On this day in 1867, under the urging of Secretary of State William Seward, the United States purchased from the Russian Empire the Alaskan territory. The Alaska Purchase was also know as Seward’s Folly or Seward’s Icebox because some thought it was quite foolish to spend so much money on a distant region. The US purchased what would become the modern state of Alaska for $7.2 million (or $104 million in today’s equivalent) at 1.9¢ an acre. In all, the territory purchased was 586,412 square miles (1,518,800 km²).
Tsar Alexander II decided to sale the territory due to severe financial problems within the Russian Empire and because he feared that they might lose the territory in a war without receiving any compensation for the loss. Russian relations with Britain were delicate and they had just fought the British in the Crimean War about 10 years earlier. Also, the population of British Columbia on the Alaskan border was increasing quickly and Russia feared that Alaska would be hard to defend if hostilities broke out again. Both Britain and the United States were approached as possible buyers, but in the end only the United States expressed an interest in the territory. Tsar Alexander II instructed his minister to the United States to open negotiations which began in the beginning of March 1867. After an all-night negotiation, the treaty was signed at 4 o’clock in the morning officially selling Alaska to the United States.
Even though public opinion was mostly favorable to the purchase, some newspaper criticized the purchase of this froze wilderness they saw as worthless and filled only with furbearing animals on the verge of extinction. Little did they know that in the long run, the value of the Alaskan territory would prove more valuable than the purchase price due to its rich natural resources and that Alaska would give a huge advantage to the United States during the Cold War.
Alaska would be admitted to the Union on January 3, 1959 as the 49th state of the United States making it the largest state geographically, but it is only ranked 47th in population. Interest in Alaska was revived worldwide during the 2008 US presidential campaign when Alaska’s Governor Sarah Palin was chosen as John McCain’s vice presidential running mate on the Republican ticket.
Photo: Secretary of State William Seward
To learn more, visit the following links.
Treaty with Russia for the Purchase of Alaska – background, history and documents
Treaty with Russia (Alaska Purchase) – the document
As an added bonus, here’s a video, which I subtitled, about the history of the Alaska Purchase: