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Why Russia Sold Alaska: History of Agreement

The United States bought Alaska from the Russian Empire through the Alaska Purchase. Through a treaty that was approved by the US Senate, Alaska was officially ceded to the US on October 18, 1867.

With the acquisition, the United States gained 586,412 sq mi (1,518,800 km2) of fresh land for under $7.2 million in 1867. In 2022, the price would be $151 million, or $0.42 per acre.

The majority of American responses to the acquisition were favorable since many people thought owning Alaska would serve as a base to increase American commerce with Asia. The acquisition was dubbed “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox” by some opponents, who said the United States had bought worthless territory.

It is important to remember that the 1867 sale of Alaska from Russia to the United States was a turning point in history that permanently changed the geopolitical situation in North America. The choice to engage in this complicated deal, known as the Alaska Purchase, was influenced by several geopolitical, financial, and diplomatic factors. Let us explore the interesting background of Russia’s decision to cede this enormous region in this essay.

History

Promyshlenniki, traders, and fur trappers who crossed Siberia established themselves in Russian America. In 1799, the Russian-American Company (RAC) was granted a charter to go fur-trapping after they arrived in Alaska in 1732. Although no colony was founded, the Russian Orthodox Church constructed churches and dispatched missionaries to the locals. In a region more than twice the size of Texas, about 700 Russians upheld the country’s sovereignty.

After being defeated by France and Britain in the Crimean War, Russia needed money, and the once-numerous 300,000 sea otters were on the verge of extinction.

The treaty was signed at 4:00 a.m. on March 30, 1867, marking the conclusion of discussions that had begun at the beginning of March 1867. Approximately 2 cents per acre ($4.74/km2), or $7.2 million ($151 million in 2022), was agreed upon as the acquisition price.

Key Players in the Alaska Purchase

The diplomatic history of the Alaska Purchase spanned over fifteen years and involved several important individuals. Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich, the younger brother of Emperor Aleksandr II, was a primary driving force for the sale in Russia.

Prince Aleksandr Gorchakov, the foreign minister of Russia, had a more traditional temperament and at first opposed the loss of any Russian land. However, Edouard de Stoeckl, the Russian ambassador in Washington, became a more powerful voice that persuaded the St. Petersburg authorities that selling Alaska to the United States was the wisest course of action.

The most significant figure on the American side was Secretary of State William H. Seward, who tirelessly advocated for the Alaska Purchase over a protracted period. In a process made difficult by President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1868, Republican Congressman Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts, a former Union general in the Civil War and chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, assisted in guiding the bill appropriating payment for Alaska through the House of Representatives.

The following individuals represented both teams as prominent players.  

  1. Aleksandr II
  2. Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich
  3. Prince Aleksandr Gorchakov
  4. Edouard de Stoeckl
  5. Andrew Johnson
  6. William H. Seward
  7. Charles Sumner
  8. Nathaniel Banks
  9. Thaddeus Stevens

Russia and the Sale of Alaska

The Russian government held a protracted internal discussion before deciding to sell Alaska to the United States. Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich, the younger brother of Emperor Alexander II of Russia, led the charge for the sale inside the Romanov court.

However, several influential figures argued that the tsar should maintain control of the region. They included former executives and significant stockholders of the Russian-American Company, as well as Prince Aleksandr Gorchakov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs.

However, the sales demands proved to be too much. Von Wrangell conceded this and claimed that Alaska’s price should represent its present and potential land and resource value. Emperor Alexander II finalized his decision to sell on December 16, 1866, during a meeting with his important ministers at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

The tsar intended to bargain with the Americans on a price, and he established a floor of $5 million as the least unacceptable offer. As a result, he instructed the Russian envoy to Washington to negotiate the deal’s final details with Secretary of State William H. Seward. Seward was really keen to acquire Alaska, so the Russian government increased its proposal, bringing the final price to $7.2 million.

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Two Versions of How the US Purchased Alaska

In a sense, there are two viewpoints and histories of how Alaska became a part of the United States. One relates to how Alaska came under Russian “possession” before being given up to the United States. The second viewpoint is that of the indigenous people, who have inhabited Alaska for thousands of years.

1) Russia Looks East

When Russia was a tiny fraction of its current size, the hunger for new regions that eventually led it to Alaska and finally California began in the 16th century.

