Today is Alaska Day, marking the events of October 18th, 1867, when the USA formally took possession of Alaska after buying the vast territory from Russia for $7.2 million – less than two cents per acre.
Even at that bargain price, some Americans were highly critical of the deal, believing Alaska to be a barren and worthless wasteland. Later events would prove them wrong.
Russia was keen to sell its Alaska territory because it was remote, sparsely populated and difficult to defend. It was also worried that if it didn't sell the land, it could be taken away in a conflict, probably by Great Britain, who the Russians had fought in the Crimean War just over a decade earlier.
Possibly in an effort to spark a bidding war, Russia approached both Britain and America with its offer to sell its Alaskan colony, but Britain expressed little interest. For America the deal was more appealing, particularly for Secretary of State William Henry Seward, who served under President Andrew Johnson.
Seward was enthusiastic about expanding America's territories and even hoped that Alaska might be linked up with the lower 48 states along the Pacific coast of Canada if the British colony there – British Columbia – could be annexed. Seward entered talks with the Russians, keen to hammer out a deal which would secure the 586,412 square miles of Alaska for the USA. At twice the size of Texas, it would be a considerable addition.
News of the negotiations soon got out and, possibly because Johnson's government was already unpopular, critics and political opponents were quick to lambaste Seward's plans, dubbing them “Seward's Folly” and Johnson's “Polar bear garden”. The main thrust of the criticism was that Alaska had nothing to offer but a few fur-bearing animals, and these had already been hunted to virtual extinction by the Russians and native Alaskans. It was a barren, desolate place which the USA would be unwise to accept as a gift, let alone pay for.
However, the majority of Americans shared Seward's expansionist ambitions and were behind the plans. They thought it would help foster friendly relations with the Russians, be an effective block to any British plans for further expansion in the region and possibly help facilitate the annexation of British Columbia as a further America territory. Far-sighted Americans also saw possibilities to gain significant economic benefits from Alaska.
The negotiations continued and a deal was finally reached on March 30th, 1867, in a treaty ratified by the US Senate and signed by President Johnson. However, one of Seward's ambitions was defeated just a few months later when it became clear America would not be able to annexe British Columbia and thereby create an unbroken link between Alaska and North America along the Pacific coastline.
In July 1867 a deal was reached under which the Dominion of Canada would welcome British Columbia to join it in forming the Canadian Confederation, forming a coast-to-coast barrier between North America and its newly acquired Alaskan territory. For Seward and his colleagues it was a setback, but plans continued unabated for the formal handover of Alaska on October 18th.
America chose the name 'Alaska' for its new territory, taking the name from the native Aleut language and meaning “great land”. The Russians had called it Russian America, using the name Alyaska to refer only to a particular peninsula jutting out from the mainland. Leading up to and after the transfer, the vast majority of Russians returned to their motherland, their passage paid for by the Russian-American Company.
An influx of American settlers followed the transfer, hoping to exploit whatever they could in the new territory, but the vast majority found it too harsh a place to live and soon returned south. It wasn't until the great Klondike gold strike of 1896 – almost 30 years after the transfer – that Americans returned to Alaska in large numbers.
Later the discovery of other natural resources, notably oil, would further prove Seward right in his determination to secure Alaska. Today 25% of America's oil comes from Alaska, together with more than 50% of its seafood. It became the USA's 49th state in January 1959 and is by far the largest state in terms of land mass, about a fifth of the size of all the lower 48 states combined. However, it remains sparsely populated, with only around 738,000 people living there, compared to around 8.5 million people living in the 304 square miles of New York City alone.