|Gambell whale hunt in 1972.|
Northwest Alaska may prove to be the "cradle" of civilization in the Western Hemisphere. Evidence suggests that prior to the last ice age, possibly 40 thousand years ago, man occupied the Asian side of the Bering Sea on the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk. From there, it is believed man entered North America over a "land bridge" or across narrow waterways separating the continents.
Archaeological evidence from northern and western Alaska strongly suggests that the initial population of the New World was the result of two distinct movements of people. Sometime between 30 and 40 thousand years ago, populations, whose distinctive big game hunting culture originated in eastern Asia, crossed the Bering Land Bridge, or Beringia, and followed an open corridor between the continental ice sheets of North America into the Great Plains (Figures 149 and 150).
Subsequently, in the period following but before the submergence of the land bridge approximately 10 thousand years ago, these early hunters were followed across Beringia by groups more specifically adapted to an arctic way of life. These later emigrants probably descended from the arctic hunters of northeastern Siberia and Japan who had settled in that region and specialized for subsistence in an extreme environment. This second group, usually referred to as Paleo-Eskimos, remained in the North, and their cultures formed the basis from which recent Eskimo cultures have emerged.
Crossing the land bridge was probably a lengthy process. Movement occurred slowly as hunting sites changed from one place to another. The bridge existed for many thousands of years, and movement of only a mile or two a year would have been sufficient to move the ancestral Eskimo groups across it and the six thousand miles to Greenland in only about seven thousand years.
The history of these Paleo-Eskimo groups lies buried in the ruins of their prehistoric dwelling places scattered over the Arctic from western Alaska to Greenland. Increased activities in archaeological research in the shallow sea that separates Alaska from Siberia will add to the present knowledge of early man that can now only be inferred from a few archaeological sites on land. Gambell, Savoonga, and Northeast Cape on St. Lawrence Island and the Punuk Islands have proved to be rich in archaeological evidence (Figure 151).
At Cape Espenberg J.L. Giddings investigated a series of wide beach ridges in 1940 that appears to represent more than five thousand years of human history. Flints from an lpiutak culture were found landward from the present shoreline, the midbeach ridge revealed pottery and flints of Choris culture, and the innermost ridge contained flints and hearths of the Denbigh Flint Complex. In 1962 at the village of Deering, Helge Larsen investigated a large prehistoric house which contained artifacts closely related to those of the Point Hope lpiutak culture.
Significantly, the first historic population estimate for northwest Alaska was from the Siberian Chukchi Natives. They told Elianovich Popov, who had been sent to the region to collect furs as taxes, that some 6,000 people lived in the land to the west across what was later to be called Bering Strait. Since then, some population estimates for the same general area have been William Beechey's 2,500 in the 1820s, William Dall's 3,750 in 1870, and the 1890 census's 3,222. In 1890 Sheldon Jackson claimed that at the time of Beechey's visit Shishmaref had a population of between 1,000 to 2,000 people, and Miner Bruce estimated 20,000 as the total population of arctic Alaska in 1893. Many of these nineteenth century estimates were probably exaggerated to promote various activities by clergymen and government representatives. Anthropologists currently estimate the population at between 2,000 and 2,400 for the Seward Peninsula during this period (Ray 1964).
Most inhabitants of the central Bering Strait area spoke two dialects of Inupiat (Figure 151). On the south coast of the Seward Peninsula, people spoke Unalit, a derivation of the Yupik language. St. Lawrence Islanders spoke a derivation of Siberian Yupik. The major linguistic break between Inupiat and Yupik occurs just south of Unalakleet.
[Alaska Regional Profiles, Northwest Region, pp. 182-183]
|This old fishhook reflects the artistic appreciation of the Eskimo culture.|
Slush scoop, fish bag, and hoop fish net. A slush scoop is used in frigid weather when fishing through the ice. To prevent the fish hole from freezing over, it is necessary to keep digging out the constantly forming slush. The rim is made of reindeer antler. The strainer bottom is made of whalebone string to which the ice does not readily cling or freeze. The fish bag is of seal skin and is carried on the back, the broad strap passing across the shoulders and chest. This kind of net is used for scooping fish from streams and the sea.
Photos from page 185.
Arthur Eide Collection, Anchorage Historical and Fine Arts Museum
Ray Dane, Courtesy of Bureau of Land Management
Ray Dane, Courtesy of Bureau of Land Management
[Photos: Alaska Regional Profiles, Northwest Region, pp. 186]
There is some evidence that the Russians first sailed through Bering Strait and explored the northwest Alaskan and Arctic coasts in the 1640s (Figure 153). These explorations, however, did not establish the fact that Asia and North America were separate continents, and reports about them remained uncirculated in files in Yakutsk, Siberia.
Vitus Bering was commissioned by the Russians to undertake a voyage to determine whether Asia and the "Great Land" east of Kamchatka, Siberia, were separate continents. He sailed from the Kamchatka River in July 1728, discovered St. Lawrence Island and the Diomedes, and coursed into the Arctic Ocean through the strait that now bears his name. In 1729 he explored and charted the Alaska coast and established that Asia and America were separate continents. His reports of this voyage were never fully believed in St. Petersburg, but he was again commissioned to sail east, and on July 16, 1741, he sighted Mount St. Elias from the Gulf of Alaska. The sighting of Mount St. Elias is generally credited as the "discovery" of Alaska, although Bering's 1728 voyages were equally significant as far as northwest Alaska is concerned.
The day before Bering saw St. Elias for the first time, Alexei Chirikov, commanding Bering's second ship the St. Paul, made a landfall on Kayak Island. Unsure of Chirikov's whereabouts, Bering, whose crew was plagued by scurvy, sailed for home. Gales forced him to shelter on one of the Commander Islands off Kamchatka, where he became ill and died. This island now bears his name. Survivors succeeded in reaching Kamchatka in 1742 and discovered that Chirikov and his crew had long since returned safely. Both crews brought back quantities of blue fox, fur seal, and sea otter skins, which set off intensive fur hunting in the Aleutians.
During early Russian occupation, northwest Alaska remained relatively untouched since the fur traders—promyshlenniki—concentrated on the Aleutians and moved east toward the Alaska Peninsula rather than north to Bering Strait. There was, however, fairly extensive trading among inhabitants of the Northwest. As early as 1649 the Russians had established trading posts at Anadyr, Siberia, and European goods were introduced to northwest Alaska by way of the people of the Diomedes, King Island, and Cape Prince of Wales.
Until the late 1770s the Russians succeeded in keeping accounts of their discoveries in the North Pacific from wide circulation. Word of the Russian exploits and the rich fur resources of the area finally reached other Europeans, and interest rose among the Spanish, who considered the Americas their special province, and the English and the French, who were still expanding colonial powers. Moreover, the English had been engaged for years in a search for a Northwest Passage to the rich East India trade.
In 1776 Captain James Cook was commissioned by King George III of England to explore the Pacific coast of America as far north as latitude 65 degrees, or further if conditions permitted. Captain Cook reached Alaska in the spring of 1778 on his third and last major voyage, 37 years after Bering's death. He explored Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet and passed through Unalga Strait into the Bering Sea. He sailed around Bristol Bay, landed at Cape Newenham, and claimed possession of the land for the king. He then sailed towards Cape Prince of Wales, which he named on August 8, 1778. He tried to sail into the Arctic Ocean but was turned back by pack ice. He then sailed to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) where he was killed by hostile inhabitants. His second in command, Captain Charles Clerke, continued Cook's commission and returned to the Bering Sea in the summer of 1779. He too was beaten by the sea ice and died on his journey home.
[Alaska Regional Profiles, Northwest Region, pp. 188]
|Whaling is still an important part of the Eskimo life in the Northwest Region.|
Below left: Old harpoon fitted with rope, foreshaft, and heads as seen on St. Lawrence Island.
Right: Hunters from Gambell butcher whale in the water. The skin of the whale with an inch of blubber attached is an Eskimo delicacy called muktuk. Whales are estimated to weigh on ton per foot.
