The Alaska Purchase – A Brief History
The Story Behind the $7.2 Million Deal
By Cecil Sanders
Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Alaska Purchase — the 1867 acquisition of the far away land called “Alaska” by the United States from the Russian Empire. The purchase stemmed from one man’s expansionist goal as well as a nation’s desire to defend her borders from the powers of Europe and Asia.
After years of fighting many wars on different fronts, Russia was looking to sell Alaska and insert some much needed capital back into their economy. Russia had been actively pursuing fur trade in the northern Pacific as resources were abundant. Competition with North American fur trade companies ensued for the market. Russia however couldn’t afford major settlements to the east and lost their foothold in the region allowing the North American fur traders to take control.
In 1859 Russia offered to sell Alaska to the United States. The offer was left on the table as America was on the eve of her own struggle as great political and social strife settled in, with talks of war on the horizon. Also, Alaska wasn’t the only interest of the expansionist fever. The U.S. had their eyes on Cuba, Greenland, Iceland, Mexico and more. Each new territorial acquisition brought into the Union caused for a struggle between rivaling “slave” and “free” states, so Alaska, as well as Cuba, Greenland and Iceland, were put on hold.
William Henry Seward
In the late 1850s Henry William Seward saw a clear path to the presidency as the Republican nominee. He had served as Governor of New York from 1939 to 1942, then was elected Senator for the state from 1949 to 1961. Only one man stood in his way, and that was “the little Illinois lawyer.” At the Republican Convention, Seward was defeated by Lincoln in the third round of electoral voting. Seward however endorsed Lincoln and in time became one of his closest supporters.
In the days preceding the 1860 election, Seward made comments that angered folks in the southern and western states. Secession was at a fever pitch. Neutrality wasn’t an option and politicians were choosing sides. Seward’s rhetoric was blamed by some for the bloody conflict at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He was despised by many south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Seward was picked by Lincoln for Secretary of State. Lincoln, being relatively new to politics as a one term congressmen, enlisted Seward’s help with many different aspects of Washington politics and social etiquettes.
As the final days of the Civil War came to a close—and soon after the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia by General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union Army—one last desperate attempt to escape defeat was plotted and executed by John Wilkes Booth, Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt.
On the night of April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth entered the Ford Theatre and assassinated President Lincoln. At that same hour, Lewis Powell entered the Seward home, overpowered Frederick Seward (second oldest son of William Seward) jumped on William Seward in his bed, and stabbed him repeatedly in the face and neck. A young Union private wrestled Lewis Powell from atop Seward allowing Powell to flee. Unresponsive, Seward was mistakenly thought to be dead.
A third attack on Vice President Johnson by George Atzerodt never unfolded. The goal of removing the three top executive members from office and sending the Union into a full freefall failed, and the conspirators were soon caught.
The Alaska Purchase
About two years after the Civil War was over, Seward had recovered from the attack and with renewed vigor continued his expansionist dreams. Under the Johnson administration, Russia renewed its offer and on March 30, 1867 Seward agreed to the proposal by Russian Minister, Edouard de Stoeckl, and purchased Alaska from Russia for 7.2 million dollars (equivalent to $113,000,000 today). This purchase ended Russia’s presence in North America.
As the United States continued to recover from war, and other issues within the nation took priority, the purchase of Alaska gave little benefit to the country and became known as “Seward’s Folly.” In 1896 Seward was vindicated as gold was found in the Klondike gold fields. The strategic importance of Alaska was later realized during WWII. Throughout the years Alaska has continued to validate its importance to the union.