Happy Alaska Day!

Although it is perhaps difficult to imagine today, in 1867, when President Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of State, William Henry Steward, negotiated a sale of Russia’s Alaska territory, the American press and public originally derided the deal as “Seward’s Folly” and mockingly referred to the territory as “Andrew Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden.”

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of ZIGGURAT collection of Dennis Wilhelm and Michael Kinerk

Although the $7.2 million purchase transferred a territory twice the size of the state of Texas to the United States—(586,412 square miles, at a cost of less than two cents and acre)—the public thought little of the frozen tundra. Some of the public disdain for the deal might have also stemmed from its association with the wildly unpopular President Johnson, who would be impeached by Congress the following year. Congress, at least, recognized it as a bargain, and ratified the Alaska deal, and marked the anniversary of the formal transfer of territory on October 18 with Alaska Day.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Less than three decades after the United States took possession of the territory, a gold strike sparked a stampede of “get-rich quick” prospectors into the region and the American public reconsidered their skepticism regarding the value of their colossal holdings in the Artic North.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

A world’s fair held in Seattle, Washington in 1909, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, touted the territory’s potential as a source of seafood, lumber, oil, furs and pelts, and other natural resources.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

As was typical of international and colonial expositions of this era, The A-Y-P Exposition also had a midway or “pay streak attractions” section featuring “villages” of indigenous peoples, in this instance Igorrote natives of the Philippines and “Eskimos” from Alaska.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

A decade or so later, author, naturalist, and artist, Rockwell Kent put the territory back into American consciousness with his illustrated booklet, Alaska drawings (1919) and travelogue novel, Wilderness, published in 1920.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

During the Great Depression, artists finding employment under Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration Federal Art Projects, took inspiration from, (and showed slightly more sensitivity towards), Alaska’s native peoples and their culture.

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Two pastel sketches of totems for posters about Alaska, by WPA artist Jerome Roth

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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Oil painting for the Alaska Art Project by Carl R. Saxild,
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The Wolfsonian also holds a four panel mural study created by Richard Haines in 1941 for a competition to decorate the walls of the U.S. Court House in Anchorage, which depicts Inuit fur-traders and American pioneers and fishermen tapping Alaska’s natural resources.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

~ by "The Chief" on October 18, 2017.

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