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The Nation Expands

Alaska, 1867

Russian explorers first reached the land that would eventually become the state of Alaska in the 17th century. For several centuries, Russia continued to occupy the territory. The Crimean War of the mid-19th century, however, convinced the Czarist Russian government that it could not defend the territory in case of another war with Britain. (Britain had shown signs of interest in Alaska as an extension of its territory in present-day Canada.) Alhough the Russian government did not want to lose Alaska, it thought that it would be better to receive compensation for the territory from an ally than lose it in battle to an enemy.

In 1867, Secretary of State William H. Seward met with Russian diplomats and, after an all-night negotiating session that ended at 4 a.m., arranged for the United States to purchase Alaska for the cost of $7.2 million — about two cents per acre.

At the time, the purchase was widely unpopular among Americans, partly because President Andrew Johnson was himself suffering from very low approval. Critics of the purchase derided Alaska as "Seward's folly" or "Andrew Johnson's polar bear garden," arguing that it was ridiculous to purchase land so far away from the rest of the United States. American attitudes quickly changed, however, with the discovery of gold in Alaska in the 1890s. In 1959, nearly one hundred years after it became an American territory, Alaska became the 49th state of the United States.

Map of Alaska
Back: Gadsden Purchase Next: Hawaii

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