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.
The Alaska Purchase was a treaty by which Russia sold territory to the United States in 1867. The area comprised present-day Alaska and contained abundant natural resources. Russia was motivated to sell the area because of financial concerns and its lagging interest in the region.
The region of Alaska, which had been part of Russian territory for years, had proved to be a drain on the Russian treasury. Years of neglect hampered the region's profitability, so Russia was interested in surrendering responsibility for it. With the American population increasing in California to the south, the Russians decided to open conversations to sell the area to the United States.
In March 1867, the U.S. secretary of state, William Seward (1801–1872), and Russian minister Eduard de Stoeckl (1804–1892) negotiated a treaty under which the United States would purchase Alaska for $7.2 million. As Alaska had nearly 586,400 square miles, the cost was only about two cents per acre. Alaska ultimately proved to be rich in natural resources of timber, coal, copper, gold, and oil as well as salmon and furs.
Americans mock purchase
While both governments thought they had negotiated the better deal, news of the treaty was not well received by Americans. Critics mocked the treaty with names like Seward's Folly or Seward's Icebox. They said the price was too high for a territory that would prove to be worthless. Supporters argued that the region's natural resources would help commerce in the region and assist in opening trade with Asia.
The treaty was presented to the Senate on March 30, but public outcry prevented its quick approval. The necessary two-thirds vote came only after an impassioned three-hour speech by Charles Sumner (1811–1874), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The treaty passed that day, April 9, and the two countries exchanged ratifications on June 20.
The formal transfer of Alaska occurred on October 18, 1867, before the United States had paid Russia the agreed price. Political squabbling delayed approval for funding by the House of Representatives. The appropriations bill was finally approved a year after ratification, and payment was made on August 1, 1868.
Gold was discovered in Alaska in 1881, and prospectors, merchants, miners, and explorers streamed into Alaska to seek a fortune. In 1884, Congress organized the territory by passing the Organic Act, which placed Alaska under a collection of federal laws and Oregon state laws. A second Organic Act in 1912 provided for land ownership, mail service, and a civil government under the Territory of Alaska. Alaska became the forty-ninth, and largest, state in the union in 1959.