Friday, March 30, 2012

March 30, 1867- Seward's Folly

The Alaska Purchase was the acquisition of the Alaska territory by the United States from Russia in the year 1867 by a treaty ratified by the Senate. The purchase, made at the initiative of United States Secretary of State William H. Seward, gained 586,412 square miles (1,518,800 km2) of new United States territory. Originally organized as the Department of Alaska, the area was successively the District of Alaska and the Alaska Territory before becoming the modern state of Alaska upon being admitted to the Union as a state in 1959.

Russia was in a difficult financial position and feared losing Russian America without compensation in some future conflict, especially to the British, whom they had fought in the Crimean War (1853–1856). While Alaska attracted little interest at the time, the population of nearby British Columbia started to increase rapidly a few years after hostilities ended, with a large gold rush there prompting the creation of a crown colony on the mainland. The Russians therefore started to believe that in any future conflict with Britain, their hard-to-defend region might become a prime target, and would be easily captured. Therefore the Tsar Alexander II decided to sell the territory. Perhaps in hopes of starting a bidding war, both the British and the Americans were approached, however the British expressed little interest in buying Alaska. The Russians in 1859 offered to sell the territory to the United States, hoping that its presence in the region would offset the plans of Russia’s greatest regional rival, Great Britain. However, no deal was brokered due to the American Civil War.

Following the Union victory in the Civil War, the Tsar then instructed the Russian minister to the United States, Eduard de Stoeckl, to re-enter into negotiations with Seward in the beginning of March 1867. The negotiations concluded after an all-night session with the signing of the treaty at 4 a.m. on March 30, 1867, with the purchase price set at $7.2 million, or about 2 cents per acre ($4.74/km2).

American public opinion was generally positive, as most editors argued that the U.S. would probably derive great economic benefits from the purchase; friendship of Russia was important; and it would facilitate the acquisition of British Columbia.

When it became clear that the Senate would not debate the treaty before its adjournment on March 30, Seward persuaded President Andrew Johnson to call the Senate back into special session the next day. Many Republicans scoffed at “Seward’s folly,” although their criticism appears to have been based less on the merits of the purchase than on their hostility to Johnson and to Seward as Johnson’s political ally. Seward mounted a vigorous campaign, however, and with support from Charles Sumner, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, won approval of the treaty on April 9 by a vote of 37–2.

For more than a year, as congressional relations with Johnson worsened, the House refused to appropriate the necessary funds. But in June 1868, after Johnson’s impeachment trial was over, Stoeckl and Seward revived the campaign for the Alaska purchase. The House finally approved the appropriation in July 1868, by a vote of 113–48.

On August 1, 1868 Riggs Bank (currently operating as PNC Bank) cashed the Treasury check for the Russian diplomats, closing on the American purchase.

With the purchase of Alaska, the United States acquired an area twice as large as Texas, but it was not until the great Klondike gold strike in 1896 that Alaska came to be seen generally as a valuable addition to American territory.

Senator Sumner had told the nation that the Russians estimated that Alaska contained about 2,500 Russians and those of mixed race, and 8,000 Indigenous people, in all about 10,000 people under the direct government of the Russian fur company, and possibly 50,000 Inuits and Alaska Natives living outside its jurisdiction. The Russians were settled at 23 trading posts, placed at accessible islands and coastal points. At smaller stations only four or five Russians were stationed to collect furs from the natives for storage and shipment when the company’s boats arrived to take it away. There were two larger towns. New Archangel, now named Sitka, had been established in 1804 to handle the valuable trade in the skins of the sea otter and in 1867 contained 116 small log cabins with 968 residents. St. Paul in the Pribilof Islands had 100 homes and 283 people and was the center of the fur seal industry.

An Aleut name, “Alaska,” was chosen by the Americans. This name had earlier, in the Russian era, denoted Alaska Peninsula, which the Russians had called Alyaska (also Alyaksa is attested, especially in older sources).

The transfer ceremony took place in Sitka on October 18, 1867. Russian and American soldiers paraded in front of the governor’s house; the Russian flag was lowered and the American flag raised amid peals of artillery.

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