Russia Sells Alaska to the United States Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The United States acquired a vast territory of abundant natural resources and immense strategic importance when it bought Alaska from the Russians for $7.2 million. Although the purchase was condemned by many Americans, that opposition gradually subsided after the discovery of gold in the region at the end of the nineteenth century.

Summary of Event

Unofficial negotiations regarding the sale of Russian America—as Alaska was then called—to the United States were conducted in at least two instances before the Civil War (1861-1865), in 1854 and in 1860. Following the war, the discussion was renewed through the efforts of Baron Edouard de Stoeckl, Russian minister to the United States. Stoeckl believed that the transfer of Russian America was in the best interest of Russia and the future of Russian-United States friendship. Stoeckl received permission to negotiate the sale of Alaska after discussions with Czar Alexander II, Foreign Minister Aleksandr Gorchakov, Gorchakov, Aleksandr Mikhailovich and other Russian officials during his home leave late in 1866. Russia;and United States[United States] Russia;and Alaska[Alaska] Alaska;purchase of Seward, William H. Stoeckl, Edouard de [kw]Russia Sells Alaska to the United States (Mar. 30, 1867) [kw]Sells Alaska to the United States, Russia (Mar. 30, 1867) [kw]Alaska to the United States, Russia Sells (Mar. 30, 1867) [kw]United States, Russia Sells Alaska to the (Mar. 30, 1867) Russia;and United States[United States] Russia;and Alaska[Alaska] Alaska;purchase of Seward, William H. Stoeckl, Edouard de [g]United States;Mar. 30, 1867: Russia Sells Alaska to the United States[4050] [g]Russia;Mar. 30, 1867: Russia Sells Alaska to the United States[4050] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Mar. 30, 1867: Russia Sells Alaska to the United States[4050] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 30, 1867: Russia Sells Alaska to the United States[4050] Alexander II [p]Alexander II[Alexander 02];and Alaska[Alaska] Banks, Nathaniel Prentiss Gorchakov, Aleksandr Mikhailovich Sumner, Charles [p]Sumner, Charles;and Alaska purchase[Alaska purchase] Walker, Robert John

The minimum price for the land was set at five million dollars. The Russian willingness to sell was apparently motivated by the failure of the Russian American Company, a chartered company organized to exploit Russian America; a fear that the British might take the defenseless territory in the event of war; and a desire to minimize the possibility of clashes between U.S. and Russian interests in the Pacific.

Secretary of State William H. Seward.

(Library of Congress)

U.S. secretary of state William H. Seward was an ardent expansionist who was interested in obtaining overseas possessions for the United States in the Caribbean and in the Pacific. When Stoeckl returned to Washington in March, 1867, Seward requested U.S. fishing rights in Russian-American territorial waters. When Stoeckl refused, Seward inquired whether Russia would be willing to sell Alaska. Stoeckl responded positively. Seward consulted President Andrew Johnson and the cabinet, which unanimously agreed to open negotiations. Seward’s initial bid was five million dollars, but Stoeckl asked twice that amount for the 586,000 square miles of territory. The two men finally agreed on seven million dollars, but when Stoeckl insisted that the United States also take over the Russian American Company, Seward added $200,000 to escape the obligation. Hence, the final purchase price was $7.2 million.

Stoeckl cabled the details of the sale to Foreign Minister Gorchakov Gorchakov, Aleksandr Mikhailovich , who authorized the signing of the treaty. Stoeckl brought the news to Seward on the evening of March 29 and suggested that the treaty be concluded the next day. Seward was anxious to proceed and wanted to draw up the treaty immediately. The Russian and United States plenipotentiaries summoned their clerks, and the treaty was signed at 4:00 a.m. on March 30, 1867.

A few hours after the signing, President Johnson forwarded the treaty to the Senate for ratification. It initially appeared that the necessary two-thirds vote would not be forthcoming, because Congress and President Johnson had reached an impasse concerning Reconstruction politics. Charles Sumner Sumner, Charles [p]Sumner, Charles;and Alaska purchase[Alaska purchase] , chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, championed the bill, and on April 9, he made an effective three-hour speech that summarized the arguments for the purchase. Later the same day, the Senate gave its approval by a vote of thirty-seven to two. Ratifications were exchanged on June 20.

Most Americans were caught by surprise when the proposed treaty was revealed. There was some hostility and a good deal of criticism. Many newspapers denounced the proposed purchase, calling it “Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden,” “Seward’s Icebox,” “Seward’s Folly,” Seward’s Folly[Sewards Folly] and “Walrussia,” but some New England sea captains and West Coast defenders testified in its favor. Friendship with Russia was also a persuasive reason for accepting the treaty. Many people in the United States had regarded the calling of the Russian fleet at U.S. ports during the Civil War as an act of friendship at a time when England and France appeared hostile toward the cause of the Union. Although later research in Russian archives indicates that Russian ships had been dispatched to U.S. ports for strategic reasons, the idea of Russian-American friendship was not entirely illusory.