Below right: Dragging home the whale.
[Photos: Alaska Regional Profiles, Northwest Region, pp. 189]
Meanwhile, the Russians were consolidating their operations in southwest Alaska. Merchants G.I. Shelikov and I.I. Golikov were principally responsible for the reorganization. Shelikov recognized how tenuous the Russian hold on the new territories was, and he realized that the English and others would soon challenge the Russian monopoly of the profitable Alaska fur trade with Canton, China. Shelikov and Golikov founded the American Northeastern Company in 1781 and carefully planned explorations in Alaskan waters that would assure their venture's profitability. Shelikov returned to Russia to lobby for exclusive trading rights in the region but died three years before the company was finally granted a monopoly in 1799.
Alexander Baranov was appointed chief manager of the Golikov-Shelikov concern in 1790, and he is credited with making the vision of a powerful colonial monopoly in Alaska a reality. The Russian American Company, which evolved from the original Shelikov-Golikov operation, became, in effect, the legitimate representative of Russian authority in America. The company's activities did not directly affect northwest Alaska. In fact, the charter only authorized its sphere of influence as far north as latitude 58 degrees and specifically recommended that new settlements and claims be made south of that latitude. Nonetheless, from 1787 explorations were made in the Northwest Region (Figure 153).
Several events in the 1840s drastically altered the somewhat lackadaisical exploration efforts in northwest Alaska—the loss of the Franklin Expedition and the advent of whaling in the area.
In 1847 Sir John Franklin, commanding a British Royal Navy expedition, vanished in the Arctic while in quest of a Northwest Passage. From 1849 to 1854 at least four ships searching for Franklin visited Port Clarence. For five consecutive winters at least one ship remained in Grantley Harbor. Men of the Plover and the Rattlesnake built houses on the spit across from Teller and generally explored the areas around Kauwerak (a strip of human settlement within the Imuruk and Kuzitrin basins) and other inland villages as well as the area around Wales, Golovin Bay, and St. Michael. The reward offered by the British for anyone finding Franklin or conclusive proof of his fate encouraged ships to continue to visit the area around the region. This was the inhabitants' first protracted contact with white men.
Until 1848 the primary arctic whaling grounds were the deep bays and gulfs of northeastern Siberia as far north as latitude 65 (Figure 154). However, in that year at least three ships passed through Bering Strait. The most notable was the Superior out of New York whose successful voyage launched the era of arctic whaling, particularly by the Americans. Earlier efforts to establish whaling had met with stiff Russian opposition to what they considered poaching. After 1848, however, the American whaling fleet steadily expanded through the Bering Sea and Strait into the Arctic. The Russians, who were under pressure to find new economic support for the colony, joined several Finnish shipowners to form the government-subsidized Russian-Finnish Whaling Company, a distinctly unsuccessful enterprise.
As the whalers advanced north along the migration path of highly prized bowhead whales, they came into contact with the Natives of the Siberian coast, St. Lawrence Island, the Diomedes, and the Alaskan mainland opposite Bering Strait (Figure 154). Whaling and its pervasive influence on the culture and economy of the Natives of northwest Alaska continued for 58 years. Major results were the slow but steady spread of the use of firearms, the introduction of alcohol, and the spread of new diseases.
The first muzzle-loader was reported at Cape Prince of Wales in 1861 and at Kivalina in 1870. Historians suggest that firearms led directly to the destruction of the caribou herds which formed an important part of the food resources of the region, but many biologists feel that the cyclic rise and fall of caribou populations due to range conditions is much more significant.
Alcohol was reportedly introduced in 1878 when traders gave alcohol to the people of St. Lawrence Island during what was usually their most productive hunting season; disaster resulted. Neglected hunting and storing of food for the winter led to famine. Epidemics of disease swept through the weakened population and decimated at least two-thirds of the island's population (Hooper 1883). The island was reportedly repopulated by Siberian Natives.
