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HOME   -   HISTORIC DOCUMENTS   -   ALASKA PURCHASE 1867

 
   


Check for the Purchase of Alaska 1868
Cancelled Check for $7.2 million for the Purchase of Alaska
Issued August 1, 1868 / National Archives


Alaska Purchase 1867

With the Treaty of Cession on March 30, 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia for USD 7.2 million. That was less than 2 cents per acre and hence a bargain. (In today's money around 36 cents per acre, still a bargain.)

Although a bargain, many Americans didn't like the deal.
 

On October 18, 1867, Alaska officially changed hands with the exchange of the ratified treaty at Sitka.

Interestingly, the payment was not made until a year later.


How Big Is Alaska?

Enormous. 586,412 square miles or 1,518,800 square km, that's more than twice the size of Texas with 268,596 square miles or 695,662 square kilometers.

Someone at the Alaska State Department of Commerce site made this little pic to illustrate Alaska's massive size:

The US Department of Indian Affairs brings it home:

The Alaska Region encompasses 663,268 square miles of land, an area that would stretch from Atlanta, Georgia in the east to San Francisco, California in the west and to Minneapolis, Minnesota in the north. Within Alaska are a dynamic and diverse mix of Tribes...

 

Why Did Russia Sell Alaska?

It really doesn't make any sense when we think about it today, but at the time, the fact that Russia had just lost the Crimean War (1853-1856) must have played a role. (The first Russian offer was made shortly after the war, in 1859, for $5.6 million.)

The rational there might have been that Alaska was too hard to defend against the British in any future war. Might as well make a buck selling it.

But the deal didn't go through. Russia wasn't ready to sell, the U.S. not ready to buy.

Alaska was unexplored and only very lightly populated. The Office of the Historian tells us that St. Petersburg,

... lacked the financial resources to support major settlements or a military presence along the Pacific coast of North America and permanent Russian settlers in Alaska never numbered more than four hundred.


And it was still 30 years before the
Klondike / Yukon gold rush would bring new appreciation to the area.

All in all, the Russians saw Alaska more as a burden than anything else. And the Americans kind of agreed.

 

Who Negotiated the Alaska Purchase?

For the U.S., under President Andrew Johnson, the U.S. Secretary of State, William H. Seward.

For Russia, under Tsar Alexander II, the Russian Privy Councillor, Edward (or Edouard, or Eduard) de Stoeckl.

 

U.S. President Andrew Johnson   U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward

Andrew Johnson
17th President of the United States (1865-1869)
U.S. National Park Service

 

William H. Seward
U.S. Secretary of State
(1861-1869)
National Archives

     
Russian Tsar Alexander II   Russian Minister to the U.S. Baron Eduard de Stoeckl

Alexander II
Emperor of Russia
(1855–81)
Library of Congress

 

Baron Eduard de Stoeckl
Russian minister to
the United States
Library of Congress

 

Seward's Folly . . . Not So Folly After All

You would think a bargain such as this would prompt everyone in the U.S. to thank Mr Seward abundantly, but no. Americans more or less agreed with the Russians, this was a wasteland, and therefore a total waste of money.

Some doubters termed this purchase "Seward's Folly." And it was freezing. So it became "Seward's Icebox" and "Johnson's Polar Bear Garden."

Yes it was true, with this deal, Russia would completely withdraw from North America, but even so, U.S. congressmen still had to be bribed by the Russian emissary to vote in favor of the purchase of Alaska.

It took the discovery of gold in the Yukon in 1896 (see map below), and the strategic positioning during World War 2, to convince.

 

Alaska Purchase and the Natives

Article III of the Treaty states as follows,

The inhabitants of the ceded territory, according to their choice, reserving their natural allegiance, may return to Russia within three years; but if they should prefer to remain in the ceded territory, they, with the exception of uncivilized native tribes, shall be admitted to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States, and shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty, property, and religion.

The uncivilized tribes will be subject to such laws and regulations as the United States may, from time to time, adopt in regard to aboriginal tribes of that country.

That's right. The owners of most of the land in question weren't consulted with regards to its sale. Moreover, they had to stomach this Article 3.

By the way, these are the Alaska Native Tribes and their home regions

Inpuiat – Arctic Slope, NANA, and Bering Straits regions
Yup’ik – Calista, Bristol Bay, and Bering Straits regions
Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida – Sealaska region
Athabascan – Cook Inlet, Doyon and Ahtna regions
Aleut – Aleut region
Alutiiq – Koniag, Bristol Bay, Chugach and Cook Inlet regions
Eyak – Chugach region

And here is the Working Effectively with Alaska Native Tribes and Organizations Desk Guide (PDF). This desk guide was created for BLM employees and adapted for USFWS employees.

And here are the maps:

Map of Alaska Native Villages 2016
Alaska - Native Villages 2016

Alaska - Early Indian Tribes, Culture Areas, and Linguistic Stocks
Alaska - Early Indian Tribes

 

Timeline of the Alaska Purchase
 

1859   Russia signals their willingness to sell Alaska, but the U.S. have more urgent business to attend to, i.e. the Civil War (1861-1865). Still, it would be nice to grab the land before the Brits could get the opportunity.
     
March 11, 1867   Stoeckl meets with Seward at Washington and signals that he is authorized to negotiate the sale of Alaska.

Seward has to talk to the President first.

     
March 14, 1867   Stoeckl and Seward meet again.

