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Episode
277

Alaska: The Last Frontier

Jul 5, 2022
History
-
20
minutes

It's the largest American state, but it is closer to Russia than to any other part of the USA.

In this episode, we explore the fascinating history of Alaska, and see how buying this 1.7 million square kilometre piece of unusable land turned out to be a very clever geopolitical decision.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Alaska.

[00:00:27] As you probably know, Alaska is a state of the United States, but it is a state unlike any other.

[00:00:35] Not only is it the coldest and least densely populated state, it is also the largest and is thousands of kilometres away from the mainland United States.

[00:00:46] Indeed, if you were to drive from Alaska’s biggest city, Anchorage, to the capital of the nearest US state, Seattle in Washington, it would be a 3,600 km trip and take you about 42 hours, it’s a similar distance as Barcelona is away from Moscow. 

[00:01:07] Which begs the question, and the subject of today’s episode, how and why did Alaska become part of the United States, and what does this mean for this piece of North America nicknamed “The Last Frontier”? 

[00:01:23] Okay then, let’s get started and look at the unusual history of Alaska.

[00:01:29] Today, Alaska and Russia are separated by the Bering Strait, the 90km of water that separates North America and Asia. 

[00:01:38] But in prehistoric times, there was no such separation. 

[00:01:43] During the last ice age, sea levels were lower than they are today, and the first human settlers of the region were able to cross the area that separates Russia and Alaska, on foot.

[00:01:57] These prehistoric settlers, who migrated from Asia to Alaska, are the ancestors of the Inuits and other native Alaskan tribes.

[00:02:07] Over time, sea levels rose and about 10,000 years ago North America and Asia became separated by water. 

[00:02:16] As you might imagine, Alaska’s now native tribes were originally nomadic - they moved from one camp to another depending on food availability and the seasons. With time, different tribes developed in different regions each with their own distinct culture and way of life. 

[00:02:37] Spear hunting and salmon fishing were important for tribes living in Alaska’s interior, who would build up food stocks before moving south to survive the harsh winters. 

[00:02:49] Societies on the coast, on the other hand, became specialised in hunting whales, developing a special type of small boat, very similar to modern day kayaks, that could stay afloat even in dangerous seas in pursuit of large sea mammals.

[00:03:07] Alaska’s native tribes had their own traditions and mostly lived in harmony, with respect for nature.

[00:03:14] However, their way of life would begin to change with the European “discovery” of Alaska.

[00:03:21] In 1741, Vitus Bering, a Danish cartographer, a mapmaker, who worked for the Russian navy first caught sight of Alaska, claiming it for Russia. As you might have guessed, The Bering Strait is named after him. 

[00:03:38] In 1784, Russia started to set up bases in Alaska, mainly to hunt sea otters for their thick fur coats

[00:03:49] And for the first 100 years or so after its discovery by Vitus Bering, it remained a Russian outpost.

[00:03:57] Although the centre of Russian power was thousands of kilometres away to the west, Siberian fur hunters from the Russian Far East knew about living and working in extremely cold conditions, and could easily adapt to life in Alaska. 

[00:04:13] After all, Alaska wasn’t all that different from Siberia.

[00:04:18] England and Spain also explored the area and set up fur hunting outposts, but Russia remained the dominant presence in the area. 

[00:04:28] At this time, in the 18th century that is, the future geopolitical importance of Alaska wasn’t obvious.

[00:04:36] As a large, icy area that was difficult to access, never mind live in, Alaska was simply not considered to have much strategic importance. 

[00:04:46] Though, if you’ve ever played the game Risk, you’ll know just how important having Alaska can be. 

[00:04:53] Alaska’s position allows access to both Asia and North America. 

[00:04:58] What’s more, if you control this area, you also have easy access to the Arctic.

[00:05:04] And although the Russian mainland is 90km away from the North American mainland, in the Bering Strait there are actually two islands. The western one is part of Russia, the eastern one is part of Alaska, and is therefore American.

[00:05:21] They are just 4km apart, and in winter the water between them freezes, making it actually possible to walk over from Russia to The United States of America. 

[00:05:33] As you might expect, now Alaska is of vital strategic importance to the United States in its geopolitical struggle with Russia.

[00:05:42] But in the 18th century Russia’s great enemy wasn’t the US. It was Britain.

[00:05:49] By the 18th and 19th centuries, Russia and Britain were already rivals in many domains and both countries were trying to increase their presence in the Pacific. 

[00:06:00] Britain had established numerous colonies in modern-day Canada, which wouldn’t become its own country until 1867. 

[00:06:09] In 1854, Britain and Russia were on opposite sides in the Crimean War back in Europe. The war weakened the Russian army and drained Russia’s finances.

[00:06:21] Meanwhile, fur trading had become less lucrative, there was less money to be made, plus the sea otters, those cuddly little creatures, had been hunted almost to extinction

[00:06:34] Russia did not have the financial means to continue to set up military bases in Alaska but above all, it didn’t want the British to get their hands on it.

[00:06:45] If it could only sell Alaska to another country that wasn’t Britain, it would serve two purposes: a welcome injection of money and it would keep it out of the hands of the British.

[00:06:59] As strange as it may now sound, before eventually selling Alaska to the USA, the Russian Empire is said to have offered the territory of Alaska to one of the world’s smallest countries, the landlocked European microstate of Liechtenstein. 

