The Alaska Purchase: From Russian Settlements to the U.S. Acquisition

Alaska's Russian Chapter: The Complex Tale of its Acquisition

The Alaska Purchase happened on October 18, 1867, when the United States bought Alaska from Russia. Russia had come to North America in the 1700s, but not many Russians lived in Alaska. After the Crimean War, Tsar Alexander II of Russia thought about selling Alaska to avoid losing it to the United Kingdom. After the American Civil War, US diplomat William Seward negotiated with Russian representative Eduard de Stoeckl to buy Alaska. They agreed on a deal in 1867, with the US acquiring 586,412 square miles for $7.2 million, which is equal to about $151 million today.

Most Americans were pleased with the purchase, believing it would improve trade with Asia. However, some people criticized it as "Seward's Folly" or "Seward's Icebox." After the purchase, Russians left Alaska, and the area had few people until the Klondike Gold Rush (Alaska Gold Rush) in 1896. It was first known as the Department of Alaska, then the District of Alaska in 1884, and became the Alaska Territory in 1912. Finally, in 1959, it became the State of Alaska.

The Alaska Purchase: From Russian Settlements to the U.S. Acquisition
Check for the purchase of Alaska

Summary of Russian-Alaska History:

Ancient Migration: Approximately 40,000 to 5,000 years ago, the Bering Land Bridge (Beringia) connected Asia and America, enabling the migration of animals and early human settlements to Alaska. Human settlements were established in Alaska around 5,000 to potentially more than 30,000 years ago.

The Bering Strait and Russian Exploration:

The Bering Strait, a narrow body of water, separates as the natural boundary between Russia and the United States. This important Strait is named after Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer who served the Russian Empire. In 1648, Russian explorer Semyon Dezhnev discovered the narrow waterway separating Eurasia from America, known as the Bering Strait. In 1725, Czar Peter the Great sent Vitus Bering to explore and claim territory for Russia. In 1741, Bering's voyage marked the first European presence in Alaska. Following his expedition, Alaska became a point of interest for other European nations, with Spain and Great Britain sending their ships to its coasts. However, it was the Russians who made the claim, asserting, "This land belongs to us!" Alaska became as an important center sector for Russian fur traders and sea animals’ businessmen.

Russian Settlements: Russian explorers and traders established settlements in Alaska, with Aleksei Chirikov reaching Southeast Alaska in 1741. The name "Alaska" is believed to originate from the Aleut natives' term "Alyaska" or "Alyeska", meaning "Great Land." Russian settlements grew, and a fur trading company was established by Grigori Shelikov in 1781. Alexander Baranof managed Russian-Alaska trading operations, and the Russian Orthodox Church was established on Kodiak Island in 1795.

During the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States in 1867, the population of Russians in Alaska was relatively small. The total Russian population in Alaska during this period was estimated to be around 800 individuals. However, it's important to note that the majority of the population in Alaska during that time consisted of indigenous Alaskan peoples, not Russians. The indigenous population of Alaska was estimated to be around 29,000-35,000 people.

The Alaska Purchase: From Russian Settlements to the U.S. Acquisition
Bering Sea

Russian-American Company: In 1799, Czar Paul I gave exclusive rights to the Russian-American Company to run Alaska's business and administration. The Russian-American Company was founded and sponsored by the Russian government, with the backing of the Russian tsars.

The company's operations in Alaska involved interactions with indigenous peoples and, to some extent, with American and European traders in the region. Sitka became the capital of the Alaska colony under Alexander Baranof's leadership.

Russian Occupation, Development and Conflict on Alaska:

During the Russian occupation of Alaska, significant events shaped the region's history. Battles between Russians and indigenous tribes in Sitka erupted in 1802, marking early conflicts in the area. In 1821, the Russian-American Company took control of trade and waters in Alaska. Over the next 20 years, Russian explorers went into mainland Alaska, going as far north as the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers. They also figured out where the borders of Alaska were with the United States and Britain.

The year 1840 witnessed the establishment of the Russian Orthodox Diocese for Alaska, introducing Russian church service in Alaska Native languages. Additionally, the Russians established missionary schools and churches, leaving a lasting cultural influence on the indigenous population.

The Closest Point between Alaska and Russia: Bering Strait

Alaska is the U.S. state closest to Russia, with the Bering Strait in the Pacific Ocean marking the nearest geographic point. The Diomedes Islands, including Russia's Big Diomede Island and Alaska's Little Diomede Island, are less than 3 miles apart. In winter, it's possible to walk across the frozen Bering Strait between these islands. Alaska is a significant gateway for flights between the Russian Far East and the United States, and the University of Alaska has a substantial number of Russian students. However, it's important to note that crossing from Alaska to Russia is legally restricted without prior authorized access.

The Alaska Purchase: Exploring the Motives behind Russia's Sale to the United States

Russian control in Alaska was not without challenges. There were conflicts with indigenous Alaskan groups, notably the Tlingit people, who resisted Russian presence. Russian settlers faced geographical isolation, harsh climates, and supply difficulties. The sale of Alaska from Russia to the United States in 1867, known as the Alaska Purchase, remains a captivating chapter in the history of both nations. While the transaction has often been viewed as a controversial decision, it is essential to delve into the underlying factors and motives that led Russia to sell this vast territory.

