound. They reached a latitude of 61° north, the most northern point obtained by Spain.

Britain’s presence

British settlements at the time in Alaska consisted of a few scattered trading outposts, with most settlers arriving by sea. Captain James Cook, midway through his third and final voyage of exploration in 1778, sailed along the west coast of North America aboard HMS Resolution, from then-Spanish California all the way to the Bering Strait. During the trip, he discovered what came to be known as Cook Inlet (named in honor of Cook in 1794 by George Vancouver, who had served under his command) in Alaska. The Bering Strait proved to be impassable, although the Resolution and its companion ship HMS Discovery made several attempts to sail through it. The ships left the straits to return to Hawaii in 1779.

United States of America

The United States flag was raised on October 18, 1867, now called Alaska Day, and the region changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Therefore, for residents, Friday, October 6, 1867 was followed by Friday, October 18, 1867—two Fridays in a row because of the 12 day shift in the calendar minus one day for the date-line shift.

During the Department era, from 1867 to 1884, Alaska was variously under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army (until 1877), the United States Department of the Treasury from 1877 to 1879, and the U.S. Navy from 1879 to 1884. Civil administration of Alaska began in 1877 under the United States Treasury Department. A Collector of Customs was appointed by the President of the United States. The Collector was the highest-ranking official of the United States government in Alaska and de facto Governor. Henry C, DeAhna, a former Union Army Officer and Mottrom D. Ball, a former Confederate Army officer, were the first individuals to serve as Collector of Customs.

When Alaska was first purchased, most of its land remained unexplored. In 1865, Western Union laid a telegraph line across Alaska to the Bering Strait where it would connect, under water, with an Asian line. It also conducted the first scientific studies of the region and produced the first map of the entire Yukon River. The Alaska Commercial Company and the military also contributed to the growing exploration of Alaska in the last decades of the 19th century, building trading posts along the Interior’s many rivers.

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