[00:07:16] This tiny country between Switzerland and Austria was on good terms with the Russian Empire at the time and was well known for its large gold reserves - just what the Russians needed. 

[00:07:29] Liechtenstein decided not to go ahead with the offer, worried about taking on such a large chunk of land, a territory that was over 10,000 times its size, and was so far away. 

[00:07:42] Plus at the time, the only resource Alaska was known for was its dwindling fur trade. 

[00:07:49] So, Russia then offered the less than hundred years old United States of America the chance to buy Alaska. 

[00:07:57] The sale was completed on the 1st August 1867. 

[00:08:02] The US paid $7.2 million, which works out at around $120 million in today’s money, approximately €110 million or €64 per square kilometre. 

[00:08:16] And what I need to reiterate is quite how big Alaska is.

[00:08:21] It’s 1.7 million square kilometres. 

[00:08:25] To put it another way, if Alaska was a country, it would be the 17th largest in the world. 

[00:08:32] You could fit all of France, all of Spain, all of Germany AND all of Italy inside Alaska and still have a little bit of room left over.

[00:08:42] Today, it might seem pretty incredible that such a huge amount of land could just be signed over and sold for such little money, especially those of us who are keen Risk players and have experienced firsthand the strategic importance of Alaska. 

[00:08:59] However, this was the era of vast land purchase. Louisiana was purchased from France in 1804, Florida from Spain in 1819 and California from Mexico in 1848. 

[00:09:14] But, even to a young country that had plenty of experience making territorial acquisitions, Alaska was something else. Its sheer size alone, means that Alaska makes up 15% of the entire country. 

[00:09:28] For comparison, Texas, the second largest state in terms of area, is under half the size of Alaska, at just under 700,000 kilometres squared. 

[00:09:39] The American public were, perhaps understandably, not too keen on Alaska’s purchase. 

[00:09:46] Alaska was seen as being an icy, barren land, devoid of, without, resources. The fact that it doesn’t share a border with any American state made the purchase even more unpopular.

[00:10:00] It was criticised as being a waste of money, And it was nicknamed “Seward's Folly” - Seward was the Secretary of State at the time, and the chief supporter of the purchase. 

[00:10:11] A “folly”, by the way, is something that shows a lack of common sense, it’s a foolish idea or action. 

[00:10:19] Foolish as it may have seemed, Seward’s purchase of Alaska was vindicated, was proved to be right, in part at least, when gold was discovered in the Klondike River just over the Canadian border in 1896.

[00:10:34] Thousands of Americans travelled via sea, and then overland across Alaska, with towns on the trail growing significantly as businesses sprung up to provide essentials, as well as gambling halls to relieve any successful gold miners of their money.

[00:10:53] In 1899 gold was found in Alaska at a coastal town called Nome. Copper mining, fishing and canning industries began to take off and construction started on Alaska’s railway in 1902.

[00:11:08] Things were starting to look a little rosier, a little more positive, with population growth and improved finances. 

[00:11:15] In 1912, Alaska became a territory of the USA, a bit like Puerto Rico today.

[00:11:23] However, the Great Depression put a hold on Alaska’s progression towards becoming a fully fledged state. 

[00:11:30] The price of fish and copper plummeted, causing workers to be laid off and wages reduced for those lucky enough to still have a job.

[00:11:40] It would take World War II to really drive home the strategic importance of Alaska to the rest of the USA, when two islands in Alaska were occupied by the Japanese forces. 

[00:11:52] These two Alaskan islands, Attu and Kiska, were the only parts of continental USA to be occupied during the entire war. 

[00:12:02] It took two weeks of fierce fighting and almost 4,000 American casualties, including 1,200 caused by severe cold, to liberate only Attu. 

[00:12:14] The second island, Kiska, was bombed extensively rather than risking even more lives.

[00:12:21] After World War II, with Alaska’s geopolitical importance now clear to see, large numbers of military personnel were sent to the state. 

[00:12:32] Building the first military bases helped to boost the population, while the completion of the Alaskan Highway finally linked Alaska to the lower 48 states by road for the first time, passing through Canada. 

[00:12:46] However, while it was evident that Alaska was strategically important, it would take a huge financial turnaround to prove its economic stability enough for Alaska to be seriously considered for statehood, for becoming a fully-fledged state of the USA.

[00:13:04] The Swanson River Oil Discovery in 1957 did just that. While oil had been found before in Alaska, this was the first time that oil was discovered in large enough amounts to be economically viable to exploit.

[00:13:21] And sure enough, Alaska officially became an American state on 3 January 1959. 

[00:13:29] With the completion of the Alaska Highway and increased troop numbers stationed in the state, Alaska became more open to visitors. Soldiers returning home helped to spread the word about the state’s stunning wilderness

[00:13:44] Tourism quickly became a major source of revenue for the state, with more than 2 million tourists visiting the state every year for its pristine landscape and unspoiled nature.

[00:13:57] Alaska’s other main source of income was and still is oil. The problem is that the oil extraction and tourism industries don’t always go hand in hand.

[00:14:09] If you are coming to see wonderful unspoiled beaches, glaciers, rivers and mountains, you will be disappointed if you find large factories, pipelines, or beaches covered in nasty black oil.

