18 Apr

It is a remarkable thought, when Russian – American relations are at a low point, that Alaska was once part of the Russian Empire. Russia sold Alaska to the United States 150 years ago. If Russia were in possession of the territory today the geopolitical situation would be unrecognisably different.

The first Russian settlement in Alaska was founded in 1784. This was followed quickly by other settlements. The attraction was sea otter fur, which was greatly in demand. The otters in Alaska had thicker, glossier and blacker fur than those on the Pacific N/W coast and California i.e. more sought after. British settlements in Alaska at about this time consisted of a few scattered trading outposts though Captain James Cook had sailed and charted the west coast of North America on ‘Resolution’ in 1778. (One of his midshipmen was George Vancouver who was to return and chart the west coast, hence Vancouver and Vancouver Island).

Over the next century, Russia lost the Crimean War (1853-56), her monopoly on trade was weakened by the British Hudson’s Bay Company, which set up a post on the southern edge of Russian America in 1833, there were concerns about a potential gold rush with an attendant influx from America, finally, the supply of otters diminished drastically.

These financial difficulties and low profits, coupled with the desire to keep Alaska out of British hands contributed to Russia’s willingness to sell its possessions in North America.Czar,Nicholas II also hoped the deal would result in a closer relationship with the United Stated (and a potential union against Britain). On August 1, 1867 U.S. Secretary of State, William Seward, approved the purchase of Alaska for $7,200,000. The United States flag was raised on October 18, 1867 (now called Alaska Day); the region changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.

The purchase was not universally popular: ‘Seward’s Folly’ and ‘Seward’s Icebox’ were some of the comments. The foolhardiness of slavishly following popular opinion has been amply shown subsequently in relation to this purchase.

In an article in The New York Times, (31/3/2017), Evan Gershkovich, writes that ‘Russia’s sale of Alaska was a day of mourning for some hard-right Russian nationalists who see the transaction as a gigantic blunder by the ailing Czarist Empire, one that reverberates as the major powers vie for influence over the arctic and its natural riches in an age of climate change’, a comment vividly illustrated by the fact that there is oil in the bedrock below waters surrounding Spitsbergen and the Spitsbergen Treaty finishes in 2020. Mr. Putin has apparently commented that the development of a missile system in Alaska is one of the most pressing security issues.

President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Bill for Alaska to become the 49th State of the Union in 1959. Congress passed the Bill on 3 January.

This sale would never have happened after the Russian revolution. It could be said that Seward’s purchase of the territory was the best ever use of Federal Funds. Perhaps there should be a Seward Day.

One Response to “ALASKA”

  1. Kate Sebbah May 8, 2017 at 5:34 pm #

    Fascinating to read about the motivation and reasoning about the sale. Very interesting article.

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