The U.S. state of Alaska is located in the northwest corner of North America, west of British Columbia and Yukon Territory, and east of Russian Siberia. At 943,739 km2 (about 365,000,000 acres), Alaska is the largest U.S. state, with over 54,000 km of coastline that touches the North Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, and the Arctic Ocean; its western and southern borders span 2,500 km running adjacent to Canada.1
The name Alaska, an English corruption of the original name, has a complicated etymology.2 It originates from the Aleut (Unangan) wordaláxsxaq, which refers to an object to which the sea is directed--in this case an island or peninsula; it also translates as to Alyeksa, which means great land.3 From Alyeksa, the Russians derived names for the Alaskan peninsula, “Aliaska,” and the territory as a whole, “Alashka.”4 The current variation of the name “Alaska” follows from the same etymology, rooted in the Eskaleut language family.5
The Russian explorer Vitus Bering is credited as the first non-Indigenous visitor to present-day Alaska, in 1741.6 Spanish explorer Juan Perez followed in 1774, and Captain James Cook arrived in 1776.7 The Russian explorer and fur trader Grigorii Shelikhov, who established the Shelikhov-Golikov Company, established the first non-Indigenous settlement in 1784.8 Alaska became the last major confluence of Empire in the North Pacific. In 1867, Alaska was sold by the Russians to the United States, where it existed variously as a District, Department, and Territory until statehood was granted in 1959.
Many Indigenous Peoples continue to live in Alaska, with histories dating back at least 10,000 years.9 Within western classifications, there are five distinct groups of Indigenous Peoples within Alaska: Northwest Coast Indians, Inupiaqs (In Canada, Inuit), Yupiks, Aleuts, and Athabascans.10 Many of these groups' traditional territories have been divided by the creation of arbitrary borders: Richard Osburn describes these disjointed territories as divided by artificial lines.11 The “Northwest Coast Indians” comprised of the Haida, Tlingit, and Tshimshian Peoples, as well as the Inupiaq, Yupik, and Athabaskan Peoples, continue to exist within a complex geopolitical sphere of influence amongst the United States, Russia and Canada.12 Indigenous Peoples comprise approximately 16% of the Alaska's total population of 736,239.13
In the collection, many of the documents on Alaska reveal anxieties caused by an increased American presence within the territory. For example, in this despatch, Governor Frederick Seymour discusses rumours of annexation by the United States and the unprecedentedly high number of Americans flooding over the border. In a follow-up despatch, Seymour goes on to explain that the “Indians” have, regrettably, taken up the English flag in opposition to their new American administrators.
Mentions of this place in the documents
People in this document

Cook, James

Seymour, Frederick

Places in this document

British Columbia