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The Last Frontier

Throughout what’s commonly called the continental United States — also known as the Lower 48 — you’d have to be a centenarian — or a native of Washington, D.C. — to have been born anywhere other than within the confines of a state.1

Not so for those born in this northern-most of American states. Anyone born in Alaska before 3 January 1959 was born in a territory, not a state, and a territory with a long and colorful and oh-so-different history.

Russian America

Before it became part of the United States territory, Alaska was claimed by Russia and governed — to the extent governance of such a vast territory was remotely possible — under a series of charters from the Russian crown to a commercial venture, the Russian American Company.2 Russia sold its interest in Alaska to the United States in 1867, in a $7.2 million transaction that became known as Seward’s Folly.3

Alaska was first a collection district under various federal military and civilian departments,4 then a district with a governor,5 and then a territory,6 before finally becoming a state — the 49th state, joining the Union on the 3rd of January 1959.7

The Russians really didn’t try to govern the area until 1799, when the first of five official Imperial Russian declarations — ukases — issued with respect to Alaska:

     • The charter to the Russian American Company, in 1799, that created the same sort of colonial system that had existed under the charter from the British crown to the Hudson Bay Company;
     • A ukase issued in 1821, aimed mostly at trying to keep the American trading ships out of Russia;
     • The renewed charter of the Russian American Company, issued in 1821;
     • The 1829 confirmation of the 1821 charter; and
     • The 1844 renewal of the Russian American Company’s charter.8

So… for us 21st century genealogists, are the ukases anything more than cocktail party conversation? They could be, especially if you have Native American ancestry, since some of the provisions, particularly as they affected citizenship of Native Americans, were carried over into American law when the United States bought Alaska.9 So keep them in mind.

Seward's Folly lands

By the time the charter expired in 1862, there were secret negotiations underway to sell Alaska to the United States. The sale was final in March 1867 and the treaty between the United States and Russia was ratified in the United States on 28 May 1867. Congress passed the act creating a collection district in Alaska on 27 July 1868.10

But the estimated population of the entire huge land mass was fewer than 5,000 people, only about 900 of them of European, Russian or American descent. The only real government was an Army outpost here and there — and even those were ultimately closed and consolidated in favor of a single outpost at Sitka — not enough to even begin to govern so large a land.11

Not until 1884 — when Congress passed what was called the First Organic Act — did Alaska gain any real local government, including the creation of schools and courts.12 The Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s spurred population growth, to roughly 64,000 by 1910. That led Congress to pass the so-called Second Organic Act in 1912 which made Alaska a Territory with a locally-elected territorial legislature.13

All of these organic documents — the Imperial Russian ukases and the federal statutes — were, in turn, the governing documents of Alaska until it prepared for statehood. In November 1955, with the prospect of statehood on the horizon, Alaska convened its first and only constitutional convention on the campus of the University of Alaska at College. The 55 delegates took three months to produce the first — and the only — constitution Alaska has ever had.14

There are terrific online resources to understand this constitutional convention. The University of Alaska’s Creating Alaska website has links to the convention minutes, delegate handbook, photographs, speeches and news clippings about the event.

What isn’t readily available online is a copy of the original, unamended, constitution as it was adopted by popular vote in April 1956. The University of Alaska Museum of the North has a copy, donated by Peter Reader Jr., son of one of the delegates, in 2006.15 It’s on microfiche at the Alaska State Court Law Library and the University of Alaska Library in Fairbanks, and copies of the original brochure are aavilable at the library of the University of Alaska at College.

But the only digital copy, alas, appears to be what was published in the Alaska newspapers, and most of the articles are available only on subscription sites.16

It was and is a relatively short document, as state constitutions go, modeled on the U.S. Constitution and other modern state constitutions. Its 15 articles include a declaration of rights, the creation of strong executive and legislative branches, and provisions for natural resources, local government and initiative, referendum and recall. And some of its language is distinctly Alaskan, such as a declaration that all persons have corresponding obligations to the people and to the State17 and another that its intent was to foster maximum local self-government with a minimum of local government units.18

And it was accompanied at the referendum in April 1956 by three special questions, called ordinances. The first provided for an up or down vote on the constitution itself. The second asked voters if they should proceed, at the 1956 general election, to choose two senators and one congressman to be seated as soon as Congress permitted. Those passed, along with the third that again was distinctly Alaskan: a ban on the use of fish traps by commercial fishermen for taking salmon from Alaskan waters.

