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What Was the Alaska Purchase?

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  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 23 August 2016
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The Alaska Purchase refers to the American acquisition of Alaska from Russia in 1867. For Russia, this sale was largely a tactical move which prevented a potential seizure of the territory by the British. The purchase was negotiated by US Secretary of State William Seward, who obtained the vast stretch of land for $7.2 million US Dollars (USD). Despite this seeming bargain, the Alaska Purchase was initially unpopular among much of the US public as well as many of the nation’s congressmen, who dubbed the transaction “Seward’s folly.” As the bounty of Alaska’s natural resources became increasingly apparent, however, public opinion of the purchase shifted from dissatisfaction to approval.

Negotiation of the Alaska Purchase began in 1859, when Russia initially offered the territory to the US. Russia’s motivation for selling the territory was largely tactical. Alaska had long proven difficult and expensive to defend. Furthermore, the land directly to the southeast of the territory was maintained by Great Britain, whose relationship with Russia had become strained in the recent Crimean War. By selling Alaska to the US, Russia would prevent a potential seizure of the territory by the British.

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On the US side, the Alaska Purchase was handled by Secretary of State William Seward, who saw the transaction as an opportunity for America to establish a presence in the North Pacific. Despite Seward’s immediate interest in the territory, however, negotiations were quickly suspended due to the outbreak of the US Civil War in 1861. Talks between Seward and Russian minister Eduard de Stoeckl resumed in 1867, and a sale was finally agreed upon by the two men on 30 March 1867.

While the purchase price negotiated by Seward — $7.2 million USD, or $0.023 per acre — may have been a bargain, many in Congress were resistant to the deal, arguing that Alaska was difficult to access and bereft of any concrete value. As a result, congressional approval of the Alaska Purchase was delayed for several months as congressmen argued over the plan’s merits. Eventually, however, the sale was approved, and the territory was officially transferred from Russia to the US on 18 October 1867.

Even after it had come to pass, the Alaska Purchase remained unpopular among many politicians, journalists, and members of the public. The transaction even gained the nickname “Seward’s folly.” When gold was discovered in the territory at the end of the 19th century, however, the nation began to comprehend the extent of the natural bounty it had gained. Alaska remained an American territory until 1959, when it was named a US state.

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