Whalers directly introduced measles, smallpox, and influenza, which took an especially heavy toll among the Natives who had absolutely no immunity or awareness of their cause or prevention.
Finally, the massive slaughter of so many whales and walrus caused a period of starvation among the northwest coastal groups that may have forced them either to seek alternative food sources, principally caribou, or to migrate to locations where they could more easily secure food. These factors not only reduced the Natives' food source, but altered traditional social structure and technology.
Meanwhile, by the 1850s Russian profits were dwindling, and the alarmed investors attempted several new enterprises to improve the economic base. These included ship building, coal mining at Port Clarence, and perhaps the most spectacular effort, the Russian American Company's contract to supply Alaskan ice to San Franciscans. None of these ventures could rival the profits gleaned from the fur trade, and expenses were enormous.
However, Alaska's importance never solely depended on its resources. Stretched over a vast area of the North Pacific, its location gave the region strategic values recognized by both Russia and America. In 1824, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams pressed for and won Russian permission for Americans to ply the waters of the North Pacific. From 1865 to 1867 the Western Union Telegraph Company sponsored an expedition to explore the possibility of connecting North America and Europe via British Columbia, Alaska, and Siberia. The project was abandoned when a trans-Atlantic cable was laid in 1866 and continued to operate successfully, but valuable information was gained about the North as a result of the survey party's work.
A harbinger of things to come under American control occurred in northwest Alaskan waters shortly before the transfer of ownership from Russia. The Shenandoah, a privateer commissioned by the Confederates during the Civil War under the command of Captain James I. Waddell, appeared among the whalers in Bering Strait on June 28, 1865. By nightfall the Confederates had captured 10 whaling ships. It was not until August 2 that Captain Waddell learned that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox some five months earlier. This event symbolized the remoteness of northwest Alaska and set the tone for developments in the region under early American control.
For all practical purposes the Russian enterprise in Alaska ended on the afternoon of October 18, 1867. The U.S.S. Ossipee arrived in Sitka with the American and Russian commissioners, Brigadier General Lovell Rousseau and Captain Aleksei Peshchurov, who conducted the formal transfer. American fur traders, merchants, fishermen, soldiers, and their dependents replaced their Russian counterparts, and the newly organized Hutchinson, Kohl and Company of California, which later developed into the Alaska Commercial Company, assumed the commercial stock and the principal entrepreneurial role of the Russian American Company.
The Federal Government made very few provisions for the governing of Alaska. The customs, commerce, and navigation laws of the United States were extended to include the new possession, but for 17 years it was not legally possible in Alaska to get married, obtain land title except to small tracts deeded at the time of purchase or by Congressional action, bequeath property, or collect debts. From 1867 to 1884 Alaska was governed by officials of the Army, Treasury, and Navy departments.
From 1870 through the 1890s Alaska's economic potential was more fully exploited. Americans enriched themselves with sea otters, Pacific salmon, and whales, and in 1879 the first gold mining operations in Alaska were established at the head of Silver Bay near Sitka. These basic industries, a developing tourist interest, and missionary activity in the area broadened public interest in Alaska, and by 1874 important exploration and scientific expeditions in the Northwest Region resumed (Figure 153).
In 1889 Lt. Commander Charles A. Stockton of the U.S.S. Thetis noted what he considered to be the desperate conditions of the coastal Eskimos. When he returned to the United States he wrote to Reverend Sheldon Jackson, a missionary pioneer in Fort Wrangell for the Presbyterian Church. Jackson had been in Alaska since 1877, General Agent for Education since 1884, and he responded to Stockton's letter by negotiating with several Protestant missionary societies. In 1890 missionaries and materials for schoolhouses in three villages were transported to the area—Congregationalists went to Cape Prince of Wales, Episcopalians to Point Hope, and Presbyterians to Point Barrow. W.T. Lopp and H. Thornton established the first school on the Seward Peninsula at Cape Prince of Wales.
|Russian Orthodox Church at St. Michael|
Right: Eskimo basket made of grasses from the Nome area.
