Settling Alaska: 47 Photographs From When Americans Moved Up North

Published July 16, 2017
Updated January 22, 2019

When the first Americans settled into Alaska, the land and the natives who lived in it went through some profound changes.

Alaskan Eskimo Child
Eskimo Dance Nome Alaska
Eskimo Boy On Beach
Eskimo Medicine Man
Settling Alaska: 47 Photographs From When Americans Moved Up North
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The United States bought Alaska from Russia in 1867. From that moment on, the future of a great northern territory -- and its original inhabitants -- changed forever.

Russians had lived in Alaska before, but most moved out after their land was sold to an expanding world power. Soon, just a few old houses and churches were all that could ever indicate Russian presence in the great north of the Americas. Other than a few army bases and the homes of native tribes, Alaska was all but empty.

Then the Gold Rush began. People -- some estimates have it at 100,000 -- rushed up north in search of their fortune and set up some of the first American Arctic towns, like Skagway and Nome. Americans were settling Alaska and starting to turn it into the state we know today.

They weren’t the only people there -- or even the first Americans, for that matter. At the time Russia formally ceded Alaska to the U.S., around 30,000 natives lived in the sprawling state -- far more than the non-native population. They had their own customs and cultures -- as they had had for thousands of years -- but with the Americans moving in en masse to their country, their land was changing whether they liked it or not.

Many, of course, did not like it at all. As Maj. Gen. Jefferson Davis wrote in 1869, the natives "frequently take occasion to express their dislike at not having been consulted about the transfer of the territory. They do not like the idea of the whites settling in their midst without being subjected to their jurisdiction, in some instances they have expressed a determination to exact tribute for the privilege of trading among them."

That same year, a U.S. Treasury report wrote that the Tlingits -- one of several native tribes in the region -- believed "that their fathers originally owned all the country, but allowed the Russians to occupy it for their mutual benefit, in that articles desired by them could be obtained from the Russians in exchange for furs."

Any semblance of mutuality was lost upon the transfer of land possession, however. According to the Treaty of Cession, any Russians who opted to remain in Alaska would be admitted to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States.” The natives — which the treaty called “uncivilized” — did not receive the same privileges.

Nevertheless, development forged on. To make way for gold and copper mines, settlers used dynamite and blew expanses of Alaskan earth to bits. Whaling and fishing businesses plucked out the food supply and catastrophically dwindled the animal population. And more and more natives started moving into American towns, learning trades and sending their children to schools set up by Christian missionaries.

Today, natives make up just under 16 percent of Alaska's population -- compared to approximately 100 percent before the lands' occupation by the Russians and Americans. Around a quarter of these natives live in poverty -- more than double that of the general population. The pictures offer insight into a state and a population on the cusp of economic and cultural transformation -- and one that does not always yield benefits for all.

Life, for the natives of the north, has gone through some incredible changes. Find out how much the lives of Canada's Inuit has changed or how an entire tribe disappeared.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.