[00:14:23] But this was exactly what tourists found in 1989, after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground on the Alaskan coastline, polluting 1,800km of shoreline with 50 million litres of oil and killing thousands of animals.

[00:14:41] And there is still this tension today between the oil industry, which claims to create jobs for 10% of the Alaskan population and be responsible for billions of dollars of income to the state each year, and the tourist industry, which wants to keep the oil industry out of view.

[00:15:01] The other tension, which of course shows no signs of going away, comes from the fact that Alaska is the closest part of the United States to Russia.

[00:15:11] As you might expect, the United States continues to see Alaska as an important strategic outpost.

[00:15:19] Today there are over 22,000 American soldiers stationed in Alaska. 

[00:15:24] On the other side of the Bering Strait, Russia is also developing numerous military bases.

[00:15:31] And while Alaska’s geopolitical importance may have been severely underestimated before WWII, with increasing tensions between Russia and the United States, and with the Arctic Ocean becoming increasingly accessible as a sea route, the geopolitical importance of Alaska has never been clearer.

[00:15:52] So, now that we’ve learned a bit about the history of Alaska we have time for a few curiosities about this unusual place.

[00:16:01] Have you ever wondered why Alaska is called Alaska? What does it mean?

[00:16:06] Well, the word Alaska means the “Great Land” in one of the state’s native tribal languages, a language I imagine you might not have heard of called “Aleut”. 

[00:16:17] Another equally fitting name often given to Alaska is the “Land of the Midnight Sun”.

[00:16:23] For over two months in summertime, like in northern Europe and northern Russia, the sun does not set in the northernmost part of Alaska, meaning it is light for 24 hours a day.

[00:16:36] Alaska is also famous for its remarkable geographical features.

[00:16:40] You might have heard of the Rocky Mountains, but did you know that Alaska, not Colorado, is home to 17 of the 20 highest mountains in America? 

[00:16:51] Mount Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, is the highest point of elevation in the whole of North America. 

[00:16:59] Alaska also holds the record for the lowest point in America, the deep-sea Aleutian Trench, as well as the continent’s largest glacier, the Bering Glacier, which measures 3,261 km2 - almost one and a half times the size of Luxembourg.

[00:17:18] And our final interesting detail that sets Alaska apart is its state flag. 

[00:17:24] The flag is deep blue, with eight gold stars in the shape of Ursa Major, or the Great Bear constellation, representing strength and the North Star. 

[00:17:35] It’s a nice looking flag, but one interesting bit of trivia was that it was designed by a 13-year old boy living in an orphanage.

[00:17:44] Alaska certainly is an unusual place, and its story is unlikely. 

[00:17:50] A huge mass of freezing land on the edge of North America, one trying to figure out the balance between preserving nature for future generations and extracting oil from nature to provide an income for people living today. 

[00:18:06] It’s also a place with an unlikely geopolitical significance, a place where the United States and the Russian Federation meet, and where, when it’s cold enough, you can literally walk between the two countries.

[00:18:18] There are perhaps no better places deserving of the name “the Last Frontier

[00:18:25] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the weird history of Alaska. 

[00:18:31] I hope it’s been an interesting one, and you’ve learned a bit about how Alaska got to be the place it is today, as well some extra details about what makes Alaska special. 

[00:18:42] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:18:46] How would the world have been different had Russia not sold Alaska?

[00:18:50] How would it have been different had it sold it to Britain?

[00:18:54] How do you think we should think about the balance between preserving natural habitats and fossil fuel extraction?

[00:19:01] Have you ever visited Alaska or it is on your list of top potential destinations?

[00:19:07] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. 

[00:19:10] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:19] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:24] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE] 

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Alaska.

[00:00:27] As you probably know, Alaska is a state of the United States, but it is a state unlike any other.

[00:00:35] Not only is it the coldest and least densely populated state, it is also the largest and is thousands of kilometres away from the mainland United States.

[00:00:46] Indeed, if you were to drive from Alaska’s biggest city, Anchorage, to the capital of the nearest US state, Seattle in Washington, it would be a 3,600 km trip and take you about 42 hours, it’s a similar distance as Barcelona is away from Moscow. 

[00:01:07] Which begs the question, and the subject of today’s episode, how and why did Alaska become part of the United States, and what does this mean for this piece of North America nicknamed “The Last Frontier”? 

[00:01:23] Okay then, let’s get started and look at the unusual history of Alaska.

[00:01:29] Today, Alaska and Russia are separated by the Bering Strait, the 90km of water that separates North America and Asia. 

[00:01:38] But in prehistoric times, there was no such separation. 

[00:01:43] During the last ice age, sea levels were lower than they are today, and the first human settlers of the region were able to cross the area that separates Russia and Alaska, on foot.

[00:01:57] These prehistoric settlers, who migrated from Asia to Alaska, are the ancestors of the Inuits and other native Alaskan tribes.

[00:02:07] Over time, sea levels rose and about 10,000 years ago North America and Asia became separated by water. 

[00:02:16] As you might imagine, Alaska’s now native tribes were originally nomadic - they moved from one camp to another depending on food availability and the seasons. With time, different tribes developed in different regions each with their own distinct culture and way of life. 

