On 30 March 1867 the United States of America took possession of Alaska after purchasing it from Russia, adding 586,412 square miles to its territory.
Though at the time Alaska was largely uninhabited and considered fairly unimportant, it would prove to be a highly successful venture for America, giving access to vast raw materials and an important strategic position on the Pacific coast. Every year, locals celebrate this date, known as “Alaska day.”
The Imperial struggle
Throughout the 19th century Russia, the possessor of Alaska, and Britain had been locked in a power struggle known as “the great game,” a proto-cold war which exploded into life once in the 1850s in the Crimean War.
Fearful that losing Alaska to Britain in war would be a national humiliation, the Russians were eager to sell it to another power. It might seem strange that Russia would wish to relinquish such a large territory, but Russia was in the midst of economic and cultural turmoil just after the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861.
As a result, they wanted money for the largely undeveloped Alaskan territory rather than risk losing it and further damage the Tsar’s prestige. America seemed the best option for a sale, given its geographical proximity and unwillingness to side with Britain in the event of war.
Given these factors, the Russian government decided that an American buffer zone on British power in British Columbia would be perfect, especially as the Union had just emerged victorious from the Civil War and was now once again taking an interest in foreign affairs.
The US angle
The United States was also experiencing troubled times and sought a foreign coup to distract the populace from domestic affairs, which were still unsurprisingly troubled after an immensely bloody civil war.
As a result, the deal appealed to them too and Secretary of State William Seward began entering into negotiations with Russian Minister to the United States Eduard de Stoeckl in March 1867. Soon the handover was confirmed for a relatively modest sum of 7.2 million US dollars (worth well over 100 million today.)
To the Tsar it must have seemed a good result, for Russia had mostly failed to develop the territory but was nevertheless earning a lot for it. However, the United States would get by far the better of the deal in the long term.
As Alaska was so isolated and sparsely populated the purchase was greeted with some dismay amongst certain circles in America, and some newspapers dubbed it “Seward’s folly.” However most praised the deal, realising that it would help negate British power in the region and develop America’s interests in the Pacific.
The handover ceremony took place on the 18th October 1867 with the American flag hoisted in place of the Russian at the governor’s house in the Alaskan town of Sitka.
The territory did not immediately present itself as a good investment as most of the population returned to Russia, but the finding of gold in 1893 — combined with enterprising seal fisheries and fur companies — swelled the population and created immense wealth. Today it has a population of over 700,000 and a strong economy – and became a full US state in 1959.