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Alaska: Seward’s Folly Paid Off

Many thought that Alaska was worthless, but for only $7.2 million, America struck gold.

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Alaska, the last frontier, was one of the newest states to be admitted into the Union in 1959. As the 49th state, it still has a long history of native peoples, including Eskimos, and a rich past in gold and other mineral mining. In its early years, about 15,000 years ago, Alaska was settled by indigenous people following herd animals across the Bering Land Bridge, which was covered during the most recent ice age.

The Tsar of Russia, Peter I the Great, commissioned an expedition in 1728 to see if the land was linked somehow to Russia’s mainland. Led by Danish mariner Vitus Bering, the crew went in search, but, because of heavy fog, failed to locate North America on the first try. The second trip in 1728 had a better turnout for the explorers. After spotting the peak of Mount St. Elias, the men went ashore and soon began trading for sea otter furs – which became one of the most profitable ventures for some time.

The Russians began to settle the area and for a while there were many fights against the Aleuts, many of whom were killed in battle, used as slaves, or died of diseases brought over from the Europeans. Things did settle down between the peoples and the battles and skirmishes lessened.

By the 1800s, sea otters had been hunted for their furs to near extinction, which partially led to the Russian’s willingness to sell Alaska to the United States. U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward oversaw the negotiations to purchase the territory and developed a treaty with the Russian minister to buy the land for $7.2 million. On Oct. 18, 1867, the Alaska Purchase was completed, and the first American flag was raised and flown.

Many thought the deal was foolish, believing that the land had nothing to offer, and so they referred to the acquisition as “Seward’s Folly.”  However, in the 1890s, gold was discovered and miners swarmed into the area to try their luck at earning a fortune. Also, in 1878 a salmon cannery had been built that was growing, and in fact was the beginning of what became the largest salmon industry in the world.

Land of the Midnight Sun

Aside from being known as the last frontier, Alaska is also called the Land of the Midnight Sun. The state receives more sunlight in spring and summer than any other state and many other parts of the world. In the northernmost areas, such as Barrow, the sun does not set for more than two and a half months (May to August), and from November to January, the sun never rises above the horizon.

Fairbanks, which sits below the Arctic Circle by nearly 200 miles, still gets 24 hours of light for a long time during the summer months. And Ketchikan, which is located at the southernmost area, still gets 17 hours of daylight in June.

Interesting Facts

  • In 1790, a Japanese whaling ship ran aground near the Aleutian Islands. Rats escaped from the ship and landed there, giving it the name of “Rat Island.”
  • The capitol of Alaska is Juneau.
  • Alaska is the largest state in the Union.
  • The state’s motto is “North to the Future.”
  • There are approximately 5,000 earthquakes here per year.
Kelli Ballard

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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