Seward says he is interested, and that he talked with President Johnson, who was "not inclined" toward the purchase but willing to listen to Seward's advice. He needs to talk to the cabinet members.

Stoeckl says he too will talk to his friends in Congress.

Seward floats the idea of $5 million, or "perhaps $5.5 million, but no more." Thus raising his own bid.

This prompts Stoeckl to mention in a telegram to Russia that he could get at least $6 million, maybe even $6.5 million.

     
March 15, 1867   Seward has a draft treaty prepared for the cabinet. He is asking to authorize $7 million to buy Alaska.

The cabinet couldn't care less, but didn't disagree. President Johnson doesn't even comment.

Seward tells Stoeckl he is authorized to pay $6.5 million tops. Stoeckl says $7 million, and it's a deal.

     
March 25, 1867   Seward asks Stoeckl to cable Russia pronto. He wants the treaty signed before the Senate adjourns.
     
March 29, 1867   Stoeckl gets the ok from Russia.

That evening he visits Seward at his private address on Lafayette Square and tells him "Tomorrow, if you like, I will come to the department, and we can enter upon the treaty."

Seward replies, "Why wait until tomorrow, Mr. Stoeckl? Let us make the treaty tonight."

     
March 30, 1867   Treaty of Cession, aka the Alaska Purchase between Russia and the United States, agreed at Washington

Transcript

Original Treaty

Original Treaty - Russian Version

     
April 9, 1867   The U.S. Senate approves the purchase, voting 37 to 2.
     
May 28, 1867   U.S. President Andrew Johnson signs the treaty, ratifying this purchase.
     
October 18, 1867   With a ceremonial exchange of ratifications at Sitka, Alaska officially belongs to the United States. Most Russians will leave soon after. However, the money still hasn't been paid.
     
July 14, 1868   The House votes 113 to 43 to appropriate the money for the Alaska purchase.
     
July 27, 1868   Act of Congress "making an appropriation of money to carry into effect the treaty with Russia of March 30, 1867"
     
August 1, 1868   The U.S. issues the check
     
August 15, 1868   Russia cashes the check
     
1946   Alaskans vote in favor of statehood with 9,630 to 6,822. Congress will hesitate for a few more years.
     
1955 / 1956   The Constitutional Convention convened November 8, 1955, and adjourned February 6, 1956. All this to speed up the slow movings toward statehood.

On February 5, 1956, the constitution was formally adopted. Still not a state yet, but constitution in place.

On April 24, 1956, the Alaskans ratify their constitution. It will become law on January
3, 1959.

Here's Alaska's Constitution as PDF

     
January 3, 1959   Under President Eisenhower, Alaska becomes the 49th state


 

Here is More on the Gold Rush in Canada and Alaska

The National Park Service provides us with this great map:
 

Map Klondike Yukon Gold Rush
Map of the Trails to the Klondike Gold Fields 1897-98
illustrating:
Edmonton "Backdoor Routes"
All American "Glacier Routes"
Ashcroft Route
All Water Route "Richman's Route"
Chilkoot and White Pass Routes
National Park Service Map


Go here for the main
Gold Rush in North America page

 

And while we're at it:

How close is Alaska to Russia? Back in the Days

It used to be connected via the Bering Land Bridge on which humans came to the Americas in the first place.

How was the bridge formed? Thanks to the ice age, water got locked up in glaciers, sea levels dropped enormously, and land masses were exposed. People packed their bags and were on their way.

Below we have a map of ancient Beringia 20,000 years ago, aka the exiting land bridge across the Bering Sea, named after Vitus Bering, the Danish explorer who battled scurvy like all good explorers, and who worked under Russia's Tsar Peter the Great and later Russia's Tsarina Anna Ivanova.

Map of Ancient Beringia
Map of Ancient Beringia
Illustrating the Upward Sun River site, discovered in 2006, the site of the discovery of the oldest known human remains ever recovered from the Arctic/Subarctic of North America, the 11,500 year old skeleton of an infant girl. Here is the
NYT article.
New York Times Map / Sources: Moreno-Mayar et al. Nature: Science

 

See also:

Map of Ancient Beringia
Ancient Beringia

 

And: About Ancient Beringia

 

 

How close is Alaska to Russia? Today

Fifty-five miles, but it freezes over when it's Winter!

This from the Alaska Public Land Information Centers:

The narrowest distance between mainland Russia and mainland Alaska is approximately 55 miles.

However, in the body of water between Alaska and Russia, known as the Bering Strait, there lies two small islands known as Big Diomede and Little Diomede.

Interestingly enough, Big Diomede is owned by Russia while Little Diomede is owned by the US.

The stretch of water between these two islands is only about 2.5 miles wide and actually freezes over during the winter so you could technically walk from the US to Russia on this seasonal sea ice.

By the way, apparently she never said, I can see Russia from my house.

 

More Maps
 

Map of Alaska
Map of Alaska
From Territorial Expansion of the United States since 1803

 

Territorial Expansion of the United States: Situation in 1870: Alaska
Territorial Expansion of the United States: Situation in 1870
From Fourteen history maps of the United States: Territorial Growth 1775-1970

 

Map of North America 1670-1867: Territorial Possessions
1670-1867 North America: Territorial Possessions

 

The States Access the Union - Map
1787 The States Access the Union

 

United States - Battle Sites 1689 - 1945
United States 1689 - 1945 Battle Sites


 

See more from the National Archives: Seward's Bargain: The Alaska Purchase from Russia
 

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