A Brief History
of Alaska Statehood

Author: Eric Gislason


The one hundred years between "Seward's Folly" (1867) and statehood (1959) comprise an intriguing though often ignored narrative about the importance of the "great land" to United States history. The following brief history of Alaska statehood considers the region in the political and imaginative contexts of (contiguous) United States history and emphasizes certain themes revealed in this effort. First, throughout the late-19th and early 20th century, Alaska serves as an advertisement for American colonialism. A colonial economy developed in which much of the territory's natural wealth (minerals, furs, salmon, timber) was extracted from the region and used elsewhere for the profit of absentee business interests. Second, Alaska served as an extension of the American frontier, a "great northern and western citadel," in the words of one observer. This notion received a new resonance in the Cold War Years when Alaska represented the edge of American interests menaced by the Soviet Union.

A third theme, which may be surprising to some readers, is Alaska's centrality in numerous national political disputes. The Ballinger-Pinchot affair of 1910--covered in more detail below--fractured the Republican party and had far-reaching consequences for the political course of the U. S. Discriminatory national legislation such as the Jones and White Acts demonstrated the extent of U. S. imperial control over the region. And the machinations of the conservative coalition of Taft Republicans and "Dixiecrats" during the Eisenhower years delayed Alaska statehood in the interest of maintaining a tenuous Republican majority in Congress.

Finally, the issue of self-determination is at the heart of the issue of statehood: The early federal denial of self-rule and the practice of taxation without representation in Congress should be familiar echoes of the injustice suffered by colonists' of the prior century. The eventual response to these policies is a stirring chapter in the history of concerted democratic effort: the populist vigor of the Constitutional Convention and the adoption of the aggressive "Tennessee Plan" for statehood combine with national efforts from individuals like Bob Bartlett and Ernest Gruening to achieve statehood for Alaska.

Beginnings: "Seward's Folly" and the First Organic Act of 1884

On March 30, 1867, Secretary of State William H. Seward signed an agreement with Baron Edouard Stoeckl, the Russian Minister to the United States. The agreement, widely referred to as "Seward's Folly" (and "Seward's Icebox") ceded possession of the vast territory of Alaska to the United States for the sum of $7.2 million. Few citizens of the U. S. could fathom what possible use or interest the 586,000 square miles of land would have for their country. In a speech given at Sitka on August 12, 1868, however, Secretary Seward claimed he did not doubt "that the political society to be constituted here, first as a Territory, and ultimately as a state or many States, will prove a worthy constituency of the Republic."1 President Andrew Johnson sent General Jefferson C. Davis to command a military force of about 500 men to maintain peace and order, and expected that Congress would establish the civil organization of the territory.

The 40th Congress (1867-1869) passed a law which made Alaska a customs district of the U. S. but made no other efforts to establish the civil infrastructure that President Johnson had hinted at. The relations between settlers and natives of Alaska were tense and the Navy forces of Commander L. A. Beardslee were called upon to maintain order. From 1879-1884, the Navy governed Alaska, as most of its inhabitants were located in the coastal southeastern "panhandle" of the state. The passage of the First Organic Act (1884) made Alaska a civil and judicial district and provided the territory with judges, clerks, and marshals. Curiously enough, the general legal code of the state of Oregon was adopted. A total of thirteen officials were made responsible for a population of 32,000 people, of which only 430 were white settlers.

Many settlers came to Alaska with the expectation that the territory would follow the path of the Western states to official state status. The First Organic Act did not provide for eventual representative government, however, and Alaska was consigned to a territorial status much like that of the Newfoundland fisheries of the 17th-century British Empire. 2 The U. S. government asserted imperial administrative control over the noncontiguous territory, but due to the overriding late-19th century concerns of Reconstruction and rapid incorporation of the contiguous states demonstrated little interest in Alaska. Although some reports had been circulated about the wealth of furs, seals, fish, and minerals to be found in Alaska, the conventional wisdom about the territory was summed up in the New York Herald by James Gordon Bennett, who suggested that any impoverished European monarchs who wanted to sell worthless territory should apply to "W. H. Seward, State Department, Washington, D. C." Alaska was just too remote to inspire much interest.