Peter the Great, who founded Russia’s first navy, sought to discover how far east the Asian continent reached in the early 18th century. He directed two excursions, both of which started in the Siberian city of Okhotsk. Vitus Bering also made it across the strait that bears his name and saw Mt. Saint Elias in 1741, not far from the present-day Alaskan hamlet of Yakutat.

2) Americans Eager for a Deal

The Russians were obviously prepared to sell, but what drove Americans to want to buy?

The United States had widened its sphere of influence in the 1840s, annexing Texas, engaging in war with Mexico, and acquiring California. In a letter dated March 18, 1848, Secretary of State Seward stated: “Our population is destined to roll resistless waves to the ice barriers of the north and to encounter oriental civilization on the shores of the Pacific.”

Seward achieved his objective over 20 years after he expressed his ideas concerning encroachment into the Arctic.

Thus, a transaction with unimaginable geopolitical ramifications was reached, and it appeared that the Americans received a good deal for their $7.2 million.

Challenges

There were many challenges to the Alaska deal, like economic, strategic, and diplomatic.

1) Economic Realities

When the sale took place, Russia was dealing with serious economic difficulties. The imperial treasury had been depleted by the Crimean War (1853–1856) and the ensuing reforms implemented by Tsar Alexander II. The expense of maintaining an isolated, thinly populated colony like Alaska was rising.

Selling Alaska was an option since the Russian-American Company, which oversaw the colony, was also having financial issues.

2) Strategic Concerns

Although Russia’s possession of Alaska gave them a foothold in North America, it became quickly obvious that the enormous area of the region was challenging to secure and manage. Russia and Britain’s relationship had been damaged by the Crimean War, and tensions with the British Empire in the Pacific Northwest were feared.

Russia might gain a friendly neighbor to the east and avoid the logistical difficulties of retaining control over the far-off area by surrendering Alaska to the United States.

3) Diminished Economic potential

Although Alaska had abundant natural resources, its economic potential was largely unrealized in the 19th century. The extensive wilderness areas made it difficult and expensive to establish transportation and infrastructure.

The profitability of the fur trade, which had been a major economic force, had also decreased. Russia’s inability to get substantial economic gains from Alaska further prompted them to think about selling.

4) Diplomatic Relations

The choice to sell Alaska was heavily influenced by diplomatic factors. The United States, which had stayed neutral throughout the Crimean War, was a partner with Alexander II’s administration and wanted to strengthen ties with them. It was believed that selling Alaska would improve relations between the two countries.

5) The Vision of William H. Seward

William H. Seward, the secretary of state for the United States, was the driving force behind the Alaska Purchase. In his vision of the future United States, Alaska was seen as a vital addition to the country’s territory, extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Negotiations that resulted in the acquisition were aided by Seward’s tenacity and conviction in Alaska’s promise.

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6) Impact on Alaska Natives

A different view of Alaska’s history, focusing on its native population, is available.

When Bering landed in Alaska in 1741, it was home to a wide variety of indigenous groups. The Russians, who had high-tech weapons, took over by using force, espionage, and strategic forts. However, strongholds like the Tlingits resisted.

The native population dropped to 50,000 via cession. The American conquest happened at the same time as the Indian Wars, and Americans saw Alaskans as possible enemies. They established military authority and denied locals their right to citizenship. Tribal authority was not established until the Indian Reorganization Act of 1936.

The Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act passed in 1945 forbade overt discrimination and took down posters that said “No Natives Need Apply.” The complexity and difficulties experienced by Alaska’s indigenous peoples are highlighted by this tale.

Change of Name After American Ownership

The word “Alaska” is an Aleut word, alashka or alaesksu, which means “great land” or “mainland” and was selected by the Americans.

The Alaska Peninsula was formerly known by the name of Alyaska (“лскa”) or Alyeska during the Russian period.

Public Opinion Favors the Purchase

W. H. Dall stated in 1872 that “there can be no doubt that the feelings of a majority of the citizens of the United States are in favor of it.” This contradicted the widespread belief among Americans in 1867 that the acquisition process had been corrupt.

One of the biggest historical myths in American history, a researcher said 120 years later, is the idea that the purchase was unpopular with Americans. It continues despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and the finest historians’ efforts to refute it, maybe in part because it accords with American and Alaskan writers’ perceptions of the region as unique and populated by independent pioneers.

