January 3, 1959: Welcome, Alaska, and the 49-star flag


Alaska Territorial Gov. Bob Bartlett in center, with the 49-star flag (Bartlett was one of Alaska's first U.S. senators).

Alaska Territorial Gov. Bob Bartlett in center, with the 49-star flag (Bartlett was one of Alaska’s first U.S. senators).

The great service at the New York Times site, the Learning Network, notes the 1959 Dwight Eisenhower proclamation of Alaska as the 49th state, and the unveiling of the 49-star flag:

On Jan. 3, 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a proclamation admitting Alaska to the Union as the 49th state. The New York Times noted that the signing included the unveiling of the new 49-star American flag.

The land that became Alaska came into U.S. possession in 1867, when William Seward, secretary of state under President Andrew Johnson, negotiated a deal to buy the 586,000-square-mile area from Russia for $7.2 million, less than 2 cents per acre. Seward’s decision was ridiculed in the American press, who saw no potential in the vast, inhospitable and sparsely populated area.

For decades after its purchase, Alaska was derided as “Seward’s folly” or “Seward’s icebox.” This opinion changed in 1896 with the discovery of gold in the neighboring Yukon Territory, which spurred tens of thousands of people to head to Alaska in search of gold. The gold rush also brought about a boom in mining, fishing and trapping.

Though the first statehood bill had been presented to Congress in 1916, there was little desire in either Alaska or Washington for Alaskan statehood until after World War II. During the war, the U.S. established multiple military bases to resist Japan’s attacks on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and prevent a potential invasion of the mainland. The military activity, along with the completion of a major highway from Montana, led to a large population growth.

In 1946, Alaskans voted in favor of statehood in a referendum and Alaskan delegates began to lobby Congress for statehood. After years of debate, Congress voted in June 1958 to admit Alaska.

Eight months after Alaska’s admission, on Aug. 21, 1957 [should be 1959, no?], Hawaii became the 50th state. The 49-star remained in place until the following July 4, when it was replaced by the now-familiar 50-star flag.

49-star flags were produced only until August 1959, so there are few of them around.  I love this photo of the unveiling of the flag with President Eisenhower:

President Eisenhower and Quartermaster General MG Andrew T. McNamara, with 49-star flag - image from QM foundation

“Quartermaster General MG Andrew T. McNamara and President Eisenhower examine new 49 star flag” – image and caption from the Quartermaster Foundation. (Who are the other two people?  The guy on the right looks to me a bit like is Pennsylvania’s Sen. Hugh Scott.)

It had been about 47 years since the previous state admission (Arizona); people became aware that no law set what the flag should look like.  President Eisenhower issued a directive.

How did the nation survive for 170 years without firm, decisive and conclusive orders on what the flag should look like?  Isn’t it a great story that we went so long without law setting the requirements?

Benny Benson's award-winning flag design for the State of Alaska

Alaska’s flag was designed by 13-year-old Benny Benson

Alaska’s state flag came from the imagination of a 13-year-old Aleut, Benny Benson, winning a contest to design the state’s flag.  Alaska’s flag stands out in any display of U.S. state flags.

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14 Responses to January 3, 1959: Welcome, Alaska, and the 49-star flag

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Wow. Thanks, Debra! Any idea on the other guy?

    Like

  2. Debra says:

    You are correct. Gentleman on the far right holding flag is my Great Uncle, Hugh Doggett Scott Jr. of Fredericksburg Virginia, who lived and served as a Congressman and US Senator from Pennsylvania. Thank you for posting!

    Like

  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Thank you, Dr. Bumsted!

    http://www.unmpress.com/books.php?ID=10685858469396&Page=book

    Completing the Union: Alaska, Hawai’i, and the Battle for Statehood

    John Whitehead

    As late as mid-1941 the two territories of Alaska and Hawai’i were little known by most Americans. Alaska was seen as a frozen wasteland and Hawai’i, an exotic outpost in the mid-Pacific with a multi-racial, particularly Asian, population. The bombing of Pearl Harbor in late 1941 and the capture of two Aleutian Islands in 1942 made the two territories central theaters of World War II. Thousands of Americans came to know Alaska and Hawai’i as never before.

    Once the war ended both territories hoped that statehood would be their reward for such loyal wartime service. Their strategic locations pointed to an increased national involvement in the Pacific and Asia. The 49th and 50th states would eventually be admitted, but it took thirteen years, from 1946 to 1959, to do it. The long delay was caused by many of the events of the Cold War. Both territories became enmeshed in the national politics of anti-communism, radical labor movements, and Arctic policy to resist a Soviet air attack across the polar North. A cadre of statehood supporters emerged to make their case to the nation, including the young Daniel Inouye of Hawai’i and Ted Stevens of Alaska, both of whom would become two of the most powerful senators in Congress.

    ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
    John S. Whitehead retired from the history department of University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and resides in Athens, Georgia.

