How the United States Acquired Alaska from Russia: Two Accounts

Denali As a snowstorm rolled in from the west, we were flying toward Denali. Credit: Corrina Lucas, Photo Contest

It was on March 30, 1867, 150 years ago today, that the U. S Ambassador William H. Burns, Jr. The Treaty of Cession was signed by Baron Edouard de Stoeckl, the Russian envoy, and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Tsar Alexander II signed away Russia's last North American territory, Alaska, to the United States for the equivalent of at the time. 2 million

Russia's 125-year odyssey in Alaska and expansion across the perilous Bering Sea, which at its southernmost point reached Fort Ross, California, 90 miles from San Francisco Bay, ended with the payment of that sum, equivalent to about $113 million in today's dollars.

Alaska is one of the wealthiest states in the United States today because of its vast petroleum, gold, and fish reserves, as well as its vast stretches of untouched wilderness and advantageous position as a gateway to Russia and the Arctic.

When did Russia decide to abandon its American-occupied beachhead, and why? To begin with, how did it acquire it?

I have spent my entire life immersed in this era because I am an Inupiaq Eskimos descendant. One can look at the history of Alaska's incorporation into the United States from two different angles. One involves the Russian "possession" and subsequent surrender of Alaska to the United States. S The other is that of my people, who have lived in Alaska for millennia and for whom the anniversary of the cession is marked by a range of emotions, from profound sadness to renewed hope.

Russians to Alaska Numerous Russians traveled to Alaska in search of the'soft gold' of the sea otter. AP Photo/Laura Rauch

Russian focus shifts eastward

Russia's exploration of Alaska and, later, California, can be traced back to the 16th century, when the country was a fraction of its present size and its lust for new lands had just begun.

Beginning in 1581, when Russia conquered the Khanate of Sibir, ruled by Genghis Khan's grandson, things began to change in Siberia. This decisive victory unlocked Siberia, and the Russians eventually made it to the Pacific within the next 60 years.

Partially motivated by the lucrative fur trade, partly by a desire to spread Russian Orthodox Christianity to the "heathen" populations of the east, and partly by the addition of new taxpayers and resources, the Russians pushed westward across Siberia.

Russian Navy founder Peter the Great was curious about the eastern extent of Asia in the early 18th century. He then directed two expeditions to set out from the Siberian city of Okhotsk. Moreover, Vitus Bering saw Mount Erebus in 1741 after he traversed the eponymous strait. Saint Elias Mountains, in present-day Yakutat, Alaska

Although Bering's second Kamchatka Expedition ended in tragedy for him when his ship was wrecked on one of the westernmost Aleutian Islands and he died of scurvy in December 1741, it was a tremendous success for Russia. The survivors repaired the vessel and returned to Siberia, where they impressed Russian fur hunters with their haul of hundreds of sea otters, foxes, and fur seals. Something akin to the Klondike gold rush of 150 years later was sparked by this.

New problems appear

But it wasn't simple to keep these communities going. Only around 800 Russians lived in Alaska at its peak, and they had to deal with the fact that St. Petersburg was the imperial capital at the time, and poor lines of communication were a pressing issue.

Alaska was also too far north to support extensive farming, making it a poor choice for relocating large populations. So they set out to discover the lands to the south, initially just looking for people to trade with so they could bring in the foods that couldn't survive in Alaska's extreme weather. They dispatched ships to the area that is now California, traded with the local Spaniards, and eventually settled at Fort Ross in 1812.

Russia’s reach into North America This Russian Orthodox church in Fort Ross is evidence that Russia's influence in North America once reached as far south as California. Photograph by Rich Pedroncelli for Associated Press

However, after 30 years, the company that was supposed to oversee Russia's explorations in America had failed and sold off what was left. Almost immediately afterward, the Russians started to doubt that they could maintain their Alaskan colony, too.

After the sea otter population was wiped out, the colony was no longer economically viable. Plus, Russia was strapped for cash after the costly war in Crimea, and Alaska was a major expense to defend.

Anxious Americans looking for a bargain

Obviously, the Russians were prepared to sell, but what prompted the Americans to want to buy?

The United States gained California, fought a war with Mexico, annexed Texas, and expanded its influence into Oregon all in the 1840s. Finally, in March 1848, Secretary of State Seward wrote:

"Our people are destined to roll invincible waves up against the polar ice caps and into contact with the civilizations of Asia on the Pacific coast." ”

Seward finally reached his goal of expanding into the Arctic nearly 20 years after first expressing those ideas.