[00:02:37] Spear hunting and salmon fishing were important for tribes living in Alaska’s interior, who would build up food stocks before moving south to survive the harsh winters. 

[00:02:49] Societies on the coast, on the other hand, became specialised in hunting whales, developing a special type of small boat, very similar to modern day kayaks, that could stay afloat even in dangerous seas in pursuit of large sea mammals.

[00:03:07] Alaska’s native tribes had their own traditions and mostly lived in harmony, with respect for nature.

[00:03:14] However, their way of life would begin to change with the European “discovery” of Alaska.

[00:03:21] In 1741, Vitus Bering, a Danish cartographer, a mapmaker, who worked for the Russian navy first caught sight of Alaska, claiming it for Russia. As you might have guessed, The Bering Strait is named after him. 

[00:03:38] In 1784, Russia started to set up bases in Alaska, mainly to hunt sea otters for their thick fur coats

[00:03:49] And for the first 100 years or so after its discovery by Vitus Bering, it remained a Russian outpost.

[00:03:57] Although the centre of Russian power was thousands of kilometres away to the west, Siberian fur hunters from the Russian Far East knew about living and working in extremely cold conditions, and could easily adapt to life in Alaska. 

[00:04:13] After all, Alaska wasn’t all that different from Siberia.

[00:04:18] England and Spain also explored the area and set up fur hunting outposts, but Russia remained the dominant presence in the area. 

[00:04:28] At this time, in the 18th century that is, the future geopolitical importance of Alaska wasn’t obvious.

[00:04:36] As a large, icy area that was difficult to access, never mind live in, Alaska was simply not considered to have much strategic importance. 

[00:04:46] Though, if you’ve ever played the game Risk, you’ll know just how important having Alaska can be. 

[00:04:53] Alaska’s position allows access to both Asia and North America. 

[00:04:58] What’s more, if you control this area, you also have easy access to the Arctic.

[00:05:04] And although the Russian mainland is 90km away from the North American mainland, in the Bering Strait there are actually two islands. The western one is part of Russia, the eastern one is part of Alaska, and is therefore American.

[00:05:21] They are just 4km apart, and in winter the water between them freezes, making it actually possible to walk over from Russia to The United States of America. 

[00:05:33] As you might expect, now Alaska is of vital strategic importance to the United States in its geopolitical struggle with Russia.

[00:05:42] But in the 18th century Russia’s great enemy wasn’t the US. It was Britain.

[00:05:49] By the 18th and 19th centuries, Russia and Britain were already rivals in many domains and both countries were trying to increase their presence in the Pacific. 

[00:06:00] Britain had established numerous colonies in modern-day Canada, which wouldn’t become its own country until 1867. 

[00:06:09] In 1854, Britain and Russia were on opposite sides in the Crimean War back in Europe. The war weakened the Russian army and drained Russia’s finances.

[00:06:21] Meanwhile, fur trading had become less lucrative, there was less money to be made, plus the sea otters, those cuddly little creatures, had been hunted almost to extinction

[00:06:34] Russia did not have the financial means to continue to set up military bases in Alaska but above all, it didn’t want the British to get their hands on it.

[00:06:45] If it could only sell Alaska to another country that wasn’t Britain, it would serve two purposes: a welcome injection of money and it would keep it out of the hands of the British.

[00:06:59] As strange as it may now sound, before eventually selling Alaska to the USA, the Russian Empire is said to have offered the territory of Alaska to one of the world’s smallest countries, the landlocked European microstate of Liechtenstein. 

[00:07:16] This tiny country between Switzerland and Austria was on good terms with the Russian Empire at the time and was well known for its large gold reserves - just what the Russians needed. 

[00:07:29] Liechtenstein decided not to go ahead with the offer, worried about taking on such a large chunk of land, a territory that was over 10,000 times its size, and was so far away. 

[00:07:42] Plus at the time, the only resource Alaska was known for was its dwindling fur trade. 

[00:07:49] So, Russia then offered the less than hundred years old United States of America the chance to buy Alaska. 

[00:07:57] The sale was completed on the 1st August 1867. 

[00:08:02] The US paid $7.2 million, which works out at around $120 million in today’s money, approximately €110 million or €64 per square kilometre. 

[00:08:16] And what I need to reiterate is quite how big Alaska is.

[00:08:21] It’s 1.7 million square kilometres. 

[00:08:25] To put it another way, if Alaska was a country, it would be the 17th largest in the world. 

[00:08:32] You could fit all of France, all of Spain, all of Germany AND all of Italy inside Alaska and still have a little bit of room left over.

[00:08:42] Today, it might seem pretty incredible that such a huge amount of land could just be signed over and sold for such little money, especially those of us who are keen Risk players and have experienced firsthand the strategic importance of Alaska. 

[00:08:59] However, this was the era of vast land purchase. Louisiana was purchased from France in 1804, Florida from Spain in 1819 and California from Mexico in 1848. 

[00:09:14] But, even to a young country that had plenty of experience making territorial acquisitions, Alaska was something else. Its sheer size alone, means that Alaska makes up 15% of the entire country. 

[00:09:28] For comparison, Texas, the second largest state in terms of area, is under half the size of Alaska, at just under 700,000 kilometres squared. 

