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Alaska and Hawaii’s journey to statehood was long and complex. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Alaska became the 49th state on January 3, 1959 and Hawaii became the 50th state on August 21, 1959.

In this comprehensive article, we’ll explore the full historical context, key events, and main figures that led to Alaska and Hawaii finally achieving statehood after decades of being U.S. territories.

A Brief History of Alaska Before Statehood

Alaska Purchase in 1867

The United States purchased Alaska from Russia on March 30, 1867 for $7.2 million. Known as the Alaska Purchase or Seward’s Folly, Secretary of State William H. Seward arranged the deal despite many critics believing it was exorbitantly overpriced land with little value.

The discovery of gold in the Yukon Territory in 1896 and Alaska in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 proved those critiques wrong and confirmed the enormous economic and geopolitical value of Alaska to the U.S.

Alaska as a District from 1884-1912

Alaska was organized and governed as the District of Alaska from 1884 to 1912.

Although an organized territory, Alaska was still very much an untamed frontier region, with gold prospectors, whalers, fishermen, and fur trappers operating relatively independently.

In 1912, Alaska was reorganized into the Territory of Alaska, allowing for additional governmental structures and federal oversight in the region.

The Alaska Territory from 1912-1959

From 1912 to 1959, Alaska operated as the Alaska Territory, marked by gradual increases in governance, economic growth, and infrastructure. The influx of U.S. military investment during World War II served as a major catalyst for the territory’s development.

The Cold War brought yet further strategic reasons for the U.S. government to invest in Alaska. However, residents grew increasingly frustrated at Congress’s control over local decision-making without adequate territorial representation.

Momentum to reclassify Alaska as a U.S. state grew, helped by the discovery of oil there in 1957. On January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower signed the official declaration making Alaska the 49th state in the union.

Also read: Are Alaska And Hawaii Part Of A Specific Region Of The United States?

Key Events in Alaska’s Path to Statehood

World War II and the Alaska Highway

World War II was a pivotal moment for Alaska. The Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands in 1942-1943 brought military infrastructure and troops pouring into the territory.

Over 50,000 soldiers helped build the Alaska Highway connecting Alaska to the Lower 48, dramatically improving access and tying the region closer to the rest of the United States.

According to the official Alaska Highway website, the influx of military investment totaled over $800 million. This enormous capital infusion kickstarted Alaska’s economy and fueled momentum for statehood.

Statehood Bills and Referendums

In the post-war years, bills proposing Alaska statehood were introduced in Congress nearly every year according to the National Park Service. While they consistently passed in the House, southern Senators repeatedly blocked their advance.

Opposition gradually softened in the 1950s, but concerns lingered over Alaska’s small population and economic viability.

To help make their case, Alaskans voted overwhelmingly in favor of statehood in a 1946 referendum. Turnout soared in a second referendum in 1950 with nearly 74% voting yes.

These resounding votes demonstrated Alaska’s eagerness to join the Union and added pressure on Congress to act.

Alaska Constitutional Convention

A significant milestone was the drafting of the Alaska State Constitution in 1955-1956. Delegates gathered for a Constitutional Convention and produced a document tailored for Alaska’s unique geography, resources, and people.

Addressing concerns in Congress, they also included important provisions on state lands and natural resource management.

The ratification of a state constitution showed Alaska was ready to govern itself. It laid critical groundwork that enabled the Alaska Statehood Act to finally pass in 1958 after years of effort.

With President Eisenhower’s signature that July, Alaska was declared the 49th state.

A star for Alaska was soon added to the American flag, with Hawaii following as state #50 in 1959.

Hawaii’s Complex History Before Becoming a State

The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy

The Hawaiian Islands were originally settled by Polynesian voyagers likely arriving from the Marquesas Islands. The first known monarch was King Kamehameha I who united the islands into one kingdom in 1810.

Over the next decades, American businessmen increasingly involved themselves in Hawaii’s economy, establishing sugarcane plantations that relied on imported labor. This Western influence led to much political turmoil in the kingdom.

In 1887, King Kalakaua was forced at gunpoint to sign a new constitution stripping him of most of his authority. When his sister Queen Liliuokalani inherited the throne in 1891, she attempted to draft a new constitution to restore native Hawaiian political power.

However, in 1893 her government was overthrown in a coup led by American settlers seeking to join the United States. The queen temporarily yielded her authority to the new Provisional Government.

Also read: A Comprehensive History Of The Rulers Of Hawaii

Annexation and the Territory of Hawaii

Over the next few years, President Grover Cleveland rejected proposed annexation treaties with Hawaii. But in 1898, President William McKinley signed a resolution annexing the islands, viewing them as a vital military asset.

Hawaii then became an incorporated U.S. territory, with much control still held by sugar plantation owners.

Residents of Hawaii had no formal representation in the federal government, fueling the statehood movement. Still, progress was slow due to the territory’s small population, distance from the mainland, and concerns over its racial diversity compared to other states at the time.

A long road still lay ahead.

Also read: Was The Annexation Of Hawaii Justified?

