Residents of the lower 48 States of the US generally only have a sketchy idea about Alaska. Like Hawaii, it’s geographically disconnected from the bulk of the country. Also, only a small percentage of us will have the opportunity to personally visit the state.
Our knowledge of Alaska’s history is sketchy, at best, too. In public school, we probably learned about the purchase of the Russian Empire’s colony of Alaska for seven-million-dollars back in 1867. Some of us may even remember being taught that the purchase was called “Seward’s Folly”. However, in hindsight, we can see that the Alaskan purchase turned out to be a far-sighted, smart tactical move. There is no Russian presence in North America, and Canada was prohibited from expanding any further west. Maybe we could call the move, “Seward’s Foresight”.
The United States assumed possession of the area on October 18, 1867. The date is still celebrated as Alaska Day. The political entity of Alaska, after 1867, was called the Department of Alaska. The entity was administered by the Army for ten years. Those responsibilities were taken over by the Treasury Department until 1879. Then the Navy ran the Department of Alaska until 1884.
The first major step towards territorial status began in 1884, with the passage of the Organic Act. This enabled the judicial district, which included judges, clerks, marshals and a small staff of federal officials. Federal and local governmental control was sketchy, at best, so territorial status was placed on hold.
The influence of two major industrialists compounded difficulties towards territorial status. Simon Guggenheim and J.P. Morgan had gained control of a good share of the railroads, mining, shipping, and salmon packing economy. The two men headed up what was called the “Alaska Syndicate”, they lobbied against any sort of Alaska home rule. The problem peaked during the William Howard Taft administration in a scandal known as the Ballinger-Pinchot Affair. It involved the coal mining industry regarding favoritism and kickbacks on federally protected lands.
National publicity about the illegal affair, eventually led to the passage of the Second Organic Act, in April of 1912. This act converted the District into the Territory of Alaska. The territory had a presidentially appointed governor and an elected legislature. In 1916, Alaskan congressional delegate James Wickersham proposed the first Alaskan statehood bill, but it failed due to lack of interest.
The stage for statehood was set during the Great Depression of the 1930s. President Franklin Roosevelt allowed for 1,000 famine-strapped farmers to colonize the Matanuska-Susitna region of the Territory. FDR also appainted Ernest Gruening as governor in 1939. Gruening and territorial delegate Edward “Bob” Bartlett teamed up to advocate for Alaskan statehood.
National interest in Alaskan statehood increased with attention made by the area’s military strategic importance during World War Two and the Cold War. Yet there were many businesses and organizations who opposed statehood efforts. Some benefitted from Alaska’s low tax base and didn’t want the associated higher taxes that come with statehood. Other people feared an influx of Americans from the lower 48 states to settle there.
Undaunted, delegate Bartlett introduced a Referendum enabled bill in Congress. However, the bill was defeated due to a coalition of Republicans, including Nebraska Senator Hugh Butler, and Southern Democrats who feared Alaska would become a “welfare state” and opposed more pro-civil rights congressmen.
In response to the quick defeat, Governor Gruening initiated the Alaska Statehood Committee in 1949. The group consisted of media, politicians, and celebrities who favored the Alaskan statehood cause. Another statehood bill managed to pass the House of Representatives in 1950, but the Republican controlled Senate defeated the bill because of fears that more Democrats could be voted into their chamber.
Public interest across Alaska Territory continued to increase to the point that a Constitutional Convention was held in Fairbanks in 1955. After a firy speech by Governor Gruening, the convention composed and passed the Alaska Constitution the following year.
Back in Washington, delegate Bartlett managed to change the mind of House Speaker, Sam Rayburn, a strong opponent into a proponent of statehood. Then Senator Lyndon Johnson added his support. In January of 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower voiced his support for the first time.
In parallel with the political change of heart, came the discovery of oil in 1957. As oil company interest and influence awakened, another reason for statehood had emerged. The remaining fears of a possible “welfare state” evaporated.
By the spring of 1958, through the advocacy of Bob Bartlett, the House finally passed their version of the Alaskan statehood bill. On June 30th, the Senate voted in favor of statehood, by a vote of 64 to 20. Finally, on July 7, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Act into law. The bill would allow the citizens of Alaska Territory to vote on whether or not the Territory should become a State. If they voted in favor, Alaska would become the 49th State in January of 1959.
On August 26, 1958, in the heaviest election participation in Alaska’s history, the citizens of Alaska Territory voted by a margin of five to one in favor of statehood. On January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower signed the official declaration to proclaim Alaska as the 49th State of the US.