Indigenous Alaskans – Athabascans, Aleuts and Inuit, and coastal tribes of Tlingits and Haidas – migrated over the Bering Strait land bridge 35, 000 years ago. In the 18th century, waves of Europeans arrived: first British and French explorers, then Russian whalers and fur traders, naming land formations, taking otter pelts and leaving the cultures of Native Alaskans in disarray.
With the Russians’ finances badly overextended by the Napoleonic Wars, in 1867 US Secretary of State William H Seward was able to purchase the territory from them for $7.2 million – less than 2¢ an acre. There was uproar over ‘Seward’s Folly, ’ but the land’s riches soon revealed themselves: initially whales, then salmon, gold and finally oil.
After Japan bombed and occupied the Aleutian Islands in WWII, the military built the famous Alcan (Alaska–Canada) Hwy, which connected the territory with the rest of the USA. The 1520-mile Alcan was constructed in less than nine months and contributed greatly to postwar Alaska becoming a state in 1959. The Good Friday Earthquake in 1964 left Alaska in a shambles, but recovery was boosted when oil deposits were discovered under Prudhoe Bay, resulting in the construction of a 789-mile pipeline to Valdez.
With Prudhoe Bay’s oil reserves drying up and the battle over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) still raging in Washington, DC, Alaska suffers from budget deficits and one of the country’s highest unemployment rates. An escalating price for oil has eased the pain in recent years, while residents are pinning their economic hopes on possible new North Slope oil fields outside ANWR and increased mining activity elsewhere in the state. The future is still fuzzy in the Last Frontier, but one thing is clear. With their economy centered on resource extraction, whether it’s oil, gold or salmon, Alaskans will always be mired in a boom-and-bust way of life.