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Historian Reflects on Alaska Purchase

Published On: Jun 28 2013 04:45:00 PM AKDT

The Alaska Purchase was finalized in June of 1867.


In June of 1867, the United States ratified the Treaty of Russia, commonly known as the Alaska Purchase.

The vast expanse 586,412 square miles of wilderness and mountains would officially become a part of the United States in the fall of that year.

The deal was engineered by Secretary of State William Seward, who according to some historians saw a lot of potential in Alaska as “America’s Last Frontier”.

The Anchorage Museum has a small reproduction of a check among the hundreds of displays.

In 1867, the United States bought Alaska for just over $7-million from Russia, which needed to unload this massive stretch of land.

"Not only did Russia hold Alaska, their empire expanded all the way down to Northern California at Fort Ross, said Katie Ringsmuth, an adjunct professor and historian at University of Alaska Anchorage.  “The problem with the Russians was they could never figure out how to feed their colony."

Ringsmuth says Seward didn't necessarily consider Russia’s loss as America’s gain but more as her opportunity.

"He saw Alaska as a bridge, a stepping stone to Asia, especially at a time when America was industrializing and seeking new markets,” said Ringsmuth.

There were entrepreneurs and business people waiting to take advantage of commercial opportunities in the region, which at that time was dominated by the fur trade. Not everyone recognized the potential for investment, hence the nickname of "Seward's Folly."

Others, including a newspaper publisher, questioned whether the U.S. should be making such a large acquisition just as the nation was emerging from a costly civil war.

"The author went on to describe Alaska as nothing but impassable deserts of snow, vast tracks of dwarfed timbers, inaccessible mountain ranges and essentially this was a useless acquisition," said Ringsmuth.

Decades later, Seward’s impact on Alaska was not forgotten.  Besides the city of Seward getting its namesake from the former Governor and Senator from New York, a monument was erected at the Lousaac Library in Anchorage and a new restaurant in Anchorage dubbed  itself Seward’s Folly.

“The idea of the décor was to make it fun and interesting for not just the locals but people out of state and visiting, I think we did a pretty good job of that,” said the restaurant’s General Manager Chuck Nystuen.

Nystuen says he got a lot of help from Alaskan collectors when searching for memorabilia to hang in his restaurant.  The first thing you'll see when you walk-in is a life-sized portrait of William Seward.

"The reason he posed on his right side is because he had an assassination attempt on his left side,” said Nystuen.

UAA’s Ringsmuth and some other historians say Seward’s incredible foresight earned him an important place in history.

"We are a partner in the Pacific world, and his vision back in 1867, helps us explain where we are today," said Ringsmuth.

It could be said that some of the events that occurred after the Alaska Purchase, the gold rush to the oil boom and the emergence of commercial fisheries wouldn't have happened if not for Seward’s Folly.

During a transfer ceremony in October of 1867, the Russian flag was lowered and an American flag took its place on the grounds of the Baranov Castle in Sitka, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1962.