When it comes to international relations, if you want to increase your country’s area, most would agree that buying territory is a much more ethical way of doing it than invading it. Yet it’s surprising that there was any controversy over the United States’ purchase, exactly 150 years ago, of what was then known as Russian America, was at the time.
The buy-up of the 600,000-square-mile peninsula in the north-west of North America was the brainchild of the then Secretary of State, William Seward. Prior to this land deal, Seward’s main claim to fame had been skilfully avoiding war between the US and Britain during the Trent affair (see here).
Alaska (or Aляска, as its then colonists knew it), had originally been settled mainly by Russian hunters in the early 18th Century, shortly after the Danish navigator Vitus Bering’s discovery of the Strait bearing his name. Surprisingly, however, the number of Russian settlers in the territory never numbered more than 700. They had used the area principally for the fur trade with Alaska’s First Nations, but by the mid-19th Century the territory had turned into a drain on the Russian treasury, and so the government of Tsar Alexander II scouted around looking for a country rich enough to buy it, and settled on selling the land to the United States as preferable to losing it altogether in a possible future war with the British.
The deal was struck on 30 March 1867, with the final agreement that the US would pay the Russians $7.2million for Alaska – roughly equivalent to nearly $12.28 per square mile. Domestic reaction to the purchase was mainly positive, but a few newspapers criticised it, with some calling it “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Ice Box”.
Nonetheless, the deal would prove to be extremely lucrative for the US in years to come – though it sent shockwaves among the colonial authorities in what was then known as British North America: the British in Canada were already fearful that a victorious United States would march north after its Civil War, and now had to contend with having not one but two separate American frontiers. So, plans to unite the various British colonies in North America were accelerated, with the Confederation being formed just over three months after the Alaska Purchase. In other words, the expansion of America did much to create the Canadian nation – and not for the last time…