The Klondike Gold Rush and the Second Organic Act

The Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98 was the first event to garner significant exposure for the great, white North. During the decade of 1890-1900, more than 30, 000 people surged into the Yukon Territory and Alaska when gold was discovered in places like Dawson, Fairbanks, and Ester. Mining, fishing, trapping, and mineral production flourished and a true "colonial economy" developed, in which outside interests exploited the material resources of Alaska and took the profits elsewhere. In an article for the Atlantic Monthly called "Colonial Lessons of Alaska," journalist David S. Jordan declared that the disarray in Alaska could be attributed to four sources: "lack of centralization of power and authority, lack of scientific knowledge, lack of personal and public interest, and the use of offices as political patronage."3 Could the U. S. in good conscience hoist its flag over a colony if it was not prepared to care for it? Surveying the situation, President McKinley acknowledged the urgent need for further civil organization in Alaska and called for legislative relief which would address Alaska's bulky backlog of civil and criminal cases. In 1900 Congress passed an official code of civil and criminal procedure, appointed more judges, and put in place a system of taxation. Furthermore, the duty-free exchange of goods with Canada was established and construction was approved for a railroad between the port city of Seward and the city of Fairbanks, in the Interior, to aid in the distribution of goods.

Efforts toward self-government were complicated by the influence in Washingon of the "Alaska Syndicate," formed in 1906 by the fortunes of J. P. Morgan and Guggenheim. The Syndicate had purchased the large Kennicott-Bonanza copper mine and controlled much of Alaskan steamship and rail transportation, as well as a major part of the salmon canning industry. The Syndicate lobby in Washingon had successfully opposed any further extension of Alaskan home rule. James Wickersham, who had been appointed to an Alaskan judgeship in 1900 by President McKinley, became alarmed by the potential influence of incorporated interests in the territory and took up the struggle for Alaskan self-government. Wickersham argued that Alaska's resources should be used for the good of the entire country rather than exploited a select group of large, absentee-controlled interests--home rule, he claimed, would assure more just utilization of the territory's natural wealth. The 1910 Ballinger-Pinchot affair, which involved the illegal distribution of thirty-three federal government Alaskan coal land claims to the Guggenheim interests, culminated in a Congressional investigation and brought Alaska directly into the national headlines. Wickersham, surveying the fallout of the affair, determined that it

destroyed the friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and President Taft; split the Republican party into two great factions; defeated President Taft for re-election in 1912; elected Woodrow Wilson President of the United States; and changed the course of history of our country.4

A chastened President Taft, in a special message to Congress on February 2, 1912, urged the enactment of legislation which would help Alaska develop its resources along the lines that Wickersham had urged.

The Second Organic Act, passed by the U. S. Congress in April 1912, conferred official territory status upon Alaska and provided for an elected legislature of eight senators and sixteen house members.5 Congress refused to give significant power to this legislature, however, or make the position of governor of the Territory a popularly elected one. Everything the local legislature did was subject to the (dis)approval of Congress. The federal government retained the power to regulate the territory's fish, game, and fur resources, a function no organized territory had thus far been denied. These restrictions would chafe Alaskans and eventually lead to efforts to amend and change the Second Organic Act. Nonetheless, this official act of incorporation by Congress did bind the region more firmly to the United States.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had provided the framework for the territorial system and had, for over a century, served well the purposes of expansion. The last two contiguous U. S. territories, New Mexico and Arizona, had become states in 1912. But Alaska (like Hawaii and Puerto Rico) was non-contiguous and sparsely populated. These two factors, as well as Congress' uncertainty about Alaska's indigenous non-white population of Aleuts, Indians, and Eskimos complicated Alaska statehood. To be sure, political considerations had often been part of statehood questions: the 1864 elevation of Nevada from territory to state (though it only had a population of 20,000 at the time) gave Abraham Lincoln needed votes for re-election and also helped ratify the 13th Amendment.6

