The first European contact with Alaska occurred in the year 1741, when Vitus Bering led an expedition for the Russian Navy aboard the St. Peter. After his crew returned to Russia bearing sea otter pelts judged to be the finest fur in the world, small associations of fur traders began to sail from the shores of Siberia towards the Aleutian islands. The first permanent European settlement was founded in 1784, and the Russian-American Company carried out an expanded colonization program during the early to mid-1800s. New Archangel on Kodiak Island was Alaska's (Miners and prospectors climb the Chilkoot Trail during the Klondike Gold Rush) first capital, but for a century under both Russia and the U.S. Sitka was the capital. The Russians never fully colonized Alaska, and the colony was never very profitable. William H. Seward, the U.S. Secretary of State, negotiated the Alaskan purchase with the Russians in 1867 for $7.2 million. Alaska was loosely governed by the military initially, and was unofficially a territory of the United States from 1884 on.
In the 1890s, gold rushes in Alaska and the nearby Yukon Territory brought thousands of miners and settlers to Alaska. Alaska was granted official territorial status in 1912. At this time the capital was moved to Juneau.
During World War II, the Aleutian Islands Campaign focused on the three outer Aleutian Islands – Attu, Agattu and Kiska – that were invaded by Japanese troops and occupied between June 1942 and August 1943. Unalaska/Dutch Harbor became a significant base for the U.S. Army Air Corps and Navy submariners.
The U.S. Lend-Lease program involved the flying of American warplanes through Canada to Fairbanks and thence Nome; Soviet pilots took possession of these aircraft, ferrying them to fight the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The construction of military bases contributed to the population growth of some Alaskan cities. Statehood was approved on July 7, 1958. Alaska was officially proclaimed a state on January 3, 1959.
In 1964, the massive "Good Friday Earthquake" killed 131 people and destroyed several villages, mainly by the resultant tsunamis. It was the second most powerful earthquake in the recorded history of the world, with a moment magnitude of 9.2. It was 100 times more powerful than the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. Luckily, the epicenter was in an unpopulated area or thousands more would have been killed.
The 1968 discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay and the 1977 completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline led to an oil boom. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez hit a reef in the Prince William Sound, spilling over 11 million gallons of crude oil over 1,100 miles (1,600 km) of coastline. Today, the battle between philosophies of development and conservation is seen in the contentious debate over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.