[00:09:39] The American public were, perhaps understandably, not too keen on Alaska’s purchase. 

[00:09:46] Alaska was seen as being an icy, barren land, devoid of, without, resources. The fact that it doesn’t share a border with any American state made the purchase even more unpopular.

[00:10:00] It was criticised as being a waste of money, And it was nicknamed “Seward's Folly” - Seward was the Secretary of State at the time, and the chief supporter of the purchase. 

[00:10:11] A “folly”, by the way, is something that shows a lack of common sense, it’s a foolish idea or action. 

[00:10:19] Foolish as it may have seemed, Seward’s purchase of Alaska was vindicated, was proved to be right, in part at least, when gold was discovered in the Klondike River just over the Canadian border in 1896.

[00:10:34] Thousands of Americans travelled via sea, and then overland across Alaska, with towns on the trail growing significantly as businesses sprung up to provide essentials, as well as gambling halls to relieve any successful gold miners of their money.

[00:10:53] In 1899 gold was found in Alaska at a coastal town called Nome. Copper mining, fishing and canning industries began to take off and construction started on Alaska’s railway in 1902.

[00:11:08] Things were starting to look a little rosier, a little more positive, with population growth and improved finances. 

[00:11:15] In 1912, Alaska became a territory of the USA, a bit like Puerto Rico today.

[00:11:23] However, the Great Depression put a hold on Alaska’s progression towards becoming a fully fledged state. 

[00:11:30] The price of fish and copper plummeted, causing workers to be laid off and wages reduced for those lucky enough to still have a job.

[00:11:40] It would take World War II to really drive home the strategic importance of Alaska to the rest of the USA, when two islands in Alaska were occupied by the Japanese forces. 

[00:11:52] These two Alaskan islands, Attu and Kiska, were the only parts of continental USA to be occupied during the entire war. 

[00:12:02] It took two weeks of fierce fighting and almost 4,000 American casualties, including 1,200 caused by severe cold, to liberate only Attu. 

[00:12:14] The second island, Kiska, was bombed extensively rather than risking even more lives.

[00:12:21] After World War II, with Alaska’s geopolitical importance now clear to see, large numbers of military personnel were sent to the state. 

[00:12:32] Building the first military bases helped to boost the population, while the completion of the Alaskan Highway finally linked Alaska to the lower 48 states by road for the first time, passing through Canada. 

[00:12:46] However, while it was evident that Alaska was strategically important, it would take a huge financial turnaround to prove its economic stability enough for Alaska to be seriously considered for statehood, for becoming a fully-fledged state of the USA.

[00:13:04] The Swanson River Oil Discovery in 1957 did just that. While oil had been found before in Alaska, this was the first time that oil was discovered in large enough amounts to be economically viable to exploit.

[00:13:21] And sure enough, Alaska officially became an American state on 3 January 1959. 

[00:13:29] With the completion of the Alaska Highway and increased troop numbers stationed in the state, Alaska became more open to visitors. Soldiers returning home helped to spread the word about the state’s stunning wilderness

[00:13:44] Tourism quickly became a major source of revenue for the state, with more than 2 million tourists visiting the state every year for its pristine landscape and unspoiled nature.

[00:13:57] Alaska’s other main source of income was and still is oil. The problem is that the oil extraction and tourism industries don’t always go hand in hand.

[00:14:09] If you are coming to see wonderful unspoiled beaches, glaciers, rivers and mountains, you will be disappointed if you find large factories, pipelines, or beaches covered in nasty black oil.

[00:14:23] But this was exactly what tourists found in 1989, after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground on the Alaskan coastline, polluting 1,800km of shoreline with 50 million litres of oil and killing thousands of animals.

[00:14:41] And there is still this tension today between the oil industry, which claims to create jobs for 10% of the Alaskan population and be responsible for billions of dollars of income to the state each year, and the tourist industry, which wants to keep the oil industry out of view.

[00:15:01] The other tension, which of course shows no signs of going away, comes from the fact that Alaska is the closest part of the United States to Russia.

[00:15:11] As you might expect, the United States continues to see Alaska as an important strategic outpost.

[00:15:19] Today there are over 22,000 American soldiers stationed in Alaska. 

[00:15:24] On the other side of the Bering Strait, Russia is also developing numerous military bases.

[00:15:31] And while Alaska’s geopolitical importance may have been severely underestimated before WWII, with increasing tensions between Russia and the United States, and with the Arctic Ocean becoming increasingly accessible as a sea route, the geopolitical importance of Alaska has never been clearer.

[00:15:52] So, now that we’ve learned a bit about the history of Alaska we have time for a few curiosities about this unusual place.

[00:16:01] Have you ever wondered why Alaska is called Alaska? What does it mean?

[00:16:06] Well, the word Alaska means the “Great Land” in one of the state’s native tribal languages, a language I imagine you might not have heard of called “Aleut”. 

[00:16:17] Another equally fitting name often given to Alaska is the “Land of the Midnight Sun”.

[00:16:23] For over two months in summertime, like in northern Europe and northern Russia, the sun does not set in the northernmost part of Alaska, meaning it is light for 24 hours a day.

[00:16:36] Alaska is also famous for its remarkable geographical features.

