The Sale of Alaska
An Analysis of the Events Leading to and Preceding the United States’ Purchase of Alaska
By Micah Dewey, University of Manitoba.
What does a D.C.-based Russian diplomat, a senator from Mississippi, a San Francisco ice salesman and an American war journalist all have in common? They were all instrumental in changing the geopolitical framing for the entirety of the late 19th and 20th Centuries. Lines on the map determine geopolitics; many of the problems we see today are based on the whims of 19th-century empires and rulers. The exploits and failures of the Russian-American Company and the overall lack of profitability led to the eventual sale of the territory to the Americans as a snub to the British (Bolkhovitinov 18). Even throughout the Crimean War (1853–1856), the British and the Russians both viewed Russian America as a territory to do business. The sale of Alaska had a monumental impact on American foreign affairs throughout the end of the 19th century and the 20th century. The sale of Alaska to the United States was preceded by Russian expansion into North America and the Empire’s defeat in the Crimean War; mystery and intrigue continue to permeate the events leading to the agreement between the two nations.
The History of Russian America
In 1741, explorer Vitus Bering made the first European discovery of the land known today as Alaska (Winkler 327). For forty-three years, hunters and explorers would move in and out of the Alaskan wilderness, hunting for valuable resources within. At this point, most of the wealth found in the newly declared Russian America would be in pelts and furs of otters, seals and other woolly animals. In 1784, Grigory Shelikhov, a Russian fur trader, founded the Three Saints Bay colony on Kodiak Island. He would bring his family and a group of 200 men to the Alaskan wilderness, searching for wealth. Shelikhov would only last two years in the remote Kodiak region and would return to the mainland while running his fur trading business from afar. Shelikhov called upon Aleksandr Baranov in 1790 to manage his affairs and would go on to have a more hands-off role in the fur trade (Grinëv 447).
Just nine years later, in 1799, Baranov would establish the Russian-American Company and would be given a monopoly for the entire Alaskan territory by Czar Paul I. (Wheeler). Before the near extinction of the local sea otter population, natural resource extraction was not deemed essential for Baranov and the Russian-American Company. The Russian Empire had to offer subsidies for the company because once the sea otters had been hunted almost to extinction, there were few other profitable ventures (Naske 58–60). By 1853, it had been determined that Russian America would not be returning a profit despite all the money and support that the government was providing. Profitability had been on the decline for decades, and the Russians turned to export ice from Alaska to California starting around the time of the California Gold Rush in 1849 (Keithahn).
For the territory to receive food and aid, the settlers had two options, get their goods shipped in from the United States or mainland Russia, which was exorbitantly expensive, or trade with the British. After decades of trading with the native populations and the Americans, the Russians eventually came to an agreement with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Russian-American Company had a contract with the Hudson’s Bay Company to sell sea otter pelts at 23 shillings a hide. Prior to the American annexation of the Puget Sound and Oregon Territory, the British would trade wheat and foodstuffs in exchange for the pelts(Naske 48). Without this British support, the colony would have gone bankrupt long before the eventual sale (Keithahn). Even throughout the Crimean War (1853–1856), the two trading companies did business with each other and Alaska was deemed a neutral ground by those located in the Alaskan territory (Bolkhovitinov 19).
The Russian-American Company had been operating in modern-day Alaska since the turn of the 19th Century, primarily in the fur and ice trade. The collaboration with the Hudson’s Bay Company throughout the 1840s and early 1850s allowed Russian America to become a somewhat profitable holding for the Russian Empire. By 1859, the Russian-American Company’s most profitable venture was selling and shipping over 3,000 tons of ice a year to San Francisco (Keithahn).
