You probably know Alaska as the state roughly a quarter the size of the continental US. Or maybe you know it as the really, really cold state. But you might not know Alaska as the state Russia sold to America. So why did Russia sell Alaska to America in the first place?
Related post: What Continent Is Russia In?
Why Did Russia Sell Alaska to America?
To understand why Russia would want to sell Alaska, we have to go back in history a little. Russia established a presence in North America during the 17th century. But the territory remained largely uninhabited by Europeans, with the exception of a few fur traders and missionaries.
For a while, the remote Russian America (which was once referred to as “Siberia’s Siberia”) did prove itself a lucrative source of fur. However, by the 1850s, most of the Alaskan sea otter population was extinct. As such Alaska would serve little economic purpose for Russia. It was seen as a desolate place, almost impossible to defend against the British or any other foreign power.
This was coupled with the fact that by the late 1850s, Russia was still very much reeling from their costly defeat in the Crimean War. Russian elites knew their country was facing problems, and sought to modernize and reform their nation to better compete with the powers of Europe. However, doing so would require funds that Russia simply did not have. So Emperor Alexander II decided to sell Alaska to the highest bidder, since the territory served little purpose to his empire at the time. It didn’t help that Alaska was near impossible to defend if it came under siege from the British.
Emperor Alexander II had hoped to start a bidding war between the Americans and the British, but the British quickly said “no”. They had decided Canada was enough to deal with. So by the winter of 1859, Russia and the US had begun negotiating. Of course, the American Civil War would bring these talks to a halt. But a deal was finally reached on March 30, 1867. The Alaska Purchase added 586,412 square miles (1,518,800 square km) of new territory to the United States for the cost of $7.2 million.
Further reading: Why Is Juneau the Capital of Alaska?
After the Alaska Purchase
The newly acquired territory was given the Aleut name, “Alaska” (which had also been used by the Russians to describe the Alaskan Peninsula). A few Russians hung around for a while, but eventually they all returned to their motherland. Many Americans would flock to Alaska, hoping to exploit natural resources in the area. However, many quickly learned that making a profit off these resources required a large initial investment.
Popular myth holds that Americans were not happy about this purchase, but that is not entirely true. While some did label the purchase “Seward’s Folly” after US Secretary of State William Seward, believing the land to be useless, most sources from the period indicate a more neutral response. Of course, this would change in 1896 and the start of the Klondike Gold Rush. The territory would become more populated and come to be seen as a valuable asset. It was admitted as the 49th state of the US on January 3, 1959.
Think you know your Alaska? Test your Alaskan geography knowledge here.