The United States purchased Alaska to boost American fishing and whaling industries, increase the nation’s control of commerce in the Pacific, and create a bridge to Asian markets.
The American entrepreneur Perry McDonough
In 1866, the territorial legislature of Washington petitioned President Andrew Johnson to seek Russian permission for American fishermen to visit Alaskan harbors. The petition was also sent to Secretary of State William H.
Upon Stoeckl’s return to St. Petersburg in late 1866, he was queried about selling Alaska to the United States by the Russian finance minister, Michael Reutern, who through Grand Duke Constantine and Prince Aleksandr Mikhailovich Gorchakov secured the emperor’s approval to begin negotiations. Acquiring Alaska suited Seward’s vision of the United States becoming a world power by increasing its economic strength. When Stoeckl arrived back in the United States in 1867 with instructions to tempt the United States into making an offer for Alaska, Seward was happy to offer $7.2 million, and the details of the sale were worked out that same night, March 29, 1867.
With the treaty completed, Seward was faced with the challenge of guiding it through the Senate. He began by arranging news stories in the New York Commercial Advertiser and the New York Tribune. Henry Raymond, the editor of The New York Times, published a story emphasizing the need for harbors to accommodate the United States’ “fast-growing commerce with northeast Asia.” Only Horace Greeley, in his New York Tribune, opposed the treaty, and even he soon relented and described Alaska as an “American Norway,” rich in fish and fur. Resistance soon surfaced in the Senate, however. The Committee on Foreign Relations, composed mainly of easterners with little interest in the West Coast, scoffed at the project. Help for Seward came from Professor Spenser Baird of the Smithsonian Institution, who wrote to Senator Charles
The United States issued this check on August 1, 1868, to purchase Alaska from Russia.
By early April, the treaty’s prospects looked better, and Seward hosted a round of dinner parties, hoping that food and wine would soften his critics’ hearts. On April 8, Sumner argued for approval in a three-hour speech that stressed potential commercial profits, observing that Hong Kong was closer to San Francisco by way of the Aleutians than by way of Honolulu. Sumner had studied his subject well, noting Alaska’s coal deposits, its gold, and its timberlands. Sumner admitted, however, the role of politics in his thinking, citing Russia’s friendliness during the Civil War and the need that many Americans felt to reward Russia’s support. Sumner’s speech was decisive, and the next day the Senate ratified Seward’s treaty.
Seward’s next challenge was persuading the House to appropriate the $7.2 million to complete the purchase. He cleverly arranged for 250 American troops to sail into Sitka harbor on October 18, 1867, and claim possession of Alaska in a ceremony attended by the Russian governor. With the American flag flying over the new territory, the House could hardly reject approving payment for it. The biggest obstacle still left was a claim for $373,613 by the widow of Benjamin Perkins, who had agreed to sell arms to Russia during the Crimean War. The rifles were never shipped, but Anne Perkins nonetheless sued for the money to be held back from the Alaska appropriation. The claim was thin and was warded off by Seward’s maneuvering.
After some heated debate over whether the House was bound to appropriate money for a treaty signed by the Senate, the House endorsed the appropriations bill on July 27, 1868. One key factor in this decision was the representatives’ anticipation of a large increase in trade with China. Representative Green Berry Raum of Illinois exulted that “the whole of the rich trade of the East . . . will . . . necessarily fall into our hands.”
The Alaska purchase helped facilitate trade, but it attained greater significance as the natural resources of the region were discovered and exploited. When gold was discovered in Canada’s Yukon Territory, many Americans traveled to and through Alaska, as the nearest launching point for gold expeditions. Oil was also discovered in the territory during the mid-twentieth century, and the combination of Alaskan oil fields and the territory’s strategic importance during World War II led to Alaska becoming a state in 1959.
Farrar, Victor J. The Annexation of Russian-America. 1937. Reprint. Washington, D.C.: W. F. Roberts, 1966. Account of the purchase of Alaska based on State Department records and Russian sources in the National Archives. _______. “Background to the Purchase of Alaska.” Washington Historical Quarterly 13 (1922): 93-104. Reviews Alaska’s role in the United States’ early relations with Russia. Jensen, Ronald J. The Alaska Purchase and Russian-American Relations. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975. Comprehensive, well-written survey of the treaty, beginning with the early Russian-American discussions in 1854 and concluding with a chapter on questions surrounding the disposition of some of the money meant for transfer to Moscow. Reynolds, Robert L. “Seward’s Wise Folly.” In America and Russia. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962. Strong defense of the Alaska Purchase. Taylor, John M. William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1991. Chapter 24, “The Empire Builder,” provides a concise account of the negotiations between Seward and Stoeckl concerning Alaska. Woldman, Albert A. Lincoln and the Russians. New York: World, 1952. Broad account of U.S.-Russian relations during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, with good commentary on the financial issues involved.
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