Alaska purchase

The Alaska Purchase (otherwise known as Seward's Folly or Seward's Icebox) by the United States from the Russian Empire occurred in 1867 at the behest of Secretary of State William Seward. The territory purchased was 586,412 square miles (1,518,800 km²) of the modern state of Alaska.


Russia was in a difficult financial position and feared losing the Alaskan territory without compensation in some future conflict, especially to their rivals the British, who could easily have captured the hard-to-defend region. Therefore Emperor Alexander II decided to sell the territory to the US and instructed Russian minister to the United States, Louis Baydalal, to enter into negotiations with Seward in the beginning of March 1867. The negotiations concluded after an all-night session with the signing of the treaty at 4 o'clock in the morning of March 30, 1867 with the purchase price set at $7,200,000 (about 1.9¢ per acre). American public opinion was generally positive, but some newspaper writers and editors had negative feelings about the purchase of land. Notably, one of those men was Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune. An example of this is a quotation:
Already, so it was said, we were burdened with territory we had no population to fill. The Indians within the present boundaries of the republic strained our power to govern aboriginal peoples. Could it be that we would now, with open eyes, seek to add to our difficulties by increasing the number of such peoples under our national care? The purchase price was small; the annual charges for administration, civil and military, would be yet greater, and continuing. The territory included in the proposed cession was not contiguous to the national domain. It lay away at an inconvenient and a dangerous distance. The treaty had been secretly prepared, and signed and foisted upon the country at one o'clock in the morning. It was a dark deed done in the night.... The New York World said that it was a "sucked orange." It contained nothing of value but furbearing animals, and these had been hunted until they were nearly extinct. Except for the Aleutian Islands and a narrow strip of land extending along the southern coast the country would be not worth taking as a gift.... Unless gold were found in the country much time would elapse before it would be blessed with Hoe printing presses, Methodist chapels and a metropolitan police. It was "a frozen wilderness," said the New York Tribune.

While criticized by some at the time the financial value of the Alaska purchase turned out to be many times greater than what the United States had paid for it. The land turned out to be resource rich and also provided the US a great advantage in the Cold War.

The Viewpoint from Washington

The purchase was at the time derided as Seward's folly, Seward's icebox, and Andrew Johnson's polar bear garden, because it was believed foolhardy to spend so much money on the remote region.

The treaty was promoted by Secretary of State William H. Seward, who had long favored expansion, and by the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Charles Sumner. They argued that the nation's strategic interests favored the treaty. Russia had been a valuable ally of the Union position during the U.S. Civil War, while Britain had been a nearly open enemy. It seemed wise to help Russia while discomforting the British. Furthermore there was the matter of adjacent territory belonging to Britain (and now part of Canada). Nearly surrounded by the United States they were of little strategic value to Britain and might someday be purchased. The purchase, editorialized the New York Herald, was a "hint" from the Tsar to England and France that they had "no business on this continent." "It was in short a flank movement" upon Canada said the influential New York Tribune. Soon the world would see in the northwest "a hostile cockney with a watchful Yankee on each side of him," and John Bull would be led to understand that his only course was a sale of his interests there to Brother Jonathan.

On March 3 Sumner made a major speech advocating the treaty, and covering in depth the history, the climate, the natural configuration, the population, the resources—the forests, mines, furs, fisheries—of Alaska. A good scholar, he cited the testimony of geographers and navigators: Alexander von Humboldt, Joseph Billings, Yuri Lisiansky, Fyodor Petrovich Litke, Otto von Kotzebue, Portlock, James Cook, John Meares, Ferdinand von Wrangel. When he had finished, he observed that he had "done little more than hold the scales." If these had inclined on either side, he continued, it was "because reason or testimony on that side was the weightier." Soon, said Sumner, "A practical race of intrepid navigators will swarm the coast ready for any enterprise of business or patriotism. Commerce will find new arms; the country new defenders; the national flag new hands to bear it aloft." Bestow American republicanism upon the territory, he urged, "and you will bestow what is better than all you can receive, whether quintals of fish, sands of gold, choicest fur or most beautiful ivory." "Our city," exclaimed Sumner, "can be nothing less than the North American continent with the gates on all the surrounding seas." He argued the treaty was "a visible step" in this direction. By its terms we should "dismiss one more monarch from this continent." One by one they had retired—" first France; then Spain; then France again, and now Russia, all giving way to that absorbing unity which is declared in the national motto — E pluribus unum.

Seward's Day, in honor of William H. Seward, is a holiday in Alaska on the last Monday of March which celebrates the United States' purchase of Alaska from Russia. Seward's Day is also an alcohol-free day in many cities such as Ketchikan, one of Alaska's major port cities — though the one-day alcohol ban is not observed in all cities.

Ratification and enactment

The United States Senate ratified the treaty on April 9, 1867, by a vote of 37 to 2. However, the appropriation of money needed to purchase Alaska was delayed by more than a year due to opposition in the House of Representatives. The House finally approved the appropriation in July 1868, by a vote of 113 to 48.

Sumner reported Russian estimates that Alaska contained about 2,500 Russians and those of mixed race, and 8,000 aborigines, in all about 10,000 people under the direct government of the Russian fur company, and possibly 50,000 Eskimos and Native Americans living outside its jurisdiction. The Russians were settled at 23 trading posts, placed conveniently on the islands and coasts. At smaller stations only four or five Russians were stationed to collect furs from the Indians for storage and shipment when the company's boats arrived to take it away. There were two larger towns, New Archangel, now named Sitka, which had been established in 1804 to handle the valuable trade in the skins of the sea otter. It contained 116 small log cabins with 968 residents. The second town was St. Paul on Kodiak Island, with 100 cabins and 283 people. It was the center of the fur seal industry.

An Aleut name, "Alaska" was chosen by the Americans. The transfer ceremony took place in Sitka on October 18, 1867. Russian and American soldiers paraded in front of the governor's house; the Russian flag was lowered and the American flag raised amid peals of artillery. Captain Alexis Pestchouroff said, "General Rousseau, by authority from His Majesty, the Emperor of Russia, I transfer to the United States the territory of Alaska." General Lovell Rousseau accepted the territory. A number of forts, blockhouses and timber buildings were made over to the Americans. The troops occupied the barracks; General Jefferson C. Davis established his residence in the governor's house, and most of the Russian citizens went home, leaving a few traders and priests who chose to remain.

Alaska Day celebrates the formal transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States, which took place on October 18, 1867. Currently, Alaska celebrates the purchase on Seward's Day, the last Monday of March.

(*October 18, 1867, was by the Gregorian calendar and a clock time 9:01:20 behind Greenwich, which came into effect the following day in Alaska to replace the Julian calendar and a clock time 14:58:40 ahead of Greenwich. For the Russians, the handover was on October 5, 1867.)

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