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Development of the Alaskan Frontier

Development of the Alaskan Frontier 





            The development of the Alaskan frontier displays the changing evolution of the American frontier in many manners, while perpetuating certain elements that have remained constant throughout the expansion of the West. The Alaskan frontier has been changed in a manner befitting its limited development of arable land and significant Native population. Where remnants of previous frontier expansion remain true to form in Alaska lie in the perpetuation of gender roles with a sense of deep-rooted masculinity and expansion tied to governmental policies of infrastructure creation. It is through this unique set of circumstances that has allowed the last frontier of America to remain an idyllic representation of western expansion, a 21st model of the frontier crucial to the development of our nation.


Purchase of Alaska


            Previously owned by the Russians who had established settlements on Kodiak Island of Three Saints Bay in 1748, Alaska was sold to America for the sum of $7.2 million dollars an acre, or roughly two cents an acre in 1867. Response to this purchase was strongly condemned by many as an inopportune purchase of a vast and blank expense of land. Secretary of State John Seward himself was highly criticized for the purchase, with opponents dubbing the Russian treaty as Seward’s Folly and the new territory ‘Andrew Johnson’s polar bear garden’ and ‘Seward’s Icebox’. The criticisms towards Alaska at the time is best expressed by a New York Tribune article from 1867, explaining “There is not, in the history of diplomacy, such insensate folly as this treaty… as nobody knew anything about the country, about the savages, how many months in the year the larger part of the region was in darkness, how human life could be sustained there by civilized men, nothing was known” (1). Following the splintering of a country in reconstruction following a bloody civil war, the purchase of this new territory was met with harsh criticism, placing Alaska in a unique position of being a territory that had to prove its worth.

      Alaska was now a territory that had to prove its territorial worth to achieve statehood with a inhabitant population of under 30,000 and a perceived land barren of resources save for ice and snow (2). Other territories were granted statehood for political reasons such as Kansas, Nebraska, Maine, Missouri; natural resources such as arable land and gold, and rapid population influx into areas such as Colorado, California and Oregon. In order to prove its worth, Alaska would have to reconcile the traditional western economy based on shared property ownership with one predicated on the resources available to it.


The New York Tribune condemnation of the purchase of Alaska (1)


Proving its Worth


            The discovery of gold in the Klondike region of Alaska in the late 1890’s provided Alaska with an influx of settlers eager to earn a living, similar to the ‘49ers in California. Previous settlement of Alaska was limited to Russian fur traders and natives, both of whom experienced a marked decline in population due to economic collapse and disease, respectively. The first settlers entering Alaska during this period were soldiers entering an “overwhelmingly Alaska Native land” (2). The limited amount of settlement in the area would remain at a stagnated rate for three decades due to a lack of arable land and interest in the territory. The advent of the Gold Rush into the area, however, brought with it a great number of settlers, reminiscent once again of the Gold Rush of California. Along with the shift in gold came a differing attitude towards the settlement of Alaska. Whereas critics still remained over the acquisition of the new territory “through the studied effort of certain writers to depreciate the value of the Territory of Alaska in nearly every possible respect seems singular, but the great amount of gold now being realized every month of the year must cause such people a degree of mortification.” (3).

            Whereas the Californian Gold Rush brought a more permanent number of settlers to populate the area, however, the Alaskan Gold rush brought temporary population changes in the forms of booms and busts. Following 1910, population shifts greatly stalled with the two large gold rush settlements of Nome and Skagway experiencing a net population loss (2). It would take a black gold rush to restart rapid expansion in the area, to heights never before seen in the region.


 An Alaskan Gold Miner (11)




            The concept of masculinity and the importance of gender roles has been a paramount constant in the evolution of the American frontier. Early American tales of Daniel Boone recount the importance of masculine activities such as exploration, hunting, and trapping. Over a century later, the tales of Buffalo Bill during later expansion also reign of the same vein, recounting an individual tale of a man defending his homestead, conforming to the male role of the protector/enforcer of the domestic space. The Gold Rush in California resulted in a significant discrepancy between the male/female ratio, causing for alteration and racialization of gender roles between the miners suddenly forced to do cooking and laundry, roles traditionally associated with women.

