In the mid-nineteenth century, the most economically advanced and powerful nations of Europe, such as Britain, France, and Spain, began to scramble for colonies in Asia and Africa. They shared similar motivations—to increase their economic strength through expanding trade networks and to extend their political clout through a worldwide presence. The relatively untapped resources of products and people in Asia and Africa created a trading boom for European imperial nations and increased their international prestige. In the face of growing European imperialism, the relatively young United States began to look about for its own expansion opportunities.
The opportunity was found in the United States' backyard. The region of Alaska had for years been a Russian territory. As early as 1854 and 1860 the United States and Russia had been involved in unsuccessful attempts to arrange a purchase of the land, which spanned 586,400 square miles. U.S. westward expansion, once propelled by the doctrine of manifest destiny, had cooled with the additions of Texas, California, and the Oregon territory. Improvements in transportation, including a growing network of roads, canals, and railroads, made settlement and trade in the U.S. states and territories easier. Though some political friction remained over Russian enforcement of an 1824 treaty forbidding Americans from direct trade with the Alaskan natives, Americans frequently visited the Russian harbors in Alaska, to the profit of both sides.
Alaska was explored and claimed by Russia in the mid-eighteenth century and contained numerous coastal cities with busy trading businesses. Russian population in the region, however, was low and concentrated mainly along the coastline. One of the more advanced coastal cities was Sitka. Settled in 1830, Sitka was known for its commerce and culture, and was the seat of a lucrative fur trade. Aleuts from the nearby islands gave the land the name Alaska and provided pelts for export. A multitude of Indians, Aleuts, Eskimos, and Russians worked in Sitka's warehouses, shops, flour mill, bakery, tannery, arsenal, and shipyard. Cities similar to Sitka lined Alaska's coastline.
The California gold rush in the early 1850s led to a surge in America's western population. Trade out of coastal cities such as San Francisco prospered, and American pioneers and traders soon turned their attention northward. They came to Alaska to investigate its resources and found a wealth of timber, coal, copper, gold, and oil, as well as the world's richest salmon fishing grounds. These discoveries reinvigorated U.S. interest in the area.
After 100 years of poor management and regular indifference on the part of the Russians, the territory's profitability had declined markedly by the time of the American purchase. Russia, having turned its attention to East Asia and fresh from defeat in the Crimean War of 1854, needed revenue and was willing to part with its North American territory to get it. The Russian minister to Washington, D.C., Edouard de Stoecki, and U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward successfully arranged the 1867 purchase of Alaska for the bargain amount of two cents an acre—a total of $7.2 million. Both sides thought they were getting the better deal.
Though the land was rich in natural resources and would prove to be a boon in fisheries and fur, the purchase met a dubious response from the American public. Critics of the purchase referred to it as Seward's Folly or Seward's Icebox. American pioneers and traders, however, did not hesitate. Between the purchase date in 1867 and the final Alaskan gold rush in the Klondike tributaries (1896–1897), people flocked to the region, looking to make their fortunes. With the first discovery of gold in Juneau in 1881, there was never a dearth of gold seekers. Large gold strikes at Nome brought more people in a gold rush fever and, behind them, came suppliers of physical and mining needs, who also profited from the region's booming resources. Others came to Alaska to break through the mountain barriers and explore its interior, mapping the Upper Yukon, stringing telegraph line, exploring northern Alaska to the Arctic Ocean, and discovering the glacier-lined shores of 40-mile-long Glacier Bay.
Almost completely disorganized from a governmental standpoint, the human stampede to Alaska finally resulted in the passage of the 1884 Organic Act, which placed Alaska under a collection of federal laws and Oregon state laws. Congress enacted a second Organic Act in 1912, providing for land ownership, mail service, and civil government (as the Territory of Alaska). This form of government prevailed until 1959, when Alaska became the forty-ninth state in the federal union.
See also: Alaska, Alaska Pipeline, Manifest Destiny
Chevigny, Hector. Russian America: The Great Alaskan Adventure, 1741–1867. New York: Viking Press, 1965
Hunt, William R. Alaska; A Bicentennial History. New York: W.W. Norton Co., Inc., 1976.
Naske, Claus M. and Herman E. Slotnick. Alaska: A History of the 49th State. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.
Wharton, Keith. The Alaskans. Alexandria, VA: Time Life Books, Inc., 1977.
critics of the purchase referred to it as seward's folly or seward's icebox. american pioneers and traders, however, did not hesitate. between the purchase date in 1867 and the final alaskan gold rush in the klondike tributaries (1896–1897), people flocked to the region, looking to make their fortunes.
"Alaska Purchase." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alaska-purchase
"Alaska Purchase." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved May 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alaska-purchase
"Alaska Purchase." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alaska-purchase
"Alaska Purchase." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved May 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alaska-purchase