[00:16:40] You might have heard of the Rocky Mountains, but did you know that Alaska, not Colorado, is home to 17 of the 20 highest mountains in America? 

[00:16:51] Mount Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, is the highest point of elevation in the whole of North America. 

[00:16:59] Alaska also holds the record for the lowest point in America, the deep-sea Aleutian Trench, as well as the continent’s largest glacier, the Bering Glacier, which measures 3,261 km2 - almost one and a half times the size of Luxembourg.

[00:17:18] And our final interesting detail that sets Alaska apart is its state flag. 

[00:17:24] The flag is deep blue, with eight gold stars in the shape of Ursa Major, or the Great Bear constellation, representing strength and the North Star. 

[00:17:35] It’s a nice looking flag, but one interesting bit of trivia was that it was designed by a 13-year old boy living in an orphanage.

[00:17:44] Alaska certainly is an unusual place, and its story is unlikely. 

[00:17:50] A huge mass of freezing land on the edge of North America, one trying to figure out the balance between preserving nature for future generations and extracting oil from nature to provide an income for people living today. 

[00:18:06] It’s also a place with an unlikely geopolitical significance, a place where the United States and the Russian Federation meet, and where, when it’s cold enough, you can literally walk between the two countries.

[00:18:18] There are perhaps no better places deserving of the name “the Last Frontier

[00:18:25] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the weird history of Alaska. 

[00:18:31] I hope it’s been an interesting one, and you’ve learned a bit about how Alaska got to be the place it is today, as well some extra details about what makes Alaska special. 

[00:18:42] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:18:46] How would the world have been different had Russia not sold Alaska?

[00:18:50] How would it have been different had it sold it to Britain?

[00:18:54] How do you think we should think about the balance between preserving natural habitats and fossil fuel extraction?

[00:19:01] Have you ever visited Alaska or it is on your list of top potential destinations?

[00:19:07] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. 

[00:19:10] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:19] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:24] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE] 

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Alaska.

[00:00:27] As you probably know, Alaska is a state of the United States, but it is a state unlike any other.

[00:00:35] Not only is it the coldest and least densely populated state, it is also the largest and is thousands of kilometres away from the mainland United States.

[00:00:46] Indeed, if you were to drive from Alaska’s biggest city, Anchorage, to the capital of the nearest US state, Seattle in Washington, it would be a 3,600 km trip and take you about 42 hours, it’s a similar distance as Barcelona is away from Moscow. 

[00:01:07] Which begs the question, and the subject of today’s episode, how and why did Alaska become part of the United States, and what does this mean for this piece of North America nicknamed “The Last Frontier”? 

[00:01:23] Okay then, let’s get started and look at the unusual history of Alaska.

[00:01:29] Today, Alaska and Russia are separated by the Bering Strait, the 90km of water that separates North America and Asia. 

[00:01:38] But in prehistoric times, there was no such separation. 

[00:01:43] During the last ice age, sea levels were lower than they are today, and the first human settlers of the region were able to cross the area that separates Russia and Alaska, on foot.

[00:01:57] These prehistoric settlers, who migrated from Asia to Alaska, are the ancestors of the Inuits and other native Alaskan tribes.

[00:02:07] Over time, sea levels rose and about 10,000 years ago North America and Asia became separated by water. 

[00:02:16] As you might imagine, Alaska’s now native tribes were originally nomadic - they moved from one camp to another depending on food availability and the seasons. With time, different tribes developed in different regions each with their own distinct culture and way of life. 

[00:02:37] Spear hunting and salmon fishing were important for tribes living in Alaska’s interior, who would build up food stocks before moving south to survive the harsh winters. 

[00:02:49] Societies on the coast, on the other hand, became specialised in hunting whales, developing a special type of small boat, very similar to modern day kayaks, that could stay afloat even in dangerous seas in pursuit of large sea mammals.

[00:03:07] Alaska’s native tribes had their own traditions and mostly lived in harmony, with respect for nature.

[00:03:14] However, their way of life would begin to change with the European “discovery” of Alaska.

[00:03:21] In 1741, Vitus Bering, a Danish cartographer, a mapmaker, who worked for the Russian navy first caught sight of Alaska, claiming it for Russia. As you might have guessed, The Bering Strait is named after him. 

[00:03:38] In 1784, Russia started to set up bases in Alaska, mainly to hunt sea otters for their thick fur coats

[00:03:49] And for the first 100 years or so after its discovery by Vitus Bering, it remained a Russian outpost.

[00:03:57] Although the centre of Russian power was thousands of kilometres away to the west, Siberian fur hunters from the Russian Far East knew about living and working in extremely cold conditions, and could easily adapt to life in Alaska. 

[00:04:13] After all, Alaska wasn’t all that different from Siberia.

[00:04:18] England and Spain also explored the area and set up fur hunting outposts, but Russia remained the dominant presence in the area. 

[00:04:28] At this time, in the 18th century that is, the future geopolitical importance of Alaska wasn’t obvious.

[00:04:36] As a large, icy area that was difficult to access, never mind live in, Alaska was simply not considered to have much strategic importance. 

[00:04:46] Though, if you’ve ever played the game Risk, you’ll know just how important having Alaska can be. 

[00:04:53] Alaska’s position allows access to both Asia and North America. 

[00:04:58] What’s more, if you control this area, you also have easy access to the Arctic.