Above: Ancient Punuk carvings.
Below: Native drummers accompanying dancers in Nome (1938).
[Photos: Alaska Regional Profiles, Northwest Region, pp. 192]
Sheldon Jackson continued to play a large role in establishing other educational and religious programs in northwest Alaska and generally drew attention to the needs of the Natives in the area. Jackson became interested in the food shortages in the region since the decline of caribou populations. He went to northwest Alaska in 1890, and in his report to the U.S. Government, he suggested that domestic reindeer be transported from Siberia to the Seward Peninsula. Federal authorities were cool to the idea, but Jackson and his friend Captain Healy of the Revenue Cutter Bear managed to raise $2,146. They bought 16 reindeer which were shipped to the Aleutian Islands. These deer died, but in 1892 Jackson brought 171 reindeer to Port Clarence and four Siberians to instruct northwest inhabitants in reindeer herding (Figures 155 and 156).
During the late 1870s lode mining operations for galena were established on the Fish River, but after some months the diggings were abandoned. John Dexter, one of the Fish River party, settled at Chinik on Golovin Bay, where he established a small trading post and grubstaked prospectors in the region. One of them discovered gold on Casadepaga Creek, a tributary of the Niukluk River in 1894, and another found gold on Ophir Creek in 1897.
The year 1898 was the turning point in the mining history of Seward Peninsula. Daniel B. Libbey, who had been in the Northwest Region with the Western Union Telegraph Expedition from 1865 to 1867, returned to the area to further explore traces of gold he had located earlier on the Niukluk River. He and his companions eventually discovered gold on what has since been called Melsing Creek and established the Eldorado Mining District and Council City. At the close of summer operations on the Niukluk, H.L. Blake, one of Libbey's partners, and Nels C. Hultberg, John Byrnteson, and J.L. Haggalin
. . . sailed from Golovin Bay in a five-ton schooner to try their luck on the quartz ledges along the coast to the west. A storm drove their ship into the mouth of the Snake River . . . about 13 miles west of Cape Nome . . . Having nothing else to do until the winds subsided the men investigated the . . . streams for four or five miles from the beach. Finding some color but not enough to excite them, the party returned to Golovin Bay and disbanded. One member, Brynesen (sic), not discouraged by what the Snake River country had revealed, confided his hopes to two fellow Scandinavians, Erik Lindblom and Jafet Lindeberg. The trio, soon to be legendary as "the three lucky Swedes" (though Lindeberg was a Norwegian), sailed to Cape Nome. (Hunt 1974)
The three formed a partnership, traveled up the Snake River, and staked claims on Glacier, Anvil, Snow, Rock, Dry, and Dexter Creeks. They established the Pioneer Mining Company of Seattle, organized the Cape Nome Mining District, and adopted local mining law which permitted prospectors to stake claims by power of attorney for backers, friends, and relatives. The three partners filed some 43 claims of their own and 47 others by power of attorney and then returned to Golovin Bay to winter. They swore each other to secrecy, but as Hunt (1974) relates, "Somehow—through the slip of an elated word or the observance of a blissful smile—the news leaked out. It spread like fire, first to the nearby mission and reindeer station, then up the Yukon River, and finally to the Outside . . . Once more the stampede was on!"
It was too late in the season for anyone to reach Nome except for those who were already in the North. But as the sea ice retreated from the shores of the Bering Sea in spring 1899 a deluge of gold seekers descended on the tent town of 250 souls; by late summer the population reached 2,000. A year later this would increase tenfold.
The three "lucky Swedes" dominated the chaotic scene that first year. Mining law required that mineral discovery precede claim-staking and filing, but this was completely ignored. Coupled with the profusion of power-of-attorney staking to tie up more land and rampant claim-jumping, resentment, envy, and litigation were inevitable.
This unrest finally focussed on the three "lucky Swedes." The miners knew that only citizens or aliens intent on becoming citizens could legally file claims, and they also knew that only the federal authorities could raise the issue. Nevertheless, a miners' meeting was held at which the Pioneer Mining Company was declared illegal and all their claims revoked. Lieutenant Spaulding and a few soldiers from St. Michael persuaded the miners, with the help of fixed bayonets, not to take the law into their own hands.
