When Did Alaska Become Part Of The United States. Two Sides Of The Story
On March 30, 1867, United States Secretary of State William H. Seward and Russian envoy Baron Edouard de Stoeckl signed the Treaty of Cession. Tsar Alexander II had ceded Alaska, his country’s last remaining foothold in North America. To the United States with the stroke of a pen for US$7.2 million.
That sum, equivalent to $113 million in today’s dollars, effectively ended Russia’s 125-year odyssey in Alaska. Its expansion across the perilous Bering Sea, which had once extended the Russian Empire as far south as Fort Ross, California, 90 miles from San Francisco Bay.
Today, Alaska is one of the wealthiest states in the United States due to its abundant natural resources such as petroleum, gold, and fish, as well as its vast expanse of pristine wilderness and strategic location as a window on Russia and a gateway to the Arctic.
So, what prompted Russia to abandon its American base? And how did it obtain it in the first place?
One is about how the Russians gained “possession” of Alaska and eventually ceded it to the United States. The other is from the perspective of my people, who have lived in Alaska for thousands of years. Also, for whom the anniversary of the cession evokes mixed feelings, including immense loss but also hope.
Russia is looking east.
The desire for new lands, which led Russia to Alaska and, eventually, California, began in the 16th century when the country was a fraction of its current size.
That began to change in 1581 when Russia conquered the Khanate of Sibir, a Siberian territory ruled by Genghis Khan’s grandson. This pivotal victory opened up Siberia, and the Russians were in the Pacific within 60 years.
The lucrative fur trade, a desire to spread the Russian Orthodox Christian faith to the “heathen” populations in the east. The addition of new taxpayers and resources to the empire fueled the Russian advance across Siberia.
In the early 18th century, Peter the Great, who established Russia’s first Navy, wanted to know how far east the Asian landmass extended. The Siberian city of Okhotsk became the staging point for two of his expeditions. In 1741, Vitus Bering successfully navigated the strait that bears his name and saw Mt. Saint Elias. It is now located near the village of Yakutat in Alaska.
Although Bering’s second Kamchatka Expedition ended in disaster for him when bad weather on the way back led to a shipwreck on one of the westernmost Aleutian Islands and his death from scurvy in December 1741, it was a huge success for Russia.
The surviving crew repaired the ship, loaded it with abundant sea otters, foxes, and fur seals, then returned to Siberia. Impressed Russian fur hunters with their valuable cargo. This sparked a gold rush similar to the Klondike gold rush 150 years later.
Challenges Have Emerged
But keeping these agreements in place was not easy. Russians in Alaska, numbering no more than 800 at their peak, faced the reality of being half a world away from St. Petersburg, the empire’s capital at the time, making communication a major issue.
Furthermore, Alaska was too far north to support significant agriculture. It made it unsuitable as a destination for large numbers of settlers. So they began exploring further south, initially looking for people to trade with in order to import foods that wouldn’t grow in Alaska’s harsh climate. They sent ships to what is now California, and made trade with the Spaniards. They then eventually established their own settlement at Fort Ross in 1812.
However, thirty years later, the entity set up to handle Russia’s American explorations failed and sold what was left. Not long after, the Russians began to seriously doubt their ability to maintain their Alaskan colony as well.
For starters, after the sea otter population was decimated, the colony was no longer profitable. Then there was the fact that Alaska was difficult to defend, and Russia was cash-strapped as a result of the Crimean War.
Americans are looking for a good deal.
So the Russians were clearly ready to sell, but what compelled the Americans to want to buy?
The United States had expanded its interests to Oregon by the 1840s, annexed Texas, fought a war with Mexico, and acquired California. In March 1848, Secretary of State Seward wrote:
“Our population is destined to roll resistless waves to the ice barriers of the north, and to encounter oriental civilization on the shores of the Pacific.”
Seward achieved his goal nearly 20 years after expressing his desire to expand into the Arctic.
Americans saw the potential for gold, fur, and fisheries in Alaska, as well as increased trade with China and Japan. The Americans were concerned that England would try to establish a presence in the territory, and they believed that acquiring Alaska would help the United States become a Pacific power. Overall, the government was on an expansionist spree, fueled by the popular notion of “manifest destiny” at the time.
The state is also an important part of the US defense system, with military bases in Anchorage and Fairbanks. It is the country’s only connection to the Arctic, ensuring that it has a seat at the table as melting glaciers allow for the exploration of the region’s significant resources.
The Impact on Alaska Natives
But there is another version of this story.
Alaska was home to approximately 100,000 people when Bering finally discovered it in 1741, including Inuit, Athabascan, Yupik, Unangan, and Tlingit. The Aleutian Islands alone had 17,000 people.
Despite the relatively small number of Russians who lived at one of their settlements at any given time. Primarily on the Aleutian Islands, Kodiak, the Kenai Peninsula, and Sitka. They ruled over the native populations in their areas with an iron fist.
They also took the children of the leaders as hostages. While destroying kayaks and other hunting equipment to control the men, and using extreme force when necessary.
The Russians brought firearms, swords, cannons, and gunpowder with them, which helped them establish a foothold in Alaska along the southern coast. To maintain security, they used firepower, spies, and fortified forts, and they chose Christianized local leaders to carry out their wishes. They also encountered opposition, such as from the Tlingits, who were skilled warriors, ensuring their hold on territory was tenuous.
Only 50,000 indigenous people, 483 Russians, and 1,421 Creoles were estimated to remain at the time of the session. (Descendants of Russian men and indigenous women)
Thousands of Aleuts were enslaved or killed by the Russians on the Aleutian Islands alone. During the first 50 years of Russian occupation, their population was reduced to 1,500 due to a combination of warfare, disease, and enslavement.
Because the United States was still engaged in its Indian Wars when the Americans took over, they saw Alaska and its indigenous inhabitants as potential adversaries. General Ulysses S. Grant established Alaska as a military district, with Gen. Jefferson C. Davis appointed as the new commander.
Alaska Natives Territory
Alaska Natives, for their part, claimed that they still had title to the territory as its original inhabitants, having not lost it in war or ceded it to any country. Also includes the United States, which technically did not buy it from the Russians. However, purchased the right to negotiate with indigenous populations. Native Americans were still denied U.S. citizenship until the Indian Citizenship Act was passed in 1924.
At the time, Alaska Natives had no citizenship rights and could not vote own property, or file mining claims. In the 1860s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in collaboration with missionary societies, launched a campaign to eradicate indigenous languages, religion, art, music, dance, ceremonies, and ways of life.
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1936 authorized the formation of tribal governments. Also, overt discrimination was outlawed nine years later by Alaska’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945. Signs such as “No Natives Need Apply” and “No Dogs or Natives Allowed” were prohibited under the law.
Statehood and a disclaimer
However, the situation for Native Americans eventually improved noticeably.
Alaska became a state in 1959, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Act, granting it 104 million acres of territory. In an unprecedented nod to the rights of Alaska’s indigenous populations, the act included a clause emphasizing that citizens of the new state were declining any right to land subject to Native title. Which was a very contentious issue because they claimed the entire territory.