A group of men in winter clothing with a reindeer hitched to a sled. Pilgrim Springs, Alaska. Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, b81-36-22.
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When and how did Alaska become a state?

Alaskans long chafed at control over nearly all of Alaska's land and much of their territorial government by a U.S. Congress thousands of miles distant and in which Alaskans had no representative. To gain greater control over their own destiny, some Alaskans had advocated statehood from early in the twentieth century. In 1916 James Wickersham, Alaska's non-voting delegate to Congress, introduced the first Alaska statehood bill in Congress. Like many subsequent efforts, the bill gathered little support.

In 1955, the territorial legislature passed legislation authorizing a constitutional convention. Alaskan voters elected fifty-five delegates from across the territory. They met at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks in November 1955 to write a constitution for the proposed state. Alaskans voted approval of the constitution in April 1956. The new constitution was to take effect when and if Congress granted statehood for Alaska.

Voters approved another proposition in the same election at which they accepted the constitution. This proposition was called the "Alaska-Tennessee Plan." It was so named because Tennessee had successfully used a similar scheme to obtain statehood for itself. The plan called for election of two Alaskans to serve in the United States Senate and one in the United States House of Representatives. The voters selected Ernest Gruening and William A. Egan as its senators and Ralph Rivers as its representative. Congress refused to recognize these unauthorized delegates, but Gruening, Egan, and Rivers acted as effective lobbyists in Washington.

Lobbying efforts finally paid off in 1958. That year, Congress approved statehood for Alaska. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Bill into law on July 7, 1958. Alaskans accepted statehood as presented in the federal law the following month and elected their first state officials in November. On January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower proclaimed Alaska to be the forty-ninth state of the United States.

Information extracted with permission from Joan M. Antonson and William S. Hanable, Alaska's Heritage (2d edition, 1992).

Additional Reading

Claus-M. Naske, A History of Alaska Statehood (1985)


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