A Turning Point: The Crimean War (1853–1856)
At the height of European expansionism and colonialism, during the mid-1800s, Britain, France and Turkey had finally had enough of the Russian Empire’s expansionary tactics. Tensions rose in Bethlehem in 1853 when rioting broke out over the killing of Orthodox monks by their French counterparts. Czar Nicholas I blamed the Turks for the deaths of the monks and declared war on Turkey. After the Turks were soundly defeated, both the British and the French fearing Russian expansion into continental Europe, joined forces to defeat the Russians by sieging and eventually capturing their naval outpost in Sevastopol (October 1854 — September 1855) (The National Archives). By September of 1855, the Russians would abandon Sevastopol and, by spring of 1856, would sue for peace in the Treaty of Paris (Temperley). After the Crimean War ended in 1856, the loss left the Russian Army devastated and the Empire almost bankrupt. Among other issues, Czar Alexander II had difficult decisions to decide what he might do regarding Russian America.
The Sale of Alaska
The Sale of Alaska was a historic move for both the Russian Empire and the United States that involved many devious characters, corruption, bribery and blackmail. Historical analysis of the time immediately preceding the sale and after the sale allows one to see how neither side was getting a great deal and how both sides’ citizens seemed to scoff at their leaders for going through with the sale. In direct opposition to that perspective, one can now see that the United States got the better end of the deal at the price of two cents per acre for a total of $7.2 million. While the return on investment has been a centuries-long wait, economically, it has favoured the Americans. According to the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, the state has brought in $152 billion in oil revenues since statehood in 1959.
In Alaska: A History of the 49th State, Claus M. Naske refers to the statements of Nicholas Muraviev, governor-general of Eastern Siberia in the 1850s, who said that Russia should look towards Asian expansion because the Americans were likely to control the vast majority of North America through the ideology of Manifest Destiny. Muraviev recommended ceding Russian America to the United States to get the Americans on the Russian side of a potential future conflict with the British (Bolkhovitinov 17).
United States Secretary of State William H Seward would be the expansionist secretary responsible for the American government’s decision to buy the land known today as Alaska. However, he was not alone in the negotiations and political turmoil that surrounded the transaction. Secretary Seward, who had eyes on Alaska, Hawaii and even Greenland, needed a voice inside the House of Representatives and the Senate to help push his agenda through Congress. He chose then Mississippi Senator Robert J Walker, who had, before the American Civil War, asked then-President Polk to secure Alaska after removing the British from the Oregon and Washington territories. In Senator Walker’s speech about expansion, he goes on to say that “[expansion] would leave no European power upon our Pacific coast except Russia, whose well-known friendship for us would, it is hoped, induce her to cede to us her North American territory (Luthin 169).”
Secretary of State Seward would be joined by Russian Emissary Baron Eduard de Stoeckl, who, after recently arriving in Washington, was looking to make a deal regarding Alaska and extend his fortune. Baron de Stoeckl and Secretary Seward knew about Senator Walker and his positions on Alaska, and as it would serve both the Baron and the expansionist Secretary, they decided to use the senator as a tool in their games while offering Walker compensation to pay his numerous debts and unpaid bills. This collaboration would ultimately lead to an alleged corruption scandal that would fit more in the Netflix show House of Cards than an agreed-upon two-country land transfer.
Senator Walker was promised a share of the sale if he could get it to pass the House, quickly got to work. He wrote an essay, Letter of Hon. RJ Walker on the Acquisition of Alaska, St. Thomas and St. John that would be published by the biggest Washington newspaper of the day, the Daily Morning Chronicle. In an eloquent exposition on the virtues of Caribbean and Arctic expansion, Walker leaves out some important details regarding the potential deals with Russia and Denmark. Primarily, both the Russian emissary and the sitting Secretary of State paid Walker in cash a sum of $30,000 to have the paper be published by the newspaper (Luthin). This essay, distributed by the local newspaper, brought those who were against the original appropriations bill that Walker was ‘employed’ to bust eventually broke, and the terms of the sale could then be formally negotiated. What followed was a swift agreement by both the Baron and the Secretary that led to a price of $7.2 million to be placed on the territory of Russian America. The Baron was so excited to get the deal done that instead of waiting for the next day, he went to Secretary Seward’s office in the middle of the night to sign the papers.
