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Putin tries to annul the sale of Alaska to the U.S. in 1867


… Seward’s "Folly" was hardly accurate

I first learned about the life and career of William Seward when I read Gore Vidal’s epic historical novel “Lincoln.”

Decades later, the distinguished historian Doris Kearns Goodwin painted a more in-depth portrait of Seward for me in “Team of Rivals,” which detailed how masterfully Abraham Lincoln worked his previous rivals for the Republican nomination for president in 1860 into his cabinet.

However, today I realize that I first learned of Seward in my grade school years. The Sisters of St. Joseph were very good educators, and we learned of “Seward’s Folly” at that time -- late 1950s.

Truth be told, while many Americans looked upon the purchase of Alaska from Russia as a horrible mistake at the time, it was a tale of mastery — so much so that the current premier of Russian, Vladimir Putin, wants to renege on the sale and reclaim it as Russia’s own.

Well, it was controversial in 1867 and later, but it was really prophetic.

Here is that story.


Here is what the Smithsonian says about the sale,

In 1866 the Russian government offered to sell the territory of Alaska to the United States. Secretary of State William H. Seward, enthusiastic about the prospects of American Expansion, negotiated the deal for the Americans. Edouard de Stoeckl, Russian minister to the United States, negotiated for the Russians.

On March 30, 1867, the two parties agreed that the United States would pay Russia $7.2 million for the territory of Alaska.

Smithsonian Magazine, 2017

William Seward was the Secretary of State at the time after serving under President Lincoln until his assassination. He was a forward-looking man, and the same proved to be fabulous for the U.S. at just about three cents an acre, the $7.2 million now seems like a steal,

That sum, amounting to just $113 million in today’s dollars, brought to an end Russia’s 125-year odyssey in Alaska and its expansion across the treacherous Bering Sea, which at one point extended the Russian Empire as far south as Fort Ross, California, 90 miles from San Francisco Bay.

Today Alaska is one of the richest U.S. states thanks to its abundance of natural resources, such as petroleum, gold and fish, as well as its vast expanse of pristine wilderness and strategic location as a window on Russia and gateway to the Arctic.

William L. Iggiagruk Hensley, “There are two versions of the story of how the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia,” The Conversation, March 29, 2017

That story, written by an historian of Eskimo descent, is worth reading in its entirety.

Russia was losing money

The numbers of Russians who ever lived in Alaska was small, and it was quite a distance from the Asian country. So, they decided that Alaska was expendable,

But maintaining these settlements wasn’t easy. Russians in Alaska – who numbered no more than 800 at their peak – faced the reality of being half a globe away from St. Petersburg, then the capital of the empire, making communications a key problem.

Also, Alaska was too far north to allow for significant agriculture and therefore unfavorable as a place to send large numbers of settlers. So they began exploring lands farther south, at first looking only for people to trade with so they could import the foods that wouldn’t grow in Alaska’s harsh climate. They sent ships to what is now California, established trade relations with the Spaniards there and eventually set up their own settlement at Fort Ross in 1812.

Thirty years later, however, the entity set up to handle Russia’s American explorations failed and sold what remained. Not long after, the Russians began to seriously questionwhether they could continue their Alaskan colony as well.

For starters, the colony was no longer profitable after the sea otter population was decimated. Then there was the fact that Alaska was difficult to defend and Russia was short on cash due to the costs of the war in Crimea.

William L. Iggiagruk Hensley, The Conversation, March 29, 2017

Enter William Seward

Seward had his eye on Alaska for quite a while, and when learning about the potential Russia desire to rid itself of the Alaska albatross, he took action,

In the 1840s, the United States had expanded its interests to Oregon, annexed Texas, fought a war with Mexico and acquired California. Afterward, Secretary of State Seward wrote in March 1848:

“Our population is destined to roll resistless waves to the ice barriers of the north, and to encounter oriental civilization on the shores of the Pacific.”

Almost 20 years after expressing his thoughts about expansion into the Arctic, Seward accomplished his goal.

In Alaska, the Americans foresaw a potential for gold, fur and fisheries, as well as more trade with China and Japan. The Americans worried that England might try to establish a presence in the territory, and the acquisition of Alaska – it was believed – would help the U.S. become a Pacific power. And overall the government was in an expansionist mode backed by the then-popular idea of “manifest destiny.”

So a deal with incalculable geopolitical consequences was struck, and the Americans seemed to get quite a bargain for their $7.2 million.

William L. Iggiagruk Hensley, The Conversation, March 29, 2017

Natives disliked it

However, the natives disliked the sale, but they ultimately came to accept it,

Eventually, however, the situation improved markedly for Natives.

Alaska finally became a state in 1959, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Act, allotting it 104 million acres of the territory. And in an unprecedented nod to the rights of Alaska’s indigenous populations, the act contained a clause emphasizing that citizens of the new state were declining any right to land subject to Native title – which by itself was a very thorny topic because they claimed the entire territory.

A result of this clause was that in 1971 President Richard Nixon ceded 44 million acres of federal land, along with $1 billion, to Alaska’s native populations, which numbered around 75,000 at the time. That came after a Land Claims Task Force that I chaired gave the state ideas about how to resolve the issue.

Today Alaska has a population of 740,000, of which 120,000 are Natives.

William L. Iggiagruk Hensley, The Conversation, March 29, 2017

Now, Putin wants it returned

In reality, the land is not in any danger. Like most things Putin has done, this will end up a disaster if they try to do what they did in Ukraine,

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a new decree relating to Moscow's historic real estate holdings abroad, a move interpreted by ultranationalist bloggers as a foundation for future revanchism against Russia's neighbors—and even the U.S.

The decree, signed by the president late last week, allocates funds for the search, registration, and legal protection of Russian property abroad, including property in the former territories of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

This would include Alaska, swathes of eastern and central Europe, large chunks of central Asia, and parts of Scandinavia.

Russia's Foreign Ministry and its presidential administration's Foreign Property Management Enterprise are directed to carry out the work, ordered to find, register, and protect "property" in question.

David Brennan, “Putin’s decree triggers ominous Alaska calls,”

Newsweek, January 22, 2024

So, this is much ado about nothing, but Putin is still trying to remain relevant.

What this transaction was not for the U.S., however, was a "folly."

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