Edited by Gerald Boerner
The name “Alaska” evokes images of vast waste-scapes of tundra covered with snow and populated with great herds of caribou. One can almost see the sub-zero temperatures outside. Scattered towns, centers of “civilization”, could be found, especially along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska. It is a territory that is not so much a state of the union, but a natural paradise peopled by the native groups of inhabitants.
In the past half century we have seen the Great Alaska Earthquake, the discovery of massive oil reserves on the north slope, and the Prince Henry Sound oil leak from the Exxon Valdez. The building of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline brought a population surge similar to that seen during the Yukon Gold Rush of earlier times.
But above all of the pivotal events of Alaska history I think of the natural wonders of the vastness that is Alaska. One cannot watch the three or four episodes of Art Wolfe’s “Travel to the Edge” TV show without being in awe of the beauty of this natural world of environmental extremes and animal diversity. And then there is the Grandure of Mount McKinley and Denali National Park. It lifts my spirit to a higher plane. Long may it remain that way.
But when it was purchased from the Russian Empire by William Seward, Secretary of State to two Presidents: Lincoln and Johnson. When it was finally ratified by the Senate it was called “Seward’s Folly” because of the apparent desolation of the land. Today, Seward would seem to be vindicated as we have come to appreciate the wisdom of this decision.
But let’s get on to today’s exploration… GLB
These Introductory Comments are copyrighted:
Copyright©2011 — Gerald Boerner — All Rights Reserved
[ 3366 Words ]
Quotations Related to ALASKA:
“Alaska has great potential for new oil and gas development.”
— Frank Murkowski
“I missed that question on Alaska. I hear they want to make it a state now.”
— Anson Williams
“The original settlers of Alaska apparently were Russian.”
— Jeff Goldblum
“This was one of the places people told me to go, it was one the big trips that you should see: Alaska.”
— Jeff Goldblum
“To live anywhere in the world today and be against equality because of race or color is like living in Alaska and being against snow.”
— William Faulkner
“There are many outsiders that actively try to halt every natural resource development project in Alaska. Many of these same people have never even been to Alaska, yet they claim to know what’s best for us.”
— Lisa Murkowski
“Walter, who had been in the lead all day, was the first to scramble up; a native Alaskan, he is the first human being to set foot upon the top of Alaska’s great mountain, and he had well earned the lifelong distinction.”
— Hudson Stuck
“But again, you know, the views that we’ve expressed are transferring power back from the federal government to the states, giving Alaska an incredible opportunity to expand its economy, especially at a time when our federal government is coming close to bankruptcy. So that is a broad-based appeal. It’s not an extreme view.”
— Joe Miller
Seward’s Folly: Alaska Purchased from Russia…
The Alaska Purchase was the acquisition of the Alaska territory by the United States from Russia in 1867 by a treaty ratified by the Senate. The purchase, made at the initiative of United States Secretary of State William H. Seward, gained 586,412 square miles (1,518,800 km2) of new United States territory. Originally organized as the Department of Alaska, the area was successively the District of Alaska and the Alaska Territory before becoming the modern state of Alaska upon being admitted to the Union as a state in 1959.
Alaska was purchased from the Russian Empire on March 30, 1867, for $7.2 million ($113 million in today’s dollars) at about two cents per acre ($4.74/km²). The land went through several administrative changes before becoming an organized territory on May 11, 1912, and the 49th state of the U.S. on January 3, 1959.
The name "Alaska" (Аляска) was already introduced in the Russian colonial period, when it was used only for the peninsula and is derived from the Aleut alaxsxaq, meaning "the mainland" or more literally, "the object towards which the action of the sea is directed". It is also known as Alyeska, the "great land", an Aleut word derived from the same root.
