On This Day

Alaska purchase, William Seward, alaska treaty of cession, seward's folly
Alaska State Library, Alaska Purchase Centennial Commission Photograph Collection
The signing of the Alaska Treaty of Cessation on March 30, 1867. L-R: Robert S. Chew, Secretary of State William H. Seward, William Hunter, Mr. Bodisco, Russian Ambassador Baron de Stoeckl, Charles Sumner and Frederick W. Seward.

On This Day: United States Assumes Control of Alaska

October 18, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Oct. 18, 1867, the Alaskan territory was formally transferred from Russian to American control.

Seward’s Folly

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Russia set up a presence in Alaska in the 18th century, when Danish explorer Vitus Bering, with the backing of Russian Czar Peter the Great, surveyed the region. The territory was wild and inhospitable, but it was rich in natural resources, attracting Russian explorers and traders.

Russia did not have the money to establish permanent settlements, however, and its position was further weakened by their defeat in the Crimean War. By the mid-19th century, it was looking to sell off the land.

It offered Alaska to the United States, which was in the midst of a steady march westward, in 1859, but the threat of Civil War put off the sale. After the war, Secretary of State William Seward, a strong proponent of expansion, reopened talks with Russia, and agreed on March 30, 1867, to buy Alaska for $7.2 million, less than 2 cents per acre.

Many in the U.S. criticized Seward’s purchase. “Critics attacked him for the secrecy surrounding the deal with Russia, which came to be known as ‘Seward's folly,’” writes the Library of Congress. “They mocked his willingness to spend so much on ‘Seward's icebox’ or President Andrew Johnson’s ‘polar bear garden.’”

The Senate passed the treaty to buy Alaska by just one vote. The Alaskan territory was officially transferred to the U.S. on Oct. 18, 1867.

Settlement and Statehood

The U.S. did almost nothing to settle or explore Alaska for decades, and the majority of Americans believed the purchase was indeed a folly. This perception changed in 1896, when gold when discovered in Canada’s Yukon territory, sparking a gold rush in and around Alaska.

The U.S. government granted Alaska territorial status in 1912. During World War II, Japan invaded Alaskan islands, prompting the U.S. to establish military bases and build a major highway.

Alaskans appealed for statehood and received approval from Congress in  1946. It adopted a state constitution in 1955. And in 1959, President Eisenhower formally recognized Alaska as the 49th state. 

Alaska Today

Since achieving statehood, Alaska has developed a reputation as a rugged, hard-nosed land, inhabited largely by blue-collar Americans. It has also garnered a reputation for tremendous oil production.

“Oil brought Alaska its statehood and later its low taxes, schools, roads, theaters, jobs, a vibrant economy and an annual dividend check of more than $800 for each citizen,” said The New York Times, in a 1989 article.

But in the same year, one of the worst environmental disasters in world history took place off the coast of Alaska when oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground of a reef in Prince William Sound, spilling 11 million gallons oil into the sound.

Biography: William H. Seward

William Henry Seward was born in Florida in 1801. After graduating from Union College, he was admitted to the bar in 1822. After a term in the New York state Senate, he was elected governor of New York in 1838, resuming legal practice in 1842.

In 1849, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. During his term, he launched an unsuccessful bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 1860. President Abraham Lincoln named Seward secretary of state on March 5, 1861. During his term he managed Civil War-era foreign relations and negotiated the purchase of Alaska.

After finishing his term under President Andrew Johnson on March 4, 1869, he made a two-year trip around the world. He died in Auburn, N.Y., in 1872.
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