Alaska was inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous groups, including the Aleuts, Northern Eskimos, Southern Eskimos, Interior Indians and Southeast Coastal Indians, before European colonization in the 1700s. These and other native peoples faced severe smallpox outbreaks from the late 18th through the mid-19th centuries, which destroyed some and ruined other communities.
Secretary of State William Seward purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million, or about 2 cents an acre. Critics of the purchase, often referred to as "Seward's Folly," quickly changed their minds when gold was discovered in the Yukon and settlers flocked to the land in the 1890s.
The Last Frontier didn't become the 49th state until 1959, beating Hawaii by a matter of months. Oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was completed in 1977, and the resource has since contributed to about 90 percent of the state's economy. Alaska repealed its state income tax the same year, now one of seven states without one.
The battle between drilling companies and conservation activists has been ongoing since 1989, when an oil tanker hit a reef in the Prince William Sound and spilled more than 11 million gallons of oil over 1,300 miles of coastline.
Alaska is home to some of the most stunning geography in the U.S., boasting 17 of the nation's 20 highest peaks, as well as the Tongass National Forest, which is the largest in the country. The state contains more untouched land than anywhere else in the U.S.
While Alaska is the largest state by area, it's among the smallest in population – only about 740,000 people call the state home. Alaska boasts the lowest population density in the nation, with just 1.3 people per square mile.
About six in 10 Alaskans are white, and 15 percent are Native American or Alaskan. The black, Hispanic and Asian populations make up less than 18 percent of the population combined. About 8 percent of Alaskans were born outside the U.S., and only 16.2 percent of adults speak a language other than English in their homes.
The state's median household income, at $76,440 in 2016, was significantly higher than the national average, $57,617, and its poverty rate was lower. The cost of living in Alaska isn’t significantly higher than in other places, but a lack of access to rural areas can seriously impact the cost of living there. The median home value is $267,800, compared with the U.S. median, $205,000, and a little under20 percent of Alaskans have moved in the past year.
Anchorage is the state’s largest city, followed by Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Fairbanks, Kenai Peninsula Borough and the capital, Juneau. With just under 300,000 people, Anchorage accounts for about 40 percent of the state's population.
About 93 percent of Alaskans graduated from high school, though the number of people with at least bachelor’s degrees is slightly below the national average. Alaska is home to just a few four-year colleges, including Alaska Pacific University and the University of Alaska campuses at Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Alaska's economy continues to suffer from the severe global oil price decline that began in 2014. The state has experienced major job losses over the past few years and also faces a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall. The outlook for 2018 is more promising, with economists expecting job losses to taper. in coming years.
Industries including tourism, health care and mining exploration are also expected to grow.
Alaska is one of the least religious states, with only 41 percent of residents saying religion is very important in their lives and 30 percent attending services at least weekly.
Alaska has given its three Electoral College votes to the Republican presidential candidate in all but one election since becoming a state – it last voted for Democratic candidate Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.