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The name Alaska is derived from the Aleut alaxsxaq, meaning “the mainland.”

Alaska is situated in the northwest of the North American continent. It is the largest state by area, the fourth least populous and the least densely populated of the 50 states in the United States of America. Alaska is bordered to the east by the Yukon Territory and British Columbia in Canada, the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean to the south, the Arctic Ocean to the north, and the Bering Sea, Bering Strait and Chukchi Sea to the west. Alaska’s territorial waters touch Russia’s territorial waters in the Bering Strait. The Russian Big Diomede Island and Alaskan Little Diomede Island are three miles (4.8 km) apart. With the extension of the Aleutian Islands into the eastern hemisphere, it is the most eastern, northern and western US state.

Approximately half of Alaska’s 731,000 residents live within the Anchorage metropolitan area. The state’s economy is dominated by the fishing, natural gas and oil industries. On March 30, 1867, it was purchased from Russia for $7.2 million, or two cents per acre. It went through several administrative changes before incorporation as a territory on May 11, 1912.

On January 3, 1959, Alaska became the forty ninth state of the United States. The name Alaska was introduced in the Russian colonial period, when it was used for the peninsula. Alaska is derived from the Aleut alaxsxaq, meaning “the mainland.” Its more literal meaning is “the object towards which the action of the sea is directed.” It is also known as Alyeska, the “great land.”

It has a longer coastline than all other US states combined. Alaska is the only non-contiguous state on continental North America with approximately 500 miles (800 km) of British Columbia separating Alaska from the state of Washington. Although Alaska’s capital city, Juneau, is situated on the mainland of the North American continent, it is not connected by road to the North American highway system.

Alaska is the largest state in land area at 586,412 square miles (1,518,800 km2), and is more than twice the size of Texas. Alaska, with its land mass and territorial waters, is larger than the combined area of California, Montana and Texas. It is also larger than the combined area of the 22 smallest states.

Indigenous Peoples

Numerous indigenous people have occupied Alaska for thousands of years before the arrival of European peoples to the area. The Tlingit people developed a matrilineal society in what is today Southeast Alaska. Also in Southeast were the Haida, now known for their unique arts. The Tsimshian people came to Alaska from British Columbia in 1887, and founded the town of Metlakatla. All three of these peoples, as well as other indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, experienced smallpox outbreaks from the late 18th through the mid-19th century, with the most devastating epidemics arriving in the 1830s and 1860s.

The Aleutian Islands are home to the Aleut people’s seafaring society, although they were the first Native Alaskans to be exploited by Russians. Western and Southwestern Alaska is home to the Yup’ik, while their cousins the Alutiiq lived in what is now Southcentral Alaska. The Gwich’in people of the Northern Interior region are known today for their dependence on the caribou within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The North Slope and Little Diomede Island are occupied by the widespread Inuit people.

Read more about Alaskan Indigenous Peoples.


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