On April 9, 1867, by a margin of just one vote, the U.S. Senate voted to ratify the treaty to purchase Alaska from Russia. The purchase of the northern frontier was ridiculed by the press at the time and called “Seward’s folly,” “Seward’s icebox” and President Andrew Johnson’s “polar bear garden.”
But its main architect, Secretary of State William Seward, saw a huge benefit to owning the land that sat so close to Russia.
“Standing here and looking far off into the northwest, I see the Russian as he busily occupies himself in establishing seaports and towns and fortifications on the verge of the continent … and I can say, ‘Go on and build up your outposts all along the coast, up even to the Arctic Ocean; they will yet become the outposts of my own country – monuments of the civilization of the United States in the northwest!’ ”
So predicted Seward in a memorable speech many years before the purchase took place. That Alaska came into the possession of the United States was almost wholly due to Seward’s foresight and persistent efforts.
The Imperial Government of Russia first approached the U.S. government with a secret offer to sell its Russian possessions in America in 1859. The Russians had expended vast amounts of capital during the Crimean War in a futile struggle with France and England and needed to replenish the royal coffers.
However, with the Civil War raging during the early 1860s, the United States didn’t pursue the purchase of Alaska until March 1867 when Seward received word that the Russians were ready to unload their northern property.
Seward was playing a game of whist with members of his family when he was interrupted by a late call from Russian Ambassador Baron Edouard de Stoeckl, who came to announce the arrival of a dispatch from St. Petersburg conveying the Emperor’s assent to the cession of Alaska to the United States.
The Russians wanted “a cash payment of $7 million, with an additional $200,000 on condition that the cession should be free and unencumbered by any reservations, privileges, franchises or possessions by any associated companies, corporate or incorporate, Russian or any other.”
The Secretary of State abandoned his game of whist. He and the Russian ambassador collected their clerks and had the treaty ready for transmission to the U.S. Senate by sunrise.
But many legislators didn’t think the purchase was a good idea. “… that Alaska was created for some purpose I have just as little doubt as I have had since the Rebellion of the necessity for the infernal regions …,” one member of Congress said. Most Americans at the time also thought the idea fantastic and ridiculous. Some asked, “How can there be anything of value in that barren, worthless, God-forsaken region.”
Six months after the Senate ratified the purchase, Russia officially turned Alaska over to the Americans in a ceremony held in Sitka. And since the hand off, Seward’s “God-forsaken region” has yielded millions of dollars in resources for its sister states, including furs, fish, coal, copper, gold and crude oil.