    ACCLAIM

    “In his well written book Completing the Union, retired University of Alaska history professor John S. Whitehead makes a substantial contribution to the understanding the statehood process.” — History: Reviews of New Books

    “John S. Whitehead has written a monumental history that traces the separate but interconnected paths that Alaska and Hawai’i took to achieve statehood in 1958 and 1959.” — Alaska History

    “John Whitehead’s Completing the Union weaves together the hitories of the 20th century statehood movements in Hawai’i and alaska, connecting them to each other and to the outside world. . . Completing the Union is a useful first encounter with those people and with the topic in genereal.” — The Hawaiian Journal of History

    “The territories were always on the fringe of American society until World War II, when they became the front lines of defense. Even so, it took 13 years of lobbying against anti-communist hysteria and cultural blindness to admit the last two states to the union. History professor Whitehead thoroughly covers the political battle at each awkward step.” — Honolulu Star-Bulletin

    6 x 9 in. 456 pages 53 halftones, 4 maps

    List Price $50.00 hardcover 978-0-8263-3636-1 [Add to Cart]
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    At Google Books, here:
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    Like

  4. mpb says:

    Mr Junior is correct, http://timpanogos.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/january-3-1959-welcome-alaska-and-the-49-star-flag/#comment-191735

    This was given to me as the best reference for this,

    Completing the union: Alaska, Hawai’i, and the battle for statehood John S. Whitehead – 2004 – 438 pages – Preview
    The story of the thirteen-year effort to add the 49th and 50th states to the Union.

    Like

  5. The political back story that I remember from the time, which one never hears these days, is that Alaskan statehood was delayed for a year or two after it might normally have been adopted. And that was because everyone knew that when it got in, there was no avoiding doing the same for Hawaii. And *that* was highly unacceptable to the South.

    Anybody wanna guess why? Looked at Hawaiians lately, or in 1958?

    But the opposition eventually folded.

    I’ve never done research on that story, but it definitely was contemporary. Might justify a notice on some blog when Hawaii’s anniversary rolls around, hint, hint.

    Like

  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Thanks. I’ll edit as required.

    Like

  7. mpb says:

    I was able to speak with someone at the Alutiiq Museum who verifies that Benny Benson is considered by all to be Aleut.

    Like

  8. [...] was minding his own business, reading Milliard Fillmore’s Bathtub, when he came across a discussion about the 49 star flag. It happened 53 years ago, according to [...]

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  9. Well Alaska elected her governor. They deserve some ire for that. Of course my area of mInnesota keeps on electing Michele Bachmann but I’ll readily admit my district is crazy.

    Like

  10. Ed Darrell says:

    Sarah was not born in Alaska and neither were her parents born and raised in Alaska. Some would argue that neither Anchorage nor its suburbs, Wasilla, are in Alaska.

    Yeah, I know the sentiment. Somewhere here we have the Dave Barry column in which he identified the late senator from South Carolina as “Sen. Strom (“Strom”) Thurmond, R-Mars.”

    Like

  11. mpb says:

    I will find out from someone who may have known him. Why it isn’t an easy answer?– aside from the cosmopolitan nature of Pacific Rim Alaska, and the similar cultural adaptations to a maritime Alaska environment (think, marine conveyances a.k.a., quayags and kayaks and qayaks) many non-local people confuse Aleut and Alutiiq/Sugpiaq and thus by using the confused English terms, also confused the people they were naming. Should be someone at work who knew him and how Benson considered his folks.

    Like

  12. Ed Darrell says:

    Picky, but important. To what group should I ascribe Mr. Benson?

    Like

  13. mpb says:

    A picky issue, (but, really, should anyone bathe in tepid water?)– The Inuit people live in Canada, not the US. Eskimo people live in the US and are Alaska Native peoples.

    Benny Benson was born in Chignik, which is generally regarded as a community of Russian, Aleut, Alutiiq (Sugpiaq Eskimo), and Scandinavian heritage.

    His mother was Aleut, not Eskimo (and certainly not Inuit). He went to school at the Jesse Lee Home, Alaska – https://ykalaska.wordpress.com/2008/02/23/jesse-lee-home-alaska-and-the-pandemic-of-1919/ and settled later in Kodiak, which is Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) traditional area http://www.alaska.edu/uajourney/notable-people/kodiak/benny-benson/

    Benny Benson was Alaska Native, not Canadian, in origin.

    Sarah Palin’s mother-in-law is Yup’ik (Eskimo) heritage, Todd Palin, Sarah Palin’s husband, and rural Alaska living. Sarah was not born in Alaska and neither were her parents born and raised in Alaska. Some would argue that neither Anchorage nor its suburbs, Wasilla, are in Alaska.

    Like

  14. Alaska created Sarah Palin. Isn’t that grounds for kicking Alaska out of the country? I mean I’d be perfectly fine with kicking Texas out of the country for Perry and W too..

    Like

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