The formal transfer of Alaska to the United States took place on October 18, 1867, at Sitka, the capital of Russian America on the west coast of Baranof Island, before the agreed price had been paid to Russia. The delay in payment was caused by the failure of the House of Representatives to vote the necessary appropriation. Some members argued that, although the Constitution gave the Senate the exclusive right to approve treaties, it also gave the House the right to originate money bills. These congressmen believed that the House should have been consulted before the treaty was confirmed. Disputes between the executive and legislative branches, which eventually culminated in the impeachment trial of President Johnson, further delayed House action. Both Seward and Stoeckl, however, worked effectively to secure the appropriation.

Seward conducted a campaign to educate the newspapers and the public, while Stoeckl retained former senator Robert J. Walker Walker, Robert John as a lobbyist. Some newspapers and public officials may have received payments for their support of the treaty. Under the management of Seward’s friend Nathaniel P. Banks Banks, Nathaniel Prentiss , chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the House passed the appropriation bill on July 14, 1868, by a vote of 113 to 43, with 44 abstaining. The Senate concurred on July 17, and the bill became law on July 27. Payment to Russia was finally made on August 1, 1868.

Estimates of the population of Alaska Alaska;population of at the time of purchase put the Russian population at about five hundred, the number of Creoles (those of mixed Russian and indigenous descent) at about fifteen hundred, and the number of indigenous Alaskans at between twenty-four and thirty thousand. The treaty of purchase permitted inhabitants of Alaska who remained after the Russians departed the option of becoming U.S. citizens within three years, with the exception of members of the so-called “uncivilized tribes,” who would be treated according to the laws that governed “aboriginal tribes” in the United States.

In general, native Alaskans had fared better under Russian rule than they did under initial U.S. rule. The Russians had extended citizenship to the Creoles and allowed some form of tribal government to remain intact among the settled native tribes. Although at first mistreated by the Russian fur traders, who conscripted Aleuts to hunt sea otters, native peoples had begun to gain increasingly benign treatment under the succession of charters that the Russian government granted to the Russian American Company beginning in 1799. The Russians strove to avoid serious conflict with the native Alaskans during much of the time that Alaska was under Russian rule.

Significance

For the first seventeen years of rule by the United States, U.S. policy toward Alaska was one of neglect. Alaska officially became a customs district and was placed under military control. The War Department dispatched five hundred troops to Sitka and Fort Wrangell under the command of General Jefferson Davis. The army was unrestrained in its conduct and introduced a period of general lawlessness into a territory that had enjoyed orderly rule under the Russians. U.S. soldiers introduced disease, alcohol, and firearms to native Alaskans. It was not until the passage of the Organic Act of 1884, which provided limited government for Alaska, that some semblance of civil order was reestablished.

The founding of schools and churches by U.S. missionaries Missionaries;in Alaska[Alaska] during the late nineteenth century, encouraged by Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian Presbyterians;missionaries minister, significantly benefited native Alaskans at a time of neglect by the federal government. The Russian Orthodox Church, which continued to hold the allegiance of native Alaskans after the departure of the Russians, remains the most notable heritage of Russian rule in Alaska.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bolkhovitinov, Nikolai N. Russian-American Relations and the Sale of Alaska, 1834-1867, edited and translated by Richard A. Pierce. Fairbanks, Alaska: Limestone Press, 1996. Originally published in 1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “The Sale of Alaska in Context of Russo-American Relations in the Nineteenth Century.” In Imperial Russian Foreign Policy, edited by Hugh Ragsdale. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Two works that explore the Alaska purchase in the context of Russian-American relations before the 1867 sale and acquisition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chevigny, Hector. Russian America: The Great Alaskan Venture, 1741-1867. 1965. Reprint. Portland, Oreg.: Binford & Mort, 1979. A comprehensive survey of the Russian period of Alaskan history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dickerson, Donna Lee. The Reconstruction Era: Primary Documents on Events from 1865 to 1877. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003. A collection of primary source documents relating to late nineteenth century America, with documents on the Alaska purchase. Includes an introduction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elliott, Henry W. “Alaska: Ten Years’ Acquaintance With, 1867-1877.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 55, no. 333 (1887). Available through the Library of Congress’s Primary Documents in American History Web site.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farrar, Victor J. The Annexation of Russian America to the United States. Washington, D.C.: W. F. Roberts, 1937. A brief, standard treatment of the purchase.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jensen, Ronald J. The Alaska Purchase and Russian-American Relations. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975. Places the treaty in the larger context of Russian-American relations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, David Hunter. The Alaska Treaty. Kingston, Ontario: Limestone Press, 1981. An important and comprehensive study of the treaty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sherwood, Morgan B., ed. Alaska and Its History. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967. Contains several important articles dealing with the purchase.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shiels, Archie W. [Archibald Williamson]. The Purchase of Alaska. Seattle: College, University of Alaska Press, distributed by University of Washington Press, 1967. Contains many documents pertaining to the purchase of Alaska.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sumner, Charles. “The Cession of Russian America to the United States.” Washington, D.C.: Congressional Globe Office, 1867. Sumner’s speech to Congress on occasion of the Alaska purchase. Available through the University of Michigan Digital Library’s Making of America Web site at http://name.umdl.umich.edu/AAZ9604.0001.001. Accessed January 17, 2006.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Deusen, Glyndon G. William Henry Seward. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. An outstanding biography of the secretary of state who was the chief proponent of the purchase of Alaska.

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