Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Purchase of Alaska and Treaty of Cession. The treaty was a result of years of talks between American and Russian officials and would eventually come to be seen as one of U.S. Secretary of State William Seward’s crowning achievements, despite at the time being jeered by critics as “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Icebox.”
Many Americans are unfamiliar with the decades-long odyssey that led to this major expansion of our national territory. Russian explorer Vitus Bering -- namesake of the Bering Sea, Straight and Glacier -- reached Alaska during his exploration of North America in 1741. During Catherine the Great’s reign, Russia began colonizing Alaska. Her successor, Tsar Paul I, chartered the Russian-Alaska Company in 1799. With the United States rapidly settling across the North American continent in the mid-19th century, the Russian Empire began contemplating selling its Alaskan territory to the young and expanding American nation.
During the late-1850s, Russia’s envoy to the United States, Edouard de Stoeckl, began work on the sale of Alaska to the United States, back-channeling with California Senator William Gwin, who in turn counseled President James Buchanan suggesting a price of $5 million. Stoeckl was advised to get a higher price and wait until after the Russian-Alaska Company’s charter expired in 1862. With the outbreak of the Civil War sending the United States’ interests elsewhere, and Russia’s opinion that the price was too low, negotiations stalled until after the war.
In March 1867, Secretary of State William Seward and Stoeckl met to discuss the purchase. During the negotiations Seward and Stoeckl ultimately settled on a price of $7.2 million. The two men signed two copies of the treaty, one in English and one Russian diplomatic language, French, at 4 a.m. on March 30, 1867.
Today, the U.S. State Department, along with Alaska First Lady Donna Walker, Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, Congressman Don Young, and the Alaska Historical Society will commemorate this important moment in U.S. history with a reception honoring William Seward at the Harry S. Truman building, the State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C.
About the Author: William Killion serves as a Special Assistant in the Bureau of Public Affairs's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.
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