The Alaska Purchase: From Russian Settlements to the U.S. Acquisition
The purchase of Alaska from Russia

The purchase of Alaska in 1867 ended Russia's efforts to expand in North America. It was a big step for the United States to become powerful in the Asia-Pacific area. In 1859, Russia offered to sell Alaska to the United States to prevent Britain from getting it. The U.S. Civil War delayed the sale, but after the war, Secretary of State William Seward accepted the offer in 1867. The U.S. Senate approved the deal on April 9, and President Andrew Johnson signed it on May 28. On October 18, 1867, Alaska officially became part of the United States. This purchase ended Russia's presence in North America and secured U.S. The primary reasons for Russia's decision to sell Alaska to the United States were as follows:

Economic Considerations:

One of the primary motivations for Russia to sell Alaska was economic. By the mid-19th century, the fur trade in Alaska had significantly declined due to overhunting and diminishing fur populations. As a result, the Russian-American Company faced financial difficulties in sustaining profitable operations in the region. Selling Alaska to the United States for a substantial sum of $7.2 million provided Russia with a much-needed infusion of funds.

Geopolitical Concerns:

Russia's decision to sell Alaska was also influenced by geopolitical considerations. The Russian Empire feared that the territory was vulnerable to foreign encroachment. With British expansion in the Pacific Northwest and the possibility of other European powers gaining a foothold in the region, Russia sought to secure the future of Alaska by transferring it to a more powerful and closer neighbor. By selling Alaska to the United States, Russia ensured that the territory would remain outside the sphere of European influence.

Strategic Military Factors:

The strategic military aspect was another significant factor in the sale of Alaska. The Russian government recognized the challenges of defending such a vast and distant territory. Maintaining military presence in Alaska would have required substantial resources and logistical support. By transferring Alaska to the United States, Russia effectively shifted the burden of defense to a country with stronger military capabilities and a shared interest in preventing foreign incursions into the region.

Domestic Political Considerations:

Domestic political dynamics within Russia also played a role in the decision to sell Alaska. Tsar Alexander II, who reigned during the sale, faced multiple challenges at home, including economic reforms and social unrest. The sale of Alaska provided a means to alleviate financial strain and divert attention from internal issues, as well as showcase the tsar's ability to execute successful diplomatic negotiations.

The Alaska Purchase: From Russian Settlements to the U.S. Acquisition
Vitus Lake

The Varied Reactions to the Alaska Purchase:

The reactions to the Alaska Purchase varied among people and governments in both Russia and the United States. The Russian government, under Tsar Alexander II, saw the sale as a pragmatic decision driven by economic and strategic considerations. On the other hand, The U.S. government recognized the strategic and economic potential of Alaska.

While some Russians expressed mixed feelings and occasional regret over the sale, the decision was ultimately accepted, considering the financial benefits it provided. Initially, Americans were unsure about buying Alaska—a big, empty place. But as they discovered gold, oil, and other valuable resources there, they realized its importance. Their doubts transformed into appreciation for Alaska's strategic and economic benefits.

The Departure of Russian Citizens from Post-Transfer Alaska:

Following the transfer of Alaska to the United States, some Russian citizens initially chose to stay in Sitka, the former capital of Russian America. However, it's important to note that the majority of them soon made the decision to return to Russia. This repatriation was made possible through arrangements with the Russian-American Company, which facilitated their journey back to Russia, covering the associated expenses. In essence, while a few Russians stayed for a while, the majority eventually opted to leave and return to their homeland.

Alaska Purchase: Why Canada Stayed Out of the Deal

Canada became a self-governing dominion within the British Empire on July 1, 1867, with the passage of the British North America Act, now known as the Constitution Act, 1867. In 1931, the Statute of Westminster granted legislative independence to Canada. It gave the Canadian Parliament full control over its own laws and made it so that British Parliament could no longer legislate for Canada unless Canada requested it.

The Canadian part was not included in the Alaska Purchase of 1867 because that part of North America was already under British control. The Alaska Purchase was primarily driven by the desire of the Russian Empire to sell its territory in North America, and the United States was interested in acquiring Alaska to expand its own territory and gain access to its resources. The U.S. government did not seek to purchase Canadian territory as part of this transaction, and the focus was solely on Alaska. The Canada-Alaska border was eventually settled through diplomatic negotiations and arbitration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leading to the current boundary between Alaska and Canada.

The Alaska Purchase: From Russian Settlements to the U.S. Acquisition
Russian River, Alaska


The sale of Alaska from Russia to the United States in 1867 was driven by a combination of economic, geopolitical, strategic, and domestic political factors. Russia's desire to obtain financial resources, safeguard the territory from potential foreign threats, and alleviate the burden of defending such a remote region all factored into the decision. Russian citizens left Alaska, but the sale's benefits became evident over time. The Alaska Purchase was a multifaceted decision that ultimately reshaped the destiny of Alaska and demonstrated the complex interplay of interests and motivations in international agreements.