PURCHASE OF ALASKA of 1867

by Emily K.


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WHY ALASKA?

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The piece of land stuck to the very upper end of North America was originally owned by Russia before it was sold to the United States. Peer pressured by the global trend of exploration and colonialism, Russia had set out to the Americas and had claimed the land called Alaska. However, unsurprisingly, not many people actually migrated to the area due to the cold weather and its isolation from mainland Russia. By the 19th century, Russia's economy was dwindling enough to pressure the Czar into selling Alaska. He thought it would be better to sell the relatively uninhabited land for cash than to wait until the territory annexes itself with some other country. Russia also had difficulty maintaining a defense force around the territory, both because Alaska was so far away from mainland Russia, and because of Russia's weak economic situation. So in conclusion, Russia decided to offer the land to United States, a fairly new country that was recently expanding greatly.




HOW WAS THE PROCESS?

The secretary of state of the Untied States at the time was named William H. Seward. This man is important, because he is mainly the one who convinced his folks to accept Russia's offer. He had always been very eager to purchase the land of Alaska, although he did not know that it was so rich in resources. He thought the addition of such a big land would make the growing United States even stronger. Alaska today is in fact the largest state in the U.S., so it did increase the land size of the United States greatly. Seward succeeded in convincing the government officials and they tried to make deals with Russia, however, the process was halted due to the Civil War in United States. The purchase was finally realized in 1867, with the ownership of Alaska passed onto the U.S. for $7.2 million dollars. However, it is important to note that this territory did not actually become a state until 1959, after the area became famous for its gold deposits.

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WHAT WAS THE REACTION?

Simply put, people did not like it. The citizens of the United States did not understand why the government had decided to buy Alaska, which to them seemed nothing but just a big piece of useless, ice-cold land. With the help of provocative critics, the purchase of Alaska became a subject of mockery, being referred to as "Seward's Folly" or "Seward's icebox" or even President Johnson's "polar bear garden." Although the land was bargained to a price of mere 2 cents per acre, American citizens believed that the money (which totaled up to $7.2 million) could have been used somewhere else that is more productive. Such a reaction is understandable, though, considering that at this time, Americans were not yet aware of the resources hiding below the land of Alaska. Until that critical fact was discovered, everyone (including the media) derided the purchase of Alaska as a waste of money.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ESKIMOS?

The indigenous inhabitants of Alaska are known as the Eskimos. Alaska was never a heavily populated area (due to its cold, harsh climate) but there were people living in it, including some Russians. When the United States government set foot on the territory, these few Russians had a choice either to leave back to their home country, or to remain and enjoy the rights as a citizen of the United States. However, this policy strictly excluded the Eskimos, whom the Americans called "uncivilized native tribes." Thus, a parallel can be drawn here between the purchase of Alaska and the colonization of Americas in the 15th-16th centuries. They were not treated fairly - in fact, they were intruded into without compensation - despite the ironic fact that they were the actual original people who had been living there the whole time.

ANY CHANGES AFTER THE PURCHASE?

ECONOMIC:

The discovery of gold deposit in Alaska was an influential factor for the economy. Having access to such a precious metal helped America's economy overall as well. Today, Alaska is dominated by outside corporations. Tourism is also big in the area, with various cruise lines exploring its coast. But overall, the economy of Alaska is dominated by the white Americans, and the native Alaskan Eskimos still mainly live in traditional ways. The improvement of transportation systems (including land, air, and sea travel) positively effected the economy as it facilitated easy transportation of goods.

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POPULATION:

As cold as it is, Alaska was never heavily populated, and it still remains barely inhabited. However, the inclusion of the area as a state of the United States helped Alaska gain more population. Corporations started settling in the area, bringing many workers with them. Also, the improvement of transportation and communication systems created a more friendly environment for citizens, and thus more people moved in than before. However, Alaska is still the least densely populated state of all the 50 states of America.

NATURAL RESOURCES/ENVIRONMENT:

A while after Alaska had become U.S.'s territory, gold deposits were discovered in this large, cold land. This promoted a gold rush similar to that of California, although the expanse of migration was not as grand as the California Gold Rush. Still, this significant discovery helped populate the previously very empty area, and also stimulated new economic activity.

IMPACT ON SLAVERY/OTHER SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS:

Before the United States entered, diverse Eskimo tribes lived in the area, each with its traditions, one of which happens to be slavery. By this time, the North had won the Civil War, meaning slavery was officially abolished. Thus, the same rule applied to Alaska, and the slaves of the tribe (namely, the Tlingits) were emancipated under the U.S. government. Many tribal members who depended heavily on slaves resented such a forced policy, however, the slaves were thankful.

POLITICAL:

Seward was right in that the addition of Alaska would make the United States stronger. Although Seward himself could not see the successful outcomes of his actions, the United States soon benefited from the addition of what used to be called a "polar bear garden." Most importantly, Alaska played a key role during the Cold War. Separated a little bit from mainland United States and close to Russia, Alaska provided a strategic place for the U.S. Overall, Alaska helped United States become a lot bigger, which means a lot stronger as well.



*This is a funny video (actually an advertisement for lottery) that expresses how the Alaska Purchase was like lottery at the time of its purchase, but now it has turned out to be one of the "best deals made."

ULTIMATE QUESTION: WAS THE PURCHASE A GOOD DECISION?

Overall, the purchase of Alaska was a wise decision for the United States. This is surely a subjective opinion, but when comparing the benefits (which have been explained above) to the costs of this event, the benefits seem to outnumber the negative aspects. The major reason for this is that the expansion was carried out by a direct purchase of the land from Russia (unlike many of the first states in the America that were simply intruded into). During this process, there wasn't any bloodshed or sacrificial tragedies of the native peoples, which is a possibility during many such expansion processes. It is true that many Eskimos were dissatisfied and also the climate of the region has been worsening due to urbanization, the purchase of Alaska overall was still beneficial. Even if the area was not purchased by the United States, it wouldn't have been able to be completely free anyway, since Russia would have taken control. So rather than being left alone, the area could be improved more drastically because Alaska became part of the United States. Alaska and the United States both help each other by providing proper advantages and in return taking those advantages for the good of the country.




BIBLIOGRAPHY:
": They wouldn't lie to tourists, would they?" Classical Values. Web. 23 Aug. 2009. <http://www.classicalvalues.com/archives/2007/07/they_wouldnt_li.html>.
"Culture of the Tlingit -." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 24 Aug. 2009. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_of_the_Tlingit>.
"Protecting Alaska's Native Population-With Federal Records." National Archives and Records Administration. Web. 25 Aug. 2009. <http://www.archives.gov/pacific-alaska/anchorage/finding-aids/protecting-native-peoples.html>.
"Purchase of Alaska, 1867." U.S. Department of State. Web. 23 Aug. 2009. <http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/gp/17662.htm>.
"Reconstruction (1866-1877)." Web. 24 Aug. 2009. <http://www.americaslibrary.gov/cgi-bin/page.cgi/jb/recon>.
"Seward's Folly, the Purchase of Alaska." Travel and History. Web. 24 Aug. 2009. <http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h230.html>.