In 1867 Alaska became the first noncontiguous U.S. possession. Discovered in 1741 by Vitus Bering, a Danish navigator commissioned by Peter the Great for Russia, the territory had been only lightly settled before the American purchase; the largest number of Russians ever in the colony at one time was 823. Having exhausted the territory's fur supply, and fearing its vulnerability to foreign attack, Russia sold the region to the United States for $7.2 million.
Though the United States had not previously expressed a desire for Alaska, Secretary of State William Seward thought the region would help facilitate American trade with the Orient and that it would prove useful as the U.S. Navy developed a presence in the Pacific. Despite some early criticism (those who opposed the purchase referred to Alaska as "Seward's Folly," "Icebergia," and "Walrussia"), the Senate quickly and decisively approved the purchase treaty by a vote of 37-2, and national editorial opinion was generally favorable.
Because there was no economic base to support settlement, Congress did not immediately provide civil government, though numerous scientific and U.S. Army teams undertook exploratory missions. A group of San Francisco investors secured a lucrative government lease for an annual harvest of fur seals on the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, and prospectors began to examine the mineral potential of river valleys in the interior. Nevertheless, the territory was largely dormant for seventeen years, governed at first from Sitka by the U.S. Army, and later by the U.S. Navy. Several conflicts with the native people, mostly the result of insensitive administration of justice, were put down by the military force. Coverage of these incidents in the national press led to official criticism of the military government. The discovery of major lode gold deposits at present-day Juneau in 1880 led Congress to pass the Organic Act of 1884, which appointed a civil governor, a federal district judge, and other officials. The act also directed the federal government to establish schools throughout the territory.
The canning of Pacific salmon began in Alaska in 1878 and by 1890 had become the dominant economic activity. However, because the industry was seasonal and brought its own labor force, the territory reaped little economic benefit.
In 1879 the California naturalist John Muir explored Glacier Bay in the Alexander Archipelago, where he discovered and named Muir Glacier. His rhapsodic celebration of the region's wilderness and natural environment, published in magazine articles and scientific journals, led to an embryonic tourist industry. Much to Muir's displeasure, however, the tourists came on excursion boats and did little but gawk at the shoreline.
Despite a program for setting up village grammar schools established by the government and missionary societies to acculturate the native people, the nonnative population of about five thousand had a minimal impact on the thirty thousand Indians, Aleuts, and Eskimos, most of whom continued to pursue their traditional customs, including subsistence hunting and gathering. Congressional legislation in 1891, authorizing homesteads for business purposes to aid the canning industry (authorization for residences came in 1898) and providing for the platting of townsites and the sale of town lots, failed to stimulate new settlement.
The 1896 discovery of the great Klondike gold deposits, just over the border with Canada, finally brought settlers to Alaska. This spectacular gold rush attracted forty thousand people to the Yukon (Canada) and Alaska; the towns of Dawson, Nome, and Fairbanks arose soon afterward. The "Trail of '98," over Chilkoot Pass near Skagway, brought Alaska into the twentieth century, leading to new towns, a permanent settler population, and sustained economic development.