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The Great Land

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Alaska Then

“Alaska” came from an Aleut word for “great land” though some believe the Aleut word meant “mainland” to those residing on the Alaska Peninsula. Scientist and surveyor William Healey Dall wrote in 1870: “This name, now applied to the whole of our new territory, is a corruption, very far removed from the original word … called by the natives Al-ak-shak or Al-ay-ek-sa. From Alayeksa the name became Alaksa, Alashka, Aliaska, and finally Alaska. We have, then, Alaska for the territory, Aliaska for the peninsula.”

Alaska today refers to the entire state as well as the Peninsula. “Alyeska” is still around, though, as the name of a ski resort in Girdwood, as well as the name of the Anchorage consortium overseeing the trans-Alaska pipeline company.

Purchase: William Henry Seward was secretary of state under President Abraham Lincoln when he began negotiating a deal for the United States to buy Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million — or 2 cents an acre. Seward, born May 16, 1801, served as New York state senator from 1831 to 1834, then as the state’s governor from 1839 to 1843. Lincoln appointed him secretary of state in 1861. During Lincoln’s presidency, he began negotiating the purchase of Alaska, then known as Russian America. Zachary Kent, in “William Seward: The Mastermind of the Alaska Purchase,” reports how Seward invited senators to dinner parties at his home. According to Kent, “While the senators enjoyed fine food and wine, Seward described how beautiful Russian America was reported to be.”

The purchase agreement was signed by Seward on March, 30, 1867, and approved by the U.S. Senate on May 27, 1867. President Andrew Johnson signed the final treaty the following day and the transfer was made Oct. 18, 1867, in Sitka. In 1917, the third Alaska Territorial Legislature created Seward’s Day to mark the signing of the treaty. That same year, lawmakers also designated Oct. 18 “Alaska Day.”

Many Americans of the period called the purchase “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox,” thinking Alaska a snowy, icy wasteland. Of course, that was before Alaska was discovered by gold seekers, oil companies and tourists. Many streets throughout Alaska have been named after William Seward. a city on the Kenai Peninsula bears his name, and Alaska has a glacier, a passage, a peninsula, a creek, a highway and mountains named for him as well. And what about William Seward himself? The night John Wilkes Booth fatally shot Lincoln, a Confederate veteran named Lewis Payne entered Seward’s bedroom and attacked him with a large knife. Fortunately, the blows were blunted by a neck brace Seward was wearing (according to The Lost Museum, a website sponsored by City University of New York and George Mason University). After Lincoln's death, Seward continued to serve as secretary of the state under President Andrew Johnson, and it was during Johnson’s administration that Seward completed the negotiations with Russia.

Alaska now

The largest national park in the United States is Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve — four times the size of Yellowstone. Also, the country’s two largest national forests are the state’s Tongass National Forest at 17 million acres, followed by the Chugach National Forest, which includes part of the Anchorage Bowl.

Equally stunning are Alaska’s powerful, sometimes fearsome, natural phenomena — volcanoes. Alaska possesses more than 10 percent of the world’s identified volcanoes, and three-fourths of North America’s volcanic peaks. The greatest concentration of volcanic activity is in the Aleutian chain. Earthquakes also unleash most of their tremendous energy in the Aleutian arc. The strongest quake to hit Alaska was on March 27, 1964. It measured 9.2 on the Richter scale and released twice the energy of the San Francisco quake of 1906. A more benevolent phenomenon, best observed during winter darkness, is the “northern lights” or aurora borealis, when eerie but spectacularly beautiful sheets of color streak across the sky.

Alaska facts

The 49th State — Admitted to the union Jan. 3, 1959
Landmass — 586,412 square miles
Coastline — About 33,000 miles
Rivers — More than 3,000
Lakes —More than 3 million
Highest Point —Mount McKinley at 20,320 feet
State Capital — Juneau
State Flower — Forget-me-not
State Tree — Sitka spruce
State Bird — Willow ptarmigan
State Fish — King salmon
State Sport — Dog mushing
State Fossil — Wooly mammoth
Statehood: Alaska (Oct. 18, 1867) was first a district, becoming an organized territory on Aug. 24, 1912. Alaska became the 49th state on Jan. 3, 1959.

Capital: The state capital is Juneau, located in the southeast region of Alaska. In 2011 its estimated population was 32,164. Motto: “North to the Future”: Alaska’s motto was chosen in 1967 during the Alaska Purchase Centennial and was created by Juneau newsman Richard Peter. The motto is meant to represent Alaska as a land of promise.

Nickname: ”The Last Frontier” Seal: The state seal includes images of the aurora, icebergs, mining, farming, fisheries, fur seals and a railroad. The state seal was originally designed and adopted in 1910 while Alaska was still a territory, not a state. The rays above the mountains represent the northern lights. The smelter symbolizes mining. The train stands for Alaska’s railroads, and ships denote transportation by sea. The trees symbolize Alaska’s wealth of forests, and the farmer, his horse, and the three shocks of wheat represent Alaska agriculture. The fish and the seals signify the importance of fishing and wildlife to Alaska’s economy. Visit www.statesymbolsusa.org/Alaska/Seal.html to see a picture of it.

Song: “Alaska’s Flag” became the state song in 1955. Follow the link for the words: www.alaska.net/~surlyc/ACWD/ alaskaflagsonglyricsandhistory.html.

Alaska Holidays:
Seward's Day: Usually the last Sunday in March.
Seward’s Day commemorates the signing of the treaty by which the United States bought Alaska from Russia, signed on March 30, 1867. The Monday following is a state holiday for government workers.
Alaska Day: Oct. 18. Alaska Day is the anniversary of the formal transfer of the territory and the raising of the U.S. Flag at Sitka on Oct. 18, 1867.

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