03/30 – The Alaska Purchase

A Colton’s map of Alaska and surrounding geography. (ArcGIS Storymaps)

On this day in 1867, the United States government purchased Alaska, a far-northern part of the North American continent, from Imperial Russia. For the Americans, Alaska represented an easy means for establishing trade in Asia and expanding their regional foothold. For the Russians, Alaska was a costly wasteland. The Crimean War had recently ended and Tsar Alexander II feared that, in future conflicts, the British would attack his useless North American territory. Desperately in need of cash after the disastrous war, the Russians were happy to sell the territory off for $7.2 million, or $4.19 per square kilometre.

A depiction of the initial contact between Alaskan natives and Russian settlers in 1723. After local species were driven to extinction and smallpox devastated their communities, the locals were less than happy with the Russian presence in their territory. (Quora)

Settled by Siberian promyshlenniki (fur trappers and traders) in 1723, Alaska was known as “Siberia’s Siberia” for its harsh living conditions and extreme distance from any urban centre. The Orthodox Church quickly set up shop, but the Russian presence never expanded beyond 700 people. By the 1850s, over 300,000 otters had been killed for their pelts, driving the species to near-extinction and frustrating local Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian Native communities; these same communities were later devastated by Russian-imported smallpox. Alexander had tried to sell Alaska – which, at that point, was not worth the effort to maintain – in 1857, but the American Civil War forced the postponement of the deal. Soon after the last Russians left Alaska, however, the Klondike Gold Rush took place and Alaska’s value skyrocketed. By 1900, the barren territory had a population of 63,592 which continued to grow past the the creation of Alaska as the 49th state in 1959.

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