Oomiak Racers: Oomiak Racers at Nome, Alaska, July 4th 1915. Library of Congress.
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When and how did the United States come to own Alaska?

The United States bought Alaska from Russia in 1867. This is a summary of how that came to pass. American political leaders had expressed interest in acquiring Alaska as early as the 1840s, during the height of the nation's fascination with its "Manifest Destiny" to expand its control across the continent. American traders and whalers were frequent visitors to Alaska's shores, and many spoke highly of its resources. Exploratory steps were taken in 1860 to determine whether Russia would sell Alaska to America. But the question had to await the conclusion of the Civil War. In 1866, a year after the war's end, the Czar's advisors indicated that the Russian-American Company, the semi-official arm of the Russian government that managed the Russian colony in Alaska, was nearing bankruptcy. It would need direct government aid to survive. The advisors also said that Russia's American colony was impossible to defend. The Russian treasury could not afford either a rescue of the company or a war with the United States or Britain over a colony on another continent. Russia's minister to the United States, Edward de Stoeckl, in early 1867 opened negotiations for the sale of Alaska to America.
On March 29, 1867, Stoeckl informed Secretary of State William Henry Seward that the Czar had agreed to sell Russian interests in Alaska to the United States. The Russian minister and Seward drafted a treaty that same night. On June 20 President Andrew Johnson signed the treaty and sent it to the United States Senate for confirmation.

The treaty provided for a purchase price of $7.2 million in gold. All private property was to be retained by its owners--there wasn't much--and Russian Orthodox Church members were to assume title to churches built in Alaska by the Russian government or the Russian-American Company. The United States Senate approved the treaty by a large majority. On October 18, 1867, transfer ceremonies occurred at Sitka and Alaska became a United States possession.

Information extracted with permission from Joan M. Antonson and William S. Hanable, Alaska's Heritage (2d edition, 1992).

Additional Reading

Paul S. Holbo, Tarnished Expansion: The Alaska Scandal, the Press, and Congress, 1867-1871 (1983)


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