April 9, 1867: U.S. Senate ratifies treaty with Russia to buy Alaska

·Christy Karras

In 1867, the United States Senate approved a treaty with Russia to buy a whopping 586,412 square miles of territory – none of it touching the contiguous American states. Alaska's particulars were largely unknown except to native people at the time, and many Americans weren’t sure what could possibly make it valuable. But gold (and later, oil and tourism) would later bring thousands of immigrants, both permanent and temporary.

Why did Russia give up that giant resource-rich swath? It was afraid it would lose that land anyway, to an invasion — not by the U.S. but by its immediate neighbor to the south: Britain, which at the time occupied what is now Canada. Having just lost the Crimean War, Russia had tense relations with Britain at the time, and its government anticipated that if war broke out in Europe, Britain would move up and seize Alaska. The Russian government was also desperately short on funds and saw unloading Alaska as a quick way to bring in cash.

Americans disagreed about whether the $7.2 million purchase (about $119 million in today’s dollars) was a bargain or a boondoggle. Some called it “Seward’s folly,” referring to Secretary of State William Seward, who represented the U.S. in negotiations. But others felt it would increase U.S. influence abroad and ensure no future invasion by Russia. Some even saw the purchase as a step toward annexing what is now British Columbia, which was in the middle of its own gold rush.

News traveled slowly in those days, and it wasn’t until October 18 that a transfer ceremony in Sitka officially raised the U.S. flag and lowered the Russian colors. Aside from a few rowdy settlements and military outposts, U.S. interest in Alaska would remain relatively quiet until the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896 brought thousands of adventurers eager to strike it rich. Now, tourists come from all over the world to experience the state’s magnificent mountains, forests, rivers and islands, some of them contained in seven of the nation's 10 largest national parks.