Seward’s Folly: The History of the Alaska Purchase

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. 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 concept of Manifest Destiny had been fulfilled, Alaska was yet another nearby large territory for the United States to adopt and rule.

Buying Alaska was generally well received in the US, though it was highly controversial to a vocal minority. In this case the loudest voices are the ones that echoed most through history, which is why the Alaska purchase is known as “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 Want to Sell Alaska?

Alaska was first explored and settled by the Russians in the early 18th century, though the first permanent settlement was not established 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 many were forced to hunt the sea otters and other animals. The Aleuts suffered under the harsh treatment, though the real killer was European introduced disease. As much as 80-90% of the Aleut population succumbed to European diseases.

While the fur trade was the primary economic reason 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 to Texas 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 gold were ever to be discovered in Alaska, they would have no hopes of stopping the influx of foreign settlers.

After being soundly defeated in the Crimean War (1853-1856), Russia was badly in need of gold 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.

Seward and de Stoeckl negotiations / image from University of Rochester collections

On March 30th, 1867 Seward and de Stoeckl struck a deal: the purchase of Alaska was completed. The Senate would ratify the treaty on April 9th and President Johnson 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.

Largest Land Acquisitions in the United States Seward's Folly chart

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 the 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 which was separated by 12 days. 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 Brilliance 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 was 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 gold was discovered in three separate locations (Klondike, Nome, and Fairbanks) over a decade. This led to the Alaska Gold Rushes and subsequent population boom of the territory.

Prospectors from the Nome Gold Rush

Gold was not the only natural resource Alaska had in abundance. Oil was discovered in the mid-20th century and the vast reserves it held is still paying dividends to this day. Fishing would also prove to be a vital part of the regional economy.

The abundance of natural resources were but one aspect of what made Alaska valuable. 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 would find its way to statehood, officially becoming the 49th state of the United States in 1959.

While the purchase of Alaska is still known as Seward’s Folly today, the deal sprung by the Secretary of State was surely a shrewd bargain.

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