     A combination of two factors led to a deep-rooted sense of masculinity in Alaska: a large male/female ratio disparity in addition to a lack of truly domesticized spaces. The male/female ratio spiked to 2.5-to-1 during the early 20th century (2). A combination of governmental policy and dearth of resources led to a reassignment of traditional male roles to those that would now be associated as near hyper-masculine. An example of one such policy was the governmental support for the eradication of the wolf, an animal thought to have been vermin and of no benefit whatsoever to human life (4).  The association of eradicating the wolf was not only a demonstration of a traditional male activity, but also evidence of a conquering of nature or taming of the land. In following with the Locke notion of land development, the masculine culture of the frontier has overcome impediments such as farming. In fact, rather paradoxically, it is precisely the lack of farming that has led to the rather stable association of masculinity with the frontier. Governmental policy has been instrumental in the maintenance of the masculinity of the frontier, for “Groups maintaining these masculine ideologies have been the ones to control official policy-making designed to support frontiersmen’s values of subordination of wolves” (4). Without a lack of common domestic duties such as cooking and laundry; hunting and adventure or commonly masculine-associated habits become a feature of necessity, as “hunting cannot be separated from the myth of frontier masculinity, as hunting prowess is central to the concept” (4).





            The masculinization of the frontier was not just applicable to men, however. The placement of women into these careers has also led to a re-assessment of gender-based duties, with women performing traditionally male activities such as hunting and deep-sea fishing. A representative example of this simultaneous subordination and masculinization is Susey Wagner, a fisherwoman who sought career advancement but was denied because of her gender. Her bosses made it “explicitly clear that [they] would hire no woman to operating their cranes” (5). Even when she performed her role successfully, she was masculinized, with remarks such as “You know, Susey, they ruined a hell of a man when they cut the balls of off you!” (5). Thus, we see the deep rooted masculinity of Alaska ground in its non-domestic careers leading to not only a perpetuation of masculinization, but a form of hyper-masculinity extended onto women due to limited traditional women-assigned roles. This concurrent stabilization of gender roles is thus the product of Alaska resources yet a continuation of male gender roles from earlier frontiers.




            Alaska was one of the last states to retain its native majority, falling to a white majority in 1920 in conjunction with the Gold Rush (2). With a large native population in an area separated from the contiguous United States, interactions with natives were forced to be overwhelmingly cautious. Therefore, initial contact with the natives was unlike those of previous western expansion efforts. The attitude of natives turned to one of “distrust of themselves and abandoned their old practices and tribal habits. They were better fed, clothed and taught than they had ever been before as no violence or oppression of any sort was permitted towards the natives” (6). As opposed to the confrontational attitude towards savages as noted before, a more tolerant approach towards the native Alaskans led to more cordial relations between settlers and Natives. Intermarriage between Americans and Natives were encouraged more so in Alaska than the remainder of the United States, for “both classes behaved with equal propriety and were treated with equal respect by the community” (6). Not only was intermarriage common, but the joint treatment of both Natives and non-Indians as equals in the 1800’s, pre-dating the Civil Rights Movement, displays a marked societal difference from a period marked by Custer’s last stand and slavery. One current by-product of this more tolerant attitude towards the Natives is the current demographic diversity in the state, with the highest percentage of American-Indians per state population in the United States of 16.4% (7).  In addition, Native lands own 12% of land, roughly half of that of state-owned land, a very significant proportion and the highest of any other state (8).






Property in Alaska 


     Locke had defined the development of land as the driving force for mankind, stating “the great and chief end therefore, of men uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property” (9). If Locke’s argument that the goal of civilized man is the development of property through farming and domestication is said to be true, this poses a difficult obstacle in examining the frontier of Alaska. Earlier expansion efforts in the United States were predicated on the development of arable farmland, aided by governmental policies such as the Homestead Act encouraging the agricultural development of untamed land in the West.

     The frontier of Alaska, however, could not afford such a focus on agriculture. Despite Alaska containing over 15 million acres of arable farming land, less than one million acres were ever actually farmed (10). Initial agricultural development efforts were “confined to a trifling amount of gardening very imperfectly performed” (6). In this frontier devoid of agriculture, land development was instead predicated on the utilization of available resources; leading to large fishing, oil, mining and fur industries. While certainly a departure from the traditional development of land in previous frontiers, sucha as the romanticized working of small plots seen in contemporary Western films such as Shane (quote).  The development of land through these processes certainly count towards Locke’s ideal of civilization, as the modulation of the natural environment by means of controlling species growth in industry and resource exploitation is just as significant a civilizing of the land as agriculture is. In fact, despite the lack of farming in Alaska, the towns of Juneau and Douglas were said to be “at the present day the only examples of American Frontier settlements affording the ordinary necessities and conveniences of civilized life” (2).  In this assertion, despite a stagnation of true property development, a proper form of civilization still devoid of the eastern frills of society developed in Alaska. A sense of Alaska as never truly domesticizing its wilderness has led to its continuation as a true frontier, one made for “adventurers, treasure seekers, and sport hunters.” (4).


