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Vita Role Refugees Could Play in Settling Alaska Stressed by Interior Department Report

August 16, 1939
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The Department of the Interior made public today a comprehensive report on the prospects for development of Alaska both by Americans and the victims of racial persecution in Europe.

The report, the result of an exhaustive survey ordered by Interior Secretary Harold I. Ickes and carried out under the direction of Under Secretary Harry Slattery, depicts enthusiastically the agricultural, industrial and commercial possibilities of the territory.

Without making specific recommendations as to the absorption of refugees, the report throughout emphasizes the vital role this category of prospective settlers could play in development of a region which is one-fifth the United States yet has a total population of only 59,278, or a density of one tenth of a person for every square mile.

In submitting the report, which was prepared with the assistance of various government departments and agencies, Mr. Ickes described it as “an intelligent framework upon which plans might be developed.”

“Prospects for Alaskan development are particularly favorable today,” he said, “because of the possibility of transplanting to Alaska for the benefit of the United States, industries which were developed in Europe but which have been broken up or diverted by current waves of intolerance.”

The Slattery survey cites the wealth of natural resources in the territory, the climatic advantages the need for building up the white population, the strategic value to the United States of an increased population and recommends creation of privately financed “public purpose” corporations to undertake development of the region. These corporations could be chartered, the report states under legislation modeled partly on the China Trade Act of 1922 which would require them to “conform to such condition as Congress might prescribe with reference to the type of industry to be developed in Alaska and the Type of settler to be admitted.”

The report emphasizes the “disastrous effect” of the present immigration laws upon the population of Alaska, adding: “Whatever justification there may be for the present quota laws with respect to the settled areas of the United States, application of the same yardstick to an under populated territory whose future well-being depends on new immigration and new capital is extremely questionable from the standpoint of national policy.”

In discussing planned settlement projects for Alaska, the report cites two examples in the past 50 years where the Federal Government has “actively encouraged” such settlements. One, the Matanuska Valley project, largely financed by the Government, has produced conflicting views as to its success. The other, involving the Metlakatla island group, was exclusively a private venture inaugurate by a group of 800 victims of religious persecution in Canada and has developed into “probably the most prosperous municipality in the country.”

Summarizing the experiences gained from these two settlement projects, one Government subsidized and the other a private venture by refugees, the Slattery report lists the following “elements of successful settlement in Alaska: (1) A group of human beings bound together by a common tragic experience and by common ideals will assume the responsibilities of a self supporting community under circumstances where individuals who lack common interests will tend to look to the Government to help them over any obstacles that may arise (2) Settlers in Alaska, who can go back to a more or less comfortable existence if they tire of Alaska, are apt to take a critical view towards the problems of a pioneer community, whereas men and women who have definitely cut their ties with the past, who feel that they must make their new life a good life or perish in the attempt are more likely to face the hardships and to endure the sacrifices which the fashioning of that good life demands.”

In a section on the attitude of native Alaskans toward immigration, the report points out that they feel as early American colonists felt, “that any legislation preventing the migration of immigrants to territory that demands population is injurious and despotic.”

“The people of Alaska,” the report declares, “are probably as free from national and religious prejudices as any other people in the world. They are themselves a melting pot of three races, Eskimo, Indian and Caucasian, and of many religions and nationalities…. Alaska must seek its population growth as did the United States through immigration, and nowhere in the world today will the immigrant find less racial or religious prejudice…. Hospitality and tolerance based only upon humanitarian impulses may wear away. In Alaska the welcome that is extended to settlers is dictated by the pressing and well-understood economic needs of a sparsely settled country with undeveloped resources. Tolerance and democracy are natural products of the frontier where a man is appraised for his worth and not for his ancestry. The people of Alaska, then want to see their land populated and it makes little difference whether this population comes from the United States or from abroad, provided only the settlers who come to Alaska are equipped for Alaskan life in physique, training, interest, and financial resources.”

Other points brought out by the Slattery survey include the following: There are 94,000 square miles of farming and grazing land in Alaska; the climate in the southern coastal region is the most favorable, featuring cool summers, warm winters and considerable rainfall with no great variation in temperature while the interior has long cold winters and short warm summers with fairly light rainfall; potentially, Alaska offers a market larger than America’s present export marked in all South America; national forest land in southeastern Alaska contains 3,000 acres of merchantable timber; mineral resources include large gold deposits, copper, chromite, then coal and probably petroleum.

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