Fortunately, a few days later gold was discovered along the beaches at Nome for 40 miles in either direction. A minimum of equipment and effort was needed for working the rich sands of Nome—a shovel, a bucket, a wheelbarrow, and material for making a rocker. The size of each claim was determined by the length of a No. 2 shovel, and the miner had to camp on his claim to retain it. Two thousand miners were soon at work on the beaches, and during the 1899 season more than two million dollars in gold was taken.
The Federal Government hadn't yet provided for civil government in Alaska, but citizens organized one in Nome anyway to try and cope with some of the more urgent problems—health, law and order, and mail service. Lacking any taxing authority, the town government requested donations from businesses for their revenues.
Already, in the winter of 1899, the city boasted twenty saloons, six bakeries, five laundries, twelve general merchandise stores, three secondhand stores, four wholesale liquor stores, four hotels, six restaurants, six lodging houses, two paper hangers, two photographers, one brewer, three fruit, cigar, and confectionery stores, two tinsmiths, two sign painters, three watchmakers, two meat markets, one boat shop, a book store, three packers, two dentists, Congregational and Catholic services, eleven doctors, sixteen lawyers, four bath houses, a massage artist, a bank, two printing shops, a blacksmith, two construction firms, four barber shops, two clubs, a hospital, a water works and an undisclosed number of whores. (Hunt 1974)
In 1899 and 1900 Congress provided a criminal code, a code of criminal procedure, and the second and third judicial districts in Alaska and instructed the War Department to establish garrisons throughout Alaska. Subsequently, Fort Davis was established in Nome, and St. Michael became military headquarters in Alaska. Major-General Adolphus W. Greely of the U.S. Signal Corps began work on a telegraph system for the region.
|University of Alaska Library, Anchorage|
Despite these efforts to bring a modicum of order to Nome and Alaska in general, Nome remained wild and lawless for several more years. The municipal government proved incredibly corrupt; thieves, con men, and prostitutes roamed the streets day and night; and the newly appointed Second Judicial District Judge, Arthur H. Noyes, turned out to be a crook. Within months he was convicted of contempt of court for ignoring Circuit Court writs from San Francisco ordering that all mining properties be returned to the original claimants and suspending all court proceedings until further notice.
Judge James Wickersham, serving in the Third Judicial District in interior Alaska and later to be the territory's delegate to Congress, was ordered to Nome in September 1901 to temporarily take over the court. The new judge, practically single-handedly, brought order to the chaotic legal situation. Wickersham shifted the court from a standstill into high gear, often holding sessions from 9 A.M. to 10:30 P.M. Most of the lawyers in town worked day and night to keep up with him. Investigations of corrupt officials, many with influential friends in Washington, were held regardless, and many claims disputes were settled.
Incorporated as a city in 1901, Nome undertook a number of public improvements. Front Street was planked, sidewalks were built in the residential area, ditches were dug to provide better drainage, a private group began building a long-distance telephone to Council; and the Seward Peninsula, Council City, and Solomon railroads were built.
Nome was by then the largest, most prosperous community in Alaska, and most of the residents were optimistic about the town's future. In 1899 $2.3 million in gold was taken out; from 1900 to 1905 an annual average of $4.75 million was mined; in 1907 $7.5 million was taken out; and in 1909, despite labor strikes throughout the winter, $11 million in gold was shipped out of Nome.
However, by 1910 Nome's glory days were over. The population had dropped to about 2,600. The stampeders had long since moved on (Figure 157), but gold mining retained its importance until the start of World War I when gold mining became nonessential to the war effort and production came to a virtual standstill. An influenza epidemic in 1918 caused 100 deaths in Nome, and by 1922 the population had further declined to approximately 852. During the diphtheria epidemic at Nome in 1925 the area was still so remote that serum had to be carried by dog team from Nenana 650 miles away. By 1930 the population was about 1,213 and has slowly increased since then. In 1934 the price of gold was set at $35 an ounce, which induced a slight upswing in production, but World War II curtailed activity in the region. Since the United States deregulated the ownership and price of gold in 1974, some recovery has been made in the industry.
