Secretary of State William Seward brokered a steal of a deal in late night negotiations that resulted in a signed treaty at 4:00AM on March 30th, 1867. However, that did not prevent his detractors from mocking him for buying a “frozen ice box”. The cartoon below, which ran in Harper’s Weekly, captured the sentiment of a lot of Americans when it was announced that we gave the Russians $7.2 million for what was originally called “The Department of Alaska”.
Secretary Seward is depicted as an elderly mom who is consoling the upset child, President Andrew Johnson, who is looking at his own image as “King Andy”. Uncle Sam is shown in the “Map of the Russian Fairyland” on the wall trudging in snowshoes across the icy tundra, planting American flags on Alaskan mountaintops, while the polar bears and walruses watch. A picture of an Eskimo family is disparagingly labeled “One of the Advantages.” All for “only” (sarcasm intended) $7 million in gold!
As is almost always the case, decisions like the one to purchase Alaska from the Russians are not made in a vacuum and of course politics were heavily involved. Both Johnson and Seward had an antagonistic relationship with the Congress and both were highly unpopular at the time.
Not unlike today when politicians struggle with domestic issues, they hoped that changing the focus abroad would bolster their standing with the American citizens. This is not to say they didn’t of course have some wholesome motivations. They saw the strategic location and natural resources of Alaska as being highly advantageous to the United States.
Russia was an ally of the US at the time and they were concerned with their ability to defend Alaska during a possible war with Great Britain, Russia’s enemy which controlled Canada. Add to the mix the fact that the Russian company which was responsible for overseeing Alaska was running low on money. So the Russian minister to the United States, Baron Edouard de Stoeckl, contacted Secretary Seward in March 1867 with an offer to sell Alaska.
Seward initially offered $5 million though they eventually settled on $7 million. Then some Russian bureaucrats had other concerns and upped the ante to $7.2 million. In the wee hours of March 30th, 1867 they all signed on the bottom line and Alaska became part of the United States for $0.02 cents an acre. In todays’ dollars the price would be close to $120 million–which is basically the equivalent to a rounding error in our current federal budget.
When you consider the strategic location Alaska gives the United States on the globe along with its vast and rich natural resources of oil, gold, timber, seafood and tourism I say Seward didn’t do that bad.