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During the most recent ice age, about 15,000 years ago, much of the water covering Earth's surface was in the form of ice and snow.

Great land masses, which today are under water, were then exposed. One such land mass connected Alaska to Siberia.

Anthropologists now believe that most of Alaska's native people are descended from these nomadic hunters and gatherers who crossed from Siberia to North America.

These first Alaskans developed into three distinct groups: Eskimos, Aleuts, and Indians. The Eskimos scattered throughout the northern and western regions of Alaska, while the Aleuts settled mainly on the islands which now bear their name--the Aleutians. Alaska's two great Indian nations, the Tlingits and the Athapaskans, settled in Southeast and Central Alaska.

Not until the mid-1700s did outsiders discover the land the Aleuts called "Alyeska," or the "Great Land." In June 1741, Russian sailors led by Danish explorer Vitus Bering sailed from Siberia in search of whatever lands lay to the east. On July 16, Bering sighted Alaska's mainland.

The Russians were soon followed by British, Spanish, and American explorers and adventurers. But it was Russians who stayed and had the greatest impact on Alaska. In 1784, they established their first permanent settlement on Kodiak Island and by 1799 expanded their reach all the way to Sitka on Alaska's southeast coast. Russia's claim to Alaska was now firmly established.

Russian America prospered under its manager, Alexander Baranof, but when war broke out in Europe in the 1820s Russia had trouble defending its vast empire. Whalers and fur traders from other nations began to move into the North American territories claimed by Russia. As the profits from the fur trade declined, Russian interest in Alaska faded.

William H. Seward, Secretary of State under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, offered Russia $7,200,000 or two cents per acre, for Alaska at the end of the American Civil War. The offer was accepted, but many Americans scoffed at the purchase calling Alaska "Seward's Icebox," and "Seward Folly." Nevertheless on October 18, 1867 the Stars and Stripes flew for the first time over Alaska.

The presence of gold in Alaska had long been known, but not until the 1880 discovery by Joe Juneau and Richard Harris would the gold rush era truly begin. Soon hundreds of prospectors were pouring into the site which would later bear Juneau's name. In 1897, gold was discovered on the Klondike River in Canada's Yukon Territory.

Throughout the following decades the distant federal government was preoccupied with a war in Europe, and a depression at home. But when America declared war on Japan in 1941, the nation was suddenly aware of Alaska's strategic position. When Japan invaded the Aleutian Islands in 1943, more than 140,000 military personnel were stationed in Alaska. The Aleutian campaign, known as the "One Thousand Mile War," was the first battle fought on American soil since the Civil War.

Since early territorial days, many Alaskans had favored statehood. But Congress was initially reluctant to act on the request of this vast, sparsely settled territory. Alaskans would not give up, however, and on June 30, 1958, Congress finally approved the Alaska Statehood Act.

Source: State of Alaska.

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