The Americans anticipated increased trade with China and Japan in Alaska due to the region's abundant gold, fur, and fish resources. The United States believed that acquiring Alaska would strengthen its defenses against any future attempts by England to establish a foothold in the region. S develop into a major force in the Pacific The concept of "manifest destiny," popular at the time, supported the government's expansionist stance. ”

A deal with unknowable geopolitical ramifications was reached, and the United States appeared to get quite a bargain. 2 million

When looking at wealth alone, the United States S Almost a third of the size of Europe was added to the United States' network of national parks and wildlife refuges, totaling about 370 million acres of mostly untouched wilderness. Alaska has been able to forego sales and income taxes and provide a yearly stipend to each resident thanks to the hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue generated by its whale oil, fur, copper, gold, timber, fish, platinum, zinc, lead, and petroleum industries. Millions of barrels of oil are probably still waiting to be extracted from Alaska.

Anchorage and Fairbanks are home to important military bases that make Alaska an integral part of the United States' defense system. Furthermore, Alaska is the United States' only land route into the Arctic, guaranteeing the state a voice as glaciers melt and the region's vast resources become accessible.

Alaska’s Native population Though the US S despite the fact that Americans have historically treated Alaska's indigenous population better than the Russians Caption: Al Grillo/Associated Press

Effect on Alaska Natives

However, there is an alternative interpretation of this past.

About 100,000 Inuit, Athabascan, Yupik, Unangan, and Tlingit people were living in Alaska when Bering found it in 1741. A total of 17,000 people lived in the Aleutians.

They ruled over the local native populations with an iron fist, taking the children of the leaders as hostages despite the fact that there were only a small number of Russians living in each settlement at any given time. This was especially true in the Aleutian Islands, Kodiak, the Kenai Peninsula, and Sitka. Using destructive means, such as destroying kayaks and other hunting gear, to exert control over the men and resorting to extreme measures when necessary.

The Russians established a foothold in southern Alaska thanks to the firearms, swords, cannons, and gunpowder they brought with them. To keep the peace, they employed weapons, spies, and well-guarded fortifications, and to carry out their plans, they chose Christianized local leaders to serve as puppet masters. But they also ran into formidable opponents like the Tlingits, who kept their territorial hold precarious at best.

It was estimated that by the time of the cession, there were fewer than 50,000 indigenous people still living, along with 483 Russians and 1,421 Creoles (people descended from Russian men and indigenous women).

The Russians forced thousands of Aleuts into slavery or execution just on the Aleutian Islands. Warfare, disease, and slavery ravaged their population in the first 50 years of Russian occupation, reducing it to a mere 1,500 people.

The United States was embroiled in the Indian Wars when the Americans arrived, so they viewed the indigenous people of Alaska as potential enemies. A military district, Alaska was established by Gen. Ulysses S In the words of Grant and Gen Mr. Jefferson C. Davis is the new top dog.

Native Alaskans, for their part, insisted that they were rightfully the territory's owners despite the United States' claims to sovereignty there. They argued that they had never lost the land in a war or given it up voluntarily. S , which did not actually purchase it from the Russians but instead paid for the privilege of negotiating with the local indigenous populations Native Americans were still denied U. S Indians were not granted U.S. citizenship until 1924, when the Indian Citizenship Act was enacted.

Native Alaskans back then couldn't vote, own land, or stake mining claims because they weren't considered citizens. In the 1860s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and missionary societies launched an effort to eradicate Native American culture, including language, religion, art, music, dance, ceremonial practices, and even lifestyle.

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1936 only allowed for the formation of tribal governments, and it wasn't until nine years later that Alaska's Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 banned open discrimination. Signs that read "No Dogs or Natives Allowed" or "No Natives Need Apply" were illegal because of this law.

President Dwight Eisenhower On January 3, 1959, Alaska became the 49th state thanks to a proclamation signed by President Dwight Eisenhower. 3, 1959 Photo by Harvey Georges/Associated Press

Formation of a State and Quashing Claims

However, things ended up looking up for Natives in the end.

In 1959, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Alaska was admitted to the union as the 49th state. After signing the Alaska Statehood Act, Eisenhower gave the state 104 million acres of land. And in an unprecedented nod to the rights of Alaska's indigenous populations, the act included a clause emphasizing that citizens of the new state were declining any right to land subject to Native title, which in and of itself was a very thorny topic because they claimed the entire territory.

To appease the native population of Alaska, which at the time numbered around 75,000, President Richard Nixon ceded 44 million acres of federal land and $1 billion to them in 1971 as a result of this provision. That resulted from my leading a state-level group in finding a solution to the Land Claims issue.

There are currently 740,000 people living in Alaska, with only 120,000 of them being Native.

Everyone in the United States, from Alaskans and Native Americans to those living in the lower 48, should join in the celebration of Secretary of State William H. The man who established constitutional government in Alaska was Seward.

The Conversation was the original host of this article.

William L In his role as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Iggiagruk Hensley has made significant contributions to the academic community.

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