On Kodiak Island, Grigory Shelikhov, a Russian fur trader, founds Three Saints Bay, the first permanent Russian settlement in Alaska.
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. The Three Saints Bay colony was founded on Kodiak Island in 1784, and Shelikhov lived there for two years with his wife and 200 men. From Three Saints Bay, the Alaskan mainland was explored, and other fur-trade centers were established. In 1786, Shelikhov returned to Russia and in 1790 dispatched Aleksandr Baranov to manage his affairs in Alaska.
Baranov established the Russian American Company and in 1799 was granted a monopoly over Alaska. Baranov extended the Russian trade far down the west coast of North America and in 1812, after several unsuccessful attempts, founded a settlement in Northern California near Bodega Bay. British and American trading vessels soon disputed Russia’s claims to the northwest coast of America, and the Russians retreated north to the present southern border of Alaska. Russian interests in Alaska gradually declined, and after the Crimean War in the 1850s, a nearly bankrupt Russia sought to dispose of the territory altogether.
The czarist government first approached the United States about selling the territory during the administration of President James Buchanan, but negotiations were stalled by the outbreak of the American Civil War. After the war, Secretary of State William H. Seward, a supporter of territorial expansion, was eager to acquire the tremendous landmass of Alaska, one-fifth the size of the rest of the United States. 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.” In April 1867, the Senate ratified the treaty by a margin of just one vote.
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. On January 3, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a proclamation admitting the territory of Alaska into the Union as the 49th state.