The following article was excerpted from Dollarhide’s new book, Alaska Name Lists, 1732 – 1991, with a selection of National Name Lists, 1600s – Present.
For any research in Alaska, the following timeline of events should help any genealogist understand the area with an historical and genealogical point of view.
1725. – Tsar Peter the Great of Russia commissioned a Danish sea captain, Vitus Bering, to explore the Northwest coast of North America. Bering is credited with the official discovery of Alaska, the first reliable information on the land, and the establishment of Russia’s claim to Northwestern North America. Although the Russians visited Alaska frequently with seal and fishing expeditions, the first attempts at colonization did not begin until 1784.
1774-1791. Charles III of Spain, fearing Russian expansion, sent several expeditions north from Mexico to Alaska, intent on claiming the entire area for Spain. But, their visits were fleeting, and no colonies or settlers were established at any of their stops. Few traces of the Spanish expeditions remain in Alaska except for a few placenames, such as Malaspina Glacier and Valdez.
1778. While searching for the elusive Northwest Passage, British explorer Captain James Cook explored the waterway (Cook Inlet) that downtown Anchorage now borders. Captain Cook’s maps of North America proved for the first time that Asia and North America were separate continents. His maps became the standard for world navigation in the North Pacific for the next hundred years.
1784. Grigory Ivanovich Shelekhov, a Siberian fur merchant, established the first permanent Russian settlement at Three Saints Bay, on Kodiak Island. His wife, Natalya, was the first European woman in Russian America.
1795. The first Russian Orthodox Church was established at Kodiak.
1799. – Alexander Baranov established the Russian post known today as Old Sitka; the trade charter from the Tsar granted exclusive trading rights to the new Russian America Company for a period of twenty years.
1821. The Russian trading charter was renewed, and extended the area of the Russian claim to the 51st parallel. Meanwhile, the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company was trying to gain a foothold in the Alaska fur trade. In 1821 they made a deal with the Russian America Company, leasing land south of Cape Spenser. The British were a presence in Alaska for the next 30 years.
1823. President James Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine, seeking to exclude European intervention in the New World. It was clearly aimed at Russia and Spain, countries still clamoring to gain more involvement in the Americas.
1824. Russia and the U.S. signed a treaty accepting 54 degrees 4 minutes as the southern boundary of Russian America. Also in 1824, the Russians began explorations of mainland Alaska that led to the discovery of the Nushagak, Kuskokwim, Yukon, and Koyokuk Rivers.
1857. The beginning of the end for the Russian America Company – the company was suffering from financial problems and the Tsar was threatening to revoke their charter. The company had been beaten by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the fur trade. The British company had better and cheaper items to trade with the natives for furs. The Russian America company tried new business ventures, such as coal mining, whaling, and ice trading, but failed at all of them. The company lost wealth and power before the first gold discoveries in Alaska. Gold mining was destined to replace fur trading as Alaska’s main economic activity.
1867 (April). Financial struggles forced Russia to sell Russian America to the United States. Negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, the purchase price for what is now Alaska was $7.2 million, or about 2 cents an acre. Alaska’s value was not appreciated by most Americans, many calling it “Seward’s Folly.” The treaty was approved by Congress on 9 April 1867, and the United States flag was raised on 18 October 1867 (now called Alaska Day, a legal holiday). The rest of the U.S. may have forgotten William Seward, but in Alaska, Seward’s Day (another legal holiday) is celebrated every year on the last Monday of March.
1867 (October). While the United States and most of Europe recognized the Gregorian Calendar, Russia had still not made the change in 1867. The Gregorian Calendar had been in effect in British North America since the British officially changed from the Julian to Gregorian in 1752. On the day Alaska became part of the U.S., the change from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar caused Alaska residents to have Friday, October 6, 1867 followed by Friday, October 18, 1867. They also had their shortest year. In 1867, Alaska’s year began on March 25th and ended on December 31st.
