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Collection Meeting of Frontiers


This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

Karta Ledovitago moria i Vostochnago okeana [Map of the Arctic Sea and the Eastern Ocean], 1844. LC Map Collections. Only the narrow Bering Strait separates Asia from North America.

The Russian and American frontiers met in Alaska. The Bering Strait had long been a link between Siberia and North America--many scholars believe the first Native Americans originally populated the American continents traveling from Siberia to Alaska. Russian servitors [government officials] reached the Pacific Coast by the mid-1600s, sighted Alaska in 1741, and established their first permanent settlement in North America by 1773, probably at Captain's Harbor on Unalaska Island. Kodiak became the capital of Russian America in 1792, only to be surpassed by New Archangel (Sitka) in 1808.

Russians came to North America for the same reason they penetrated Siberia, to find furs, in this case sea otters. Missionaries soon followed the traders, looking to convert souls to Christianity. Russia also established outposts on Hawaii and the California coast to facilitate the sea-otter trade. But in Alaska conditions were even more difficult for traders than in Siberia: food was scarce, the Russian supply centers far away, the climate cold and wet, the native Tlingits well-armed and often hostile to the Russians, and the competition of British and especially American traders for furs was stiff. By the mid-nineteenth century, Russian officials realized that they had overextended themselves; Russian America was abandoned with the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867.

Map of Russian America or Alaska Territory, 1867. LC Map Collections. Alaska as it looked when purchased by the United States.

The purchase of Alaska was as controversial in America as it was in Russia. "What would we do with this 'Icebergia'?" many Americans asked. Others made haste to discover what Alaska had to offer. Most Americans who moved to Alaska settled in New Archangel, which was renamed Sitka. The army built outposts, civil government was established in 1884 with a governor appointed by the president, and initially settlers concentrated on the fur trade. But Americans soon diversified the economy of Alaska and developed the fish-processing industry. Then prospectors discovered gold on the Klondike in neighboring Canada in 1896 and then in Alaska, and by 1897 the Klondike gold rush was underway. Thousands of people streamed to and through Alaska to strike it rich and quickly transformed the economy and society. The population exploded and some gold-mining camps grew into major towns, such as Nome and Fairbanks.

Although Alaska was not the icebox many Americans believed it to be, the exoticism of this far northern land lured travelers of various sorts. Scientists and artists came to explore and record the landscape, animals, and plants. Tourists arrived on luxury steamships and took in the rain forests, glaciers, and port towns, boosting the local economy in the process. And back home in "lower" America, people read and watched Yukon adventure films, which helped solidify the image of Alaska as America's "last frontier."