On March 30, 1867, Secretary of State William H. Seward agreed to purchase Alaska from Russia for 7.2 million dollars. Critics attacked Seward for the secrecy surrounding the deal, which came to be known as “Seward’s folly.” The press mocked his willingness to spend so much on “Seward’s icebox” and Andrew Johnson’s “polar bear garden.”
Under the aegis of explorer Vitus Jonassen Bering, Russia established a presence in Alaska in the early eighteenth century. Russia initially approached the United States about selling the territory during President James Buchanan‘s administration, but the Civil War stalled negotiations. Seward, secretary of state under presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, supported American expansion and was eager to acquire Alaska. However, convincing skeptics that Alaska was an important addition to the United States was a challenge. Thanks to strong support by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, the Senate approved the treaty by a vote of 37-2 on April 9, 1867. Nonetheless, the appropriation of money needed to purchase Alaska was delayed by more than a year due to opposition in the House of Representatives. The House finally approved the appropriation on July 14, 1868, by a vote of 113-43.
The discovery of gold in the late 1890s increased Alaska’s value as a U.S. possession and boosted its population. In 1912, the region was granted territorial status. During World War II, Japan invaded the Aleutian Islands of Agattu, Attu, and Kiska in 1942. Although the islands were retaken by U.S. troops within a year, the threat to Alaska prompted the construction of the Alcan Highway and an increased military presence in the region.
Alaskans approved statehood in 1946 and adopted a state constitution in 1955. On January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower announced Alaska’s entrance into the Union as the 49th state.
The town of Seward, Alaska, located on the Kenai Peninsula at the head of Resurrection Bay, was founded in 1903 as a supply base for the construction of a railway to the Yukon Valley.
- Newspaper articles about the purchase of Alaska can be found in the collection Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Start with Topics in Chronicling America-Seward’s Folly-U.S. Purchase of Alaska for a sample of articles and suggested search strategies.
- Read “The Lure of Gold,” an American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 interview with an Alaska gold rush prospector.
- To find federal legislation, proclamations, and other documents concerning the early history of Alaska, search on Alaska in The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920. This search will retrieve another gem: The Harriman Alaska Expedition: Chronicles and Souvenirs May to August 1899, with photographs by Edward S. Curtis, paintings by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, notes on the region’s indigenous trees from pioneering forester Bernhard E. Fernow, and essays by conservationists George B. Grinnell, John Burroughs, and John Muir.
- Teachers may find the lesson plan The Alaska Purchase: Debating the Sale from Russian and U.S. Perspectives a helpful resource on this topic.
- View the Library of Congress exhibition In the Beginning Was the Word: The Russian Church and Native Alaskan Cultures.
- Explore Meeting of Frontiers, a bilingual, multimedia English-Russian digital library that tells the story of the American exploration and settlement of the West, the parallel exploration and settlement of Siberia and the Russian Far East, and the meeting of the Russian-American frontier in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
- Explore the Alaska State Guide to view a wide variety of material associated with Alaska, including manuscripts, broadsides, government documents, books, and maps.