The Long Road to Statehood

In 1935, the U.S. Congress passed the Hawaii Organic Act, establishing the territorial government. From 1938-1942, Hawaii hosted the docking and repairs of Navy vessels, making it a vital military outpost during World War II. Statehood bills were introduced, but faced high legislative hurdles.

Finally, in 1959, both houses of Congress approved the Hawaii Admission Act. A state constitutional convention drafted a document aligning with the U.S. Constitution, which voters ratified.

On August 21, 1959, Hawaii officially became the 50th state with the Hoist the Flag occasion and ceremony.

The long journey was complete after years of tenacious campaigning by supportive locals and officials.

Final Steps for Hawaii Statehood

The Hawaii Statehood Commission

In 1950, Hawaii established the bipartisan Hawaii Statehood Commission to lead the push for statehood. The commission lobbied Congress relentlessly, arguing that statehood would benefit both Hawaii and the nation.

They emphasized Hawaii’s strategic location in the Pacific, its unique blend of cultures, and its history as an organized U.S. territory.

The Hawaii Admissions Act of 1959

After years of effort, the commission’s work finally paid off in 1959 when Congress passed the Hawaii Admissions Act.

This act allowed Hawaiian residents to vote on statehood in a special referendum. An overwhelming 93% voted in favor.

Soon after, on August 21, 1959, Hawaii officially became the 50th state.

The Hawaii State Constitutional Convention

As one of the final steps to statehood, Hawaii held a constitutional convention to draft their state constitution. Delegates included future Senator Daniel Inouye. The constitution they created balanced aspects of traditional Hawaiian culture and governance with America’s republican system.

This was a symbol of Hawaii’s dual heritage as both an indigenous Polynesian society and a diverse American state.

Also read: When Was Hawaii Made A State: A Detailed History

Alaska and Hawaii Officially Become States

On January 3, 1959, Alaska was admitted as the 49th U.S. state after voting to accept the Alaska Statehood Act. This followed decades of calls from Alaskans to become a state and enjoy the benefits of statehood, such as representation in Congress and federal funding.

Similarly, on August 21, 1959, Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state after Congress passed the Hawaii Admission Act. This marked the culmination of Hawaii’s long journey towards statehood after originally being annexed as a U.S. territory in 1898.

The admittance of these two states completed the contiguous 48 states and made the United States stretch from sea to shining sea. It also showcased the country’s growth and development in the 20th century by incorporating land on both the nation’s western and eastern fronts.

Reasons for Statehood

There were several key reasons Alaska and Hawaii sought statehood:

  • Gain voting representation in Congress and the Electoral College
  • Receive federal funds and support for infrastructure and public services
  • Assert more autonomy over local affairs as a state rather than a territory

Campaigns supporting statehood for both Alaska and Hawaii argued that their geographic isolation should not prevent them from accessing the full rights of statehood. Supporters contended that Alaska and Hawaii were equally American despite their distance from the contiguous states.

Pathway to Statehood

Despite early calls for statehood, Alaska and Hawaii’s journeys were lengthy and gradual. Various bills were introduced in Congress throughout the early 20th century to grant them statehood, but faced opposition and delays.

Reasons included perceptions that the territories were too remote, concerns over native populations having lesser rights, and fears that statehood would tip the political balance in Congress.

For Alaska, a breakthrough came in 1958 when both houses of Congress approved the Alaska Statehood Act. A referendum held in Alaska showed overwhelming support for statehood, with voters approving the Act by a margin of nearly 7 to 1. Alaska formally joined the Union as a state on January 3, 1959.

Hawaii’s path followed a similar trajectory. After failed attempts earlier in the 20th century, Hawaii came closer to statehood in 1959 when Congress approved the Hawaii Admission Act.

Hawaiians voted 17 to 1 to accept statehood, and on August 21, 1959, Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a proclamation making Hawaii the 50th state.

Impact of Statehood

Statehood had profound impacts on Alaska and Hawaii:

  • Gain of congressional voting rights and federal funding – Alaska gained one representative and two senators, while Hawaii gained two representatives and two senators.
  • Influx of infrastructure investment for roads, schools, ports – Federal spending increased in the new states.
  • Expansion of national defense capabilities – The military significantly expanded bases and communications infrastructure.
  • Increase in tourism – Hawaii saw a major uptick in visitors.
  • Strengthened ties with the contiguous U.S. – Travel and shipping routes greatly improved over time.

While the journeys were lengthy, statehood allowed Alaska and Hawaii to further integrate with the rest of the country. Admitting these states also demonstrated America’s growth into a bicoastal nation spanning the Pacific and Arctic.

Native groups did face challenges protecting their rights and lands, but ultimately statehood brought Alaska and Hawaii more fully into the national fold.

Also read: Why Alaska And Hawaii Are Different From The Other Us States


As we’ve explored, Alaska and Hawaii’s path to statehood was lengthy, spanning over 60 years from the initial U.S. annexation to final admission as states. Key events like World War II, lobbying by statehood commissions, and state constitutional conventions all played pivotal roles.

Understanding this important history provides context into how the U.S. reached 50 states and how Alaska and Hawaii came to fully participate in the federal union.

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