Monday, October 18, 2010

From Russia With Love

Magnet # 371:  Native Alaskans in Canoe

Material:  Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell

Purchased By:  Mom & Dad

Way up north, they're celebrating Alaska Day.  This is the anniversary of the day in 1867 when Russia transferred control of the Alaskan territory over to the United States.  The main festivities take place in Sitka, where a parade and a reenactment of the changing of the Russian flag for the Stars and Stripes are held.  Other activities include the mayor's proclamation, races, concerts, dance performances, and tea at the Pioneer Home, the local assisted living home that dates back to 1913.  A costume ball is also held, and participants are encouraged to grow beards, if applicable, and dress in clothes that would have been worn back when the change was made.  In fact, awards are given for the best period costumes.  The celebrations in Sitka stretch on for three days, but people all over the state can join in on the fun, particularly because it's a legal holiday throughout the Last Frontier and all state employees have the day off.  And as an increased awareness of Alaska Day has spread across the Lower 48, more and more visitors from other parts of the country have ventured up to join in.

Although Russia had been in control of Alaska for decades, their fur trade there had dwindled down and the nation was no longer very interested in the area.  And when the Crimean War had ended, they were prepared to sell the entire territory to the United States rather than risk losing it in battle to another nation.  And our Secretary of State, William H. Seward, was eager to take it off their hands.  Despite some protest, on March 30, 1867, Seward signed the Alaska Purchase treaty, buying the land from Russia for about two cents an acre.  Seward's Day is now held every last Monday of March in Alaska to commemorate that event.  The leaders in Sitka, at that time Alaska's capital, were soon informed of the purchase and that a formal transfer would occur.  And on the 18th of October, American officials arrived finally arrived.  Escorted by 250 U.S. soldiers in uniform, they headed to the flagstaff at the Governor's house on Sitka's "Castle Hill."  To the left of the flag, 100 Russian soldiers awaited them, along with emissaries from the nation.  The ceremony wasn't without incident.  Apparently, the Russian Double Eagle flag didn't want to come down.  It was stuck fast at the top.  Some of the soldiers tried to climb up to it, but had no luck.  Finally, they were able to lift a Russian soldier up to it.  He managed to free the flag, but accidentally dropped it.  It then fell and was blown into the Russian soldier's bayonets, shocking many in attendance.  Regardless, they carried on and the American flag was quickly raised without a hitch, some words were spoken, and it was all over.  Even those not there for the ceremony must have known something important was going on - a nearby ship gave a 21-gun salute.  Each blow was answered by a Russian cannon.  The day marked a particularly unusual change for the residents of Alaska - as they moved from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, Friday, October 6th was followed by Friday, October 18th.  What are the odds or ever having two Fridays in a row like that again!  For some time, the United States government presence in the Alaskan territory was pretty limited, and it passed through the management of the War Department, the Treasury Department, and finally the Navy Department, none of which had much interest in the territory or looking after the problems of its residents.  But when gold was discovered in the nearby Klondike district of Canada's Yukon region and then in Alaska itself, settlers began pouring into the area and towns began to spring up.  Juneau replaced Sitka as the territory's capital and remained capitol when Alaska gained statehood in 1959.  Still, Sitka remained an important port and one of the most populated areas in the state.  And it would always remain the location of the transfer that altered the future of Alaska.  The anniversary of that historic day wasn't marked until the first Alaska day event was held in 1949, more than eighty years later.  In honor of the special occasion, a statue titled The Prospector was unveiled.  It was modeled after one of the pioneers that settled Alaska in its earlier days, William "Skagway Bill" Fonda, who came from New York.  It now stands in front of the Sitka Pioneer Home.  By 1954, Alaska Day Festival, Incorporated had been formed to ensure the occasion would continue to be held long into the future.  The festival has gone on to become a beloved part of Alaskan culture.  It's hard to imagine what might have happened to the people there if they hadn't become citizens of the United States.  How would the Soviet Union have reacted if they'd had access to the natural resources of the land?  Or would another nation, like Great Britain, have acquired it instead?  Alaska might have had a very difficult time if not for the change that came one October afternoon all of those years ago, and it's easy to understand why those living there are eager to celebrate the path their land has taken.

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