The current version, as amended to today, is readily available online, and at more than one website. The Alaska State Legislature has the text of the Alaska Constitution online. The Lieutenant Governor of Alaska has the text of the Alaska Constitution as well. And a 255-page PDF from the Alaska Legislative Affairs Agency entitled Alaska’s Constitution: A Citizen’s Guide is readily available as well.


 
SOURCES

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

  1. The last of the Lower 48 states admitted as a state was Arizona, effective on Valentine’s Day 1912. “New Mexico and Arizona Statehood Anniversary (1912 – 2012),” Center for Legislative Archives, Archives.gov (http://www.archives.gov : accessed 26 Jul 2012). And yes, I am aware that the National Geographic Society’s style manual includes Alaska in the meaning of continental United States, but that’s not what most people think of when the term is used. See e.g. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (http://www.m-w.com : accessed 26 Jul 2012), “continental,” def. 2b (“being the part of the United States comprising the lower 48 states”).
  2. See generally “Russia’s Colony,” Alaska’s Heritage (http://www.akhistorycourse.org : accessed 26 Jul 2012). See also Alaskan Boundary Tribunal, The Case of the United States before the Tribunal Convened at London, under the Provisions of the Treaty between the United States of America and Great Britain Concluded January 24, 1903 (Washington, D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1903), 6; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 26 Jul 2012).
  3. “Treaty concerning the Cession of the Russian Possessions in North America by his Majesty the Emperor of all the Russias to the United States of America,” 15 Stat. 569 (1867). And see Treaty with Russia for the Purchase of Alaska, Primary Documents in American History, Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov : accessed 26 Jul 2012).
  4. An Act to extent the Laws of the United States relating to Customs, Commerce, and Navigation over the Territory ceded to the United States by Russia, to establish a Collection District therein, and for other Purposes,” 15 Stat. 240 (1868).
  5. “An Act providing a civil government for Alaska,” 23 Stat. 24 (1884).
  6. “An Act To create a legislative assembly in the Territory of Alaska, to confer legislative power thereon, and for other purposes,” 37 Stat. 512 (1912).
  7. See Presidential Proclamation 3269 of January 3, 1959, Presidential Proclamations, 1791 – 2007; General Records of the United States Government, 1778 – 2006, Record Group 11; National Archives, Washington, D.C.; digital image, Online Public Access, Archives.gov (http://research.archives.gov/ : accessed 26 Jul 2012).
  8. Alaskan Boundary Tribunal, The Case of the United States before the Tribunal Convened at London…, 6. See the Appendix at 23-30 for the texts.
  9. See Library of Congress, “Third Period: Alaska under the second and third charters of the Russian Company of 1821 and 1844,” Russian Administration of Alaska and the Status of the Alaskan Natives, Sen. Doc. 152, 81st Congress, 2nd session (Washington, D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1950), 7-25; digital images, Hathi Trust Digital Library (http://www.hathitrust.org/ : accessed 26 Jul 2012).
  10. An Act to extent the Laws of the United States relating to Customs, Commerce, and Navigation over the Territory ceded to the United States by Russia, to establish a Collection District therein, and for other Purposes,” 15 Stat. 240 (1868).
  11. America’s Territory: Population and Settlements,” Alaska History and Cultural Studies, Alaska Humanities Forum (http://www.akhistorycourse.org : accessed 26 Jul 2012).
  12. “An Act providing a civil government for Alaska,” 23 Stat. 24 (1884).
  13. “An Act To create a legislative assembly in the Territory of Alaska, to confer legislative power thereon, and for other purposes,” 37 Stat. 512 (1912).
  14. The Constitutional Convention,” Creating Alaska, University of Alaska (http://www.alaska.edu/creatingalaska/ : accessed 26 Jul 2012).
  15. Margaret Friedenauer, “Document’s sojourn ends,” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner; html online reprint, Creating Alaska, University of Alaska (http://www.alaska.edu/creatingalaska/ : accessed 26 Jul 2012).
  16. See e.g., Alaska Constitution Section, Fairbanks News-Miner, 6 February 1956, digital copy, Newspaperarchive.com (http://newspaperarchive.com : accessed 26 Jul 2012).
  17. Alaska Constitution, Article 1, § 1.
  18. Ibid., Article 10, § 1.
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