Early Years as a U.S. Possession

In 1867, Russia sold Alaska to the United States for $7,200,000. The U.S. purchase was accomplished solely through the determined efforts of Secretary of State William H. Seward, and for many years afterward the land was derisively called Seward’s Folly or Seward’s Icebox because of its supposed uselessness. Since Alaska appeared to offer no immediate financial return, it was neglected. The U.S. army officially controlled the area until 1876, when scandals caused the withdrawal of the troops. After a brief period, during which government was in the hands of customs officials, the U.S. navy was given charge (1879). Most of the territory was not even known, although the British (notably John Franklin and Capt. F. W. Beechey) had explored the coast of the Arctic Ocean, and the Hudson’s Bay Company had explored the Yukon.

It was not until after the discovery of gold in the Juneau region in 1880 that Alaska was given a governor and a feeble local administration (under the Organic Act of 1884). Missionaries, who had come to the region in the late 1870s, exercised considerable influence. Most influential was Sheldon Jackson, best known for his introduction of reindeer to help the Alaska Eskimo (Inuit), impoverished by the wanton destruction of the fur seals. Sealing was the subject of a long international controversy (see Bering Sea Fur-Seal Controversy under Bering Sea), which was not ended until after gold had permanently transformed Alaska.