Map of the Week: The Gold and Coal Fields of Alaska


The map from our archives hung up in the department each week will now also be posted here– this 1898 map from the U.S. Department of the Interior and USGS (potentially republished in National Geographic) shows gold and coal deposits in Alaska. Aside from the chosen geologic elements, note the steamer, postage, and trail routes, the international boundaries, the military reservation, and the densely labelled port cities.

A few key dates might help to put this map in context: according to the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, Russia first offered to sell Alaska to the US in 1859, but the sale did not go through until President Andrew Johnson signed the purchase treaty in 1867, after the Civil War had officially ended. You may remember learning about this purchase being called “Seward’s Folly”, as it was popularly seen as a miss-step until Alaska became a strategically important territory due to natural resources. The historian notes that the U.S. imposed a civil government in Alaska in 1884, supposedly to enforce U.S. mining laws. Alaska became a state in 1959.

In light of the geologic elements of the map, what depositional environments lead to the buildup of coal and gold, and what is their temporal relationship to each other? What made them important commodities at this time, as opposed to oil, which became a key commodity in the next century?

This map’s chosen combination of geologic and infrastructural features is telling; the attention to detail in listing port cities and transportation routes is reminiscent of other colonial maps concerned with extracting commodities. What is the relationship between these processes and human migration? How does this map erase indigenous life and history, and how can it be used to trace a history of dispossession?

by Aidan Antonienko ’21

Office of the Historian page for more contextual information:
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