On January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower signs a special proclamation admitting the territory of Alaska into the Union as the 49th and largest state.
The European discovery of Alaska came in 1741, when a Russian expedition led by Danish navigator Vitus Bering sighted the Alaskan mainland. Russian hunters were soon making incursions into Alaska, and the native Aleut population suffered greatly after being exposed to foreign diseases. In 1784, Grigory Shelikhov established the first permanent Russian colony in Alaska on Kodiak Island. In the early 19th century, Russian settlements spread down the west coast of North America, with the southernmost fort located near Bodega Bay in California.
Russian activity in the New World declined in the 1820s, and the British and Americans were granted trading rights in Alaska after a few minor diplomatic conflicts. In the 1860s, a nearly bankrupt Russia decided to offer Alaska for sale to the United States, which earlier had expressed interest in such a purchase. On March 30, 1867, Secretary of State William H. Seward signed a treaty with Russia for the purchase of Alaska for $7.2 million. Despite the bargain price of roughly two cents an acre, the Alaskan purchase was ridiculed in Congress and in the press as “Seward’s folly,” “Seward’s icebox,” and President Andrew Johnson’s “polar bear garden.” Nevertheless, the Senate ratified purchase of the tremendous landmass, one-fifth the size of the rest of the United States.
Despite a slow start in settlement by Americans from the continental United States, the discovery of gold in 1898 brought a rapid influx of people to the territory. Alaska, rich in natural resources, has been contributing to American prosperity ever since.