According to the accepted theory, Alaska was the first part of the Americas to be settled by humans. Some time around 12,000 B.C., people from Asia are believed to have begun migrating across the Bering Land Bridge. All of the native peoples of America from the Arctic to the southern tip of Argentina are their descendents. Today, Alaska has the highest percentage of American Indians of any state in the union, including such groups as Tlingit, Eskimo and Aleut.
The first European to explore Alaska was Vitus Bering, who led a Russian navy expedition in 1741. They discovered some excellent otter pelts, and the fur trade would drive Russian occupation of Alaska. The city of Sitka still contains examples of Russian colonial architecture.
In 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire for $7.2 million. This deal was dubbed "Seward's Folly" at the time, but in light of Alaska's eventual strategic importance for gold, oil and national security, now seems like a brilliant move.
In 1898 gold was discovered near the Klondike River in the Yukon Territory, and the Gold Rush was on. Towns like Skagway, Alaska, sprung up to help the prospectors on their way and often became havens of crime and debauchery. Today Skagway has a thriving tourist trade built not only on the White Pass Railroad left behind by the miners, but also around the infamy of local characters like the gangster Jeff "Soapy" Smith.
After playing an important role in World War II, Alaskans were finally granted statehood in 1959. The discovery of America's richest oil reserves on the state's North Slope, and the completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in 1977, transformed the state's economy forever. Today's Alaskans are proud of their diverse heritage, both cultural and natural, and deeply aware of the need to preserve it.