Purchase of Alaska, 1867

A Treasury Check in the amount of $7.2 million for the purchase of Alaska | The White House Collection

Why did Russia sell the United States Alaska?

In 1741- Russia claimed Alaska as its territory. In the following years, it established Russian Colonies throughout Alaska and took advantage of the natural resources, namely fur trading. However, over time- these operations nearly depleted the Alaskan Sea Otter population and it was becoming too expensive for the Russian Empire to maintain and protect.

At the same time, Great Britain was building settlements in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Hudson Bay in modern-day Canada. Russia and Great Britain were not on the best of standings as the countries were on conflicting sides of a bloody fight called the Crimean War (1853-1856) and were mutually fighting to become the governing power of the Pacific Ocean. 

It is acknowledged that the Governor of Eastern Siberia, Nikolay Muravyov-Amursky, proposed the sale of Alaska for the first time. According to him, the Tsarist Empire was unable to defend Alaska due to military and economic weakness. Therefore, Russia had to pay more attention to strengthening the Far East. However, the decision to sell Alaska was influenced by Konstantin Nikolayevich, the younger brother of Tsar. He cited the decline in RAC revenue and began taking steps to debunk the company.

Alaska’s fate was resolved at a secret meeting in December 1866. At a meeting attended by the Tsar in St. Petersburg, the verdict to sell Alaska was formally established. The meeting was kept secret. Even according to some historical evidence, some Russian officials learned about the result from the newspapers.

Russia offered to sell Alaska to the United States in 1859, trusting the United States would offset the strategies of Russia’s greatest rival in the Pacific, Great Britain. However, the approaching U.S. Civil War delayed the sale. Nevertheless, a year after the Civil War (1866), Secretary of State William Seward quickly took up a renewed Russian offer. On March 30, 1867, they agreed to the Russian minister’s, Edouard de Stoeckl, proposal in Washington D.C. to purchase Alaska for $7.2 million.

The Senate approved the purchase treaty on April 9; President Andrew Johnson signed the treaty on May 28, and Alaska was formally transferred to the United States on October 18, 1867.

This purchase ended Russia’s presence in North America and ensured U.S. access to the Pacific northern rim.

Cartoon from 1867 mocking Secretary of State William H. Seward for having made a bad deal over the purchase of Alaska
This 14-karat gold cigar case commemorating the purchase of Alaska is part of River Campus Libraries’ extensive collections on William Henry Seward. The treaty ratifying the Alaska Purchase from Russia—known as “Seward’s Folly” by its critics—was signed on March 30, 1867. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

Seward’s Folly or Seward’s Icebox?

Alaska Antique Vintage Map- 1897

Myths about the purchase of Alaska

“Which of your public acts do you think will live longest in the memory of the American People?” Seward replied, “The purchase of Alaska. But it will take another generation to find out.”

Seward’s son recounted his father’s response late in life when asked

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