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Did you know: Russia had sold Alaska to the USA in 1867 for just 2 cents per acre of land

On March 30, 1867, the United States bought 1,518,800 square kilometres of land from Russia at the north-western extremity of the North American continent, which is now the state of Alaska, for an estimated amount of $7.2 million.

Alaska, which is now the 49th state of the United States of America and with a GDP of more than $55 billion, was originally part of the Russian Empire. In 1867, Russia ceded Alaska to the United States in a treaty known as the Cessation of Alaska or the ‘Alaska Purchase’.

The United States bought 1,518,800 square kilometres of land from Russia at the north-western extremity of the North American continent, which is now the state of Alaska. The United States agreed to buy Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million on March 30, 1867. Secretary of State William Seward and Russian Minister to the United States Edouard de Stoeckl negotiated the Treaty. It was signed by US President Andrew Johnson and the then Emperor of Russia Tsar Alexander II.

The History of Alaska

Russia’s total land area was not as large in the 16th century as it is today. Its eastern land expansion strategy contributed significantly to the country’s acquisition of Alaska, which is a part of the North American continent. Also, Alaska had a lethal climate back then. Only 800 Russians lived on the island, which was also located far from the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. During the first half of the 18th century, Russia established a presence in North America, but few Russians ever settled in Alaska. 

Map of Russian America (Alaska) 1867.

The Alaska Peninsula is the Western Hemisphere’s largest peninsula. Alaska’s westernmost section is in the Eastern Hemisphere since the 180th meridian runs across the state’s Aleutian Islands. As a result, Alaska is basically in both hemispheres.

Why was Alaska sold?

Alaska’s deal has a unique backstory. Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Crimea were among the Balkan countries that Russia intended to rule. In the 1850s, they were a part of the Ottoman Empire. Russia was determined to protect the Christians in the Muslim-majority Ottoman Empire. 

Consequentially, Russia invaded Romania in July 1853 following which, Turkey declared war, which Britain and France supported because they wanted to destroy Russian naval power in the Black Sea. The war, popularly known as Crimean War, which lasted from 1853 to 1856, resulted in the defeat of Russia, by an Ottoman alliance including the United Kingdom and France.

Map of Europe
The Map of the region during the Crimean War.

Following the Crimean Battle, Russian Tsar Alexander II began considering selling Alaska, which would be hard to protect in the event of a potential war against Russia’s biggest rival, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Russia’s decision to sell Alaska was based on this defeat by the Ottoman Empire. Facing a loss of more than 12000 troops and left with depleting coffers, Russia decided to cede its territory.

Why USA?

Most of the people would think that why two rivals like Russia and USA would ever agree to purchase and sell territory for whatsoever reason. Interestingly, USA and Russia were never rivals prior to the second world war.

In the 1800s, Russia and the United States were allies due to their common antipathy towards the British Empire. This was one of the main reasons Russia propositioned the US for the Alaska deal.

The negotiations

Back in 1959, Russia offered to sell its possessions in the north-western peninsula to the United States, but the outbreak of the American Civil War forced the discussions to be shelved.

Russia also sent a team of professionals to Alaska to determine the worth of natural resources. They estimated that it would cost around $10 million.

Despite being warned not to sell Alaska, Russia conveyed to the US its willingness to sell as well as the price it desired for the territory. The main reason for this compulsion to sell Alaska was that, instead of being an asset, it had become a liability due to the cost and logistical challenges of supplying the territory while the country was also dealing with debt from the devastating Crimean War.

Map of the ceded territory of Russia to the USA.

After the end of the American Civil War, US Secretary of State William Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska with Russian minister Eduard de Stoeckl. Steward and the Russian Minister to the United States reached an arrangement in which the US would pay Russia $7.2 million for Alaska.

Alaska becomes U.S. Territory; Alaska Natives not consulted - Timeline -  Native Voices
The treasury warrant concerning the deal.

The final treaty

On March 11, 1867, the two leaders began confidential negotiations. Stoeckl and Seward finished the writing of a deal transferring Russian North America to the United States on March 29, 1867.  The purchase price was $7.2 million, or around two cents per acre. On March 30, 1867, the treaty was presented to the Senate for approval.

The presentation to the House of Representatives.

The Alaska Treaty was signed by US President Andrew Johnson in May 1867 after the US Senate accepted the agreement on April 9, 1867.

The final treaty.

On October 18, 1867, Russia formally handed Alaska to the United States. This marked the end of Russia’s presence in North America.

The signing of the Alaska treaty in 1867

Criticism for the deal

Critics labelled the acquisition of Alaska “Seward’s Folly,” according to the US Office of the Historian. Some newspapers derided the decision, calling the new region “Seward’s Icebox,” “Seward’s Folly,” and “Walrussia,” among other things. When a substantial gold discovery was discovered in the Yukon in 1896, the decision of the previous Secretary of State was validated, and Alaska became the entrance to the Klondike goldfields. Alaska’s strategic significance was eventually realized during World War II.

Importance of Alaska

The United States paid little attention to the territory for three decades, and it was administered by military, naval, and treasury norms. The United States created a civil administration in the region in 1884, as well as mining legislation.

In 1996, when the major gold reserves were found in the region, the region got importance. The subsequent discovery of other natural resources led to the realization of its importance.

Also, its geostrategic importance is unmatched in the present context. Its strategical importance is underscored by the fact that it provides a direct gateway to the US against its adversary Russia.

The decision of the US to buy Alaska is considered one of the best decisions taken in the context of cessation and annexation territories. Alaska, which was abandoned by Russia over its non-utility in contributing to the economy and instead of being a liability on the public exchequer, currently has a GDP of around $55 million and contributes extensively to the development of America.

Other important purchases made by America

The United States also purchased the state of Louisiana. It was a territory of France under Napoleon. New France’s vast and complicated territory in North America was thought to be an easy target for British invasion from Canada or the US. Also, Napoleon required funds in order to continue fighting the British and their allied forces in Europe. As a result, instead of fighting to protect a poorly defended province on the other side of the globe, he opted to sell it for much-needed money to sustain his empire when peace with the United Kingdom proved unrealistic in the near future.

The Louisiana Purchase Treaty.

As a result, on April 30th, 1803, the pact was signed and the fledgling United States doubled in size and expanded its borders to the west.

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Pallav
Pallav
Aristotelian and Platonic simultaneously. Interested in socio-political developments and the milieu.

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