Alaska Purchase: When and why did the United States buy Alaska from Russia?

March 30, 1867, marked the day in history when the Treaty of Cession was finalized by William H. Seward, the then-U.S. Secretary of State, and Baron Edouard de Stoeckl, a senior Russian envoy. The treaty was for the purchase of Russian America (present-day Alaska in the United States). The region was one of Russia’s few colonies in the Americas.

With a single signature, Tsar Alexander II successfully sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million. That figure amounts to around $120 million in today’s dollar rates. This was Russia’s surrender of its last territorial claim in North America. Russia’s intention was to focus more of its attention and efforts to the south and the west, where it had to contend with Great Britain and its mighty royal navy.

It is often the case that a number of important questions are raised when it comes to U.S. purchase of Alaska. There is also a lot of mystery and rumors surrounding the story of the Alaska Purchase, as well as a lot of misunderstandings and unspoken intentions. For example, why was Alaska sold to the U.S. and not Great Britain or some other colonial power of the time? Secondly, why did the U.S. buy Alaska? And did Russia ever regret selling Alaska to the United States?

Below, World History Edu takes an in-depth look into the historic purchase of Alaska, a territory that went on to become the 49th state of the Union.

Russia’s Domination and Exploration of the Pacific

Russia’s exploration of Alaska and, later, California, began in the 16th century, when the country was a quarter of its present size. Regardless, the growing empire had a strong thirst for new regions, and hence it carried explorations and conquests in so many regions. For example, in 1581, Russia conquered the Khanate of Sibir, a region of Siberia ruled by Genghis Khan’s grandson. This decisive victory helped the Russians to fully conquer and own Siberia, and within 60 years they had reached the Pacific.

Russian navy explorers make landing at Alaska

Partially motivated by the lucrative fur trade and the desire to spread Russian Orthodox Christianity to undiscovered populations of the east, the Russians pushed throughout Siberia. Another reason for that was because they needed the addition of new taxpayers and resources.  Peter the Great, who founded Russia’s first navy, wanted to determine how far east the Asian continent stretched in the early 18th century, therefore, he directed two explorations, the First Kamchatka Expedition and the Great Northern Expedition, both of which started in the Siberian city of Okhotsk.

The Russian Navy tasked Danish explorer and cartographer Vitus Jonassen Bering (also known as Ivan Ivanovich Bering) to lead the two Russian expeditions. The Russian explorers’ goal was to determine whether there was a land border connecting Asia and America. Ultimately, Bering and his team made it across the channel, i.e. from the Russian Far East over to the Kamchatka Peninsula. The explorers saw Mt. Saint Elias in 1741, not far from the present-day Alaskan settlement of Yakutat. Severe weather during the return route caused Bering’s ship to wreck on one of the westernmost Aleutian Islands, and he died of scurvy in December 1741.

Nonetheless, the second Kamchatka Expedition was a tremendous triumph for Russia. In order to satisfy Russian fur hunters, the remaining crew members repaired the ship and loaded it with hundreds of the sea otters, foxes, and fur seals that were abundant in the new area known as Russian America, and soon Russian settlement began to take shape in Alaska.

Before the discovery of Alaska by the Russian explorers, the land was predominantly owned and inhabited by some local tribes, including Aleuts and Eskimos. Like any invading force, the Russians meted out harsh forms of treatment to the locals, especially the Aleuts, enslaving many of them or forcing them to hunt otters.

Disease, wars and enslavement by the Russian settlers decimated the indigenous population of Alaska.  Image: Russian settlement in Alaska

Owing to incredible amount of distance between the Alaskan colony and Russia, the Russian settlers and traders in the colony could not rake in as much profits as they hoped to get.

The Russian-American Company, which was in effect the leading trading company in the colony, also had to contend with Great Britain’s Hudson’s Bay Company, which was a very dominant force in the region.

Beginning around 1820, Coupled with the lack of trading experience in the fur trade, the Russian-American Company began relinquishing some of its control and trade to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Great Britain, thus, obtained rights to operate in the Russian territory.

Russia after the Crimean War

Discussions about potentially selling Alaska began during the Crimean War which spanned from 1853 to 1856. The war had taken a huge toll on the finances of the Russian Empire. It has been said that when Russia’s attention was diverted elsewhere, Russian leaders began to worry that Great Britain or the United States might seize control of their province.

