In 1824 and 1825, Russia signed agreements with the United States and Britain, fixing the southern limit of Russian America at 54 degrees 40 minutes north latitude, near present-day Ketchikan . But the vast territory south of this line was left up for grabs.
The American claim to the Oregon Territory around the Columbia River was based on its discovery by Robert Gray in 1792, and on the first overland exploration by Lewis and Clark. Britain based its claim to the region on its effective occupation of the land by the Northwest Company, which in 1821 merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
As American settlers began to inhabit the area, feelings ran high—President Polk was elected in 1846 on the slogan “Fifty-four Forty or Fight,” referring to the proposed northern boundary between American and British territory in the Pacific Northwest. War between Britain and the United States was averted when both agreed to draw the boundary line to the Pacific along the 49th parallel, which remains to this day the Canada-U.S. border.
Vancouver Island  went to Britain, and the new Canadian nation purchased all the territorial holdings of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Rupert’s Land) in 1870. In 1871, British Columbia  joined the Canadian Confederation on a promise from the leaders of the infant country of a railroad to extend there from the east.
The year 1863 was a difficult one for the Russian America Company. Back in the motherland, Russia’s feudal society was breaking down, threatening the aristocracy’s privileged status. In Alaska , competition from English and American whalers and traders was intensifying. Food was scarce, and supply ships from California were unreliable and infrequent.
The worst, perhaps, was the dwindled numbers of fur seals and sea otters, hunted nearly to extinction over the past century. In addition, bad relations with Britain in the aftermath of the Crimean War (1853–1856) prompted Czar Alexander I to fear losing his far-flung Alaskan possessions to the British by force. Finally, the czar did not renew the company’s charter, and the Russian America Company officially closed up shop.
Meanwhile, American technology was performing miracles. Western Union had laid two cables under the Atlantic Ocean from the United States to Europe, but neither had yet worked. So they figured, let’s go the other way around the world: They proposed laying a cable overland through British Columbia , along the Yukon River, across the Bering Strait into Siberia, then east and south into Europe.
In 1865, the Western Union Telegraph Expedition to Alaska, led by William Dall, surveyed the interior of Alaska for the first time, revealing its vast land and resources. This stimulated considerable interest in frontier-minded Washington, D.C. In addition, Czar Alexander’s Alaska salesman, Baron Eduard de Stoeckl, was spending $200,000 of his own money to make a positive impression on influential politicians and journalists.
Secretary of State William H. Seward purchased Alaska  on March 30, 1867, for the all-time bargain-basement price of $7.2 million—two cents per acre. The American flag was hoisted over Sitka  on October 18, 1867. According to Ernest Gruening, first U.S. senator from Alaska:
A year later when the House of Representatives was called upon to pay the bill, skeptical congressmen scornfully labeled Alaska “Icebergia,” “Walrussia,” “Seward’s Icebox,” and “[President] Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden.” If American forces had not already raised the Stars and Stripes in Sitka, the House might have refused to pick up the tab.
Stoeckl, meanwhile, reimbursed himself the $200,000 he’d invested and sent the other $7 million home to Alexander. Subsequently, Alaska faded into official oblivion for the next 15 years—universally regarded as a frozen wasteland and a colossal waste of money.
This act organized Alaska for the first time, providing a territorial governor and law enforcement (though not a local legislature or representation in Washington). President Chester Arthur appointed federal district court judges, U.S. attorneys, and marshals. From 1884 to 1900, only one U.S. judge, attorney, and marshal managed the whole territory, all residing in the capital, Sitka.
The first three appointees to the court in Sitka were removed in disgrace amidst charges of “incompetence, wickedness, unfairness, and drunkenness.” A succession of scandals dogged other federal appointees—and that was only in Sitka; the vast Interior  had no law at all until 1900, when Congress divided the territory into three legal districts, with courts at Sitka , Nome, and Eagle .
William H. Dall wrote of Alaska at that time as a place where “no man could make a legal will, own a homestead or transfer it, or so much as cut wood for his fire without defying a Congressional prohibition; where polygamy and slavery and the lynching of witches prevailed, with no legal authority to stay or punish criminals.” Kipling’s line, “There’s never law of God or man runs north of 53,” also refers to the young territory of Alaska. In contrast, Colby in his WPA guide commented that the gold-rush stampeders,
although technically without civil authority, created their own form of self-government. The miners organized “miners meetings” to enforce order, settle boundary disputes, and administer rough and ready justice. Too often this form of government failed to cope with [serious problems] yet the profound instinct of the American people for self-government and their tradition of democracy made local self-government effective until the creation of the Alaska Legislature in 1912.
Alaska ’s gold rush changed everything. After the California stampede of 1849, the search moved north. In 1858 there was a rush up the Fraser River to the Cariboo gold fields. In 1872, gold was found in British Columbia ’s Cassiar region. Strikes in Alaska and the Yukon followed one another in quick succession: at Juneau  (1880), Fortymile (1886), Circle (1893), Dawson City  (1896), Nome (1899), Fairbanks  (1902), and Iditarod (1908).
A mobile group of men and women followed these discoveries on riverboats, dogsleds, and foot, creating instant outposts of civilization near the gold strikes. Gold also caused the Canadian and American governments to take a serious look at their northernmost possessions for the first time; the beginnings of Alaska’s administrative infrastructure date from those times.
Still, in 1896, when Siwash George Carmack and his two Athabascan brothers-in-law discovered gold where Bonanza Creek flowed into the Klondike River in Yukon Territory, this vast northern wilderness could barely be called “settled.” Only a handful of tiny nonnative villages existed along the Yukon River from Ogilvie and Fortymile in western Yukon to Circle and Fort Yukon in eastern Alaska, and a single unoccupied cabin sat on a beach at the mouth of the Skagway River at the terminus of the Inside Passage.
But by the end of 1897, perhaps 20,000 stampeders had skirted the lone cabin on their way to the headwaters of the Yukon and the sure fortunes in gold that awaited them on the Klondike. The two trails from Skagway  over the coastal mountains and on to the interior rivers proved to be the most “civilized” and successful routes to Dawson.
But the fortune-frenzied hordes proceeded north, uninformed, aiming at Dawson from every direction on the compass. They suffered every conceivable hardship and misery, from which death (often by suicide) was sometimes the only relief. And those who finally burst through the barrier and landed at the Klondike and Dawson were already two years too late to partake of the “ready” gold.
But the North had been conquered by whites. And by the time the gold rush had spread to Nome, Fairbanks , Kantishna, Hatcher Pass , and Hope , Alaska could finally be called settled (if not civilized).
The consequences of this Anglo invasion were devastating for the people who had lived in this harsh land for thousands of years. Epidemics of measles, influenza, and pneumonia swept through the Native Alaskan communities, particularly in 1900 and 1918, sometimes killing every person in a village. Rescuers found entire families who had frozen to death because they did not have enough strength to keep the fire going. The impact of these deaths, combined with the sudden arrival of whites who introduced alcohol, depleted game and other food sources, and then brought Christianity as a replacement for indigenous beliefs, was profound. The consequences still ripple across Alaska, most notably in the form of rampant alcoholism, which is a factor in many Native Alaskan accidents and suicides.