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On This Day: United States Purchases Alaska
March 30, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On March 30, 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward paid Russia $7.2 million for the 586,412-square mile territory of Alaska.
Seward Buys Alaska From Russia
Russia set up a presence in Alaska in the 18th century,when Danish explorer Vitus Bering, with the backing of Russian Czar Peter the Great, surveyed the region. The territory was wild and inhospitable, but it was rich in natural resources, attracting Russian explorers and traders.
Russia did not have the money to establish permanent settlements, however, and its position was further weakened by their defeat in the Crimean War. By the mid-19th century, it was looking to sell off the land.
It offered Alaska to the United States, which was in the midst of a steady march westward, in 1859, but the threat of Civil War put off the sale. After the war, Secretary of State William Seward, a strong proponent of expansion, reopened talks with Russia, and agreed on March 30, 1867, to buy Alaska for $7.2 million, less than 2 cents per acre.
Many in the U.S. criticized Seward’s purchase. “Critics attacked him for the secrecy surrounding the deal with Russia, which came to be known as ‘Seward’s folly,’” writes the Library of Congress. “They mocked his willingness to spend so much on ‘Seward’s icebox’ or President Andrew Johnson’s ‘polar bear garden.’”
The Senate passed the treaty to buy Alaska by just one vote. The Alaskan territory was officially transferred to the U.S. on Oct. 18, 1867.
Settlement and Statehood
The U.S. did almost nothing to settle or explore Alaska for decades, and the majority of Americans believed the purchase was indeed a folly. This perception changed in 1896, when gold when discovered in Canada’s Yukon territory, sparking a gold rush in and around Alaska.
The U.S. government granted Alaska territorial status in 1912. During World War II, Japan invaded Alaskan islands, prompting the U.S. to establish military bases and build a major highway.
Alaskans appealed for statehood and received approval from Congress in 1946. It adopted a state constitution in 1955. And in 1959, President Eisenhower formally recognized Alaska as the 49th state.