The purchase of Alaska by the United States from Russia in 1867 is one of the most consequential land deals in history. At the time, the territory was mockingly called “Seward’s Folly” and thought by many to be a wasteful use of millions of dollars on an icy, barren land. However, this perception is a myth – the acquisition was actually seen favorably by a majority of Americans due to Alaska’s potential for resources and strategic location. So why does the idea of “Seward’s Folly” stubbornly persist in the American imagination?
A Look at Pre-Purchase Alaska and Events Leading Up to the Deal
For centuries prior to its purchase by the U.S., Alaska was inhabited by native tribes. Russia began aggressively exploring the territory in the early 1700s, seeking valuable furs, conversion of natives to Orthodoxy, and expanded borders. They founded settlements and forced natives into labor, causing indigenous populations to plummet. By the mid-1800s, overhunting had depleted fur trade profits. With costs of governing and defending distant Alaska rising, Russia wanted to sell.
Meanwhile, the U.S. wished to expand its Pacific coast presence and access to Asia. Secretary of State William Seward was a vocal proponent of acquiring Alaska to achieve these goals. In 1859 Russia officially offered to sell the territory, but the timing was complicated by the impending Civil War. In March 1867, with the war resolved and Russia needing funds after the Crimean War, the two sides were ready to negotiate.
The Negotiations and Treaty Signing
Russian diplomat Eduard de Stoeckl was authorized to sell Alaska for $5 million minimum. Seward said the U.S. wouldn’t pay over $5-7 million. Both saw benefits to a deal – Stoeckl for money and advancement, Seward for a long-desired acquisition. After quick talks, they agreed on $7.2 million. The treaty was swiftly approved by President Andrew Johnson and the Senate. Just like that, Russia ceded Alaska to the U.S. after 125 years of rule.
Early Reactions – Not Universal Opposition
Some assumed corruption was behind the deal and saw no value in the distant land. Several newspapers criticized the purchase. However, studies show the initial response wasn’t overwhelmingly negative. Many papers called it a bargain and lauded Alaska’s resources and strategic significance. Reporting soon highlighted economic ties with Asia, acquisition of nearby British land, and U.S.-Russia relations. Overall, most Americans approved.
The Persistence of the Myth of Seward’s Folly
So how did the idea that the purchase was met with collective ridicule become lodged in the American psyche? Some reasons:
- Alaska’s remoteness made settlement difficult compared to earlier U.S. expansions.
- Accusations of bribery being behind the deal tainted perceptions.
- “Seward’s Folly” was a catchy phrase that stuck, outweighing more measured reporting.
- Admitting majority approval undermines the idea of uniquely self-reliant American pioneers civilizing Alaska’s wilderness.
Continued Oppression of Natives and Alaska’s Enrichment
While most Americans approved the deal, Alaska Natives widely condemned the transfer made without their input. Harsh discrimination continued under U.S. rule. But eventually rights were granted, lands returned, and today 120,000 of Alaska’s 740,000 people are Natives. The territory proved its worth through gold, oil, natural gas, zinc and other resources. Yet the myth persists of “Seward’s Folly.” Recognizing the truth can provide context on America’s other Pacific expansionism.
The U.S. acquisition of Alaska from Russia was a momentous event in American history, adding 586,412 square miles of territory. While the supposed folly of this deal remains lodged in popular memory, the real story is more complex. Examining the motivations, negotiations, and actual initial response provides a clearer picture of how Alaska became part of the United States.