Purchase of Alaska

*An excerpt taken from the author’s book, ‘Centennial – 100 Stories of Alaska,’ printed in 1966 in Anchorage, Alaska

In 1967 Americans, and especially Alaskans, will celebrate the Alaska Purchase Centennial.

Uncle Sam bought Alaska from Russia 100 years ago, paying $7,200,000 for a hunk of land one-fifth as large as the whole United States, or about two cents per acre.

Among the books on Alaska that I keep on the shelves of my den, there is one which I paid $40–the first edition of Bancroft’s “History of Alaska, 1730-1885.” It was published in 1886, the year this writer was born. This 775-page book is a storehouse of Alaskana, crammed with documents and information found in the archives at St. Petersburg. It took five years to assemble the material and required trips to Europe and other countries. Bancroft gave special praise to M. Pinard, a Russian-speaking man of letters, who assisted him.

The history of Alaska, written by a man who lived many years in Alaska and became an Alaskan, may be found in the 1959 Book of the Year, Encyclopedia Britannica. The article, ‘Alaska, the Forty-Ninth State,’ tells, in brief, about the purchase, climate, land, politics and many other features of the new state. The author is one of the best-known men in Alaska and writes from personal knowledge. He is U.S. Senator Ernest Gruening, former governor of Alaska, a politician but also a statesman of great ability.

A great point of interest among Alaskans is the celebration to be held in the great state of Alaska in 1967. Every city and hamlet will take part, with headquarters to be in Fairbanks. Not only to Alaskans, but to the whole nation, it will be a time of great rejoicing.

We should remember that Alaska was not won by conquest, war, or the spilling of blood, but by a legal transaction.

Recently, while Washington, D.C. office workers were moving some musty archives, they found some very important letters, papers and records dealing with Alaska, her climate, natives, and the purchase from Russia for $7,200,000.

The story begins with Vitus Bering, who discovered Alaska on Oct. 14, 1741. However, it was not until 1788, when Catherine was Empress of Russia, that we read about the acquisition of Alaska by Russia. It was the year that a grant was given to the Russian Exploration Company to take peaceful possession of Alaska for the purpose of trade with the natives and to extend throughout the land the precepts of the Holy Russian Church. The company was made up mostly of court officials. The queen was a member, with a large share.

In the year 1859, when the fur of the sea otter was bringing high prices and gold was discovered, it became apparent that other nations were beginning to cast eyes in the direction of Alaska.

Not wanting to become involved with them, especially Great Britain with her powerful fleet, Russia tried to sell Alaska to the U.S.A. for $5 million. The fact is, The United States agreed to pay this amount. But before any cash was transferred, the Civil War broke out, and dealings were called off temporarily.

Around September, 1863, it looked very much as though the North might lose the war. England was actually helping the South, It was then that the Russian fleet, under Prince Constantine, was on maneuvers, and some of our diplomats invited the fleet to New York Harbor. This seems to have scared off the British involvement in the war.

When the Civil War was over, the proposition to take Alaska off Russia’s hands came up again.

William H. Seward and the Alaska Purchase papers

Now, however, the ante was raised to $7 million, and $200,000 was added for the special service rendered by Baron Eduard Stoeckl, who was the go-between for Russia in the transaction. We wonder today if the diplomats made a few shekels out of the deal.

There was no telegraph in those days and, and Czar Alexander II and his advisers were 7,000 miles distant in St. Petersburg, knowing practically nothing about the empire they were selling.

On our side we had a pretty sharp hombre by the name of William H. Seward, U.S. Secretary of State, known among politicians as an expansionist, and among his friends as a good poker player.

After many days and nights of negotiations, one evening Baron Stoeckl said, “Tomorrow we will enter upon a treaty to transfer without delay.”

“Let us draw up the treaty tonight,” said Seward. “If it is possible for you to get your legation together by midnight, I’ll be waiting for you with my staff at the State Department.”

And so, by four o’clock in the morning, all papers were ready to be signed.

This action by Mr. Seward was no doubt taken because the Secretary was well aware that England might put in a higher bid, and we might lose the deal.

If it had not been for Senator Charles Sumner’s inspiring oratory, Congress might have put thumbs down on the transaction.

Seward, “The Father of the 49th State” was the most abused man in the New World. Editors wrote that all the people in Alaska walked on snowshoes where ever they went, “Seward’s Folly,” “Seward’s Icebox,” or the name “Icebergia” were derisive terms, used by the newspapers and the public.

Many years later a great soldier, General Mitchell, lost his rank because he, too, knew the value and importance of Alaska.

Not all these visitors spoke so antagonistically against Alaska. One member of a Congressional party in 1924 was greatly interested in our gold and coal mines, lumber industry and our farming possibilities.

He said “When ah go back to mah home in the South, I’ll find my school teacher and tell her, ‘You done taught me wrong when you said the sun gets up in the east and sets in the west. Teacher, you never were in Alaska. There the sun gets up God knows where and sets God knows where. It looks at the east, smiles at the west, flirts with the north, and winks at the south. And about the time you figure to say Goodbye, Sun, she says, Nothing doing! I’m comin’ up to have another look at you!”

Alaska is the land of the possible impossibility.



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