Alaska: Russia's Folly
Louis C. Kleber describes how the United States purchased Alaska from the Russian Government at a price of just two cents an acre.
On March 30th, 1867, the American Secretary of State, William H. Seward, signed a treaty with the Russian Minister, Baron Edouard de Stoeckl, to conclude what was perhaps the shrewdest purchase in history – Alaska, 586,400 square miles of land, furs, fish, timber, minerals and gold. The price was $7,200,000; just two cents an acre.
The purchase of Alaska was the sole triumph among Seward's expansionist projects. Although he had successfully opposed the French in Mexico and Maximilian's puppet empire, there was little support when it came to his own efforts to extend the American sphere. A country just recovering from a murderous civil war could hardly be excited about the prospect of acquiring the Danish West Indies or Santo Domingo. Tentative negotiations were fruitless.
Surprisingly, and to his credit, Seward almost singled-handedly engineered the acquisition of Alaska. Opposition was strong, and the entire Alaskan issue was treated with derision by many. They called it 'Seward's Folly'. The revenge-seekers in the North, who opposed President Johnson's conciliatory policy toward the South, called it 'Johnson's Polar Bear Garden'. The President, Lincoln's successor, was from Tennessee which had joined the Confederacy, and no opportunity was missed to discredit him.
There were rumours of bribery, and Robert Walker of Mississippi was accused of lobbying the purchase through Congress. One irate Congressman demanded, 'Have the people deserved it? Not a sensible man among them had ever suggested it. The whole country exclaimed at once, when it was made known to it, against the ineffable folly, if not the wanton profligacy, of the whole transaction.'
The sale of Alaska, however, was not so much an American coup as a matter of expediency for an Imperial Russia that was short of cash and quite unable to defend the immense land with a coast line longer than that of the first forty-eight states. Other nations have figured in Alaska's history, but Russia, Great Britain and the United States are the dominant protagonists. Despite this, it was a Danish sea captain who discovered the country.
In the middle 1500's Russia was expanding to the east; Kamchatka had been subdued and there were strong rumours of another land farther east. While French trappers and traders were pushing into the area of the Great Lakes, Peter the Great commissioned Vitus Bering to explore beyond the north-eastern Asiatic land mass. Bering's first voyage in 1728 failed to reach Alaska, though he sighted St. Lawrence Island. On his second voyage in 1741, Bering took two ships, the second commanded by the Russian, Alexei Chirikov.
The day after Chirikov made a landfall on July 15th, Bering sighted the monumental 18,000-foot Mount St. Elias on the southern Alaskan coast. His moment of glory was sadly brief, for Bering's ship was wrecked and he died on the island that bears his name. But there were the survivors, and they brought fine pelts of sea-otter with them to Petropavlovsk. Now the penetration of Alaska by hunters and traders began; and in the next sixty years they viciously exploited the Aleut Indians.
Rarely does a newly discovered land the size of Alaska remain the province of one nation without a struggle. The first crack in Russia's sole proprietorship came with the arrival at Sitka in 1775 of a small Spanish vessel under the command of Juan Francisco Quadra. Only three years later, Captain James Cook made a landfall at Mount Edgecumbe before sailing on into the Arctic Ocean in search of the north-west passage. He failed to find it.
Another attempt in the next year also failed, but of significance to Alaska were the high prices paid to Cook's sailors for furs when they put into Canton, China. This stimulated a trade that involved a journey to Alaska for furs, and thence to China to barter for oriental luxuries.
The French were not long absent from the scene. Less than ten years after Cook, a Frenchman named Jean Francois de Galaup la Perouse led a scientific expedition to the vicinity of Lituya Bay where they remained for six weeks.
Spain's interest in Alaska must have been partly coloured by the long-range threat from foreign powers to her hegemony over Mexico and the present American south-western states. She sent new exploratory parties to Alaska. Under the leadership of Estevan Jose Martinez and Lopez de Haro, the Spaniards called on Russian out-posts at Kodiak Island and Unalaska in 1788.
