Why Did Russia Sell Alaska To The US?

Welcome sign to the town of Seward, Alaska named for William H. Seward who negotiated the Alaska Purchase. Editorial credit: EQRoy / Shutterstock.com
Welcome sign to the town of Seward, Alaska named for William H. Seward who negotiated the Alaska Purchase. Editorial credit: EQRoy / Shutterstock.com

Alaska was previously a territory of Russia which was sold to the United States in 1867. The sale of Alaska is well-known in history as the Alaska Purchase. The purchase took place on March 30, 1867, and it was signed by President Johnson and ratified by the US Senate. Alaska added over 586,412 square miles of territory to the United States. Many Americans supported the purchase.

History of Settlement in Alaska

The region was settled by the promyshienniki fur trappers and merchants who expanded through Siberia by 1732. The RAC (Russian-American Company) received their charter for hunting fur in Alaska by 1799. Even before Alaska became a Russian colony, the Russian Orthodox Church sent some missionaries to Alaska to built churches. Over 700 Russians imposed sovereignty in Alaska.

Why Did Russia Sell Alaska to the United States?

1) Alaska Was Hard to Defend

After being defeated by the British in the Crimean War, the Russians needed funds to protect themselves in the future. Russia feared that Alaska would be easily captured in any future battle with the British therefore Emperor Alexander II opted to sell the colony. Russia approached both the British and Americans in 1859. The British Prime Minister rejected the offer, and so they turned to the Americans.

2) Difficult Living Conditions

The colony prospered under Alexander Baranov, and the fur trade thrived. The naval governors who took over the company after Baranov expanded the company’s influence to River Yukon where they looked for another type of fur. After exhausting the fur trade and reducing the population of sea otters by the 1850s, the RAC had no source of income and started depending on supplies from Russia. Once the Crimean War began, Turkey, France, and Britain stood between Russia and Alaska. It became clear that they could not send supplies to the colony.

3) Lack of Natural Resources

The main trade in the territory was the fur business, and by the time Russia was selling Alaska to the United States they had not discovered gold yet. The California gold rush confirmed that if gold were to be found in Alaska, the Russians would be overwhelmed by the Canadians and Americans. The lack of resources and hard living conditions in Alaska forced them to sell the colony.

The Alaska Purchase

After the Union won the civil war, the Russian minister to the US, Eduard Stoecki, was instructed to start negotiating with William Seward in March 1867 over the territory. President Johnson was busy with reconstruction and Seward who believed the purchase would divert the attention of the locals from the domestic problems negotiated with the Russians on behalf of the United States. The negotiation ended with the signing of the treaty on March 30, 1867. The United States bought the colony at $7.2 million (2 cents per acre).

Aftermath of the Alaska Purchase

After the sale, many Russians remained in Alaska for some time, but they also returned to Russia. The Americans who believed that Alaska was full of riches migrated into the territory, and after discovering that they needed a lot of fund to mine in Alaska, some left reducing the population of Sitka to some few hundred. The territory was not considered profitable to the United States until the Klondike gold strike of 1896.


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