On October 18, 1867, the United States of America, bruised and battered from the Civil War, which had ended just over two years before, took possession of Alaska, hitherto a far-flung colony of Russia.
Alaska, a land of ice, snow, and rolling, forested mountains, was first sighted by European explorers in 1732. The first landing came nine years later in 1741, when Vitus Bering and Aleksei Chirikov set foot on a rocky coast and, with gray waves crashing at their back, claimed the land for Mother Russia. The name “Alaska” is derived from the Inuit word “alyeska,” which means “great land.”
By the 1860s, Russia wanted out of Alaska, which was sparsely populated and hard to defend in case of attack: Russia feared that its enemy the United Kingdom would move in and take it away from them, so they decided to sell.
The Alaska Purchase, as it was called, was negotiated by Secretary of State William Seward. Russia transferred Alaska (all 586,412 square miles of it) to the United States at a steal. 7.2 million dollars – less than two cents an acre.
The American public believed Alaska to be a useless tundra, and the purchase was widely and derisively called “Seward’s folly.” President Andrew Johnson was largely unpopular with the public (Abraham Lincoln was a tough act to follow) and anything he did was suspect, the purchase of Alaska being no exception.
At first, Alaska was administered by the US Army. A small number of Americans settled in Sitka, a city in the Alaska panhandle founded by Russians in 1799. In 1900, Alaskan cities were granted the legal right to corporate.
Public sentiment regarding Alaska changed for the better when gold was discovered in a tributary of the Klondike River, sparking a three year gold rush that drew an estimated 10,00 prospectors from the US and other places. In 1899, gold was discovered near Nome, in western Alaska: This gold rush lasted until 1909.
On January 3, 1959, Alaska was officially admitted into the Union as the 49th state. Just over five years later, on March 27, 1964, a devastating earthquake struck the young state, killing over one hundred people and causing millions of dollars in damages.
Today, Alaska is famous for its rich deposits of oil and other natural resources, producing a full 25 percent of America’s oil and a staggering 50 percent of its seafood.