1868. Congress designated the Russian America purchase as the Department of Alaska, under the command of U.S. Army Major General Jefferson C. Davis. Alaska was ruled by a military command until 1884, when it became the District of Alaska. As a district, Alaska had a civil government similar to that of the District of Columbia at the time. Alaska did not have a Governor or Legislature until 1912, when it became the Territory of Alaska. And, Alaska sent its first voting members to Congress after it became the State of Alaska in 1959.
1870. Although Alaska was a U.S. possession from 1867, a federal census for 1870 was not conducted there – except for a military tally of some of the inhabitants. Censuses exist for several local Alaskan jurisdictions from 1870 to 1880, many done as part of U.S. Government surveys of the seal and fishing industries. The extant name lists are included in the bibliography that follows.
1872. Gold was discovered near Sitka and in British Columbia.
1880. Richard Harris and Joseph Juneau discovered gold on the Gastineau Channel, with the aid of Kowee, a local clan leader. Soon after, the town of Juneau was founded.
1880-1900. Federal censuses came to Alaska in 1880, followed by 1890, but both were apparently statistical summaries only, since no name lists have been found. Without counties as the basic census units, the U.S. Census Bureau had to be creative in parceling out enumeration districts. The first full federal census was for 1900, which survives. In that year, the Census Bureau divided Alaska into Northern (Arctic), Southern (Kodiak Kuskokwim, Nushagak, Aleutian-Unalaska), and Southeastern (Sitka, Juneau) districts.
1896. Dawson City (Canada) was founded on the Yukon River at the mouth of the Klondike River. Gold was discovered on nearby Bonanza Creek, and Dawson City became the epicenter of the Klondike Gold Rush that followed.
1897-1900. Klondike Gold Rush. The main Gold Rush claims were on the Canadian length of the Yukon River. At the time, the easiest method of getting to Dawson City was a steamboat trip from the Bering Sea to the mouth of the Yukon River, across the length of Alaska, and into Yukon Territory. While the Yukon River was iced over, overland routes began at Skagway or Dyea over the Boundary Mountains by foot, and then a long sled-dog trek to the Yukon and into Dawson City.
1898. Skagway was the largest city in Alaska; work started on the White Pass and Yukon Railroad; Congress appropriated money for a telegraph from Seattle to Sitka; and the Nome gold rush started.
1910-1940. In the 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 federal censuses, Alaska was enumerated using four judicial districts, indicated by the location of the district courthouse as Division 1 (Juneau), Division 2 (Nome), Division 3 (Anchorage), and Division 4 (Fairbanks).
1912. Alaska became a U.S. Territory. Alaska’s population was at 29,500 Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts; 4,300 “Caucasian Alaskans” and 26,000 Cheechakos (newcomers).
1913. The first Alaska Territorial Legislature convened. The first law enacted granted women voting rights.
1914. Congress authorized the construction of the Alaska Railroad, clearing the way for the only railroad in history which would be owned and operated by the U.S. government. The city of Anchorage was born as the main railroad construction campsite.
1924. Congress granted Native Americans the right to vote and U.S. citizenship. As a result of this act, the number of qualified voters in Alaska doubled over night.
1942. The Japanese invaded Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. As part of the defense of the West Coast, the Alaska Highway was built in the amazingly short time of eight months and 12 days, linking Anchorage and Fairbanks with the rest of the nation. Anchorage entered the war years with a population of 7,724 and emerged with 43,314 residents.
1955. A Constitutional Convention opened at the University of Alaska.
1959. The Alaska statehood measure passed Congress in late 1958. President Eisenhower signed the statehood bill, and on January 3, 1959, Alaska entered the Union as the 49th state.
Source: Alaska Name Lists, 1732 – 1991, with a selection of National Name Lists, 1600s – Present, by William Dollarhide; published by Family Roots Publishing Co. For ordering information, click here.
To see more of Dollarhide’s Name List volumes, Click here.