Other minerals have been worked in the Northwest Region—the Kennecott copper operation at Bornite on Ruby Creek 175 miles east of Kotzebue; the most important tin reserve in the United States at Lost River; and graphite, iron, beryllium, tungsten, asbestos, and fluorite at Tin City. Jade is presently being worked at Jade Mountain northwest of Shungnak. Deering, Candle, and other settlements in the region had temporary mining booms. Coal was reported at Corwin Bluff and between Cape Lisburne and Cape Thompson in the late 1800s; however, there was never any production except for local use. More recently, oil and gas have been sought in the Selawik basin and Kobuk regions as well as some offshore areas.
Native Alaskans played a unique role in the history of American frontiers. According to Hunt (1974), violent conflicts between whites and Natives seldom occurred. Miners and settlers were welcomed and assisted by Natives in a region of the world where abandonment of these precepts probably would have meant certain death for many whites who were unfamiliar with and unprepared for the rigors of the northern environment.
Much less important than mining, but significant nonetheless, were industries based on the animal resources of northwest Alaska. White, blue, and silver fox and mink were raised commercially on the Seward Peninsula. Around Golovin and Teller herring were packed for commercial use for some years. Big game hunters pursued trophy polar bears before they were protected from sport hunting, and walrus hunting has recently resumed on a limited basis under state regulation.
From the late nineteenth century until statehood was achieved in 1959, Alaskans relentlessly demanded more self-government and representation in Washington. Organized as a civil and judicial district by Congress in 1884 and later as a land district, civil government in Alaska was still deficient. Congress was petitioned for more substantial legislation. The Carter Act of 1900 established a civil code and a judicial district system with courts at Nome, Sitka, and Eagle.
In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt endorsed Alaska's demand for a congressional delegate, and during that same period the Senate Committee on Territories sent a subcommittee to Alaska. As a result of that Senate investigation, a life-saving station was established in Nome; Juneau was designated a port of entry; and the survey regulations for coal lands were liberalized. In 1906 northwestern Alaskans banded together to elect Thomas Cale and Frank Waskey of Nome as Alaska's first delegates to Congress. After 1910, however, the locus of political and economic power returned to Southeast and later to southcentral Alaska.
In 1912 Alaska was granted territorial status with a bicameral legislature which worked diligently to secure full rights for Alaskans. Among its first acts was to enfranchise women, seven years before the federal government. It also requested that Congress liberalize the land laws to encourage and promote settlement in Alaska, petitioned Congress to end land reservations and withdrawals and to rescind some already made, and requested better and more roads and lower freight rates. The second legislature provided for citizenship for Indians and Eskimos, a means to establish municipal governments, old-age pension plans, a district road system, and a uniform school system and Board of Education. Congress was successfully persuaded to build a federally owned and operated railroad between Seward and Fairbanks in 1923.
|University of Alaska Library, Anchorage|
World War II led to a virtual rediscovery of Alaska as its strategic importance became obvious. A new airport was built at Nome as part of the Lend-Lease program to ferry airplanes to the USSR. While official recognition was reluctantly accorded his efforts, Colonel M.R. "Muktuk" Marston organized the men of northwest and arctic Alaska into efficient Scout Battalions as the first line of Alaskan defense. Some of the installations in the region provided employment for northwest inhabitants, but the area returned to a state of economic depression after the war.
As Alaska moved toward statehood in 1959, Native groups began to organize to gain recognition of their aboriginal rights to the land. This effort culminated in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed by Congress in 1971. The act created a new basis for the social, economic, and political future of the region.
[Alaska Regional Profiles, Northwest Region, pp. 193-196]
[This web page includes excerpts from Alaska Regional Profiles, Northwest Region, pp. 182-196. Individual sections are referenced appropriately.]