Great Land History: Alaska, January 3, 1959: “We’re In!”

The Great Land: North to the Future!

Alaska has always been a robust land, peopled by resilient individuals sturdy of spirit, character and body, as they had to be in order to succeed under exceedingly difficult conditions. The first people came over the Bering Land Bridge in pursuit of animal trails; later Russians landed looking for fur and with the Alaska Purchase in 1867 people seemed to come from all over the globe. Given today’s tiny population (less than one million in a land more than twice the size of Texas) the array of nationalities is fairly astounding, but it is not new. Even early in the territorial days whalers and gold seekers came from many countries and went back again, but others also stayed, some settling improbably within the most inhospitable areas.

One thing all these pioneers and settlers had in common—apart from the requisite strength to endure—was the desire to live their lives in the Alaskan way, in line with the ways of their new home. They recognized that although some of their habits fit in nicely, re-adjustment was necessary as well: things just aren’t done here in the same way as they are elsewhere; formulaic standards don’t fit. Understanding of this comes early: For example, today any Alaskan school child knows that in a medical emergency airplanes sometimes fly people to hospitals; roads often have nothing to do with the journey. This comes from an actual (and former) competency test in which the examination, developed in an area with a high percentage of road accessibility, asks how people get to a doctor in an emergency: the only correct answer was “by ambulance.” Alaskan children who answered otherwise, despite knowing better how things work in their country, were nevertheless marked down.

Hon._James_WickershamThe desire for self governorship comes from the experience of living in a land dominated by another, others failing to take into account that the laws and standards they dictate may work in the city in which they hold office, but Alaska is something else altogether. An early voice for the territory was James Wickersham, a McKinley judicial appointee who later served as Alaska’s delegate to Congress. Though he could not cast votes, he could speak, and that he did. In 1912 the Second Organic Act led to the election of a local legislature and in 1916 Judge Wickersham, knowing the OA was insufficient, wrote the first statehood bill.

Judge Wickersham led the newly-created Third Judicial District, traveling by foot, dog team, steamer, revenue cutter and snowshoe to preside over judicial proceedings. Image courtesy Wiki Commons.

In between then and the 1950s Alaska experienced, along with the rest of the world, the degrading effects of the Great Depression. During World War II the Japanese invasion of their territory in the Aleutians and later economic looting of the country made Alaskans more determined to stand up for themselves. Fed up with conditions under a federally elected governor and no voting members of Congress, Alaskans demanded an end to the parade of Outside special interests, lack of fishing regulations, a dearth of funds for hospitals and schools, and monopolistic control by Washington State of shipping routes.

Check out the views of Dutch Harbor as seen by Jacob Images. I especially love the bottom frame depicting the colorful houses. Lying on the Aleutian chain as it extends outward toward Asia, Dutch Harbor is located off Amaknak Island of the Fox Islands in Unalaska, Alaska. Despite its far-flung location, Dutch Harbor is home to much magnificent scenery, one view of which can be seen at Unalaska’s home page. Also interesting to note is, at top right, an outline of Alaska showing the location in the Aleutians of “Dutch,” as the harbor is familiarly known to Alaskans. Alaska is named after a word from the Aleut (AL-EE-OOT) language of this area’s first inhabitants, Alyeska, meaning “The Great Land.”

800px-Dutch_Harbor_under_attack_June_1942The beached SS Northwestern and oil tanks burning at Dutch Harbor during the Japanese attack on June 4, 1942. Photograph made in the course of Captain Lewis R. Devoe’s official duties. How terrible and difficult it must have been to be required to snap photos as bombs are dropping. Alaskans later spoke vehemently against conditions that required them to be vulnerable to the wrath of foreign governments against the United States, yet voiceless themselves. Image courtesy Wiki Commons.

Into the struggle came Ernest Gruening, whose powerful speech, “Let Us Now End American Colonialism” at the 1953 Alaskan Constitutional Convention in Fairbanks, echoed the dreams of William Seward and demanded an end to the condition of half citizenship for all Alaskans. We are reminded, too, given the timing, of Alaskans in tent city days who waited in desperate conditions with little information about a war raging Outside. During the Second World War that ended not long before Gruening’s speech, however, the war conditions hit home when Alaska herself was attacked.

Bob Bartlett also worked closely with Gruening in the uphill battle. Though very different in personality and temperament, their efforts aided the fight for equality increasingly demanded by Alaskans whose rallying cry became “Statehood now!” For indeed the campaign had gone national and Seattle interests sent the slickest lawyers and talkers to Washington with rhetoric designed to maintain their control and profits off the backs of Alaskan citizens and their hard work, economy and resources. Bartlett saw through their engineering and understood well that at Alaska Statehood hearings proposed amendments were designed to stall progress and hide Outsiders’ own beneficiary status following Alaska’s non-admittance into the Union. He presided over strategy sessions, informing delegates of these tactics and other warning signs.

ice palaceIn 1958 American novelist Edna Ferber published Ice Palace, a novel for Alaskan statehood in which the protagonist (and aptly named) Christine Storm endures a competition whereby her two grandfathers vie for control of her life. The novel greatly influenced public opinion, especially fortuitous given that before its release most Americans knew and thought as Ferber described herself on the topic:

Alaska, as a part of the United States, didn’t particularly interest me. I was as ignorant of it as were (and are) most of the millions of citizens of my country. I knew a few bare facts only; Alaska was a Territory of the United States; it was vast enough to be termed, without too much exaggeration, a sixth continent; it had been bought from Russia for seven million dollars in 1867 over the protest of most of the citizens of this country who called the transaction Seward’s Folly because the purchase had been advised by Secretary of State Seward. Something over seven million had been paid to Russia for this gigantic territory. Vaguely, it was known that Eskimos lived there and that in the 1890’s gold had been discovered.

