Here's the story of how the United States acquired Alaska. If you like these Story Time videos, please subscribe to my podcast! http://iammrbeat.podomatic.com. Music by Electric Needle Room. http://www.electricneedleroom.com. All images in the public domain.
The decision to buy Alaska from Russia in 1867 has mostly been considered a good deal for the United States.
The U.S. bought Alaska for $7.2 million, which in 2015 dollars is actually $180.5 million, and that still sounds like a good deal when you consider that the state produces $10s of billions of dollars worth of goods and services every year.
However, at least one economist may disagree with that claim that it was actually a good deal.
Here’s the story of the Alaska Purchase
Once upon a time, there was a country called Russia that grew and expanded its empire across the North American continent. From 1733 to 1867, Russia colonized as far south as modern-day California and two ports in Hawaii. Their North American settlements were called Russian America. However, in 1856, Russia was broke and weakened after the Crimean War, and they also feared that Russian America might be an easy target for the increasing British settlers in British Columbia in any future war that might break out. Resources available there were increasingly less profitable, and plus, hardly any Russians lived there anyway.
Therefore, they looked to get rid of Russian America by selling it to the United States. The American Civil War delayed the sale, but after the war ended, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward met in Washington with Russian Minister Eduard de Stoeckl to negotiate a deal. After staying up all night negotiating, the two agreed to a deal, signing a treaty at 4 a.m. on March 30, 1867, with the United States buying the territory for $7.2 million, or about 2 cents per acre. (50 cents an acre in today’s money due to inflation). The Senate approved the purchase on April 9th, and President Andrew Johnson signed the treaty on May 28th. Americans chose to call the area Alaska, an Aleut name. The land, an area over twice the size of Texas, officially joined the country on October 18, 1867.
Some people were angry and in shock. These critics of the purchase of Alaska even famously called it “Seward’s Folly,” or “Seward’s Icebox,” basically saying that was a lot of money to spend for an area with not much to offer. They argued no one would be able to move there and it’d also be hard to control and defend, being so far away. Yet other Americans said it was a wise move, not just for the potential resources hidden there but for the potential to next try to take over British Columbia.
After the purchase, pretty much all of the Russians who lived in Alaska moved back to Russia. Not many Americans lived there either. That is, until Joe Juneau discovered gold there in 1880, and Americans finally began to migrate there. Later they came for the oil, and today Alaska is a very desirable place for many Americans to live, so much more than just an “icebox.”
Was the purchase of Alaska really a good deal, or did Seward actually get ripped off? For the past 125 years or so, most people have agreed that it was a very good deal. However, in 2009, David Barker, an economist at Iowa University, shook things up when he made the controversial claim that challenged that narrative. Barker claimed that the Alaska purchase wasn’t really that good of deal after all, and that the economic benefits from Alaska could have been there for the United States without having to control it all along.
Ultimately, though, I see Alaska joining the United States as a fantastic thing. Without that happening, we likely today wouldn’t have one of my favorite shows on television- Alaska State Troopers. For that, we thank you, William Seward.