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Home Milestones 1866-1898 Purchase of Alaska, 1867
MILESTONES: 1866–1898NOTE TO READERS
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Purchase of Alaska, 1867
The purchase of Alaska in 1867 marked the end of Russian efforts to expand trade and settlements to the Pacific coast of North America, and became an important step in the United States rise as a great power in the Asia-Pacific region. Beginning in 1725, when Russian Czar Peter the Great dispatched Vitus Bering to explore the Alaskan coast, Russia had a keen interest in this region, which was rich in natural resources and lightly inhabited. As the United States expanded westward in the early 1800s, Americans soon found themselves in competition with Russian explorers and traders. St. Petersburg, however, lacked the financial resources to support major settlements or a military presence along the Pacific coast of North America and permanent Russian settlers in Alaska never numbered more than four hundred. Defeat in the Crimean War further reduced Russian interest in this region.
Signing of the Alaska Treaty, 1867
Russia offered to sell Alaska to the United States in 1859, believing the United States would off-set the designs of Russia’s greatest rival in the Pacific, Great Britain. The looming U.S. Civil War delayed the sale, but after the war, Secretary of State William Seward quickly took up a renewed Russian offer and on March 30, 1867, agreed to a proposal from Russian Minister in Washington, Edouard de Stoeckl, to purchase Alaska for $7.2 million. The Senate approved the treaty of purchase on April 9; President Andrew Johnson signed the treaty on May 28, and Alaska was formally transferred to the United States on October 18, 1867. This purchase ended Russia’s presence in North America and ensured U.S. access to the Pacific northern rim.
For three decades after its purchase the United States paid little attention to Alaska, which was governed under military, naval, or Treasury rule or, at times, no visible rule at all. Seeking a way to impose U.S. mining laws, the United States constituted a civil government in 1884. Skeptics had dubbed the purchase of Alaska “Seward’s Folly,” but the former Secretary of State was vindicated when a major gold deposit was discovered in the Yukon in 1896, and Alaska became the gateway to the Klondike gold fields. The strategic importance of Alaska was finally recognized in World War II. Alaska became a state on January 3, 1959.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1866–1898: The Continued Expansion of United States Interests
U.S. Diplomacy and the Telegraph, 1866
Purchase of Alaska, 1867
The Burlingame-Seward Treaty, 1868
Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt’s Voyage to Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, 1878–1880
Chinese Immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Acts
Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History: Securing International Markets in the 1890s
Blaine and Pan Americanism, 1880s/1890s
Venezuela Boundary Dispute, 1895–1899
U.S. Diplomacy and Yellow Journalism, 1895–1898
The Spanish-American War, 1898
There Are Two Versions of the Story of How the U.S. Purchased Alaska From Russia
The tale of "Seward's Folly" must also be seen through the eyes of Alaska's native populations
HISTORY There Are Two Versions of the Story of How the U.S. Purchased Alaska From Russia
The tale of “Seward’s Folly” must also be seen through the eyes of Alaska’s native populations
William L. Iggiagruk Hensley, The Conversation
March 29, 2017
Flying toward Denali as a snow storm approached the mountain range. Corrina Lucas, via the Smithsonian.com Photo Contest
One hundred and fifty years ago, on March 30, 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward and Russian envoy Baron Edouard de Stoeckl signed the Treaty of Cession. With a stroke of a pen, Tsar Alexander II had ceded Alaska, his country’s last remaining foothold in North America, to the United States for US$7.2 million.
That sum, amounting to just $113 million in today’s dollars, brought to an end Russia’s 125-year odyssey in Alaska and its expansion across the treacherous Bering Sea, which at one point extended the Russian Empire as far south as Fort Ross, California, 90 miles from San Francisco Bay.
Today Alaska is one of the richest U.S. states thanks to its abundance of natural resources, such as petroleum, gold and fish, as well as its vast expanse of pristine wilderness and strategic location as a window on Russia and gateway to the Arctic.
So what prompted Russia to withdraw from its American beachhead? And how did it come to possess it in the first place?
As a descendant of Inupiaq Eskimos, I have been living and studying this history all my life. In a way, there are two histories of how Alaska came to be American – and two perspectives. One concerns how the Russians took “possession” of Alaska and eventually ceded it to the U.S. The other is from the perspective of my people, who have lived in Alaska for thousands of years, and for whom the anniversary of the cession brings mixed emotions, including immense loss but also optimism.
The ‘soft gold’ of the sea otter was what drew so many Russians to Alaska. Laura Rauch/AP Photo
Russia looks east
The lust for new lands that brought Russia to Alaska and eventually California began in the 16th century, when the country was a fraction of its current size.
That began to change in 1581, when Russia overran a Siberian territory known as the Khanate of Sibir, which was controlled by a grandson of Genghis Khan. This key victory opened up Siberia, and within 60 years the Russians were at the Pacific.
The Russian advance across Siberia was fueled in part by the lucrative fur trade, a desire to expand the Russian Orthodox Christian faith to the “heathen” populations in the east and the addition of new taxpayers and resources to the empire.
In the early 18th century, Peter the Great – who created Russia’s first Navy – wanted to know how far the Asian landmass extended to the east. The Siberian city of Okhotsk became the staging point for two explorations he ordered. And in 1741, Vitus Bering successfully crossed the strait that bears his name and sighted Mt. Saint Elias, near what is now the village of Yakutat, Alaska.
Although Bering’s second Kamchatka Expedition brought disaster for him personally when adverse weather on the return journey led to a shipwreck on one of the westernmost Aleutian Islands and his eventual death from scurvy in December 1741, it was an incredible success for Russia. The surviving crew fixed the ship, stocked it full of hundreds of the sea otters, foxes and fur seals that were abundant there and returned to Siberia, impressing Russian fur hunters with their valuable cargo. This prompted something akin to the Klondike gold rush 150 years later.
But maintaining these settlements wasn’t easy. Russians in Alaska – who numbered no more than 800 at their peak – faced the reality of being half a globe away from St. Petersburg, then the capital of the empire, making communications a key problem.
Also, Alaska was too far north to allow for significant agriculture and therefore unfavorable as a place to send large numbers of settlers. So they began exploring lands farther south, at first looking only for people to trade with so they could import the foods that wouldn’t grow in Alaska’s harsh climate. They sent ships to what is now California, established trade relations with the Spaniards there and eventually set up their own settlement at Fort Ross in 1812.
Russia’s reach into North America once extended as far south as California, as evidenced by this Russian Orthodox church in Fort Ross. Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo
Thirty years later, however, the entity set up to handle Russia’s American explorations failed and sold what remained. Not long after, the Russians began to seriously questionwhether they could continue their Alaskan colony as well.
U.S. Takes Possession of Alaska
The U.S. formally takes possession of Alaska after purchasing the territory from Russia for $7.2 million.
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