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How was Alaska Purchased?

How was Alaska Purchased?

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In 1867, a significant transaction took place that reshaped the map of North America. The United States acquired a vast new territory, the land that is now known as Alaska, from Russia. This acquisition was the result of negotiations led by then U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward and the Russian envoy Baron Edouard de Stoeckl. The deal was made official with the signing of the Treaty of Cession on March 30, 1867.

Russia had established a foothold in North America in 1741, but by the mid-19th century, the maintenance of its Alaskan territory had become burdensome. The distant region presented challenges in governance and economic viability, leading Russia to consider divesting of the area. Meanwhile, the United States, under the leadership of President Andrew Johnson, was eager to expand its territory and influence.

The purchase price of $7.2 million, amounting to roughly two cents per acre, was considered a bargain at the time, although it was met with criticism from some members of the American public and press who referred to the deal as “Seward’s Folly.” Despite the initial skepticism, the Alaska Purchase is now recognized as a strategic and economic triumph for the United States, marking a significant moment in the country’s history.

Historical Context

In the mid-19th century, the vast and remote territory of Alaska was under Russian control, but a combination of economic straits and geopolitical pressures led to its sale to the United States.

Russian explorers, led by Vitus Bering, set their sights on the Alaskan region in the 18th century, driven by the lust for fur and new territory. It was in 1741 that Bering’s expedition claimed the area for Russia after arriving on the Alaskan mainland.

Tsar Paul I chartered the Russian-American Company in 1799, granting them monopoly over the region’s fur trade. This state-sponsored company became the vehicle through which Russia administered the territory, establishing settlements and trade with indigenous groups.

The United Kingdom and the United States had looming interests in the Pacific Northwest. By the mid-1800s, Russia faced challenges maintaining its hold on Alaska amidst these rising powers and began to consider the sale of the territory as a strategic retreat.

Motivations for Sale

The sale of Alaska was driven by economic, expansionist, and geopolitical motives from both the Russian and American perspectives.

Russia faced economic constraints during the mid-19th century, particularly in maintaining and defending its North American territory.

Managing Alaska proved costly, as it was a remote region presenting logistics and administrative challenges. The fur trade, once lucrative, was also in decline, diminishing the financial incentives to keep the territory.

The United States was interested in expanding its territory across the continent. Secretary of State William H. Seward was a strong proponent of this, believing in the concept of Manifest Destiny—the idea that the expansion of the U.S. across the American continents was both justified and inevitable. The purchase of Alaska would provide the U.S. with valuable land and resources.

Geopolitically, Russia anticipated complications with maintaining Alaska, especially with the potential threat of British claims to the territory.

Selling Alaska to the United States would not only provide Russia with financial relief but also reduce the risk of losing the territory without compensation in a future conflict. The sale strengthened Russia’s diplomatic position by creating a buffer with the British Empire in North America.


In the orchestration of Alaska’s purchase, the United States engaged in critical diplomatic talks, forged an essential treaty, and obtained necessary Senate approval.

Amidst the aftermath of the American Civil War, William H. Seward, who was serving as the U.S. Secretary of State, initiated detailed negotiations for the acquisition of Alaska. His counterpart was the Russian diplomat Eduard de Stoeckl.

They engaged in discussions to transfer control of the vast region, which Russia deemed financially burdensome and militarily indefensible, to the United States.

The outcome of these discussions was a formal agreement, known as the Treaty of Cession, signed on March 30, 1867. This treaty outlined Russia’s agreement to cede Alaska to the United States for a sum of $7.2 million, which adjusted for inflation, is roughly equivalent to $132 million in today’s currency. The agreement promised the handing over of about 586,412 square miles of territory.

For the treaty to be ratified, it required the assent of the U.S. Senate. Despite initial skepticism by some members who referred to the purchase as “Seward’s Folly,” the Senate granted its approval.

The approval was aided by the recognition of Alaska’s strategic importance and potential natural resources. On April 9, 1867, the Senate passed the treaty with a margin exceeding the necessary two-thirds majority.

The Purchase

The deal was signed on March 30, 1867, for a sum of $7.2 million.

The formal transfer ceremony took place in Sitka, Alaska, on October 18, 1867. During the ceremony, Russian and American troops lined up on the parade ground, and the Russian flag was lowered, while the American flag was raised to signify the transfer of ownership.

The payment of $7.2 million was facilitated through a U.S. Treasury warrant. The amount, when adjusted for inflation, would be equivalent to approximately $125 million in 2022.

The payment was a substantial sum at that time and was used to strengthen diplomatic ties and expand American territory.

Aftermath and Significance

After the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the acquisition had deep impacts on the United States economically, strategically, and in public perception.

Initial public sentiment toward the Alaska Purchase was mixed. Many Americans considered the deal to be Secretary of State William Seward’s Folly due to the perceived barrenness and remoteness of the territory.

Over time, as the potential of Alaska became apparent, public opinion shifted to a more positive view.

Alaska proved to be rich in natural resources, including gold, oil, and fish. The discovery of gold in the Klondike in the 1890s led to a gold rush, prompting substantial migration to the territory.

Later, the discovery of North Slope oil in 1968 highlighted Alaska’s long-term value for American resource development.

The strategic importance of Alaska was not immediately recognized. However, during World War II and the Cold War, Alaska’s location played a crucial role in defense. Its proximity to the Soviet Union allowed for early warning radar systems and a forward base position.

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