Purchase of Russian Alaska shrouded with errors, myths

Steve Haycox

Alaska Day is coming in little more than a week, on the 18th. It's one of the two state holidays a lot of people in Alaska are unsure of; the other is Seward's Day, the last Monday in March. Alaska Day commemorates the sale of Russian America to the U.S. in 1867.

There's a good deal of confusion over the sale of Russian America. Until recently, many in Russia believed there was no sale at all, but instead, a long-term lease. Russian scholars have, fortunately, put that misconception mostly to rest.

Another error is the notion that the Russians sold because they were desperate for money. The $7.2 million was not enough to have had much impact on the Russian treasury at the time, and had little to do with the Russian decision.

In fact, the explanation is much more straightforward. The Russian American Company was a joint stock company in which the Russian government was heavily invested. The company paid annual dividends on its stock every year it operated in America but two, near the end of the American venture.

It operated on 20-year charters from the Russian czar. The third charter was due to expire in 1864, and prior to that year, as they had done in the past, the company's board of directors sent an assessment team to America to see what changes might be warranted.

That commission, headed by navy Capt. P.N. Golovin, concluded that the future of Russian America was very tenuous: First, its easily available fur resources were almost exhausted; second, the Russians had experimented with alternative resources, including coal and gold mining, whaling, and agriculture, none of which had proven profitable; and third, Russian America was essentially indefensible. Golovin's report presented altogether a rather bleak profile of the status of the colony.

Considering that Russian America was an economic more than a political venture of the Russian state, the Russians made a difficult but sensible business decision: They decided to cut their losses before their American investment became untenable.

There is also considerable confusion about the purchase of Russian America by the U.S. It had little to do with any known or potential resources. As Lincoln's and then Andrew Johnson's secretary of state, William Seward thought in terms of "manifest destiny." By his day, of course, westward expansion already had reached the Pacific -- California had become a state in 1850.

Seward's vision was far wider, and like the Russian view of Northwest North America, essentially economic. He imagined an expanding American economic global empire.

He also understood that the industrialization of naval power made the U.S. more vulnerable than it had been previously, and that forward bases would be necessary to protect American security and its economic reach.

He envisioned four forward outposts at four points of the compass to protect American interests. He wanted bases in Greenland, St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, Hawaii and Alaska. So when the Russian government sent diplomatic signals that Russian America might be for sale, Seward jumped at the prospect. It was a fortuity he recognized as an opportunity.

As with the sale of Russian America, there are still some often-entertained misconceptions about the purchase of Alaska by the U.S. There's been much gloating about the two cents an acre the purchase cost.

But Seward did not think of it in those terms, and it's nearly impossible to figure out how to appraise something like buying Alaska, anyway.

Rather, the Russian foreign minister to the U.S., Eduard Stoeckl, judged what the Congress could be persuaded to pay, and asked for slightly more.

He and Seward agreed that $7.2 million was about as far as Congress could be persuaded.

Nor was there any bribery. There was lobbying, to be sure, as there is any time anyone wants Congress to do something, and Seward was a good lobbyist. The $200,000 added to the $7 million was simply to cover a bonus the Russian government wanted to reward Stoeckl.

Finally, contrary to received myth, the purchase was not unpopular in the U.S. The Senate voted 36-2 to ratify the purchase treaty, demonstrating that it wasn't that difficult to recognize a good deal.

Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Steve Haycox