January 3, 1959: Welcome, Alaska, and the 49-star flag — 55 years ago


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?

Alaska's state flag design came from 13-year old Benny Benson.

Alaska’s state flag design came from 13-year old Benny Benson. Benny Benson holding the Alaska flag at the Jesse Lee Home, Seward, Alaska. ASL-P01-1921, Alaska State Library-Historical Collections.

 

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.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post.  Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

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