[00:05:04] And although the Russian mainland is 90km away from the North American mainland, in the Bering Strait there are actually two islands. The western one is part of Russia, the eastern one is part of Alaska, and is therefore American.

[00:05:21] They are just 4km apart, and in winter the water between them freezes, making it actually possible to walk over from Russia to The United States of America. 

[00:05:33] As you might expect, now Alaska is of vital strategic importance to the United States in its geopolitical struggle with Russia.

[00:05:42] But in the 18th century Russia’s great enemy wasn’t the US. It was Britain.

[00:05:49] By the 18th and 19th centuries, Russia and Britain were already rivals in many domains and both countries were trying to increase their presence in the Pacific. 

[00:06:00] Britain had established numerous colonies in modern-day Canada, which wouldn’t become its own country until 1867. 

[00:06:09] In 1854, Britain and Russia were on opposite sides in the Crimean War back in Europe. The war weakened the Russian army and drained Russia’s finances.

[00:06:21] Meanwhile, fur trading had become less lucrative, there was less money to be made, plus the sea otters, those cuddly little creatures, had been hunted almost to extinction

[00:06:34] Russia did not have the financial means to continue to set up military bases in Alaska but above all, it didn’t want the British to get their hands on it.

[00:06:45] If it could only sell Alaska to another country that wasn’t Britain, it would serve two purposes: a welcome injection of money and it would keep it out of the hands of the British.

[00:06:59] As strange as it may now sound, before eventually selling Alaska to the USA, the Russian Empire is said to have offered the territory of Alaska to one of the world’s smallest countries, the landlocked European microstate of Liechtenstein. 

[00:07:16] This tiny country between Switzerland and Austria was on good terms with the Russian Empire at the time and was well known for its large gold reserves - just what the Russians needed. 

[00:07:29] Liechtenstein decided not to go ahead with the offer, worried about taking on such a large chunk of land, a territory that was over 10,000 times its size, and was so far away. 

[00:07:42] Plus at the time, the only resource Alaska was known for was its dwindling fur trade. 

[00:07:49] So, Russia then offered the less than hundred years old United States of America the chance to buy Alaska. 

[00:07:57] The sale was completed on the 1st August 1867. 

[00:08:02] The US paid $7.2 million, which works out at around $120 million in today’s money, approximately €110 million or €64 per square kilometre. 

[00:08:16] And what I need to reiterate is quite how big Alaska is.

[00:08:21] It’s 1.7 million square kilometres. 

[00:08:25] To put it another way, if Alaska was a country, it would be the 17th largest in the world. 

[00:08:32] You could fit all of France, all of Spain, all of Germany AND all of Italy inside Alaska and still have a little bit of room left over.

[00:08:42] Today, it might seem pretty incredible that such a huge amount of land could just be signed over and sold for such little money, especially those of us who are keen Risk players and have experienced firsthand the strategic importance of Alaska. 

[00:08:59] However, this was the era of vast land purchase. Louisiana was purchased from France in 1804, Florida from Spain in 1819 and California from Mexico in 1848. 

[00:09:14] But, even to a young country that had plenty of experience making territorial acquisitions, Alaska was something else. Its sheer size alone, means that Alaska makes up 15% of the entire country. 

[00:09:28] For comparison, Texas, the second largest state in terms of area, is under half the size of Alaska, at just under 700,000 kilometres squared. 

[00:09:39] The American public were, perhaps understandably, not too keen on Alaska’s purchase. 

[00:09:46] Alaska was seen as being an icy, barren land, devoid of, without, resources. The fact that it doesn’t share a border with any American state made the purchase even more unpopular.

[00:10:00] It was criticised as being a waste of money, And it was nicknamed “Seward's Folly” - Seward was the Secretary of State at the time, and the chief supporter of the purchase. 

[00:10:11] A “folly”, by the way, is something that shows a lack of common sense, it’s a foolish idea or action. 

[00:10:19] Foolish as it may have seemed, Seward’s purchase of Alaska was vindicated, was proved to be right, in part at least, when gold was discovered in the Klondike River just over the Canadian border in 1896.

[00:10:34] Thousands of Americans travelled via sea, and then overland across Alaska, with towns on the trail growing significantly as businesses sprung up to provide essentials, as well as gambling halls to relieve any successful gold miners of their money.

[00:10:53] In 1899 gold was found in Alaska at a coastal town called Nome. Copper mining, fishing and canning industries began to take off and construction started on Alaska’s railway in 1902.

[00:11:08] Things were starting to look a little rosier, a little more positive, with population growth and improved finances. 

[00:11:15] In 1912, Alaska became a territory of the USA, a bit like Puerto Rico today.

[00:11:23] However, the Great Depression put a hold on Alaska’s progression towards becoming a fully fledged state. 

[00:11:30] The price of fish and copper plummeted, causing workers to be laid off and wages reduced for those lucky enough to still have a job.

[00:11:40] It would take World War II to really drive home the strategic importance of Alaska to the rest of the USA, when two islands in Alaska were occupied by the Japanese forces. 

[00:11:52] These two Alaskan islands, Attu and Kiska, were the only parts of continental USA to be occupied during the entire war. 