Transfer Ceremony

On October 18, 1867, the handover ceremony took place in Sitka. The Russian flag was lowered and the American flag was hoisted amid the sounds of cannon as Russian and American soldiers marched in front of the governor’s residence.

Aleksei Alekseyevich Peshchurov, a captain of the second rank, addressed General Rousseau after the changing of the flag and stated, “General Rousseau, by authority from His Majesty, the Emperor of Russia, I transfer to the United States the territory of Alaska.” The territory was accepted by General Lovell Rousseau. (Peshchurov had been assigned to Sitka as the Russian government’s commissioner for the handover of Alaska.) The Americans received a variety of forts, blockhouses, and wood structures.

The military took over the barracks, General Jefferson C. Davis moved into the governor’s mansion, and the majority of the Russian population left, with just a few traders and priests choosing to stay.

Aftermath

The majority of Russians in Sitka went home after the Alaska transfer. Their shock at unruly soldiers and civilians treating Sitka as a simple frontier is reflected in Ahllund’s narrative. He paints a vivid picture of life under US authority as well as the difficult journey home.

Due to the high prices and declining population of American immigrants who had been drawn to Alaska by its potential, Sitka only had a few hundred residents by 1873. The seal fishery, a crucial component in Alaska’s acquisition, produced significant income that exceeded the acquisition cost.

However, a disagreement with Britain over Bering Sea sealing resulted in the establishment of international seas and resource preservation laws in 1893 as a result of an arbitration tribunal.

Bargain Basement Deal

The acquisition of Alaska has been described as a “bargain basement deal” and as Andrew Johnson’s one notable success during his otherwise harshly criticized administration.

According to economist David R. Barker, the US government did not profit financially from the acquisition of Alaska. Barker claims that the federal government’s tax receipts and mineral and energy royalties have fallen short of what it costs to run Alaska, plus interest on the loans utilized for the acquisition.

The argument has been expanded further by John M. Miller, who claims that US oil corporations that exploited Alaskan petroleum resources did not make enough money to cover the risks they took.

Other economists and academics, such as Scott Goldsmith and Terrence Cole, have criticized the metrics used to arrive at those conclusions by pointing out that most adjacent Western states would fall short of the mark of “positive financial return” using those criteria and by arguing that looking at the increase in net national income instead of only US Treasury revenue would paint a much more accurate picture of the financial return of Alaska as an investment.

Alaska Day

The official handover of Alaska from Russia to the United States on October 18, 1867, is commemorated on Alaska Day.

The date is based on the Gregorian calendar. The Gregorian calendar replaced the Russian-used Julian calendar in Alaska the day after, which was 12 days behind the Gregorian calendar at the time. All state employees are given the day off on Alaska Day.

Conclusion

Economic, geopolitical, and diplomatic factors all played a role in the complicated decision to purchase Alaska from Russia in 1867 by the United States. The decision was influenced by Russia’s desire to ease economic pressure, solve strategic issues, and enhance diplomatic ties with the United States.

Simultaneously, the historic acquisition was greatly aided by Secretary of State William H. Seward’s idea of a continental United States. Alaska serves as evidence of the historical event’s continuing influence today.

FAQs

Why Did Russia Want to Get Rid of Alaska?

Due to shifting economic and geopolitical conditions, Russian interest in Alaska started to decline by the 1850s. For both financial and ecological reasons, the profitable sea otter fur trade that had existed in Russian America for more than a century began to decline.

Why Didn’t Canada Buy Alaska?

In 1867, Canada was not a separate country. The colonies in Canada were under British sovereignty. Alaska wasn’t something Russia wanted to give to its opponent.

How Much is Alaska Worth Now?

Even after accounting for inflation, Alaska is now worth significantly more. More than 375 million acres, or 586,412 square miles, are covered by the state, which would amount to more than $37 billion, even at a cost of only $100 per acre.

Is it Illegal to Cross from Alaska to Russia?

Since the Bering Strait separates Alaska from Russia and there is no land linking the two, driving between the two is not conceivable. There is no legal way to enter either Russia or the United States because there is no territory between them and no border guard to authorize access on either side.

Why Did Russia Sell Alaska So Cheaply?

First off, once the sea otter population was devastated, the colony was no longer economical. Additionally, Alaska was challenging to protect, and Russia was cash-strapped as a result of the expenditures of the Crimean War.

Oleksandra Mamchii

Working as a academic lead at Best Diplomats.

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