American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Alaska, United States Purchase of

Although Europeans had been exploring the coastline of Alaska since the early 1700s, the Russians were the first to establish colonies there. Whereas Russia was the first to colonize Alaska and exploit its vast fur resources, much of the credit for the mapping and naming of places along the extensive coastline goes to the rival countries of Spain and Great Britain. Both countries were busily looking for a fabled Northwest Passage by painstakingly investigating and charting every inlet in southeast and south central Alaska.

The competing powers agreed, at the Nootka Sound Convention in 1790, that colonization had to follow exploration in order for any nation to support a claim of ownership over a new land (Borneman, 2003, 44–45). By that criterion, Russia had beaten its rivals because the Russian American Company had established a fur trading post on Kodiak Island by 1784, the first permanent European settlement in Alaska, as well as others on Yakutat Bay and at Sitka Sound on the Baranof Islands within the ensuing ten years (Borneman, 2003, 61–65).

In 1812, John Jacob Astor of the American Fur Company established a headquarters at the mouth of the Columbia River and proposed that a borderline between Russian America and Oregon Territory be established at 55 degrees north latitude as a boundary for exclusive trade with the Tlingits (Borneman, 2003, 68–69). This boundary was moved in an edict by Czar Alexander I in 1821, to the fifty-first parallel with an offshore boundary of one 100 miles, into which foreign trade or trespass was forbidden. This infuriated the Americans and their British neighbors in Canada, but the czar had made his decision.

In 1823, U.S. President James Monroe stated his position on European powers in the Americas—later called the Monroe Doctrine. The first clause forbade further colonization, and the second, later to become the more famous, forbade European intervention in Latin American independence movements. The first clause was purposely directed at Russia's North American ambitions. In 1824, Alexander found his colonies starving without the trade in food goods from the British and Americans and modified his earlier position by moving the southern boundary of Russian America to 54 degrees 40 minutes north, restoring the three-mile offshore limit, and resuming all trade (Borneman, 2003, 79–80).

When Alexander I renewed the Russian American Company's charter in 1841, he insisted that the company assist in the spread of the Russian Orthodox religion by aiding the works of Bishop Innocent, who had been busy converting Native peoples from the Aleutians all the way to Sitka in the Alaska pan-handle. Thus, the Russian Orthodox church became a major influence in Alaska, a position it retains today (Borneman, 2003, 77–78).

Russian fur traders had been steadily depleting the areas in which they operated of the animals on which they depended. Having failed to diversify, the Russians found themselves holding a grand expanse of territory now devoid of the animal resources they needed to extract profit. In 1854, Russia was at war with Great Britain over the Black Sea. To Russia, the logical, more probable buyer of Alaska was the United States, but the Americans were on the brink of their own civil war, so for the meantime Russia was left nervously holding the bag. The Monroe Doctrine did, however, prevent the British from taking possession of any Russian interests for the time being (Borneman, 2003, 85–86).

Baron Edouard de Stoeckl, the Russian minister to the United States, and U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward met in March and a deal was negotiated for $7 million (plus $200,000 to finalize the arrangements of the deal). Some technicalities remained, such as the exact boundaries, what to call this land in the treaty documents (Alaska was selected from the name given the Alaskan Peninsula—an Aleut word meaning "great land"), and how to pay for the transaction.

The purchase had been approved as a treaty in the Senate, but it had not passed the House of Representatives as a bill of appropriations. Eventually all of these details were worked out, leaving only one other consideration—how to deal with Alaska's entry into the Union. There was no such assurance of citizenship given Alaska as had been guaranteed in the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican and Florida Cessions, or the Gadsden Purchase. Neglecting to resolve these problems at the time of the purchase left Alaska and its Native population in a precarious position for most of the next century (Borneman, 2003, 107–109).

The final treaty to buy Alaska was approved on April 9, 1867, with a Senate vote of 37–2. The House finally approved the payment, and the transfer from Russian to American ownership took place on October 18, 1867, in Sitka (Borneman, 2003, 109–111).

Daniel R. Gibbs

Further Reading
Borneman, Walter R. 2003. Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land. New York: HarperCollins.; McClanahan, Alexander J., and Hallie L. Bissett. 2002. Na'eda: Our Friends: A Guide to Alaska Native Corporations, Tribes, Cultures, ANCSA and More. Anchorage, AK: CIRI Foundation.

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