[00:12:02] It took two weeks of fierce fighting and almost 4,000 American casualties, including 1,200 caused by severe cold, to liberate only Attu. 

[00:12:14] The second island, Kiska, was bombed extensively rather than risking even more lives.

[00:12:21] After World War II, with Alaska’s geopolitical importance now clear to see, large numbers of military personnel were sent to the state. 

[00:12:32] Building the first military bases helped to boost the population, while the completion of the Alaskan Highway finally linked Alaska to the lower 48 states by road for the first time, passing through Canada. 

[00:12:46] However, while it was evident that Alaska was strategically important, it would take a huge financial turnaround to prove its economic stability enough for Alaska to be seriously considered for statehood, for becoming a fully-fledged state of the USA.

[00:13:04] The Swanson River Oil Discovery in 1957 did just that. While oil had been found before in Alaska, this was the first time that oil was discovered in large enough amounts to be economically viable to exploit.

[00:13:21] And sure enough, Alaska officially became an American state on 3 January 1959. 

[00:13:29] With the completion of the Alaska Highway and increased troop numbers stationed in the state, Alaska became more open to visitors. Soldiers returning home helped to spread the word about the state’s stunning wilderness

[00:13:44] Tourism quickly became a major source of revenue for the state, with more than 2 million tourists visiting the state every year for its pristine landscape and unspoiled nature.

[00:13:57] Alaska’s other main source of income was and still is oil. The problem is that the oil extraction and tourism industries don’t always go hand in hand.

[00:14:09] If you are coming to see wonderful unspoiled beaches, glaciers, rivers and mountains, you will be disappointed if you find large factories, pipelines, or beaches covered in nasty black oil.

[00:14:23] But this was exactly what tourists found in 1989, after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground on the Alaskan coastline, polluting 1,800km of shoreline with 50 million litres of oil and killing thousands of animals.

[00:14:41] And there is still this tension today between the oil industry, which claims to create jobs for 10% of the Alaskan population and be responsible for billions of dollars of income to the state each year, and the tourist industry, which wants to keep the oil industry out of view.

[00:15:01] The other tension, which of course shows no signs of going away, comes from the fact that Alaska is the closest part of the United States to Russia.

[00:15:11] As you might expect, the United States continues to see Alaska as an important strategic outpost.

[00:15:19] Today there are over 22,000 American soldiers stationed in Alaska. 

[00:15:24] On the other side of the Bering Strait, Russia is also developing numerous military bases.

[00:15:31] And while Alaska’s geopolitical importance may have been severely underestimated before WWII, with increasing tensions between Russia and the United States, and with the Arctic Ocean becoming increasingly accessible as a sea route, the geopolitical importance of Alaska has never been clearer.

[00:15:52] So, now that we’ve learned a bit about the history of Alaska we have time for a few curiosities about this unusual place.

[00:16:01] Have you ever wondered why Alaska is called Alaska? What does it mean?

[00:16:06] Well, the word Alaska means the “Great Land” in one of the state’s native tribal languages, a language I imagine you might not have heard of called “Aleut”. 

[00:16:17] Another equally fitting name often given to Alaska is the “Land of the Midnight Sun”.

[00:16:23] For over two months in summertime, like in northern Europe and northern Russia, the sun does not set in the northernmost part of Alaska, meaning it is light for 24 hours a day.

[00:16:36] Alaska is also famous for its remarkable geographical features.

[00:16:40] You might have heard of the Rocky Mountains, but did you know that Alaska, not Colorado, is home to 17 of the 20 highest mountains in America? 

[00:16:51] Mount Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, is the highest point of elevation in the whole of North America. 

[00:16:59] Alaska also holds the record for the lowest point in America, the deep-sea Aleutian Trench, as well as the continent’s largest glacier, the Bering Glacier, which measures 3,261 km2 - almost one and a half times the size of Luxembourg.

[00:17:18] And our final interesting detail that sets Alaska apart is its state flag. 

[00:17:24] The flag is deep blue, with eight gold stars in the shape of Ursa Major, or the Great Bear constellation, representing strength and the North Star. 

[00:17:35] It’s a nice looking flag, but one interesting bit of trivia was that it was designed by a 13-year old boy living in an orphanage.

[00:17:44] Alaska certainly is an unusual place, and its story is unlikely. 

[00:17:50] A huge mass of freezing land on the edge of North America, one trying to figure out the balance between preserving nature for future generations and extracting oil from nature to provide an income for people living today. 

[00:18:06] It’s also a place with an unlikely geopolitical significance, a place where the United States and the Russian Federation meet, and where, when it’s cold enough, you can literally walk between the two countries.

[00:18:18] There are perhaps no better places deserving of the name “the Last Frontier

[00:18:25] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the weird history of Alaska. 

[00:18:31] I hope it’s been an interesting one, and you’ve learned a bit about how Alaska got to be the place it is today, as well some extra details about what makes Alaska special. 

[00:18:42] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:18:46] How would the world have been different had Russia not sold Alaska?

[00:18:50] How would it have been different had it sold it to Britain?

[00:18:54] How do you think we should think about the balance between preserving natural habitats and fossil fuel extraction?

[00:19:01] Have you ever visited Alaska or it is on your list of top potential destinations?

[00:19:07] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. 

[00:19:10] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:19] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:24] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]