How Alaska Left Russia and Became Part of the U.S.?

This summer my family and I took a two-week cruise/land-tour of Alaska.  While we were immersed in enjoying the tranquil beauty of Alaska, we were also fascinated by the history of Alaska, in particular, how did Alaska leave Russia and become part of the U.S., which is the topic of this article.

Early History of Alaska: As we all know, for a long time in the distant past Alaska in North America and Siberia in Asia were connected by land.  So wanderers from Asia traveled across the land connection from Asia into North America.  These early Asian explorers and settlers were the ancestors of today’s Native Americans.  There are three major groups of Native Americans in Alaska:   (1) Aleuts who live mostly in the Aleutian Islands, (2) Inuit (or Eskimos) who live mostly in the northern part of Alaska, and (3) Tlingit who live mostly in the southeastern part of Alaska.

Approximately 10,000 years ago, due to some major geological shift involving sea level changes, the land connection between Asia and North America was broken, and water, now known as the Bering Strait, separated the two continents.

Russian Occupation and Control of Alaska: The origin of European settlers to Alaska is not very clear, but many believe that the first European settlers to Alaska were Russians around the mid-17th century.  The recorded history of European contacts with Alaska began almost a century later.  Shortly before his death in 1725, the czar of Russia, Peter the Great, commissioned Vitus Bering, a Dane who served with the Russian navy, to conduct an expedition going north along the coast of Siberia to try to find where it is joined to America.  Men and material had to be transported 5,000 miles from St. Petersburg to the Pacific Coast of Siberia, and a ship (St. Gabriel) had to be built.  So this expedition didn’t take place until three years later in 1728.  Although this expedition never landed in North America, they did find out that Asia and America were not connected, and named the sea separating the two continents the Bering Strait.

In 1741, Bering launched a second and more ambitious expedition, called the Great Northern Expedition, with the intention to reach America and open trade between the two continents.  The Great Northern Expedition did not achieve its objective of opening trade between the two continents, and many of the expedition members including Bering, did not survive.  However, the expedition did discover large populations of sea otter in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.  In the face of starvation, sea otters provided food to the sailors, even though they disliked the taste and texture of otter flesh.  More importantly, the sea otter pelts could keep them warm.  The Russian fur traders, known as promyshlenniki, knew that the sea otter furs could command enormous prices in the Chinese fur market.  As a matter of fact, they were considered to be so valuable that they were called “soft gold.”  Since the sea otter in Siberia had essentially been decimated, they were overjoyed to hear from the expedition members about the large number and ease of catching them.  This began a flourishing trade by the promyshlenniki.

Although not necessarily reflecting the attitude of the Russian government in St. Petersburg,  the promyshlenniki treated the native Aleuts as barely human, and slaughtered the Aleut men without provocation and enslaved the Aleut women and girls.  Even though the Aleuts tried to fight back, especially in 1762, they had no weapons to match the Russian muskets, and it triggered a reign of terror in the Aleutian Islands so that over the next four years, 3,000 Aleuts (men, women, and children), which was about 10-30% (depending on which estimate is used) of the total Aleut population at that time, were slaughtered.

It took about 20 years until 1784 before the first Russian permanent colony was established on Kodiak Island in Alaska, and it took about another 20 more years until 1804 before Russia set up a Russian-American Company to control all Russian activities in Alaska.  Since there was no attempt at conservation, as the sea otter population got decimated in one locality, the fur traders would move to another locality, thus moving farther east and south in Alaska.  Finally the Russian-American Company transferred its headquarter from Kodiak on Kodiak Island to Sitka (between Juneau and Ketchikan).

Since the main problem for the Russian settlers was a reliable supply of food, as it was very expensive to send supplies from Siberia to Sitka.  One solution was to trade with American traders.  Because the Russians didn’t want to become too dependent on the Americans as they were rivals to become a power in the Pacific coast, an interesting fact of history was that Russia tried to establish a Russian agricultural colony in Northern California.  In 1812, they constructed a fortified settlement, named Fort Ross (an old form of a word for Russia), just north of San Francisco.  The plan was to raise crops and animals that would be shipped to Sitka or other parts of Russian Alaska.  However, the Russian settlers and their native Alaska workers (Aleuts) were not good in raising crops or cattle.  As a matter of fact, the Aleuts, being sea hunters, had never even seen cattle.  Fort Ross was a total  failure to provide food for Russian Alaska, as it barely produced enough food to feed itself.

