Digging back through dinosaur bones and frozen artifacts, archaeologists uncover the prehistory of Alaska. Dinosaurs and woolly mammoths once dominated the landscape, leaving their imprints on the earth, just as the volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and glaciers carved and sculpted the terrain.
Clues to early people are uncovered one artifact at a time, with finds like a piece of copper, a jade knife blade, a whale bone mask, a stretched piece of tattered animal skin or a broken bison bone. Some of the earliest settlements in the state of Alaska are said to date back 11,000 years, like the one in Onion Portage in Northern Alaska and the Trail Creek Caves on the Seward Peninsula. As far back as one can imagine, Alaskan history runs far and wide, from wild animals and indigenous people, to the arrival of Europeans and oil prospectors.
The first Alaskans were thought to have crossed the Bering Strait between 60,000 and 50,000 BC. By the mid 1700s, there were 60-80,000 Indians, Aleuts and Eskimos living in Alaska. The Indians of Alaska included the Tlingits and Haidas in the Southeast, and the Athabaskans of the Interior Passage; together, they numbered about 20,000 strong. The 15,000 Aleuts inhabited the Aleutian Islands and a Southwest portion of the Alaska Peninsula.
Lastly, 30,000 Eskimos lived along the Alaskan coast from the Arctic Ocean to Yakutat, stretching to the Kodiak Island, the Alaska Peninsula and Prince William Sound. The early inhabitants of the state of Alaska lived in a hunter-gatherer society and used every part of the beasts they hunted, making long houses, tools, igloos, weapons, clothing, blankets, jewelry, dishes and canoes.
Shamans battled for good and evil, with some providing spiritual healing, while others cast curses. Wealth was shared through ceremonies, like Tlingit potlatches, Athabaskan festivals, Eskimo messenger feasts, and Aleut theatrical performances. For thousands of years, these indigenous groups would be the only population on the Alaskan frontier, but that changed and the Alaska native became just 15% of the total population.
The Spanish, the French and the Russians all tried to stake claims in Alaska during the 17th and 18th centuries. The allure of Alaska was in the attractive ice-free ports, its rich fur trading potential and its abundance of whale-hunting and seal-harpooning opportunities, both of which were very profitable industries.
However, peace could not be reached with the local tribes and Russian resources were stretched to the max thanks to the Crimean War, prompting them to sell their Alaskan territories to America in 1867. Despite the 1896 discovery of oil in Nome, the US didn't do much in the territories during their initial acquisition, since other wars preoccupied much of their time.
Alaska didn't gain official statehood until 1959, following the Second World War when more money, time and effort could be poured into the Alaskan adventure.
Once gold was found in the Canadian Yukon and Alaska's Nome in 1896, the future of Alaska was set. Henceforth, it would become a land of opportunity and prosperity. Fairbanks Alaska wasn't even on the map until gold was discovered in 1902.
Thousands of settlers made their way to the territory, which the locals could no longer stop. They set up ambitious ports and mine shafts, built highways, towns and railroads, and found their fortunes in gold panning, fur trading, whaling, fishing and lumber-jacking. Later, oil was discovered in the 1960s, furthering Alaska's reputation as a profitable region. Today, tourists on their Alaskan vacation can see evidence of the gold rush/oil craze era in places like Skagway, the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic site and the Gold Rush village in Fairbanks Alaska.
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