Vitus Bering, a Dane working for the Russians, and Alexei Chirikov discovered the Alaskan mainland and the Aleutian Islands in 1741. Bering died from scurvy later that winter on an island named after him, Bering Island.
Around this time the British, Spanish, and French were exploring the coast of Alaska. The unregulated exploitation of the fur resources by rival companies led to a depletion of accessible fur areas and the killing and enslavement of the peaceful Aleut natives. Consequently, this led to the chartering of the Russian American Company in 1799. Under its first manager, Alexander Baranov, which was a period of about 20 years, there was an order and systematic exploitation of the fur resources.
In 1804, the settlement of Sitka was attacked and held by the Tlingit Indians. The Russians use a combined naval-military operation to force the natives out. Later, in 1805, the Tlingit Indians killed all of the Russian residents that were living at present day Yakutat. The cost of administering the Alaska territory put a significant drain on the Russian homeland. This cost and the disappearance of the sea otter and fur trade brought about the Russians trying to interest the United States in purchasing Alaska in 1859.
The tremendous land mass of Alaska—equal to one-fifth of the continental U.S. was still unexplored in 1867. And with the Civil War, the purchase was not completed until March 30, 1867 when the Treaty of Purchase was signed in Washington DC , affirmed by the Senate on April 9th, and signed by President Andrew Johnson on May 28th. The formal transfer of the Territory was made at Sitka on October 18, 1867. The purchase price was $7,200,000.00. Shortly afterwards, despite a price of about two cents an acre, the purchase was widely ridiculed as “Seward's Folly.” The first official census (1880) reported a total of 33,426 Alaskans, all but 430 being of aboriginal stock.
From 1867 until 1898 the US neglected the administration of the Territory. In 1896 the discovery of gold in the Yukon Territory of Canada fired the imagination of the world. The Gold Rush of 1898 resulted in a mass influx of more than 30,000 people. This brought thousands of gold seekers through Alaska on their way to the gold fields. Another strike was found in Nome, several in the Interior of Alaska along the Yukon River. The last major discovery brought Fairbanks into being in 1902. With the vast influx of people into Alaska, Congress had to apply Civil Codes and establish laws in the Territory. In 1902 the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve was created which became the Tongass National Forest in 1907. Since then, Alaska has contributed billions of dollars' worth of products to the US economy.
Alaska gained Territorial status with the United States Congress on August 24, 1912. This gave Alaska a say in the laws that were being passed to administer the Territory. Expectations were not live up to with Territorial status as there was a period of economic and population decline. The Alaska Railroad was build between Seward and Fairbanks between 1914 and 1923. Copper was shipped from the Kennecott Copper Mine to Cordova between 1911 and 1938. In 1935 Federal subsidies were provided to farmers from the Midwest and Dust Bowl to settle the Matanuska Valley Colony.
World War II brought a short lived influx of military personnel and a boom in building within the State. With the end of the war there was a decline in military personnel resulting in a short lived recession. The Cold War of the late 1940's brought about tremendous population and economic growth due to defense spending by the U.S. Government.
The most important result of all this activity was the movement for statehood. In 1949 the Alaska Statehood Committee launched a campaign which brought about the Alaska Statehood Act which was signed by President Eisenhower on July 7, 1958. On January 3, 1959, Alaska was officially proclaimed the forty-ninth state of the Union. From 1959 to present, Alaska has had economic booms with timber, oil, sea foods, and the tourism industries