Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Alaska
ALASKA, or Aliaska, formerly Russian America, but now a territory of the United States, is a vast tract of country forming the north-west portion of North America, bounded on the N. by the Arctic Ocean, on the E. by British America, and on the S. and W. by the Pacific Ocean. The name was formerly confined to a long narrow peninsula stretching into the Pacific, but has been extended to the whole territory. Alaska comprises the whole of North America from 141° W. long, to Behring Strait, and also numerous islands along the coast, notably Prince of Wales Islands, King George III. Archipelago, the Kodiak Islands, and the Aleutian Islands, which stretch seaward from the extremity of the peninsula. From the main portion of the territory a narrow strip, with a breadth of about 50 miles, extends south-east along the Pacific coast, and terminates at the confines of British Columbia, in 54° 40′ N. lat. From north to south the extreme length of Alaska is about 1100 miles, and the greatest breadth from east to west is 800 miles. The area of the whole territory is estimated at 514,700 square miles.
The numerous islands, creeks, and inlets of Alaska lengthen out its coast-line to 7860 miles, an extent greater than that of the eastern coast-line of the United States. Beginning at the south-east, the chief creeks and bays are Cook's Inlet, Bristol Bay, Norton Sound, and Kotzebue Sound; while, following the same order, the principal headlands, in addition to the extremity of the peninsula, are Cape Newenham and Cape Romanzoff in the Pacific, Cape Prince of Wales in Behring Strait, and Cape Lisburne, Icy Cape, and Point Barrow in the Arctic Ocean. Point Barrow is in 71° 23′ N. lat., and is the extreme northern point of the country. The exploration of the northern coast was chiefly the work of the British navigators Cook, Beechy, and Franklin, and of the officers of the Hudson's Bay Company. The principal river of Alaska is the Yukon, or Kwichpak, which rises in British America, and, receiving the Porcupine river at Fort Yukon, flows westward across the territory, and falls into the Pacific Ocean to the south of Norton Sound. At a distance of 600 miles from the sea this magnificent river has a width of more than a mile. Its tributaries would in Europe be reckoned large rivers, and its volume is so great that 10 miles out from its principal mouth the water is fresh. Among the other rivers of Alaska are the Copper river, the Suschitna, the Nuschagak, and the Kuskokwim, falling into the Pacific, and the Colville, flowing northward into the Arctic Ocean. A great mountain range extends from British Columbia, in a north-west direction, along the coast of Alaska, the summit being covered with snow and glaciers. Mount St Elias, an active volcano, in 60° 18′ N. lat., and 140° 30′ W. long., rises to the height of 14,970 feet above the sea. The mountain chain runs out along the peninsula which has given its name to the country, and at the western extremity there are several volcanic cones of great elevation; while in the island of Uminak, separated from the mainland by only a narrow strait, there are enormous volcanoes, one rising to more than 8000 feet in height. In the interior and to the north the country is also mountainous, with great intervening plains.
The north-west coast of this part of America was discovered and explored by a Russian expedition under Behring in 1741; and at subsequent periods settlements were made by the Russians at various places, chiefly for the prosecution of the fur trade. In 1799 the territory was granted to a Russo-American fur company by the Emperor Paul VIII., and in 1839 the charter of the company was renewed. New Archangel, in the island of Sitka, was the principal settlement, but the company had about forty stations. They exported annually 25,000 skins of the seal, sea-otter, beaver, &c., besides about 20,000 sea-horse teeth. The privileges of the company expired in 1863; and in 1867 the whole Russian possessions in America were ceded to the United States for a money payment of $7,200,000. The treaty was signed on 30th March, and ratified on 20th June 1867; and on 9th October following, the possession of the country was formally made over to a military force of the United States at New Archangel. It still remains in the military keeping of the United States, no steps having been taken to organise a territorial government. It has, however, been constituted a revenue district, with New Archangel, or Sitka, as the port of entry. Since Alaska was ceded to the United States considerable information has been collected as to the resources of the less sterile parts of the country; but the central and northern parts of this region are only known as the inhospitable home of some wandering tribes of Indians and Esquimaux. Portions of Alaska have also been recently explored by the employe's of the Russo-American Telegraph Company in surveying a route for a line of telegraph which was designed to cross from America to Asia near Behring Strait—a project which was abandoned, after an expenditure of £600,000, on communication with Europe being secured by the Atlantic cable.
The climate of the south-western coast of Alaska is tolerably mild, considering its high latitude. The great warm current of the Pacific, sweeping in a north-easterly circuit from the East India Islands, and corresponding very much in character and effects to the Gulf Stream of the Atlantic, washes its shores; and while it modifies the temperature, also causes an excessive rainfall. At Sitka the mean temperature is 42°.9, and the average rainfall about 80 inches. Alaska will never have any great agricultural value. From the great amount of rain and the want of heat, cereals grow, but will not ripen, and vegetables do not thrive. Native grasses and berries grow plentifully, but the chief wealth of the country is in its vast forests, in the furs of its wild animals, and in the fish with which its rivers and seas abound. The forests, rising from the coast and covering the mountains to a height of 2000 feet, consist of a very durable yellow cedar, spruce, larch, and fir of great size, and also cypress and hemlock. The wild animals include the elk, the deer, and various species of bear, and also many fur-bearing animals, such as the wolf and fox, the beaver, ermine, marten, otter, and squirrel. Near the coast and islands there are innumerable fur-bearing seals, which are caught in great numbers by the settlers; but from the rigour of the climate and the arduous nature of the work, the trapping of the animals of the interior is left to the Indians. The salmon abounds in the rivers, and there are great banks along the shores, the favourite haunt of cod and other fish. About eighty whalers prosecute their fishing off the coast of Alaska. Coal and iron are the most important minerals, but the value of the deposits remains to be ascertained.
The population is very limited, consisting of 8000 whites and 15,000 Indians, with some Esquimaux on the northern coast. The Indians are rapidly decreasing in number, and are described as treacherous and discontented. New Archangel, now called Sitka, in the island of Sitka, in 57° 3′ N. lat., and 135° 18′ W. long., was the seat of the Russian governor, and is the headquarters of the United States authorities. It contains about 1500 inhabitants, is the residence of a Greek bishop, and has fortifications, magazines, and a magnetic observatory. Of the other settlements, Fort Nicholas on Cook's Inlet, and Fort St Michael on Norton Sound, are the more important. The admirable harbours on the coast and the great navigable river Yukon afford facilities for the formation of new settlements and the increase of trade by the Americans. At the junction of the Porcupine river and the Yukon a fort was established by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1847. (See Whymper, Travels in Alaska and on the Yukon, 1868; Dall, Alaska and its Resources, 1870.)