Absentee Interests and Colonial Exploitation

Alaska had a population of about 58,000 in 1916 when Wickersham, now Delegate to Congress, introduced Alaska's first statehood bill. It failed due to lack of interest on the part of Alaskans; not even President Harding's 1923 visit to the Territory could create sustained widespread interest in statehood. Efforts to amend the Second Organic Act, which had not quite extricated Alaska's fishing industry from the influences of the "Fish Trust," took up much time yet proved fruitless. In fact, some Congressional legislation was overtly discriminatory to the Territory. The U. S. Maritime Act of 1920--commonly referred to as the Jones Act, after its sponsor, Senator Wesley Jones of Seattle--stipulated that all commercial ships travelling between American ports had to be American-owned and American-built. Thus, all merchandise entering or leaving Alaska had to be transported by American carriers, which meant that all shipping had to go through Seattle. The Supreme Court ruled that, because Alaska was not officially a state, the Constitution's provision that one state should not hold sway over the commerce of another did not protect Alaska. Routing ships through the Canadian ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert would have been much cheaper for Alaskans; nevertheless, under the Court's ruling, the Jones Act allowed Seattle business interests to charge much higher than average prices for shipping. This in turn raised the cost of living in Alaska and funnelled Alaskan dollars out of the territory and into the pockets of Washington businessmen. Another piece of discriminatory legislation, the White Act of 1924, was referred to as the "Magna Carta of fishery conservation" by both federal officials and industry spokesmen. In fact, the White Act favored the big companies' fish traps and worked against the development of small operators in Alaska.7

National discrimination was compounded by regional conflicts among the territory's judicial divisions and these squabbles further blurred the focus on statehood. Under the conditions of the Second Organic Act, Alaska had been divided into the four divisions, each with a capitol city: the First Judicial division (southeastern Alaska) at Juneau; the Second Division (northwestern Alaska) at Nome; the Third Division (southcentral Alaska) at Valdez, and later at Anchorage; and the Fourth Division (the interior) at Fairbanks. The Southeastern division, or "Panhandle" region, had by far the largest population and began to wonder if perhaps it could become a state separate from the other three less-populated divisions. Government control over Alaska was the primary concern, as over 52 federal agencies had a hand in the daily workings of Alaska! Exasperated, Wickersham declared "there actually exists today a congressional government in Alaska more offensively bureaucratic in its basic principles and practices than that which existed here during the seventy years of Russian rule under the Czar." 8 Federal attempts in the 1920s to streamline administration had little success changing either the bureaucratic control over Alaska's development or the unfair Congressional legislation, and the exploitative resource industries of the contiguous states still had the power to completely withdraw the sources of many Alaskans' livelihood.

The Depression hit Alaska hard as prices paid for fish and copper, the territory's two chief commodities, declined. Between 1929 and 1932, the work force decreased by more than half, and wages dropped. Help came from New Deal programs such as the National Reforestation Act of 1933 and various Public Works Administration construction efforts. Most famous among government efforts in Alaska during the Depression is the 1935 Matanuska Valley colonization scheme. President Franklin D. Roosevelt imagined that Americans from depressed agricultural areas could be transplanted to Alaska's Matanuska-Susitna region and given a fresh chance at agricultural self-sustainment. Around 1,000 colonists were selected from some 15,000 applicants, largely from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota--on the assumption that the similar climate of these areas to Alaska would best suit settlers for life in the North. A related but completely ill-fated idea was Dr. Joe Thomas' "Alaska Colonization Branch of the United Congo Improvement Association," which proclaimed that "Alaska offers the American Negro full political rights." 9 The UCIA asked that President Roosevelt settle some 400 Negro farmers in Alaska, but existing racial prejudices and prevailing beliefs that only people from northern lands were suited for life in Alaska doomed the proposal.