Economic Decline of Russian Alaska: The two problems of rapidly declining sea otter population due to over-killing and the huge cost of providing supplies to Russian Alaska and the failure of Fort Ross no longer made economic sense, at least in the short term, for Russia to continue its interest in Alaska.  Another interesting piece of history is that in 1841 Russia sold Fort Ross for $30,000 to the American John Sutter, the owner of Sutter’s Mill about 120 miles east of Fort Ross where gold was discovered in 1848.  Adding to these two problems was the fear that Russia was in no position to defend Alaska if another foreign power (e.g., Great Britain) wanted to seize the Alaskan territory.  So around the 1850s, Russia began looking to sell its unprofitable Alaska territory. [1]   This desire was enhanced when Russia was decisively defeated by the British and the French in the Crimea War (1853-1856). [2]  The U.S. was interested, and talks between the two sides continued until 1860 when the U.S. was immersed in its bloody and costly Civil War.

The Alaska Purchase: When the Civil War ended in 1865, the U.S. renewed its interest in purchasing Alaska.  There were several reasons for this interest:

  • Alaska was full of potentially profitable natural resources, such as fish, whales, animal furs, minerals, forests
  • To facilitate commerce between the U.S. and Asian countries such as China and Japan
  • Vast amount of essentially virgin land
  • To prevent Alaska from falling into the hands of an unfriendly power
  • A relatively low purchase price for such a vast territory (586,400 square miles) [3] due to the great desire of Russia to sell

In a deal that was championed and orchestrated by the then U.S. Secretary of State, William H. Seward, the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia on March 30, 1867 for $7.2 million, or less than two cents an acre.  It should be noted that even though the U.S. President (Andrew Johnson) and the U.S. Senate had to approve the purchase, there was very little interest in the U.S. government, besides Seward, or the American public to purchase Alaska, which was considered as a frozen and worthless wasteland.  As a matter of fact, the Alaska Purchase was known as “Seward’s Folly.”  To his credit, when Seward was asked a few years later what was the most important act of his career, he replied without hesitation “The Alaska Purchase.”  With hindsight, Seward was 100% correct.

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[1] Just like the Spanish claiming much of the land in Central and South America, or the U.S. claiming the land of  North America, Russia claimed the land of Alaska even though this land should really belong to the Native Alaskans.

[2] The Crimea War is also remembered for producing Florence Nightingale, who pioneered modern nursing practices while caring for wounded British soldiers.

[3] The Alaska Purchase is the second-largest land deal in the history of the U.S., second only to the 1803 Louisiana Purchase (828,000 square miles).

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7 Responses to “How Alaska Left Russia and Became Part of the U.S.?”

  1. Martin Tu says:

    Very interesting!

  2. Y Yen says:

    Don, another piece of nice article! Thank you for sharing it with us.

  3. Rich Braverman says:

    Don, I love history. I found your article of great interest. But the sad part is the killing of the Alaskan natives. A similar story is the killing of American natives.

    Thanks

    Rich

  4. Alex Van says:

    Hey! Thank You for information, i always wondered about, Van

  5. youremom says:

    Thanks

  6. Hannah Gatch says:

    Very, very, very nice. It really helped me with my school work. Very nice.

  7. Adele says:

    Hi, I was just notified by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Licensing that my application for concealed weapon or Firearm License was rejected due to my place of Birth. I was born in Anchorage, Alaska and they rejected my application and I quote their highlight, “you were born outside of the United States” and “Please send us a copy of any one of the following documents”. I jokingly as you all, is there something recent that has happened with Alaska and the USA that I am unaware of? (I know there is not, but it was a good laugh at, unfortunately, someone (a nitwit) else’s expense). Which brings me to a valid question, how many other people (foreign and American) in America do not know the history of Alaska and that it is, in fact, still apart of the USA.

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