Russia initially tried to interest the United States in purchasing Alaska in
1859, during President James Buchanan's administration. But the Civil War
stalled negotiations. Seward, Secretary of State under presidents Abraham
Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, supported American expansion and was eager to
acquire Alaska. However, convincing the Senate that Alaska was an important
addition to the United States proved difficult. The upper house ratified the
treaty by just one vote.
On March 30, 1867 the Treaty of Purchase was signed in Washington D.C., was
affirmed by the Senate on April 9th, and signed by President Andrew Johnson on
May 28th. The document was then signed by the Russian Tsar, Alexander II, in May
and in June the sides exchanged ratification certificates.
Formal transfer of the Territory was made at Sitka on October 18, 1867 when
Secretary of State William H. Seward signed an agreement with Baron Edouard de
Stoeckl, the Russian Minister to the United States. The agreement ceded
possession of the vast territory of Alaska to the United States for the sum of
$7.2 million, about two cents an acre. A check for payment was issued on August
1, 1868 and made payable to Stoeckl.
When the news about selling Alaska became known in Russia, people refused to
believe it. Newspapers wrote that it was nothing but a "mean, disgusting joke
upon the Russian society." By many, it was considered another blunder committed
by Alexander II for a modest sum of money that did Russia little good. The
reaction was rather indignant and emotional, until the government made its point
of view public. Russian advocates of the deal believed that Alaska's remoteness
was an impediment to administration of the territory, and also hoped its sale
would help strengthen friendly relations with the United States.
Few citizens of the U.S. could fathom what possible use or interest the
586,000 square miles of land would have for their country. In a speech given at
Sitka on August 12, 1868, however, Secretary Seward claimed he did not doubt
"that the political society to be constituted here, first as a Territory, and
ultimately as a state or many States, will prove a worthy constituency of the
Republic." President Andrew Johnson expected that Congress would establish the
civil organization of the territory.
Unfortunately, the attitude of the United States Congress was quite the
contrary. Congress had been extremely reluctant to purchase Alaska in the first
place. Many of President Johnson's opponents saw it as one more arbitrary act by
a Chief Executive who they would soon try unsuccessfully to remove from office.
The Senate had begrudgingly ratified Secretary Seward's treaty only after being
warned that rejection would be viewed as an offensive act by Russia, the Union's
great friend. By the time the debate turned to appropriation, the the summer of
1868, the impeached President had avoided conviction, but the wounds of his
trial were still raw and Alaska became a handy target for Congressional vitriol.
FOR THE HEATED TERM
King Andy and his man Billy lay in a great stock of
Russian ice in order to cool down the Congressional
majority. ['Andy' refers to President Andrew Johnson
while 'Billy' is William Seward.]
Massachusetts Congressman Benjamin F. Butler said caustically that he did not
object to paying for the Czar's friendship "if we could only get rid of the land
- or ice, rather - which we are to get by paying for it." But the outcry was not
restricted only to Washington. The New York Tribune editorialized: "Ninety-nine
hundredths of Russian America are absolutely useless. To Russia it was an
encumbrance, to us it would be an embarrassment." The New York World summed up
its position more pithily: "Russia has sold us a sucked orange."
Generally, the American public was outraged - although there were many
Americans who favored the purchase. But critics attacked Seward for the secrecy
surrounding the deal with Russia. They mocked his willingness to spend so much
on "Seward's Ice Box" and Andrew Johnson's "Polar Bear Garden." Additionally,
derogatory nicknames such as Icebergia, Walrussia, and Polaria were heard across
the country. It is unfortunate that "Seward's Folly" is the slur that would
carry Alaska's acquisition through history.
On October 18, 1867, American soldiers raised the United States flag over
Sitka. From then until 1898 was a period of total neglect in the administration
of the Territory by the United States. Alaska celebrates the purchase on
Seward's Day, the last Monday of March, and the flag-raising on Alaska Day,
The Russian phase of Alaskan history
had lasted 126 years. Russian activities had been mainly limited to the
Aleutians, Kodiak, and the Alexander Archipelago. There was some exploration of
the Interior, but little settlement. At its peak the Russian population numbered
no more than 700. The greatest impact of this period was the influence of the
Russian Orthodox Church and its priests among the Aleut and Tlingit, which