The War Years: A Decade of Growth

While the New Deal aided Alaska, it took an event of much greater scale and purpose to truly bring the Territory onto the national stage. As early as 1933, Delegate Anthony J. Dimond had recognized Japan as a threat to America's security and asked Congress for military airfields and planes, a highway to link the territory with the United States, and army garrisons. Telling his colleagues in the House of Representatives that Japanese fishermen off Alaska's coast were actually disguised military personnel scouting out information on Alaska's harbors, Dimond pleaded that Alaska was as much a key to the Pacific as Hawaii and must be defended. In 1940, Congress appropriated money for military installations, but it took the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the 1942 occupation by Japan of Attu and Kiska islands on the Aleutian Chain for military mobilization to begin in earnest. Billions of dollars in defense spending came into the state in the construction of the Alaska Highway, the capture and eventual fortification of the Aleutian islands, and the construction of military bases throughout the state.

The Alaska Highway stretches 1,500 miles from
Fairbanks, Alaska to Dawson Creek, British Columbia.

Left: 341st Army Engineers working near Tok, AK, 1942.

Right: Completed road near Muncho Lake, YT, 1943.

Secretary of Alaska Bob Bartlett (center) cuts the ribbon upon the highway's completion in 1943.
The construction took only eight months and twelve days!

In 1940, about 1,000 of Alaska's 75,000 residents were military. By 1943, 152,000 out of 233,000 belonged to the armed forces stationed in Alaska. And even though there was a post-war drop in population to about 99,000 in 1946, Cold War military expenditures pushed it back up to around 138,000 by 1950. The war years irrevocably changed Alaska.

Attention in the national press increasingly raised awareness about Alaska's situation, described by Richard L. Neuberger in Newsweek as a "feudal barony" where the absentee-owned mining and fishing corporations took out millions in natural resources and left next to nothing behind in the form of social and economic benefits--a "looted land." 10 It became increasingly obvious that keeping territorial government and tax structures to a minimum benefitted Seattle-area interests such as the Alaska Steamship Company and the Northland Transportation Company, who enjoyed an effective monopoly on steamship travel and shipping and charged unusually high rates. Alaskan businessmen such as Austin E. "Cap" Lathrop--Alaska's premier "capitalist"--were able to benefit greatly from the minimal taxes and argued against statehood for fear that its' stricter tax laws might diminish their position. The anti-statehood faction had a powerful hold in the Territory, and might have quelled the issue were it not for two especially vigorous pro-statehood advocates, Ernest Gruening and E. L. "Bob" Bartlett.

Ernest Gruening, an Easterner with a history of progressive politics, had served as publicity director for Senator Robert M. LaFollette's presidential candidacy in 1924 when LaFollette polled five million votes but lost the race. Gruening traveled and worked in Mexico and Europe before serving as editor of the Nation until he was appointed by F. D. Roosevelt in 1934 to run the fledgling Division of Territories and Island Possessions. In 1939, FDR appointed Gruening to the governorship of Alaska. Edward Lewis "Bob" Bartlett, with whom Gruening was to work closely for the next quarter-century, had served as secretary to Congressional delegate Anthony J. Dimond, remaining in Washington until 1934. Bartlett operated a placer gold mine for a while before President Roosevelt appointed him secretary of Alaska in January 1939. In 1944, Bartlett ran for and won the position which Wickersham and Dimond had held--Territorial Delegate to Congress. Beginning in 1945, Delegate Bartlett acted as Alaska's only representative in the halls of Congress.

The Drive Toward Statehood: Legislative and Populist Efforts

Historian Claus Naske divides the statehood movement in Alaska into two phases.11 First, between 1943 and 1953, Alaska's governor (Gruening), the delegate to Congress (Bartlett), and a cross-section of the territory's established business and professional men and women engineered numerous legislative efforts to achieve statehood for Alaska. Gruening was frustrated by the fact that after three decades under the American flag, Alaska was still without adequate roads, airfields, tuberculosis hospitals, and dependable shipping at reasonable cost. What was more, the aboriginal rights issue had not yet been settled, and homesteaders were not yet legally able to acquire land from the federal government. He felt that the only tools by which Alaskans could amend their plight were two United States senators and a Representative in the House, each with a vote.

