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Alaska (AK) Fast Facts
Location and Geography: Alaska is located at the far northwestern portion of the North American continent, with some of its far-flung islands even stretching into the Eastern Hemisphere. It is the largest state in the union by far, although much of its land area is considered uninhabitable. It also possesses more miles of coastline than any other U.S. state.
Counties and Regions: Alaska does not have counties like most other states, and instead is divided into sixteen boroughs. There is in addition one large, unorganized borough that has no local government and is under the direct jurisdiction of the state (this covers a great deal of wildlife refuge lands with few human inhabitants). Some of the more generally recognized regions of Alaska are as follows:
- Alaska Interior
- Alaska Panhandle
- Aleutian Islands
- Arctic Alaska
- The Bush
- Kenai Peninsula
- Mat-Su Valley
- North Slope
- Seward Peninsula
- South Central Alaska
- Southwest Alaska
- Tanana Valley
- Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta
Population: With only a little more than seven hundred thousand residents, Alaska has one of the lowest state populations in the country and the sparsest population by land area. More than half of Alaska’s people live in the metropolitan area of its largest city, Anchorage.
Major Cities: Anchorage is the largest city, with nearly 320,000 people living in or near it. The state capital, Juneau, has barely 31,000 people in comparison.
Story Behind the Name: The Russians called the territory “Alaska” after a local Native American word that meant “mainland” or “big land.” The more literal definition of the term means: “the waters of the sea flow towards it.”
History and Colonization: A large number of different Native American groups lived in the area of Alaska for thousands of years, and plenty of their descendants still live there today. Alaska has the most Native American citizens of any state, and their incorporated tribes own a relatively high percentage of land in the state. Unlike the rest of the United States, Alaska’s remoteness meant that it was not colonized as quickly. The Russians, Americans, and Spaniards did not begin to found settlements there until the late eighteenth century. Even these colonies, built to invest and trade in the fur industry, were not very profitable and sparsely populated at first.
In the nineteenth century, Alaska was a territory of Imperial Russia. Because they had just finished a costly battle with the British, who were subsequently populating successful colonies in what is now western Canada, they were concerned that the British would seize their large, hard-to-defend territory. In the hopes of making a profit and encouraging a rivalry between Britain and the United States, Russia approached the U.S. and offered to sell the land in 1859. The U.S., however, was occupied with the American Civil War and could not entertain the notion of buying Alaska until several years later. In March of 1867, the U.S. agreed to buy the territory from Russia at the very low price of 7.2 million dollars, or about 2 cents to the acre.
This proved to be a fortuitous purchase, as within thirty years Alaska was found to be rich in precious ore. Streams of settlers and prospectors migrated to Alaska, founding larger towns and eventually lobbying for statehood. More people moved to Alaska in the twentieth century when some of its islands were used as staging platforms for America’s fight against the Japanese during World War II. Nevertheless, the territory remained sparsely populated considering its area. Alaska would not be declared a state until 1959, the last state besides Hawaii to enter the union.
Today, Alaska is known for its rich natural resources, relatively small population, and enormous land area. Precious metals and an abundance of crude oil have made the state a huge producer of wealth. The tourism industry is also strong, as Alaska is home to unique and breathtaking landscapes. The vast majority of Alaska’s land is not privately owned, and it contains the largest nature preserve in the entire world.