Then rumours reached the Spaniards that the Russians were planning a settlement on Vancouver Island. The Viceroy of Mexico moved to beat them to it, and in 1789 he ordered the founding of a Spanish settlement at Nootka Sound. This stroke was unexpectedly to bring Spain and Great Britain into a serious confrontation rather than cause the more likely Spanish-Russian conflict.
In 1788 a British captain, John Meares, arrived at Nootka Sound with two ships registered under the Portuguese flag. He put ashore a group of labourers, including Chinese, with instructions to build living quarters and vessels. When Martinez arrived at Nootka Sound on May 6th, 1789 with a Spanish squadron, he was surprised. No Russians were there to oppose him, but he did find the Meares shore party. Unfortunately for Spain, Martinez was a man of action. He seized four of Meares' ships and declared them prizes of war; two were provisionally released and two sent to Mexican ports.
The British were furious over the temerity of Martinez's action and looked upon it as a possible casus belli. The Spanish made a desperate effort to secure French military assistance, but the latter were cool to the idea. Finally, Spain entered into negotiations which resulted in their paying an indemnity to Great Britain.
Though each nation recognized the other's right to use Nootka Sound, Spain gave up any claim to exclusive jurisdiction over the north-west coast. Martinez also came into contact with the Americans, but he did not bother them when the ships, Columbia and Lady Washington, called at Nootka Sound.
The clash of rival fur groups, and the fear of foreign powers caused by the arrival of their ships, sorely worried Russian business interests. One of the leading figures was a Siberian merchant, Grigori Shelekhov. His efforts to establish a trading monopoly eventually led to his heirs receiving the Imperial Russian blessing for the formation of the Russian American Company. Like the East India Company's role in India. Russian fortunes in Alaska were to be tightly connected with the ventures of this commercial organization.
Russian relations with the Indians were no more enlightened than those of other powers engaged in the grab for land. Even before the establishment of the Russian American Company, Shelekhov's manager at Kodiak, Aleksandr Baranov, moved south to secure new fur country.
He built a fort on Baranof Island only to have the Tlingit Indians burn it in 1802. Baranov returned two years later and harshly subdued the Indians; then he re-established the settlement of New Archangel. There the Russians enjoyed a limited success in trying to foster industry. Some ships were built and a foundry put into operation, but efforts to make Alaska self-sustaining in food were a failure. Cereals would not grow; and in 1806 there was a famine.
This fact could have had far-reaching results, for it directly led to a Russian settlement at Fort Ross in California after Count Nikolai Rezanov made a journey to San Francisco to seek help. Outlying farms were set up, but the whole operation never functioned efficiently. In 1841 it was abandoned. Fortunately, this Russian spearhead in California was no more successful than the efforts of Baranov's agent in Hawaii, Yegor Scheffer.
It was not until 1833 that Russia began to explore the interior of Alaska. To the east, the Hudson's Bay Company was pushing inexorably west. In 1847 Alexander Murray founded Fort Yukon inside Russian territory. Meanwhile, Russian fears of intrusion by foreign powers had long been building up.
In 1821, with what can only be described as wishful thinking, the Imperial Russian Government issued a 'ukase' which forbade all other nations to pursue commerce, whaling, fishing and other industry within an area stretching from the Bering Strait in the north to 51° of north latitude in the south. The ukase was impractical and unenforceable. The Russian settlements in Alaska had to buy from foreign traders or withdraw, and elements of the Russian navy rarely appeared.
France and Spain had disappeared from the scene by this time; but the United States and Great Britain strongly protested against the ukase. In 1824 Russia and the United States concluded a treaty to set the south-eastern boundary of Russian America at 54° 40' N.
The following year a similar treaty was signed with Great Britain. It is doubtful if Russia was yet thinking seriously of divesting herself of the great Alaskan land mass. Events were sweeping the Russians forward, however, into new conflict with Britons and Americans. It is not hard to imagine that more than one painful analysis was being made by Russian leaders after each new incident.
When Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson's Bay Company was barred passage of the Stikine River by the Russians, the British Government protested and claimed damages as a violation of the treaty. Enterprising American whalers were also appearing off the Alaskan coast in increasing numbers along with ships from other nations. Russia considered these waters to be her own, and Governor Etolin repeatedly asked his Government to force the Americans out of the Bering Sea.
With the coming of the Crimean War, relatively minor incidents of the past became truly insignificant, since Russia's Pacific empire was now in jeopardy. On the spot, Russian military power in Alaska was at best negligible, and her navy was hardly a match for the British. It is interesting that documents in the Soviet Foreign Office disclose three separate attempted moves by Imperial Russia to sell Alaska prior to 1867.
The first was in 1854 to forestall a British seizure; the second in 1856 when the American Secretary of State Marcy and Governor Givin of California proposed its sale to America; and the third when President Buchanan considered purchase in 1860 just before the Civil War. Records in the U.S. Department of State do not confirm these three cases.
In any event, Russia definitely decided in December 1866 to sell Alaska to the United States. There were a number of reasons behind the move; but primary considerations must have included Russia's financial troubles, her inability to defend Alaska, diminishing returns from the Russian American Company and perhaps the feeling that Alaska was bound to cause eventual difficulties in relations with the United States.
On March 9th, 1867, Baron Edouard de Stoeckl, acting for Tsar Alexander II, approached Seward. What an opportunity for the American Secretary of State! Here was Alaska on a platter. Seward agreed to the Russian offer immediately and sought to conclude matters as quickly as possible. The treaty was signed at four o'clock in the morning on March 30th, only three weeks after the initial discussions.
Seward's brilliant stroke in capitalizing on the Russian difficulties could have come to grief in the Senate where treaties must be ratified. The end of the current Congressional session was near and Seward could not afford a delay. Luckily, the Senate gave its formal approval on April 9th.
One reason for the rapid endorsement of Seward's action may have been a feeling of gratitude to Russia for sending a fleet to American waters in 1863. In many quarters this demonstration was taken as a warning to France and Great Britain who, although they had not recognized the Confederacy, were quite openly sympathetic to the Southern cause.
On June 20th, 1867 ratifications were exchanged and the treaty proclaimed on the same day. On October 18th Russia transferred Alaska to the United States in a ceremony at Sitka. Soon afterward most of the Russians left. Later, Walt Whitman was to write in his Democratic Vistas that,
'In vain we annexed Texas, California and Alaska and reach north for Canada or south for Cuba.'
Precisely what Whitman meant by 'in vain' in lumping these five unique and different cases together is questionable. Certainly, American expansionists with an eye on Canada were to be completely frustrated. Alaska, however, was an entirely different matter; let alone Texas and California.
The treaty settled Alaska's territorial limits. In doing so, it reconfirmed the eastern boundary with Canada as agreed in the 1825 treaty with Great Britain. The Russians agreed to cede the 'right of property in all public lots and squares, vacant lands, and all public buildings, fortifications, barracks, and other edifices which are not private individual property.
It is, however, understood and agreed, that the churches which have been built in the ceded territory by the Russian Government, shall remain the property of such members of the Greek Oriental Church resident in the territory as may choose to worship therein.' In view of the present Soviet Russian attitude to religion, the latter clause makes amusing reading.
So now Alaska was American. The price had been $7,200,000 in gold. Fortunately, Baron Stoeckl was not able to look ahead only thirteen years to 1880 when Joe Juneau and Richard Harris discovered gold in the Juneau area. Nor could he see the great gold rush coming, or even remotely foresee that up to 1965 Alaska would give up $757,000,000 in surface (placer) and vein (lode) gold.
The administration of Alaska was placed under the Department of War and a relatively haphazard political period followed. Then came the chaotic rush to the north after the discovery of gold in Dawson (Yukon Territory, Canada), Nome and the Yukon-Tanana valleys. They came by the thousands, prospectors, claim-jumpers, con-men and gamblers like Soapy Smith, who eventually stopped a vigilante's bullet. Wide-open towns like Skagway, gateway to the Klondike, sprang into prominence.
