“Seward’s Folly” – “Walrussia” – “The New National Ice House”: In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the purchase of Alaska from Russia, 1867-2017

Exhibit Location: The Joseph Regenstein Library, Second Floor
Exhibit Dates: April 24 – August 1, 2017

Why did Russia sell Alaska? Why did the United States purchase it? And how did the American public and press react to this purchase in 1867, so soon after the end of the Civil War?

Signing of the Treaty on 30 March 1867

Signing of the Treaty on 30 March 1867
Robert S. Chew (Chief Clerk, State Department), William Seward (Secretary of State), William Hunter (Second Assistant Secretary of State), Vladimir Bodisko (Secretary of the Russian Legation), Eduard Stoeckl (Russian Ambassador to the US), Charles Sumner (Senator from Massachusetts), Frederick Seward (Assistant Secretary of State)

WHY SELL? By the end of the 1850s, after its defeat in the Crimean War, Russia’s tsarist government had no further use for the Russian American Company and began searching for a buyer of the colonies in northwest America, preferably not the British, Russia’s greatest rival in the Pacific. By 1863 Russia concluded that the Russian colonies in America were “at a perfect standstill as regards colonization, hunting, trade, and civic development, and that, generally speaking, the Russian American Company has far from justified the expectations which the government had placed in it” (S. B. Okun. The Russian-American Company.
Tr. by Carl Ginzburg. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951: 232-33.)

WHY BUY?  William H. Seward, 24th United States Secretary of State (1861-1868), saw the purchase of Alaska as another step in the expansion of the United States in the west, as did Charles Sumner, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts whose 2 1/2 hour speech to the Committee on Foreign Relations presented all of the facts then known about Russian America (i.e. Alaska). He articulated four advantages pertinent to the future interests of the United States: Advantages to the Pacific Coast, Extension of Dominion, Extension of Republican Institutions, and Anticipation of Great Britain.

Treasury draft no. 9759

Treasury draft no. 9759, the check that paid for the purchase of Alaska.
The check, in the amount of $7,200,000, amounted to two cents per acre, and is dated more than a year after the signing of the Treaty of the Cession of the Russian Possessions in North America

Although the Treaty to purchase Alaska was ratified by a 37-2 margin, at a cost of $7,200,000, it caused a great deal of pro and con exposition in the nation’s papers, with the purchase being labeled as “Seward’s Folly,” “Icebergia,” “Walrussia,” “The Nation’s Ice House.” It was well into the 20th century before Alaska’s purchase was generally acknowledged to be of great strategic and financial importance.

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