The Russian Navy at the time was not as large or powerful as Great Britain’s; hence, some Russian leaders and businessmen began contemplating the sale of the colony, which wasn’t the most profitable colony of Russia. As a matter of fact, the profits from Russia’s fur trade had begun to take a nose dive as overhunting had significantly reduced the animal population in the region.

An agent for the Russian American Company devised a plan in 1854 to carry out a fraudulent sale to a group of San Francisco merchants, presumably to stop the possibility of a British expansion. This strategy never materialized, but it did raise the prospect of a sale for the first time.

Reasons why Russia sold Alaska

Russia did its utmost best to keep these new communities under their control, but it wasn’t easy. The 800 or so Russians who lived in Alaska at the height of the empire’s power had difficulty communicating with the imperial capital in St. Petersburg, which was 500 miles away.

Alaska was also too far north to support extensive farming, making it a poor choice for relocating big populations. In order to import the foods that couldn’t thrive in Alaska’s severe environment, they set out to discover the lands to the south. They dispatched ships to the area now known as California, and eventually settled at Fort Ross in 1812.

However, after 30 years, the organization tasked with overseeing Russia’s American explorations had failed and sold off the remaining assets. It wasn’t long before the Russians started wondering if they could keep their Alaskan colony going, too.

After the sea otter population began to diminish, the colony stopped making enough money to make the colony a worthy venture. Russia was also starved for funds due to the price of the war in Crimea, and Alaska was a difficult territory to protect.

The Tsarist government had to quickly set up plans to sell the land because aside from the financial debt they were incurring, their English enemies were also making a move to annex the land.

Why was America so interested in the Alaskan Sale?

It was abundantly evident that the Russians were prepared to sell Alaska, but why were the Americans so interested in purchasing? In the 1840s, the United States established a presence in Texas, went to war with Mexico, and successfully conquered California. Now that they had established themselves, they could confidently spread into Arctic regions.

The United States anticipated increased trade with China and Japan as a result of the abundance of gold, fur, and seafood in Alaska. They also believed that acquiring Alaska would help them become a Pacific power and prevent Great Britain from establishing a presence there. This was particularly important as the United States was recovering from its four-year long Civil War.

Under then-U.S. President Andrew Johnson’s administration, the United States was eager to establish itself as force to be reckoned with, militarily and economically. The Alaska Purchase was simply one of the steps that the U.S. believed it had to take in keeping up with its Manifest Destiny, which held the belief that the United States was to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire continent.

The March 30, 1867 Deal

Things were even made easier when Konstantin Nikolayevich, the younger brother of Tsar, further influenced the sale, and successfully convinced Alexander II to approve the sale.

At a secret meeting in 1866, in the presence of the Tsar in St. Petersburg, they finalized the deal without informing most of Russian top officials.

The Alaska Purchase was negotiated between U.S. Secretary of State William Seward and Russian minister Eduard de Stoeckl. After a lengthy talk that lasted all night, a deal was secured on March 30, 1867.

The Alaska Purchase treaty – 1867 Treaty of Cession – received the support of many lawmakers on Capitol Hill, as the treaty was approved by the Senate and the House. The latter voted in its favor 113 to 48 on July 14, 1867.

The Alaska Purchase was negotiated between U.S. Secretary of State William Seward and Russian minister Eduard de Stoeckl. A deal was secured on March 30, 1867. Image: Alaska Treaty of Cessation was signed between the U.S. and the Russian Empire on March 30, 1867

America hits the jackpot

It looked like the Americans got quite a bargain for their $7.2 million in 1867, considering how much they came to gain from it. To put it in perspective, the United States obtained around 370 million acres of relatively untouched land, which could be equated to nearly a third the size of the European Union, with 220 million of those acres becoming federal parks and wildlife refuges. At that figure, it costs the U.S. tax payers 2 cents to get an acre.

Today, Alaska cities such as Anchorage and Fairbanks are home to major U.S. military bases, further solidifying Alaska’s importance to national security of the United States.

Aside from its pristine wilderness, federal parks and wildlife refuges, Alaska is considered one of the richest states in the Union as it has has hundreds of billions of dollars in natural resources, including timber, gold, fish, lead, copper, and petroleum, among others.

Alaska also serves as the lower 48 states’ only land bridge to the Arctic, guaranteeing the state an advantage as glaciers melts and new mining and shipping routes are discovered.

The U.S. paid 7.2 million for Alaska

Did Russia regret selling Alaska to the U.S.?

