The land mass known today as Alaska was originally occupied only by Native peoples that had been in the area for thousands of years before European or Russian explorers arrived in the 1700s. The Inuit people inhabited much of the central to northern areas. The southern and Panhandle (See the circle on the map.) areas were inhabited by the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes. The Aleuts had inhabited the islands of the Aleutian chain for many thousands of years as well. Each of these groups of people had their own complex legal and family systems as well as beautiful artwork expressing their faith and life.
During the 1700s and 1800s, Russian explorers and fur traders crossed into the Aleutian islands and “Russian America” that is today Alaska. Russia claimed ownership of this territory and established many settlements to handle trade and export of goods back to Russia. In some of these settlements, Russians and other European explorers co-existed peacefully with the native people. In others there were terrible relations with native people being taken as slaves and many dying from imported European diseases that they had no immunity to.
By 1800 there was conflict between the Russian-American Company which sought to own a monopoly on the fur trade in the area, the British Hudson’s Bay Company and American fur traders, who were overtaking the trapping business in the south nearer the border to the United States. The colony was not profitable for Russia, so this and their wish to keep it away from Britain, brought the willingness to consider a sale to the United States, who was not an enemy at the time.
William Henry Seward
President Abraham Lincoln appointed William Henry Seward as secretary of state in 1861. During his term he began negotiating the purchase of Russian America, from Russia. The purchase agreement was signed by Seward on March, 30, 1867, and approved by the U.S. Senate May 27, 1867 so that entire land mass, that is today Alaska, was purchased for $7.2 million–or 2 cents an acre. At the time, this purchase was often called “Seward’s folly” because many Americans in the “lower 48” did not realize the value of Alaska to the United States.
Alaska became the 49th state of the United States of America on January 3, 1959. Before that it was considered first a district in October 18, 1867, and then an organized territory on August 24, 1912.