|On this day in 1867, the U.S. formally takes possession of Alaska|
after purchasing the territory from Russia for $7.2 million, or less
than two cents an acre. The Alaska purchase comprised 586,412 square
miles, about twice the size of Texas, and was championed by William
Henry Seward, the enthusiasticly expansionist secretary of state under
President Andrew Johnson.
Russia wanted to sell its Alaska territory, which was remote, sparsely
populated and difficult to defend, to the U.S. rather than risk losing
it in battle with a rival such as Great Britain. Negotiations between
Seward (1801-1872) and the Russian minister to the U.S., Eduard de
Stoeckl, began in March 1867. However, the American public believed
the land to be barren and worthless and dubbed the purchase "Seward's
Folly" and "Andrew Johnson's Polar Bear Garden," among other
derogatory names. Some animosity toward the project may have been a
byproduct of President Johnson's own unpopularity. As the 17th U.S.
president, Johnson battled with Radical Republicans in Congress over
Reconstruction policies following the Civil War. He was impeached in
1868 and later acquitted by a single vote. Nevertheless, Congress
eventually ratified the Alaska deal.
Public opinion of the purchase turned more favorable when gold was
discovered in a tributary of Alaska's Klondike River in 1896, sparking
a gold rush. Alaska became the 49th state on January 3, 1959, and is
now recognized for its vast natural resources. Today, 25 percent of
America's oil and over 50 percent of its seafood come from Alaska. It
is also the largest state in area, about one-fifth the size of the
lower 48 states combined, though it remains sparsely populated.
The name Alaska is derived from the Aleut word alyeska, which means
"great land." Alaska has two official state holidays to commemorate
its origins: Seward's Day, observed the last Monday in March,
celebrates the March 30, 1867, signing of the land treaty between the
U.S. and Russia, and Alaska Day, observed every October 18, marks the
anniversary of the formal land transfer.