In the early hours of March 30th 1867 the United States agreed on a deal to purchase Alaska from the Russians. There were those who thought that it was a waste of money. But the price of $7.2 million was ridiculously low, amounting to around two cents an acre. The Russians really wanted to sell. Although Alaska isn’t very far from the east coast of Russia, it was a long way from their centre of government and their colony there was hard to defend. They feared they would lose it anyway, perhaps to the Americans, perhaps to the British, who had territories just next door in British Columbia. The Russians had, in the 1850s, lost to the British in the Crimean War and they definitely didn’t want them to have it.
Russia’s interest in Alaska stretched back to the previous century. It was one of the final acts of Peter The Great, in 1728, to send an expedition to find out if Russia was attached by land to North America. He sent a man named Vitus Bering who, after an incredibly difficult journey, found out that is wasn’t. In the 1730s, Bering set out on another journey, this time crossing the strait that now bears his name. He reached Alaska in 1741, but died on the return voyage. What the Russians were particularly interested in was the fur trade and they quickly colonised the coast of Alaska and set up trading posts. They set up a company called The Russian-American Company which dealt in walrus ivory and animal skins. It had it’s own flag and it’s own unusual currency which was made from seal skin. Their relationship with the indigenous people of Alaska was, to say the least, strained and by the nineteenth century, they were facing competition from British Columbia. Russian America became too expensive to maintain and it was just too far away.
When it was suggested that the United States acquire the territory, some Americans felt the same way about it. They too were recovering from the effects of war. They were trying to pull their country back together following the American Civil War. Alaska, which they considered to be a wasteland, was not even connected by land to the rest of the United States. Dissenters thought the land would be worth nothing. They thought it wasn’t worth having even if the Russians were giving it away. They called it ‘Andrew Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden’. They also called it ‘Seward’s Icebox’ and ‘Seward’s Folly’. Andrew Johnson was their president and William Seward was Secretary of State. It was Seward who signed the treaty. Those in favour of the agreement were happy to see yet another ruling country kicked off what they increasingly thought of as ‘their’ continent and it is likely they hoped the British would be next.
The Alaska Purchase turned out to be a good thing for America. Alaska is huge and, overnight, the country had become 20% bigger. $7.2 million is a pretty good deal, even if it does include quite a lot of lakes and glaciers. America easily recouped the money from the fur trade. But then, in 1896, gold was discovered in the Klondike on the border between Alaska and Canada. Thousands of prospectors travelled through Alaska. It was a gruelling journey over steep mountain passes and when they got there, they weren’t allowed in unless they had a year’s worth of food supplies with them. So, plenty of boom towns sprang up along the route and there was a good living to be made by anyone prepared to help them carry all their stuff. Then, in 1899, there was a second rush at Nome on the coast. Much of the gold found there was just lying around on the beach. Over the years, the area surrounding Nome has produced around 112 metric tonnes of gold. Not bad for two cents an acre.