Under the aegis of explorer Vitus Jonassen Bering, Russia established
a presence in Alaska in the early 18th century. Russia initially approached
the United States about selling the territory during President James Buchanan's
administration, but the Civil War stalled negotiations. Seward, secretary
of state under Presidents Lincoln and Johnson, supported American expansion
and was eager to acquire Alaska. However, convincing the Senate that Alaska
was an important addition to the United States proved difficult. The Senate
ratified the treaty by just one vote in 1867; the territory was purchased
for $7.2 million -- or less than 2 cents per acre!
The discovery of gold in the late 1890s increased Alaska's value as a
U.S. possession and boosted its population. In 1912 the region was granted
territorial status. The political situation stagnated until Japan invaded
the Aleutian Islands of Agattu, Attu and Kiska during World War II. U.S.
response to the threat included construction of the Alcan Highway and
an increased military presence in the region.
Alaskans approved statehood in 1946 and adopted a state constitution
in 1955. On January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower announced Alaska's entrance
into the Union as the 49th state.