Governmental Infrastructure


     The expansion of the West has been tied to technological advancements set in place by the government. The development of railroads and telegraph lines were associated with progress, and depicted in the famous “Manifest Destiny” painting of the time. The government’s passing of the Pacific Railroad Act allowed for corporations to directly own government subsidized land, a marked departure from direct government involvement in infrastructure. This allowed for the further expansion and settlement of the West, through rapid transport and communication. Another example of government-funded infrastructure aiding the expansion of the contiguous Western frontier was the development of dams along the Columbia River. Here, electricity allowed for the government to become an agent of change, bringing civilization to the frontier in a shorter period than ever before.

            In Alaska, the government has had profound impacts in boosting the economy and encouraging settlement, primarily through the development of military bases oil pipelines/mines. The development of the Alaskan railroad in 1923 allowed for the burgeoning of towns along the “Rail Belt” such as Juneau and Ketchikan to experience population growth during a period of relative out-migration. The construction of the Alaskan pipeline in 1977 led to population growth of over 250% in a period of merely 27 years. Alaska also ranks first in federal expenditures per capita, leading to the realization that “about 1/3 of all Alaskan jobs depend on federal spending” (8). Thus, we see a continuation of federal involvement in the frontier, necessitating the need for expansion as a paramount duty of the government.


The Trans-Alaskan Pipeline (12)


Modern Frontier


            Frederick Jackson Turner’s response to the Census declaration of a disappearance of the American frontier led to a romanticized mythology of Western expansion in America. The fond recognition by which small farms were worked while family values remained conservative in the mid 19th century in films such as Shane indicate the significance of the frontier to America. It is in Alaska, however, that the last true remnants of the American frontier remain. The numerous national parks in Alaska alone signify the American need to prevent the true reaches of society to the last portions of American wilderness. Alaskan political rhetoric is linked to rugged individualism, as evidenced by former Governor Palin’s anecdotes of hunting in the wilderness serving as examples of conservatism in its purest and oldest form. American obsession with the modern frontier aspect of Alaska is displayed in numerous television programs. “Deadliest Catch,” a television show about Alaskan crab-fishermen harkens images of the American struggle to tame the wilderness, a calling card that is at least partially the reason for the program’s success. Turner’s statement of the disappearance of the frontier is wrong, for the presence of a modern frontier that manages to maintain a syncretic balance of modernity and mythology in Alaska proves otherwise.




The Deadliest Catch- Modern Frontier Romanticization (13)




            The development of the Alaskan frontier is a unique chapter of Western expansion in America. Due to a fundamental departure from the traditional form of western expansion predicated on the development of private farmland, factors such as assimilation with Natives have shaped Alaska in manners unique to the state. What remains from previous frontiers in the development Alaska, however, is the importance of masculinity and an economy tied closely to governmental policy. Certainly not a frontier in the traditional sense of the word, Alaska is an example of the societal evolution of a uniquely American concept fundamental to the molding of our country.


Works Cited:

1. "The Russian Treaty." New York Tribune, April 9, 1867.

2. Sandberg, Eric. "A History of Alaska Population Settlement." April 2013, 3-13


3. Ballou, Maturin Murray. Ballou's Alaska: The New Eldorado, a Summer Journey to Alaska. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and, 1891.  

4. Anahita, SIne, and Tamara L. Mix. "Retrofitting Frontier Masculinity for Alaska's War against Wolves." Gender and Society 20, no. 3 (June 2006): 332-53.      JSTOR

5. Hanley, Anne, and Carolyn Kremers. "Feminine and Masculine Unbound." In The Alaska Reader: Voices from the North , 185-93.      

     Golden, CO: Fulcrum Pub., 2005

6. Dall, William Healey. Alaska as it Was and Is, 1865-1895 Annual Presidential Address delivered before the Philosophical Society of Washington, December 6,      1895. Washington: Society, 1895,  

7. "States Ranked by American Indian and Alaska Native Population." Census.gov. August 30, 2000. Accessed December 15, 2014.


8. Knapp, Gunnar. "An Introduction to the Economy of Alaska." Lecture, University of Alaska, Anchorage, February 2012.

9. Locke, John. "The Second Treatise of Civil Government."1690.

10."A Look at Alaska." Challenge 1, no. 12, 11-13. http://www.agclassroom.org/kids/stats/alaska.pdf.

11. http://www.findgoldprospecting.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/gold-rush4.gif

12. http://www.solarstorms.org/Spipeline.html

13. http://www.tvweek.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/deadliest-catch-title.jpg



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