This is an early map of Sitka at the time of the handover, showing the buildings and government land. (Courtesy of the Alaska State Museum archives)

This is an early map of Sitka at the time of the handover, showing the buildings and government land. (Courtesy of the Alaska State Museum archives)

Six facts to know about Alaska Day

The holiday began in 1959 to commemorate Alaska’s purchase from Russia

Alaska is celebrating its 60th Alaska Day today.

The state holiday commemorates the day in 1867 when the Russian Empire signed over the lands of Alaska to the United States. Alaska Natives, of course, had been living here already for an estimated 15,000 years before any Westerner set foot in the state.

Here’s some interesting facts about the colonization and later territorial status of Alaska.

1. Alaska was charted by Westerners in 1741

Led by Danish pilot Vitus Bering, a Russian expedition charted Alaska in 1741. Alaskan Natives, of course, had been living here since before recorded history. Russian hunters would soon start a fur trade in Russia, brushing aside Alaska Natives as they sought to trap enough to make the long voyages economically viable.

2. Sitka was the capital of Russian America, under another name

Settling first in the Aleutian Islands and Kodiak, the capital of Russian America, as the territory was known, was eventually settled in Sitka, known as Novo Arkhangelsk to the Westerners. Aleksandr Baranov established the Russian American Company and established a monopoly on trade in Alaska and as far as the Russian settlement in modern-day California.

3. As trade began to slough off, Russia looked to offload Alaska

After the expensive loss of the Crimean War, cash-strapped Russia began to look for ways to make money out of the decreasingly profitable Russian America. On March 30, the Russian Empire concluded a treaty with U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, wherein the United States purchased Alaska for $7.2 million dollars, or roughly $129 million in today’s currency. The math works out to roughly 10 cents per square mile back then, or roughly $1.94 per square mile today.

This is a scan of Gov. William Egan’s original proclamation making Alaska Day an annual holiday. (Courtesy of the Alaska State Museum archives)

This is a scan of Gov. William Egan’s original proclamation making Alaska Day an annual holiday. (Courtesy of the Alaska State Museum archives)

4. The handover took place in Sitka

On Oct. 18, 1867, the Russian Empire lowered their flag in Alaska for the last time, and the United States raised theirs. The battle in the federal government to ratify the treaty was hard fought; Alaska was regarded as cold, barren, and useless, and the public hung the name “Seward’s Folly” on the territory. Seward was a staunch expanionist and regarded an opportunity to add 20 percent to the landmass of the United States as a windfall.

5. Sitka remained the capital until 1906

At the time, the decline in economic activity in Sitka ordained that the capital moved to Juneau, which was the largest city in Alaska at the time.

6. Gov. William Egan signed Alaska Day into law in 1959

Less than a year after Alaska became the 49th state, Egan proclaimed that Oct. 18 would be Alaska day from then on and urged Alaskans to celebrate. In Sitka, there’s traditionally an Alaska Day Festival commemorating the handover. The Alaska State Museum will also have activities to participate in this year.

Know & Go

The Alaska State Museum will be open from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Friday. Admission is now discounted for the winter, and Friday will be one of the last chances to see “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline.” There will also be an Alaska Literary Festival from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Finally, there will be a presentation about Soviet whaleship activity in Alaskan waters. More information is available here.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or

More in News

The Aurora Borealis glows over the Mendenhall Glacier in 2014. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Aurora forecast

Forecasts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute for the week of Jan. 22

Library Director Dave Berry and Advisory Board Chair Kate Finn participate in Library Advisory Board meeting on Tuesday Jan. 17, 2023, at Homer City Hall, in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Emilie Springer/Homer News)
Homer Library Advisory Board upholds decision to retain LGBTQ+ books

A citizen’s group last year submitted a petition asking that the books be removed from the children’s section

Courtesy Photo / Juneau Police Department 
This photo shows Woodrow Farrell Eagleman who police say after going missing on Jan. 11 was seen leaving town on Jan. 12 via airport surveillance.
Police: Man reported missing took plane out of town

A Juneau man recently reported as missing was found leaving town on… Continue reading

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Thursday, Jan. 26

This report contains information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Juneau-based actor Xáalnook Erin Tripp was recently named one of the 2023 Artists in Business Leadership Fellows for First Peoples Fund program. Tripp said she intends to use to program’s grant funding to set up a professional recording studio in Juneau for her voice acting career and to share with other artists in the community. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
First Peoples Fund to help Juneau actor create recording studio for voice acting

Xáalnook Erin Tripp among artists with Southeast ties to earn the award.

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire 
Katie Botz, a Juneau school bus driver honored by Gov. Mike Dunelavy for her advocacy on behalf of abuse victims, stands to applause during his recognition of her during the State of the State speech Monday night at the Alaska State Capitol.
‘A victory for all of us’: Juneau woman recognized among Resilient Alaskans for her advocacy

Katie Botz’s presence — and brief absence — as a victims advocate led to a big win and governor’s honor.

Arnold Vosloo as Colonel Bach addresses US soldiers in latest film, “Condor’s Nest” in theaters and digital release on Friday. (Courtesy Photo / PMKBNC)
‘Popcorn thriller’ set in South America features actor from Alaska

“Condor’s Nest” will be available on demand Friday.

Jim Cockrell, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety, speaks in Wasilla at a May 3, 2022, news conference. Cockrell has ordered an investigation after troopers mistakenly took a school principal into custody for a mental health exam. (Photo by Yereth Rosen / Alaska Beacon)
Troopers, misled by false court order, detained principal for mental health check

State troopers mistakenly took Alaska’s 2022 Principal of the Year into custody…

The Juneau School District’s recently announced the new principals for Juneau Community Charter School and Mendenhall River Community School who are set to start in their positions this fall. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
District selects new principals for Juneau Community Charter and Mendenhall River Community School

The new school heads will join the district in the coming academic year in the fall

Most Read