18 October 1867, the day the territory of Alaska was formally transferred from Russia to the United States; and every year on this day, the anniversary of the Alaska Purchase is celebrated and observed as a legal holiday in the US, often called Alaska Day. 

Alaska Purchase was the acquisition of 5,86,412 square miles of area in the North American continent at the north-western tip, which is currently the US state of Alaska. 

Originally, Russia had shown a keen interest in Alaska back in 1725. Czar Peter the Great had left from Vitus Bering in order to go and explore the Alaskan Coast. The Alaskan coast was rich in natural resources and had very few inhabitants, and since these times Alaska was a part of Russia. 

The deal of the Alaska Purchase was not made and signed out of any rivalry or conflict between Russia and the United States. Rather it was due to the competition of both the countries with one of the strongest of empires, Britain. In October of 1853, there was the Crimean war between Russia and Britain. In this war, Russia was defeated by both Britain and France. The conflict of the Crimean War started off in the southwest of Russia and then spread to the Pacific because of some Russian cruisers (within the Siberian posts) threatening the trade between Britain and California. Both, the British and the French, set sail in order to defeat and take over the Russian ships. They took the port of Sitka situated in Alaska after which they headed over to Petropavlovsk, where the situation worsened. The British population was spreading, as were their ambitions. Vancouver and Columbia were both British colonies with increasing threats due to the gold prospectors, who were rushing west. Britain’s plan to expand was already sailing, which meant that the North American possessions of Britain would be sharing a land border with Russia. 

Amidst all of this, Alaska was not easy to defend due to the supply lines, and hence, Tsar Alexander II was planning to sell Alaska. And acting upon his decision, Tsar Alexander II offered to sell Alaska to both Britain and the United States in 1859 as they were potential buyers. Britain did not show much interest and was not bothered to buy Alaska, hence that option was not seeming open. In the case of the United States, they were distracted enough to not pay attention to the offer; the impending Civil War had them preoccupied for a few years and hence Alaska was still with Russia for the time being. The outbreak of the American Civil War happened in 1861, and hence the discussions Tsar wished to have were postponed up until 1865. In 1865, the Civil War in the United States came to an end, and the discussions between Tsar and the United States were rekindled. Emperor Tsar and the Russian Minister and Ambassador to the United States, Baron Eduard de Stoeckl started their formal negotiations for the sale of Alaska with William Henry Seward, the Secretary of State. These negotiations took place under the presidency (for the United States) of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson and an intermediary, Thurlow Weed, who was a journalist and politician. William Henry Seward was leading the negotiations from the side of the United States. He had long wanted and desired Alaska to be a part of the US as he had been an advocate for expansionism. 

This offer to purchase Alaska was very lucrative for the United States. After the end of the American Civil War, with no distractions present, it was seemingly profitable and prospective to buy Alaska from Russia. One of the reasons being – the expansion of the United States territory, about 6,00,000 square miles of land; it was almost double the size of Texas. Another reason being the strategic location of Alaska, right between Russia and British North America. And finally, it was the best time, post the civil war, to take up such an offer and convert it into a deal to purchase Alaska, as this would buy much-needed distraction from the post-war reconstruction. 

Once the decision to buy Alaska was made, the negotiations for the final deal went on for an entire night and it was at 4’o clock in the morning on 30th March 1867 that the treaty was agreed upon. The treaty was for an agreed price of 7.2 million dollars (which can be converted to about 120 million dollars today) for 5,86,412 square miles (Alaska). The price was set at around two cents per acre. This treaty was passed on 9 April, and then the United States took over the land of Alaska on 18 October 1867. The official possession of Alaska was celebrated with a flag-changing ceremony in Sitka. 

Although the land of Alaska was taken over, there were many members of the house who were resisting to pay. This was primarily because they were unwilling to support President Johnson because of his choice to dismiss the senate appointed secretary of war. Acting upon this, the House decided to enter articles of impeachment in the month of February 1868, but this attempt to oust him was rendered unsuccessful, and hence, necessary appropriations were passed on 14 July 1868, concluding the deal. 

The Russians residing in the Alaskan regions were mostly not permanent residents and hence returned to Russia after the sale of Alaska to the United States. Alaska remained under the control of the US military till the June of 1877, post this it was governed by the Treasury Department and followed further by different military authorities. In May 1884, a civil government was installed in the Alaskan territory and it became a district. It was on the 3rd of January, 1959, when Alaska was accepted into the union as the 49th state of the United States and to date it remains a state with Juneau as its capital; one of the most attractive tourist spots and most wonderful places to travel to in the United States. 

References:

  1. The New York Times article dated 30/03/2017 – 150 Years After Sale of Alaska, some Russians have Second Thoughts
  2. History Today article dated 03/03/2017 (written by Paul Lay) – The Alaska Purchase

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