The United States’ purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire, or “Seward’s Folly” as it is known, was a pivotal moment in US history. Just why did Russia sell Alaska to the United States in the first place?
The United States was just emerging from the ashes of the bloody Civil War and engaged in the highly contentious post-war period of Reconstruction.
The purchase of Alaska by Secretary of State William Seward was partially an attempt for the US to rally together behind the shared interest in further expanding the country. While the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had already accomplished the dream of Manifest Destiny, Alaska was yet another nearby large territory for the United States to adopt and rule.
Public opinion across the United States generally favored the purchase of Alaska, though a vocal minority loudly opposed it. In this case the loudest voices echoed the most through history and hence why the Alaska purchase has the nickname of “Seward’s Folly”.
The purchase was also unique in that it was the first time the US had acquired land outside of the contiguous United States. The Alaska purchase raised the question of whether the US was on its way to becoming an imperial power.
President Ulysses S. Grant’s failed bid to annex Santo Domingo in the 1870s increased the debate. The questions would further intensify with the annexation of Hawaii and the territories acquired following the Spanish American War in 1898; after which the US was undoubtedly an imperial power.
Seward’s Folly and the purchase of Alaska went on to play a major role in the economic, commercial, and strategic successes of the United States in the following decades.
Why Did Russia Sell Alaska to the United States?
Russia sold Alaska to the United States primarily as it was in need of money following their disastrous defeat in the Crimean War. In addition, The Russian Czar feared that British and American settlers would one day overrun the territory, particularly if they ever found valuable natural resources such as gold.
The Russians first explored and settled Alaska in the early 18th century, though did not establish the first permanent settlement until 1784. The land became more sought after following explorer Vitus Bering’s 1741 expedition.
Bering died during the journey, though his crew brought back sea otter pelts along with their tales of the new lands they discovered. The new lands sparked interest, particularly the availability of animal furs which brought forth the first Russian settlers to America.
The Russians quickly subjugated the native Aleuts and forced many to hunt the sea otters and other animals. The Aleuts suffered under the harsh treatment, though the real killer came from European introduced disease. As much as 80-90% of the Aleut population succumbed to European diseases.
While the fur trade was the primary economic driver for Russian settlement, Alaska was very sparsely populated. There were never more than a few hundred Russians settled there at one time. The fur trade itself was barely profitable given the enormous transportation costs from the far flung region.
As Russia watched its competitors (the US and Great Britain) begin to make their way westward across the American continent, they grew concerned that British or American settlers would one day overrun the territory, just like what happened during the Texas Revolution in the 1830s.
Their concern grew even more upon the mad dash for gold in 1849 and the subsequent population boom of California. Russia knew if prospectors ever discovered gold in Alaska, the empire would have no hopes of stopping the influx of foreign settlers.
After a sound defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856), Russia badly needed money and first proposed the sale of Alaska to the United States. The US was receptive, though the Civil War brought the talks to a halt.
When Was Alaska Purchased?
Following the conclusion of the Civil War Russia once again proposed selling Alaska to the United States. Then Secretary of State William Seward was an ardent expansionist and favored the purchase.
He and President Andrew Johnson were mired in the difficulties of the Reconstruction Era and sought a victory that all Americans could get behind. Negotiations resumed with Russian diplomat Eduard de Stoeckl in March 1867.
On March 30th, 1867 Seward and de Stoeckl struck a deal: the United States’ purchase of Alaska. The Senate would ratify the treaty on April 9th and President Johnson later signed the treaty on May 28th.
The Alaska purchase added nearly 591,000 sq miles of territory to the United States all at the bargain price of just $7.2 million, or roughly 2 cents per acre. It was the second-largest addition of territory to the US after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
While the Senate was pending ratification of the treaty, Seward and Johnson’s opponents were having a field day. The critics slammed the deal, lambasting it as “Seward’s Folly”, “Seward’s Icebox,” and “Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden,” among other creative names.
Despite this rhetoric, historical studies show that most newspapers and Americans either favored the Alaska purchase or were neutral. Supporters of the deal praised the expansionist action and foresaw the future strategic value of the land.
The Russians officially transferred Alaska to the United States on October 18th, 1867. An unintended outcome of the transfer was that Alaskans lost 11 days from their year in the process.
At the time Russia was still on the Julian calendar, while the US used the Gregorian calendar. Twelve total days separated the two calendars.
Alaska now operated on the Gregorian calendar upon the sale. In the transfer Alaska also moved from the European side to the American side of the International Date Line, and therefore only lost 11 days from their year.
The Significance of “Seward’s Folly”
Seward’s pundits thought of Alaska as a frozen tundra devoid of natural resources. The folly of purchasing useless land for hard-earned American dollars was the rallying cry of the critics. In reality, the opposite would prove to be true.
In the aftermath of the purchase of Alaska, the territory languished in obscurity for decades. There was no clear direction and its management casually transferred from the military to the Treasury—and at times to nobody.
Despite this, settlers slowly began to populate Alaska. At the turn of the 20th century prospectors discovered gold in three separate locations (Klondike, Nome, and Fairbanks). This led to the Alaska Gold Rushes and subsequent population boom of the territory.
Alaska proved to be flush with natural resources even beyond gold. The discovery of vast reserves of oil helped to transform the economy and help the United States emerge into the world oil markets. Fishing would also prove to be a vital part of the regional economy.
The abundance of natural resources were but one significance of Seward’s Folly. The territory would prove to be of immense strategic value to the United States.
The Alaskan islands brought the US ever closer to Asian markets to aid with trade. In addition, the military built many bases in Alaska and on the islands that stretched out into the Pacific. These bases would prove to be essential, especially during World War II and for the devastating bombing of Japan.
Eventually this former western frontier found its way to statehood, officially becoming the 49th state in 1959.
While history textbooks still refer to the purchase of Alaska as Seward’s Folly today, the deal sprung by the Secretary of State was surely a shrewd bargain.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.