When you look at a map of the United States, it all seems straightforward with 48 states occupying central North America. But what about in the corner, where a cutaway section shows Alaska and Hawaii, far away and disconnected but still very much a part of the United States? How did these two outliers become a part of the union? Let’s look at the journey that the 49th and the 50th states took to become a part of the country.
Controversial Purchase of the Alaska Territory
The vast expanse of territory that makes up Alaska came under U.S. control in 1867 when Secretary of State William Seward organized the purchase from Russia for $7.2 million. At that time, the acquisition was considered a financial mistake, and for decades the area was referred to as Seward’s Folly.
However, the value that was to be found in Alaska’s natural resources was realized when the discovery of gold sparked the Klondike Gold Rush in 1896. Prospectors rushed to the territory, eager to strike it rich, and in doing so established some of Alaska’s biggest ports such as Juneau and Anchorage. These cities would help the new population begin to take advantage of the other valuable resources such as oil and timber.
Hawaii Becomes a Territory
The islands that make up Hawaii today had been in turmoil ever since James Cook landed there in 1778. The Hawaiian monarchy had been upended by rival factions and infighting. Life on the island was an uneasy balance between wealthy Caucasian sugar plantation owners, immigrant farm workers, and the native Hawaiians at the time of its annexation in 1898.
The annexation was as much to appease the wealthy land owners there, who wanted tax exemption, as it was to deny the valuable harbors to rival nations. This would prove wise, as Hawaii went on to be a crucial base of operations for the United States during World War II. The islands’ key role during the conflict would help pave the way for statehood after the war ended.
Alaska’s Path to Statehood
Like Hawaii, Alaska became a state only after World War II. There was some resistance among the general U.S. population, who saw Alaskans as removed from day-to-day life in America.
The admission of Alaska to the U.S. was the result of a political power in Congress. The Democrats, out of power and looking for an advantage, wanted to acquire the two senate seats that would be awarded to Alaska if it became a state. They were successful, and Alaska became the 49th state on January 3, 1959.
Hawaii’s Path to Statehood
Hawaii petitioned to become a state many times during the 60 years between its being acquired as a territory and finally being allowed to become a state. Again, the general U.S. population was hesitant to grant statehood to a territory that was so distinct from the mainland.
It was not until the Democrats pushed to make Alaska a state that it finally happened. Hawaii, which had a large military population after the war, was expected to lean Republican and thus balance out the senate seats being added. So, shortly after Alaska was awarded statehood, so was Hawaii, which became the 50th state on August 21, 1959.
Joining the U.S. is an arduous path that often requires political maneuvering along with the will of the people. And while the decision to add a state may be controversial, in general the U.S. has found additions to the country to be very beneficial.