When Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, most Americans were not convinced that the purchase of such remote real estate was a good idea. It was called “Seward’s folly” or “Seward’s icebox.” (William H. Seward was the secretary of state who negotiated the deal.) Until then, America had only acquired contiguous territory, which was expected quickly to gain statehood. Alaska was our first foray into colonialism, setting a precedent for the annexation of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and other possessions.
As soon as the Treaty of Secession was signed and even before Congress appropriated the $7.2-million purchase price, a military government was set up in Sitka. Many years of neglect followed. Alaska was a lawless territory with no legal title to land. Violent criminals often went unpunished. The Army imposed order on native and white civilians, but only within the proximity of its six forts. Underpaid soldiers, who were far from home, often exploited the natives.
Statehood was debated for decades before becoming a reality. The statehood election was held August 26, 1958, and on January 3, 1959, Alaska became the 49th state. Alaskans thought this might result in self-determination. Within 15 years, however, many were already thinking statehood was a grave mistake.