Originally inhabited by the Inuit peoples, Russian traders started settling in Alaska during the 18th century, before selling the area to the United States in 1867. Alaska saw early gold rushes during its time as a U.S. territory and eventually became an important military outpost during World War II.
Vitus Bering discovered Alaska for the Russian Empire in 1741. Russian traders soon followed, trading with the Inuit inhabitants for furs from seals and otters. Traders founded the first European settlement in 1784. Most inland areas remained unmapped until well after the American purchase in 1867.
After conflicts along the western coast and losses in the Crimean war, Russia decided to dispose of Alaska. U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward negotiated the deal, and many contemporary commentators called the purchase "Seward's Folly" for years afterwards, considering Alaska a mostly useless territory. The first official census in 1880 found only 33,426 people living in Alaska, of which all but 430 were native inhabitants.
Alaska grew in importance following the Yukon gold rush in Canada, as most prospectors went through the Alaskan coast to reach the Yukon gold fields. This forced the two countries to negotiate an agreement on the previously nebulous Alaska-Canada border in 1903. Gold rushes in Alaska itself also increased immigration in the years following.
During World War II, the U.S. military built the Alaskan highway up through Canada to supply military outposts in Alaska. The Japanese also invaded two Alaskan islands for 15 months.