Most of the stories and papers about the Sale of Alaska miss out on a very relevant and somewhat ambiguous journalist named Uriah Painter, who became famous for his transformation of how war reporting was done in the United States during the Civil War. Painter was a respected, qualified, ethical journalist who did his best to uncover the truth, no matter how ugly it appeared. Painter ripped a hole in the plans of the trio responsible for the Sale of Alaska. Shortly after the sale was completed, Painter uncovered documents and communications between the trio of de Stoeckl, Seward, and Walker in which they had conspired to receive a massive amount of the $7.2 million price tag on Alaska. According to Painter, he estimated that Senator Walker received approximately $300,000 combined in money directly from the Russian Crown, the US Treasury (for his role in the sale), and from both de Stoeckl and Seward personally. Walker’s lawyer came out and claimed that Painter was involved in the conspiracy and that it was a ploy to shed responsibility. It should be noted that there is no current evidence showing that Painter was involved in the corruption, scandal, or the death of the Senator.
On a trip to New York later that year, Senator Walker was robbed of nearly $50,000 in cash that he was carrying on his person. It was public knowledge that Walker was deeply in debt with banks, doctors and possibly gamblers. Walker would have the money recovered by a local police department who then received a meeting from Mr. Painter. According to Painter, and there is no contradictory evidence readily available, the police department claimed that it was merely a misunderstanding and that Senator Walker and the suspect “worked out their differences amicably.”
Within two years, Senator Walker would be dead in somewhat suspicious circumstances. After receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars and being involved in a multi-state conspiracy to defraud the United States government and the Russian Crown, the actual reason behind his death is unknown, but it is open to interpretation, at least somewhat. We know that Painter’s reporting and ethical background trump that of the anti-abolitionist, colonialist Senator. We know that de Stoeckl became a wealthy man because of the sale, and we know that Seward and the then President Andrew Jackson received many complaints and threats over their endless expansionism and wanted to put that resistance to bed, once and for all. Thus, in the author of this paper’s opinion, either the U.S. federal government or the Russian Crown, or an angry debt-collector, were likely responsible for former Senator Walker’s death.
As far as available records show(Luthin 174–176), Painter never wrote about Alaska, Walker, de Stoeckl or even the Secretary of State ever again after Walker’s death. It is possible that Painter was the one responsible for the entire conspiracy. However, it seems more likely that a decorated Secretary of State with international infamy or the Czar’s chosen Emissary were the ones responsible for both the fraud, conspiracy, and the theft of millions of dollars in funds that were intended for the Russian mainland. According to Painter, only $5 million of the $7.2 million that was intended to be sent to Russia ever made it there, he as well as other future scholars such as Reinhard Luthin in The Sale of Alaska speculated that the remaining $2.2 million was split between Seward, de Stoeckl, Walker and Walker’s lawyer, a Mr. Stanton.
The sale of Alaska to the United States would for a short time be known as Seward’s Folly or Seward’s Icebox, but within 40 years, the Klondike Gold Rush would begin, and the value and expansionist policies reaped economic rewards. To this day, then-President Andrew Johnson’s great political accomplishment is said to be purchasing Alaska from the Russians.
With Russia selling its American foothold and focusing more on Eastern and Siberian Russia, the United States could prosper from their relatively small investment. The technical details about the sale were legislated and appropriated by Congress to afford the new territory. The treaty did not come without bribery, corruption, espionage, gambling and murder. The key players in the story all became significantly more wealthy, dead or blacklisted by the political societies they were involved in. This opaqueness leaves room for interpretation by the author of this paper and by academics of the past and present. If there is one lesson to take away from the historical analysis of Alaska’s sale, it is that the failure of Alexander II and Nicholas I in their expansionary vengeful campaign against the Turks cost them billions of dollars and a tenth of their entire empire. The author’s opinion is that this behaviour would suggest that expansionism, imperialism, and exploitation could have a similar impact in the future.
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