Background of the Purchase
Russia was in a difficult financial position and feared losing Russian America without compensation in some future conflict, especially to the British, whom they had fought in the Crimean War (1853–1856). While Alaska attracted little interest at the time, the population of nearby British Columbia started to increase rapidly a few years after hostilities ended, with a large gold rush there prompting the creation of a crown colony on the mainland. The Russians therefore started to believe that in any future conflict with Britain, their hard-to-defend region might become a prime target, and would be easily captured. Therefore the Tsar decided to sell the territory. Perhaps in hopes of starting a bidding war, both the British and the Americans were approached, however the British expressed little interest in buying Alaska. The Russians in 1859 offered to sell the territory to the United States, hoping that its presence in the region would offset the plans of Russia’s greatest regional rival, Great Britain. However, no deal was brokered due to the American Civil War.
Following the Union victory in the Civil War, the Tsar then instructed the Russian minister to the United States, Eduard de Stoeckl, to re-enter into negotiations with Seward in the beginning of March 1867. The negotiations concluded after an all-night session with the signing of the treaty at 4 a.m. on March 30, 1867, with the purchase price set at $7.2 million, or about 2 cents per acre ($4.74/km2).
American public opinion was generally positive, as most editors argued that the U.S. would probably derive great economic benefits from the purchase; friendship of Russia was important; and it would facilitate the acquisition of British Columbia.
Historian Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer summarized the minority opinion of some newspaper editors who opposed the purchase:
"Already, so it was said, we were burdened with territory we had no population to fill. The Indians within the present boundaries of the republic strained our power to govern aboriginal peoples. Could it be that we would now, with open eyes, seek to add to our difficulties by increasing the number of such peoples under our national care? The purchase price was small; the annual charges for administration, civil and military, would be yet greater, and continuing. The territory included in the proposed cession was not contiguous to the national domain. It lay away at an inconvenient and a dangerous distance. The treaty had been secretly prepared, and signed and foisted upon the country at one o’clock in the morning. It was a dark deed done in the night…. The New York World said that it was a "sucked orange." It contained nothing of value but furbearing animals, and these had been hunted until they were nearly extinct. Except for the Aleutian Islands and a narrow strip of land extending along the southern coast the country would be not worth taking as a gift…. Unless gold were found in the country much time would elapse before it would be blessed with Hoe printing presses, Methodist chapels and a metropolitan police. It was "a frozen wilderness.”
While criticized by some at the time, the financial value of the Alaska Purchase turned out to be many times greater than what the United States had paid for it. The land turned out to be rich in resources (including gold, copper, and oil).
When it became clear that the Senate would not debate the treaty before its adjournment on March 30, Seward persuaded President Andrew Johnson to call the Senate back into special session the next day. Many Republicans scoffed at "Seward’s folly," although their criticism appears to have been based less on the merits of the purchase than on their hostility to President Johnson and to Seward as Johnson’s political ally. Seward mounted a vigorous campaign, however, and with support from Charles Sumner, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, won approval of the treaty on April 9 by a vote of 37-2.
For more than a year, as congressional relations with President Johnson worsened, the House refused to appropriate the necessary funds. But in June 1868, after Johnson’s impeachment trial was over, Stoeckl and Seward revived the campaign for the Alaska purchase. The House finally approved the appropriation in July 1868, by a vote of 113-48.
With the purchase of Alaska, the United States acquired an area twice as large as Texas, but it was not until the great Klondike gold strike in 1896 that Alaska came to be seen generally as a valuable addition to American territory.
Senator Sumner had told the nation that the Russians estimated that Alaska contained about 2,500 Russians and those of mixed race, and 8,000 Indigenous people, in all about 10,000 people under the direct government of the Russian fur company, and possibly 50,000 Inuits and Alaska Natives living outside its jurisdiction. The Russians were settled at 23 trading posts, placed at accessible islands and coastal points. At smaller stations only four or five Russians were stationed to collect furs from the natives for storage and shipment when the company’s boats arrived to take it away. There were two larger towns. New Archangel, now named Sitka, had been established in 1804 to handle the valuable trade in the skins of the sea otter and in 1867 contained 116 small log cabins with 968 residents. St. Paul in the Pribilof Islands had 100 homes and 283 people and was the center of the fur seal industry.