The actors in the drama that unfolded are many more than those discussed here; indeed the entire saga took decades to unfold and many interrelated scenes occurred between exploiters and syndicates; those benefitting from railroad and canneries ties; Morgans and Guggenheims thieving natural resources; authors and actors speaking on behalf of an Alaska whose voice many attempted to suppress; and even supposedly uninvolved legislators whose real goal of Hawai’i statehood benefitted from the seemingly endless impasse—if for no other reason than Alaska’s goal was seen to have failed.

Still, Gruening and Bartlett didn’t let up and, as Gruening describes in his account of the evening vote just months after Ferber’s publication date:

The debate went on intermittently for a week. On June 30th various attempts to defeat the bill, by amendment and tactical moves were defeated. A motion…to substitute Commonwealth status was defeated 50-29. Two points of order…were rejected 53-28 and 62-22. A motion…to refer the bill…was defeated 53-31 [and another] to exclude from statehood the large northern portion of Alaska…was beaten 67-16.

It was clear that the statehood proponents had an overwhelming majority. When it came up in the evening for a final vote, several who had sought to defeat or sidetrack the bill…conscious of the historic import of their vote, switched to support it. The vote on passage on June 30, 1958 was 64 yeas, 20 nays, 12 not voting.

The gallery applause was echoed in the streets of Alaska as citizens celebrated passage of their land from territory to full state. They would now have a fully-voting delegate in Washington! Jane Ariane Nelson remembers in “The Day Alaska Became a State“:

I was downtown that afternoon, and standing in a jewelry shop when a clerk rushed up and said, “Well, we’ve done it! We’re a state now!” It was 2:15 p.m. Sirens went off and guns were fired.

There was a joyous ceremony in front of the post office, where an outsized American flag was draped over the side. A huge, glittering gold star was placed upon it, to “blanket Texas.” And there were shouts and cries that “Now we’re the biggest state!” and “We’ve covered up Texas!”

I heard one man ask a younger one, “Have you ever voted for a president of the United States?” The young man shook his head. “Well, you’re going to be able to now!” was the reply.

Celebrations along Anchorage’s main strip, Fourth Avenue, bonfires, parades: residents of the former territory were absolutely elated. Forty-nine-starred flags sprung up quickly and Alaskans shared the joyous news with each other into the days and weeks. To this day, however, one of the most remembered legacies of that celebration remains the enormous font on the front page of the Anchorage Daily Times:


The unprecedented and massive font on the June 30, 1958 special edition of the Anchorage Daily Times reflects the utter exhilaration that Alaskans feel when they learn their land has won full statehood. After decades of struggle, they now had a real voice and say in the way their own affairs were run. The words “Victory Brings,” “She Goes Up Tonight” and “Historic Vote Ends” running across the page from left to right actually appear under the fold.

On January 3, 1959 President Eisenhower signed the official proclamation admitting Alaska to the Union of the United States and a 49th star was shown added to the U.S. flag. William Seward’s dream, with the immense drive and energy of Gruening and Bartlett, as well as so many others, was coming true. Alaska’s citizens had proven she was mature enough for them to handle the responsibilities of a state and that they were up to the task. Now the way to go was north, to the future.

The bust of Ernest Gruening, seen here, at the Anchorage Rasmuson Museum. Like Rasmuson and many others, Gruening is a name Alaskans statewide are familiar with from the early days and are today represented in dozens of landmarks all over the Great Land: Bartlett High School, Gruening Middle School, Dimond Boulevard, Peratrovich Park and Juneau (capital city) are but a few. Behind Gruening’s bust is seen the ADT headline with the famous 11-inch font. One can see the fold mark running through the small words below, giving a real perspective of how large above the fold the words really are. Another amazing view can be seen here.


Eritritchium aretioides, forget-me-not. Alaska, we can never forget you!
Eritritchium aretioides, forget-me-not.
Alaska, we can never forget you!

Designed in 1926 by Native Alaskan/Swedish Bennie Benson, a 13-year-old schoolboy, the Alaska flag shows blue like the Alaskan sky, Ursa Major (Great Bear) to symbolize strength and the North Star to indicate Alaskans’ focus on the future. “North to the Future” was adopted as the new state’s motto. Like Alaska, the state song is unique in that its lyrics explain the flag’s symbolism. Originally written by Marie Drake as a poem, Elinor Dusenbury, homesick forAlaska, put the words to music. Its status as the state song was made official in 1959.

Eight stars of gold on a field of blue
Alaska’s flag. May it mean to you
the blue of the sea, the evening sky
the mountain lakes and the flow’rs nearby;
the gold of the early sourdough’s dreams,
the precious gold of the hills and streams,
the brilliant stars in the northern sky
the “Bear,” the “Dipper” and, shining high,
the great North Star with its steady light
o’er land and sea a beacon bright.
Alaska’s flag to Alaskans dear,
the simple flag of a last frontier.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s