The 3:2 passage of a 1946 referendum in favor of statehood led to the formation of the Alaska Statehood Association--an ad hoc group of concerned citizens--later that year. Meanwhile, Gruening lobbied hard in Washington with the members of the influential Senate Public Lands Committee, especially Senator Hugh Butler of Nebraska. Delegate Bartlett introduced a statehood bill in April, 1948 which was corralled in the Rules Committee by Senator Butler. It never came up for debate, but many Alaskans had testified to their desire for statehood and the interest of numerous others was aroused as the possibility of statehood became more plausible. Furthermore, Alaskan voters decided that year to reform the territory's tax structure to loosen the hold of the special interests.

The Alaska Statehood Committee was formed in 1949 to intensify efforts toward statehood, calling on national and labor organizations, newspaper editors, and state governors to support and publicize Alaska's situation. Gruening himself compiled a "committee of one-hundred" prominent Americans who supported Alaska's aspirations, including Eleanor Roosevelt, actor James Cagney, Pearl S. Buck, John Gunther, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. 1949 was a watershed year for the statehood movement, as it received growing attention both in Alaska and in the nation at large. A bill for statehood passed the House by a vote of 186-146 early in 1950, but was killed in the Senate by a coalition of conservative Republicans and southern Democrats, backed tacitly by President Eisenhower. This coalition wanted to preserve the tenuous Republican majority in Congress, and opposed Alaska's entry into the Union for fear that its congressional voice would be Democratic. The Korean War, which began in June of 1950 and lasted into 1952, effectively put concerns about Alaska statehood on the back burner.

The second, or "populist" phase in Naske's analysis, involved the efforts of thousands of regular Alaskans to foment popular interest in the statehood drive. The New York Journal-American put the situation dramatically:

Alaska wants statehood with the fervor men and women give to a transcendent cause. An overwhelming number of men and women voters in the United States want statehood for Alaska. This Nation needs Alaskan statehood to advance her defense, sustain her security, and discharge her deep moral obligation.12

Such enthusiasm served as a counterweight to the typical arguments made against Alaska statehood: noncontiguity with the rest of the country, lack of population, inadequate political maturity, and meager financial resources. Senator Butler and five members of the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee decided to hold hearings in Alaska on a statehood bill; they wanted to hear the "reaction of the "little people" of Alaska. The Butler committee heard testimony in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan. The visit of Butler's committee brought together many Alaskans sympathetic to the statehood cause, and popular publicity movements such as "Operation Statehood" put increased pressure on Congress for Alaska statehood. Women in the committee, for example, made artificial bouquets out of the Forget-me-Not, Alaska's official flower, and mailed them to members of Congress prior to the consideration of statehood legislation. The citizens of Alaska sent Christmas cards to friends in the contiguous U. S. which urged: "Make [Alaskans] future bright/Ask your Senator for statehood/And start the New Year right."13 Members of Congress could no longer invoke "lack of public interest" as an argument against Alaska Statehood.

President Eisenhower, in his 1954 State of the Union address, requested the immediate admission of Hawaii into the Union but did not mention Alaska. The editor of the Washington Post wrote of a "murky cloud of politics" surrounding such a position, as it was becoming evident that the Republican administration thought Hawaii would come into the Union as a Republican state, while Alaska would come in favoring the Democrats. Eventually the Senate put together a combination statehood bill, which provided for the admission first of Hawaii and then of Alaska. This bill immediately became the centerpiece of Congressional partisan wrangling. Operation Statehood swamped the White House with telegrams asking for "statehood now." A delegation of Operation Statehood's members flew to Washington, D. C. to meet with President Eisenhower, and they made a dramatic impression. John Butrovich, a Fairbanks insurance agent and senior Republican in the territorial legislature, told Eisenhower:

We feel that you are a great American. But we are shocked to come down here and find that a bill which concerns the rights of American citizens is bottled up in a committee when you have the power to bring it out on the House floor. 14

Eisenhower reddened as Butrovich banged his fists on the Chief Executive's desk to emphasize his dissatisfaction. The President denied that any partisanship played a role in the Alaska statehood issue and assured the members that Alaska statehood posed many problems which needed attention. He was most likely concerned, however, with preserving the narrow Republican margin in Congress.

