The purchase of Alaska was influenced by a few important intersecting issues. Russia was selling off assets to pay its debts; there was the fear of conquest by a stronger nation, whether the US or Britain, and there was the over-trapping of sea otters to their near extinction.
In the end, the United States benefited from the purchase by expanding the trade in seal furs, with investment marketing and creative financing, turning it into a more lucrative business than the Russians ever had.
This all started when In 1725, Russia sent Vitus Bering, after whom the Bering Strait is named, to explore the Alaskan coast. The Russians saw that it was rich in natural resources and largely uninhabited. They wanted to expand trade and settlements to the Pacific coast of North America.
By 1732, 7 years later, merchants and fur traders appeared on the coast. No colony was established at that time, but the Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries to the Natives, and built churches. About 700 Russians eventually settled there.
Between 1743 and 1799, the fur trade between Alaska and Russia produced 187,000 pelts worth $6 million. In 1799, the Russian-American Company (RAC) was established with a Charter to hunt for fur. They faced competition from both British and American traders.
The US expansion west in the 1800’s brought competition between the American and Russian fur traders and explorers.
In 1804, one of the 2 larger towns – New Archangel, now named Sitka – was established to handle the brisk trade in sea otter skins. By 1867, 63 years later, they had established a village of 116 log cabins and 968 residents.
The other town, St. Paul in the Pribilof Islands, had 100 homes and 283 people and was the centre of the seal fur industry.
Debt as a result of the Crimean War
Russia had lost the Crimean War against Britain and its allies, which lasted from 1853 to 1856. The loss was attributed to their armies of conscripted serfs, who were outmatched by the well trained armies of France and Britain. Russia realized that their predominantly agricultural army was in no position to compete with industrialized nations like France and Britain.
In 1861, 5 years after the Crimean War, Russia sought to implement economic and social change by giving their ‘serfs’ or slaves, emancipation. Over 23 million serfs gained citizenship.They also gained the freedom to marry without consent and to own property and businesses.
It was hoped that this would usher in the military, political and industrial strength they lacked. It was also hoped that with more private land ownership, the country would move into a market economy, ushering in industrialization.
The Russian monarchy borrowed 15 million pounds sterling from the Rothschilds to compensate the wealthy barons for the loss they incurred through emancipation. When the loan was called they were short of funds to repay it. This fueled the sale of Alaska.
Fear of Conquest by Britain
It was becoming more difficult for Russia to support settlements or have a military presence along the Alaskan coast. Some were concerned that Britain would seize Alaska in future wars. The Russians knew that their Alaskan Colony was hard to defend and could be easily captured.
For example, during the Crimean war, Britain and its allies fought against Russia. The war spilled over into the Pacific when a fleet of Russian ships from Siberia threatened Britain’s trade with California. The allies pursued the Russians conquering the poorly defended port of Sitka, but was not successful at Petropavlovsk.
The British had been expanding their presence up the Pacific coast, eliciting fear in the hearts of the Russians. Vancouver Island was already a British colony and plans were expedited to bring British Columbia into the Empire. British Columbia and Vancouver Island were managed at that time by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Alaska shared one border with Britain, by way of BC, and another with the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Rupert’s Land.
The proposal to sell Alaska either to Britain or to the U.S., was discussed by the Russian government between 1857 and 1858 – shortly after the Crimean War. In 1859, Russia offered to sell Alaska to both the U.S. and Britain, hoping to start a bidding war. The British Prime Minister was not interested on the grounds that Britain had enough uncharted wilderness in British North America, and their resources for maintaining its territories and colonies would be stretched.
Fear of Conquest by America
Some Russians feared America’s expansionist vision. They knew that the Americans wanted to dominate all of North America, and feared they might simply try to seize Alaska if it wasn’t first sold to them. It was no secret, in the 1800’s that there were many Americans in government positions who held to, and preached, the doctrine of “manifest destiny.” They believed that the destiny of the U.S., as ordained by God, was to expand its dominion by spreading capitalism and democracy across all of North America.
Teaming Up Against a Common Enemy
Some Russians wanted to help the U.S. dominate North America and so expel Britain – its arch rival – from North America. It was hoped that this sale would weaken Britain’s power and would cause B.C. and the British Navy base at Esquimalt, to be either surrounded or annexed by America.
The Russians were also experiencing increased exploration and trade competition from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Also, by the 1850’s, the population of sea otters which they hunted for fur had become almost extinct, thereby reducing revenues.
Russia finally made the move to sell Alaska in 1859.
Discussions between the Russian Minister to the U.S., Edouard de Stoeckl, and American officials took place over the winter of 1859-1860. A presidential election in the U.S., and the outbreak of the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, shelved talks until they were resumed in March of 1867.
By 1867, Alaska had an estimated population of approximately 10,000 Russians and mixed peoples (Russian father/Native mother), and 8,000 indigenous people, all governed by the Russian-American Company. There was also an estimated 50,000 Inuit and Alaskan peoples living outside the jurisdiction of the Russian-American Company.
The Russians had 23 trading posts along the coastline and on easily accessible islands. At smaller trading posts there were only 4 or 5 Russians per trading post, to collect and store furs from the Natives, until they were collected by company boats.
Approval for the purchase of Alaska was given by the U.S. Senate on April 9th 1867. Agreement was reached to purchase it for $7.2 million dollars, and ownership was transferred on October 18th, 1867.
The purchase of Alaska, which is twice the size of Texas, helped the U.S. to become powerful in the Asia-Pacific region. After the purchase, there were no more than 400 American settlers in Alaska, but the population increased dramatically from 1896 (29 years later), with the advent of the Gold Rush.
In 20 years, from 1870 to 1890, Americans sold over 100,000 seal skins annually. The purchase of Alaska was a win-win situation for both Britain and the US based on the spin-off jobs created when the seal skins were sent to England to be dressed, and sold on the world markets. By 1890, labourers in the industry had been paid over $12 million.
As happened in history before, whenever there is some new-found lucrative endeavour, there is an influx of people hoping to get in on the action. It happened with Sebastian Cabot finding the fisheries of the Grand Banks; it happened with the gold rush in both BC and Alaska; It happened in Hollywood and it happened in the IT industry.
Well, with the increase in trade of seal skins to Europe, came the increase in the number of sealing ships to the Bering Strait. The US claimed exclusive rights to sealing in the Bering Sea, seizing and damaging British ships from British Columbia. Since Britain still handled the External and Foreign affairs of the Dominion of Canada, the conflict became one between the U.S. and Britain.
The conflict was finally arbitrated in 1893. The United States compensated Britain for damage to their ships and regulations were developed by both countries to preserve the seal industry. The U.S. was allowed to claim 60 miles off the coast of Alaska as territorial waters. Anything further off the coast into the Bering Sea was considered international waters.
Nation-building is a very volatile and often pragmatic exercise, impacted by many motivations and human passions. There is much room for misunderstanding and exploitation. Some decisions were made to secure justice for all parties; other decisions secured the position of the powerful at the expense of the weak.
Further research surrounding these events will hopefully identify how Christian actors sought to apply their faith, and who did so in ways that were more obviously faithful to biblical principles. Most histories don’t give any space to such reflections so such research continues.
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