Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.
Russian-America Land up for Sale
In the late 1860s, Emperor Alexander II was ready to unload Russian-America. The massive colony to the west was too difficult to defend. More importantly, Russia had recently come out of the Crimean War and if there was another war with the British, England might get control of Russian-America. That would give the British a base of operations that was too close to Russia for comfort.
So, in December 1866, Alexander started looking for a buyer. The most logical country was the United States. It was close, in the market for expansion, and Alexander thought that the lure of gold in the region would be too tempting for Americans to pass up. The Russians knew about the gold but they did not have the money or the patience for mining. Americans, on the other hand, would probably flock to Alaska just on the mere possibility of gold. Alexander, of course, was right.
Seward and Johnson Eye Expansion
President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward were very intrigued by the idea of getting control of Alaska. Just the sheer size of it was tempting. Twice the size of Texas and one-fifth the size of the entire country, Russian-America would significantly increase the U.S.'s land holdings. There was also the matter of expanding republicanism and reducing the influence of monarchies in the western hemisphere. It did occur to Johnson and Seward that if they could get Alaska, perhaps it was only a matter of time before the U.S. could get Canada from Great Britain. Factor in the natural resources such as fish, lumber, and gold, and Johnson was convinced. He told Seward to begin negotiations.
Negotiating the Deal
Seward and the Russian minister to the United States, Eduard de Stoeckl, were the primary negotiators in the deal. Seward first asked if the U.S. could establish trade and fishing rights in the region. The Russians said no. Seward countered with an offer to purchase the colony outright, which is what Alexander wanted all along.
Seward's offer of $5 million was declined, but on March 29, 1867, Alexander sent a telegram to Stoeckl to tell him he approved the sale price of $7.2 million. Seward and Stoeckl worked on the deal through the night, and by 4:00 a.m., it was done. That was not the end of the story, though. The treaty was ratified by the Senate two weeks later, but getting money for the deal was a different matter.
When news of the treaty spread, critics thought Seward had gone mad. They called it 'Seward's Folly' and 'Johnson's Polar Bear Garden.' Seven million dollars for an unexplored, ice-covered desert? The New York Tribune published a scathing editorial about the territory, saying that it was full of 'savage Indians of the most dangerous character.' The paper went on to point out that it cost $115,000 'to kill one Indian' in Nebraska and 'it would cost $300,000 a head to kill Seward's Indians.' Less harsh criticism questioned the cost of making the territory habitable and establishing a government.
Ultimately, it was Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts who helped push the appropriation of funds though the House of Representatives in July 1868. Sumner convinced enough people that the purchase would help expedite the removal of Great Britain from Canada.
It was Sumner who suggested the name Alaska, the Russian version of the Aleutian Indian word for peninsula. Criticism of the purchase subsided when gold was discovered first near Sitka in 1872, then in Juneau in 1876. When gold was discovered in the Klondike River in the Yukon in 1896, the discovery sent 100,000 prospectors stampeding into the region.
Within a few decades, the riches yielded by Alaska's gold, fish, lumber and, later, oil, more than made up for the $7.2 million purchase price. During World War II, Alaska also became an important military base. After Alaskans began to call for a greater say in their own government and pushed for statehood, Alaska became the 49th state in the Union on January 3, 1959.
Take in the specifics of this lesson in preparation to do the following afterwards:
- Describe Russia's need for money after the Crimean War
- Retell the story of Alexander II's desire to sell Russian-America and keep Britain at bay
- Identify the players in the negotiations
- Recall how many in America thought this purchase for $7.2 million was folly
- Analyze the results of the land buy
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