The once supposed useless land as described by the Russians quickly became one of the most important assets to be owned in the world, not just in natural resources but in geopolitics.

Alaska has become a big part of trade revenue and an important political asset as large reserves of gold and oil became evident many years after the sale.

In the decades that followed the Alaska deal, Russia came to realize their mistake in selling Alaska since America has quickly become the powerhouse of the world with most of their military and technological advancements being made from the supposed cold wastelands of Alaska.

Why couldn’t Canada secure Alaska?

It’s possible that Alaska won’t jump out at you when you first glance at a map of the United States. Why? This is because Alaska has no neighboring states. The country of Canada separates this northernmost state from the rest of the United States and is in fact much closer. So, why didn’t Canada buy it? This inquiry necessitates a journey to the year 1741, the year that Russia officially recognized Alaska as part of its territory. Canada couldn’t make the purchase because in 1867, Canada was not yet a sovereign nation and had no right to be a part of the deal.

Another offset also was that the Canadian colonies were under British rule, and as stated in the aforementioned paragraphs, Russia was anything but interested in selling Alaska to Canada since it would in turn be controlled by the British who were their arch enemies.

The State of Alaska’s border with Canada

Unbeknownst to many, when the United States bought Alaska from Russia, it set off a heated argument with Canada. The disagreement had to do with where the border of Alaska actually existed. In the end, the issue was resolved, and the 1,538-mile border between Alaska and Canada was agreed upon.

In 1959, Alaska officially joined the Union as the 49th state of the United States.

US President Dwight Eisenhower signs a proclamation admitting Alaska into the Union as the 49th state on Jan. 3, 1959.

Just how big is the State of Alaska?

The Alaska Purchase was the second biggest chunk of territory added by the United States to its territory. The first was obviously the Louisiana Purchase in the early 1800s. Image: Size of the State of Alaska compared to other states in the Union.

The state is the largest state in Union. To put into perspective, Alaska’s land area of almost 1.5 million square kilometers is more than twice the land area of Texas, which is the second largest state in the Union. Alaska is more than three times bigger than California by land area. It’s former capital, Sitka, is the largest city in the United States by area.

Where did the name ‘Alaska’ come from?

The Americans took the term Alaska from an Aleut word, alashka or alaesksu, which means “vast land” or “mainland.” Rightly so, it is estimated that the United States made more than 500 percent interest on their purchase of Alaska due to the abundance of its natural resources.

Other notable facts about the Alaska Purchase

Once considered valueless, Alaska, since the discovery of gold in the later 19th century, has become an important state in the Union.

  • After Russia formally transferred Alaska (i.e. the Russian American colony) to the United States on October 18, 1867, politicians on Capitol Hill agreed to grant privilege to inhabitants of the acquired territory to become American citizens. Only a few Russian settlers chose to take this offer, while many of them sailed back to Russia.
  • However, it was not until 1924 that the Alaska Natives were granted (with the Indian Citizenship Act) the right to U.S. citizenship.
  • The Alaska Purchase added a whopping 586,000 sq miles (or 1,518,000 sq kilometers) to the territory of the United States. In today’s dollar, the United States paid about $120 million. This means that the U.S. paid less than 50 cents for an acre. It is no wonder, the public at the time viewed the purchase in very good light.
  • The few that opposed the Alaska Purchase cited reasons as Alaska being a barren waste land. Critics of the purchase ridiculed it as “Andrew Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden” and “Seward’s Folly”.
  • The Alaska Purchase happened during the presidency of President Andrew Johnson.
  • It’s been stated that in honor of the role senior Russian diplomat Stoeckl played in the deal, the czar gave him $25,000 and placed the diplomat on a $6,000 pension.
  • To commemorate the Alaskan purchase, the State of Alaska celebrates two official holidays – Seward’s Day (on the last Monday of March) and Alaska’s Day (on October 18).
  • Owing to the geopolitcal advantages and vast number of resources that Alaska offers, some Russian nationalists today have lamented the loss of the territory.
  • The 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act helped bring some bit of relief to Alaska Natives that had for more than a century been destroyed by the US quest for assimilation in the region. The act allowed the Alaskan population to reclaim ancestral lands that were lost. At the time the act was passed, it was the most profound land settlement program for any indigenous population in the United States.

1 Response

  1. Henricus van Roy says:

    Very interesting read. Not much taught or known in Australia (which of course tends to teach British history).

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