An Aleut name, "Alaska," was chosen by the Americans. The transfer ceremony took place in Sitka on October 18, 1867. Russian and American soldiers paraded in front of the governor’s house; the Russian flag was lowered and the American flag raised amid peals of artillery. Captain Alexis Pestchouroff said, "General Rousseau, by authority from His Majesty, the Emperor of Russia, I transfer to the United States the territory of Alaska." General Lovell Rousseau accepted the territory. A number of forts, blockhouses and timber buildings were made over to the Americans. The troops occupied the barracks; General Jefferson C. Davis established his residence in the governor’s house, and most of the Russian citizens went home, leaving a few traders and priests who chose to remain.
Alaska Day celebrates the formal transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States, which took place on October 18, 1867. October 18, 1867, was by the Gregorian calendar and a clock time 9:01:20 behind Greenwich, which came into effect the following day in Alaska to replace the Julian calendar and a clock time 14:58:40 ahead of Greenwich. For the Russians, the handover was on October 17, 1867.
Secretary of State: William Seward, Sr.
William Henry Seward, Sr. (1801 – 1872) was the 12th Governor of New York, United States Senator and the United States Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. An outspoken opponent of the spread of slavery in the years leading up to the American Civil War, he was a dominant figure in the Republican Party in its formative years, and was widely regarded as the leading contender for the party’s presidential nomination in 1860 – yet his very outspokenness may have cost him the nomination. Despite his loss, he became a loyal member of Lincoln’s wartime cabinet, and played a role in preventing foreign intervention early in the war. On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, he survived an attempt on his life in the conspirators’ effort to decapitate the Union government. As Johnson’s Secretary of State, he engineered the purchase of Alaska from Russia in an act that was ridiculed at the time as "Seward’s Folly", but which somehow exemplified his character. His contemporary Carl Schurz described Seward as "one of those spirits who sometimes will go ahead of public opinion instead of tamely following its footprints."
Secretary of State
"Our population is destined to roll its resistless waves to the icy barriers of the north, and to encounter oriental civilization on the shores of the Pacific." —William H. Seward, 1846
Abraham Lincoln appointed Seward his Secretary of State in 1861. Seward played an integral role in resolving the Trent Affair and in negotiating the ensuing Lyons-Seward Treaty of 1862, which set forth strong measures by which the United States and Great Britain agreed to enforce an end to the Atlantic slave trade.
Seward pursued his vision of American expansion. "Give me only this assurance, that there never be an unlawful resistance by an armed force to the … United States, and give me fifty, forty, thirty more years of life, and I will engage to give you the possession of the American continent and the control of the world." Having argued for taking American possession of vulnerable but useful places such as the Danish West Indies, Samaná, Panama, and Hawaii, Seward oversaw the annexation of only one, that of the Brook Islands in 1867. Despite minimal Congressional support, though, he developed American influence in the Hawaiian Islands, as well as in Japan and China to some extent.
The Purchase of Alaska
Seward’s most famous achievement as Secretary of State was his successful acquisition of Alaska from Russia. On March 30, 1867, he completed negotiations for the territory, which involved the purchase of 586,412 square miles (1,518,800 km²) of territory (more than twice the area of Texas) for $7,200,000, or approximately 2 cents per acre (equivalent to US$95 million in 2005). The purchase of this frontier land was variously mocked by the public as Seward’s Folly, "Seward’s Icebox," and Andrew Johnson’s "polar bear garden." Alaska celebrates the purchase on Seward’s Day, the last Monday of March. When asked what he considered to be his greatest achievement as Secretary of State, Seward replied "The purchase of Alaska—but it will take the people a generation to find it out".
History of Alaska
Numerous indigenous peoples occupied Alaska for thousands of years before the arrival of European peoples to the area. The Tlingit people developed a matriarchal society in what is today Southeast Alaska, along with parts of British Columbia and the Yukon. Also in Southeast were the Haida, now well known for their unique arts, and the Tsimshian people, whose population were decimated by a smallpox epidemic in the 1860s. The Aleutian Islands are still home to the Aleut people’s seafaring society, although they were among the first to be exploited by the Russians. Western and Southwestern Alaska are home to the Yup’ik, while their cousins the Alutiiq lived in what is now Southcentral Alaska. The Gwich’in people of the northern Interior region are primarily known today for their dependence on the caribou within the much-contested Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The North Slope and Little Diomede Island are occupied by the widespread Inuit people.
