Alaska was purchased by the United States from czarist Russia in 1867. It had been occupied by Russia since the 18th century and exploited by Russian fur and fishing interests. However, by the 1860s the region was viewed by the Russian government as a strategic liability and an economic burden.
Suspicious of British intentions in the Pacific, and concerned with consolidating its position in eastern Siberia, the Russian government offered to sell Alaska to the United States.
Baron Edouard de Stoeckl, Russia’s minister to the United States, entered into negotiations with President Andrew Johnson’s secretary of state, William H. Seward, in March 1867.
Seward was a zealous expansionist. Throughout his tenure as secretary of state, which had begun during the administration of Abraham Lincoln, Seward was avid in his desire to advance American security and extend American power to the Caribbean and to the Pacific.
The American Civil War and the lack of political and public support for expansion in the war’s aftermath stymied his desires. He did succeed, however, in acquiring Midway Island in the Pacific and in gaining transit rights for American citizens across Nicaragua.
Seward and Stoeckl drafted a treaty that agreed upon a price of $7,200,000 for Alaska. For approximately two cents an acre, Seward had obtained an area of nearly 600,000 square miles. However, he encountered difficulty in obtaining congressional approval for the transaction.
Senator Charles Sumner overcame his initial opposition and sided with Seward. He gave a persuasive chauvinistic three-hour speech on the Senate floor that utilized expansionist themes familiar to many 19th-century Americans.
He spoke of Alaska’s value for future commercial expansion in the Pacific, cited its annexation as one more step in the occupation of all of North America by the United States, and associated its acquisition with the spread of American republicanism.
The Senate ratified the treaty in April 1867. Despite the formal transfer of Alaska in October of that year, the House, in the midst of impeachment proceedings against Johnson, refused to appropriate the money required by the treaty. It was not until July 1868 that the appropriation was finally approved.
The purchase was repeatedly ridiculed. Alaska was referred to as a frozen wilderness, “Seward’s Ice Box,” and “Seward’s Folly.” The subsequent discovery of gold in 1898 brought about a new appreciation for the area’s intrinsic value.
Alaska’s rich fishing grounds, its vital location during World War II, the discovery of oil and natural gas fields, and the recognition of its natural beauty as a source for tourism have allayed further criticism of its purchase. Its increasing population qualified it to become the 49th state in 1959.