On This Day: United States Purchases Alaska
Russia did not have the money to establish permanent settlements, however, and its position was further weakened by their defeat in the Crimean War. By the mid-19th century, it was looking to sell off the land.
It offered Alaska to the United States, which was in the midst of a steady march westward, in 1859, but the threat of Civil War put off the sale. After the war, Secretary of State William Seward, a strong proponent of expansion, reopened talks with Russia, and agreed on March 30, 1867, to buy Alaska for $7.2 million, less than 2 cents per acre.
Many in the U.S. criticized Seward’s purchase. “Critics attacked him for the secrecy surrounding the deal with Russia, which came to be known as ‘Seward's folly,’” writes the Library of Congress. “They mocked his willingness to spend so much on ‘Seward's icebox’ or President Andrew Johnson’s ‘polar bear garden.’”
The Senate passed the treaty to buy Alaska by just one vote. The Alaskan territory was officially transferred to the U.S. on Oct. 18, 1867.
The U.S. government granted Alaska territorial status in 1912. During World War II, Japan invaded Alaskan islands, prompting the U.S. to establish military bases and build a major highway.
Alaskans appealed for statehood and received approval from Congress in 1946. It adopted a state constitution in 1955. And in 1959, President Eisenhower formally recognized Alaska as the 49th state.
“Oil brought Alaska its statehoodand later its low taxes, schools, roads, theaters, jobs, a vibrant economy and an annual dividend check of more than $800 for each citizen,” said The New York Times, in a 1989 article.
But in the same year, one of the worst environmental disasters in world history took place off the coast of Alaska when oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground of a reef in Prince William Sound, spilling 11 million gallons oil into the sound.
In 1849, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. During his term, he launched an unsuccessful bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 1860. President Abraham Lincoln named Seward secretary of state on March 5, 1861. During his term he managed Civil War-era foreign relations and negotiated the purchase of Alaska.
After finishing his term under President Andrew Johnson on March 4, 1869, he made a two-year trip around the world. He died in Auburn, N.Y., in 1872.