The next effort to derail the statehood cause came in the form of a Senate proposal to make Alaska and Hawaii "commonwealths" of the U. S., with elective governorships. National columnists such as Walter Lippmann and Richard Strout favored this step, but the interest of the people of Alaska was not swayed from statehood. No one savored the prospect of paying federal taxes yet remaining, in effect, a stranger to the Union. Another series of Congressional hearings about Alaska's situation instilled in many Alaskans an interest in more aggressive action. Such enthusiasm ultimately brought about the 1955 Constitutional Convention, held in the newly appointed "Constitution Hall" on the grounds of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. It was here that Senator Ernest Gruening delivered his galvanizing "Let Us End American Colonialism" address. The convention received phenomenal national exposure and was praised by numerous journalists for its idealistic attention to "the good of Alaska" rather than partisan politics. The convention was an intensely emotional event for all involved, as passions about the future of Alaska ran strong and deep among convention members. In 1956, the resulting Constitution--which the National Municipal League called "one of the best, if not the best, state constitutions ever written"--was overwhelmingly accepted by Alaskans. 15

Another crucial maneuver toward statehood was the adoption of the Tennessee Plan, proposed by George H. Lehleitner, an ex-Navy commander. The plan, which had been used successfully by Tennessee, Michigan, California, Oregon, Kansas, and Iowa, involved electing a Congressional delegation without waiting for an enabling act from Congress. In the spring of 1956, Alaskans elected Ernest Gruening and William Egan as Senators-elect and Ralph J. Rivers as House Representative-elect. With support for statehood firmly established in Alaska, the stage was now set for reinvigorated efforts in the nation's Congress. Egan, Gruening, and Rivers were received with much fanfare, but were not officially seated or recognized by Congress.

Working together with Delegate Bob Bartlett, the Tennessee Plan delegation lobbied hard in the Senate and the House. Influential House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, until the summer of 1957 a foe of statehood, changed his mind and promised to give the territory a chance to be heard. Rayburn, when asked about his change in view, answered "I can tell you in two words, 'Bob Bartlett'." 16

Statehood Achieved

With sectional conflicts breaking down and the power of the "Dixiecrats" diminishing, Congress reconvened in January 1958 to the sounds of President Eisenhower fully endorsing Alaska statehood for the first time. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson assured Bartlett that the southern Senators would not filibuster the Alaska bill. Johnson's was an important commitment, yet Representative Howard W. Smith of Virginia, Chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, stepped in to obstruct the statehood bill. Life magazine tartly characterized Smith as a "Virginia gentleman whose impeccable manners include little real respect for either free enterprise or democracy." 17 Additionally, Representative Thomas Pelly of Washington state demanded the right for his constituents to fish Alaskan waters on the same basis as residents. An amendment was subsequently drafted seeking retention of federal jurisdiction over Alaska's fish and game resources until the secretary of the interior certified to Congress that the state met provisions for their conservation and nonresident access. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner responded to Pelly's petulance by printing excerpts from Edna Ferber's impassioned novel Ice Palace. The passages featured the character of Thor Storm, the grizzled Nordic pioneer, informing his granddaughter, Christine, about the legacy of Seattle and San Francisco cannery operators' unmerciful exploitation of Alaska's fisheries. Ferber's book had sold well and widely. Ice Palace had such an educative effect on the nation's populace that one critic was moved to refer to it as "the Uncle Tom's Cabin of Alaska Statehood."

After some maneuvering, the effort to bypass Representative Smith's Rules Committee succeeded when the statehood bill was brought up on "privileged status" by a roll-call vote of 217-172. The Senate, which had before it both its own version of the statehood bill and the House version, passed the House version at the urging of Delegate Bartlett by a 64-20 margin. The House then passed the bill by a vote of 210-166. New York Representative Leo W. O' Brien, when asked about the almost miraculous materialization of needed Congressional support for the statehood bill, considered a key factor to be the friendship so many lawmakers felt for Bob Bartlett.

Through the combined efforts of Ernest Gruening, Bob Bartlett, and many other unacknowledged Alaskans, the statehood cause was finally victorious. On January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower signed the official declaration which made Alaska the 49th state. The new American flag featured seven rows of seven stars each.

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