The first European contact with Alaska occurred in 1741, when Vitus Bering led an expedition for the Russian Navy aboard the St. Peter. After his crew returned to Russia with sea otter pelts judged to be the finest fur in the world, small associations of fur traders began to sail from the shores of Siberia towards the Aleutian islands. The first permanent European settlement was founded in 1784. Between 1774 and 1800 Spain sent several expeditions to Alaska in order to assert its claim over the Pacific Northwest. In 1789 a Spanish settlement and fort were built in Nootka Sound. These expeditions gave names to places such as Valdez, Bucareli Sound, and Cordova. Later, the Russian-American Company carried out an expanded colonization program during the early-to-mid-19th century.
Sitka, renamed New Archangel from 1804 to 1867, on Baranof Island in the Alexander Archipelago in what is now Southeast Alaska became the capital of Russian America and remained the capital after the colony was transferred to the United States. The Russians never fully colonized Alaska, and the colony was never very profitable. William H. Seward, the United States Secretary of State, negotiated the Alaska Purchase (also known as Seward’s Folly) with the Russians in 1867 for $7.2 million. Alaska was loosely governed by the military initially, and was unofficially a territory of the United States from 1884 on.
During the 1890s, gold rushes in Alaska and the nearby Yukon Territory brought thousands of miners and settlers to Alaska. Alaska was granted official territorial status in 1912. At this time the capital was moved to Juneau.
During World War II, the Aleutian Islands Campaign focused on the three outer Aleutian Islands – Attu, Agattu and Kiska – that were invaded by Japanese troops and occupied between June 1942 and August 1943. Unalaska/Dutch Harbor became a significant base for the U.S. Army Air Corps and Navy submariners.
The U.S. Lend-Lease program involved the flying of American warplanes through Canada to Fairbanks and thence Nome; Soviet pilots took possession of these aircraft, ferrying them to fight the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The construction of military bases contributed to the population growth of some Alaskan cities.
Statehood was approved on July 7, 1958. Alaska was officially proclaimed a state on January 3, 1959.
In 1964, the massive "Good Friday Earthquake" killed 133 people and destroyed several villages, mainly by the resultant tsunamis. It was the third most powerful earthquake in the recorded history of the world, with a moment magnitude of 9.2. It was over one thousand times more powerful than the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. Luckily, the epicenter was in an unpopulated area or thousands more would have been killed.
The 1968 discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay and the 1977 completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline led to an oil boom. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez hit a reef in the Prince William Sound, spilling over 11,000,000 US gallons (42,000 m3) of crude oil over 1,100 miles (1,600 km) of coastline. Today, the battle between philosophies of development and conservation is seen in the contentious debate over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Please take time to further explore more about ALASKA PURCHASE, ALASKA,
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, and the HISTORY OF ALASKA by accessing the
Wikipedia articles referenced below. In most cases, the text in the body
of this post has been selectively excerpted from the articles; footnotes
and hyperlinks have been removed for readability…
Other Events on this Day:
Dr. Crawford W. Long of Jefferson, Georgia, becomes the first U.S. physician to perform surgery using anesthesia induced by ether to kill pain.
Hyman Lipman of Philadelphia patents a pencil with an attached eraser.
Secretary of State William H. Seward signs an agreement to purchase Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million, about two cents an acre.
Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming, the country’s first national forest, is established.
President Reagan is shot and seriously wounded by John W. Hinckley, Jr., outside a Washington, D.C., hotel.
Dates and events based on:
William J. Bennett and John Cribb, (2008) The American Patriot’s Almanac Daily Readings on America. (Kindle Edition)
Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Wikipedia: Alaska Purchase…
Wikipedia: William H. Seward…
Wikipedia: History of Alaska…
Brainy Quote: ALASKA Quotes…
Other Posts on related Topics:
Prof. Boerner’s Exploration: The Louisiana Purchase…
Prof. Boerner’s Exploration: The Lewis and Clark Expedition…
Prof. Boerner’s Exploration: Lewis and Clark Expedition Returns to Washington, D.C…