At the height of the rush, Nome had a population of over 12,000 with another 5,000 to 10,000 scattered in camps nearby along the coast. Then the bonanza ran out. The effect was shattering. Nome's population plunged to only 852 by 1920. While this was an exceptionally severe case, between 1910 and 1920 the decrease amounted to 15% for all of Alaska. The achievement of territorial status in 1912 was little consolation when one considers that Alaska had dropped to 55,036 people in the census of 1920.
This is less than the capacity of a moderately sized football stadium for a land bigger in area than Great Britain, Italy, France, West Germany, Austria, Benelux and Switzerland put together. Population has always been one of Alaska's foremost anomalies. Even today the total of approximately 250,000 represents a density similar to the American Wild West of more than a century ago. And of this figure, about one-sixth are Indians, Aleuts or Eskimos.
Severe imbalance of the sexes has also plagued Alaska. This fact may have provided good jokes for those not there, but competition for women must have been nothing short of desperate in 1890 when there were 865 males for every 100 females. No stable society can be built on such a disproportionate ratio. By 1960, there were still 132 men to 100 women. The trend, however, is encouraging and Alaskans are younger than Californians, Iowans or residents of any other state.
The great event which jolted Alaska out of its economic and population stagnancy was the Second World War. Seward's so-called 'folly' was now to pay off. In 1942 the Japanese occupied Kiska and Attu, two remote islands in the Aleutian chain.
The danger to America was not so important as the impact the event had on many people. The enemy was now on an adjunct of the North American continent; Alaska suddenly seemed much closer to home. A crash programme pushed construction of the Alaskan Highway in 1942. This famous route runs from Dawson Creek in British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska.
Since that time the importance of Alaska's key strategic position has steadily increased. What if Baron de Stoeckl had not approached Seward about the sale? What if Seward had been an inward looking Secretary of State? It is entirely conceivable that the Soviet Union, as successor to Imperial Russia, might possess Alaska today.
For Canadians it would mean an enormous common border with the Russians, stretching from the northernmost reaches of the Yukon at Mackenzie Bay half way down British Columbia to where Ketchikan lies just over the Canadian border.
For Americans it would be far worse than a Cuba in the north; for though Cuba may be hostile, it is still a country that on its own represents an insignificant threat compared to a Soviet Union holding Alaska as her own sacred territory. From the southern reaches, Russia would be able to launch missile and bomber attacks in a wide arc at vital industrial centres.
What of the future? The military aspect will continue to play a large part in Alaska's development; but there are very serious drawbacks. In only ten years, 1940 to 1950, the population zoomed by more than 77%. This would not have happened without massive Federal expenditures. Since 1956, however, the number of military personnel has dropped because of improved techniques in warfare.
This has helped to bring home to Alaskans the absolute necessity of putting their economy on a self-supporting basis. In doing this, they have to face another problem, unique to Alaska in comparison with the other states. Approximately 90% of the state is owned and administered by the U.S. Government. There is also a shortage of private capital to finance economic development. Yet, when President Eisenhower proclaimed Alaska to be the 49th state on January 3rd, 1959, few would not say that it was a land of the future.
Capital is rapidly coming in from different sources, particularly from Japan among interested foreign parties. The Japanese own the Wrangell Lumber Company which produces over 50% of Alaska's annual output, and almost all of it goes to Japan.
They are also looking into the iron and coal deposits. In 1957 the Richfield Oil Company brought in a wildcat strike in the area of Swanson River. Since then, over $400,000,000 has been spent on development and search in this field. Just two years after the Swanson River find, natural gas was discovered at Kenai. As a result, methane gas is now being shipped to Japan.
Whether one talks about the 140,000,000 acres of forest land or the estimated coal reserves of 100 billion tons, the fact is that Alaska possesses enormous wealth. It will unquestionably be developed in the years ahead.
In 1967 Alaskans celebrated their centennial. A medallion was struck. Across the top it reads, 'North to the Future.' In the centre is the profile of William H. Seward, the American Secretary of State who ignored ridicule and committed 'Seward's Folly'.