Seward’s Folly

On this day in 1867 the United States officially took possession of the territory of Alaska after purchasing it from the Russian Empire. In the aftermath of the Crimean War, Russia feared that in future conflicts with Britain Alaska would be difficult to defend. The Russian Empire was badly in need of funds to repay loans it had taken on during the war and needed to make internal domestic reforms. Having initially approached an uninterested Great Britain, Russia turned to the United States.

The price was negotiated by Secretary of State William Seward. It was agreed that the United States would pay $7.2 million for the land. In today’s dollar that would put the price around $120 million. It added nearly 586,412 square miles of territory to the country. Some mocked the deal as “Seward’s Folly”, arguing that the U.S. had paid for worthless uninhabited land. The Alaska Gold Rush of 1896 proved that the region was rich in valuable minerals.

The territory was first referred to as the Department of Alaska from 1867 to 1884, and then the District of Alaska between 1884 to 1912. From 1912 until its admittance into the Union in 1959, it was referred to as the Alaska Territory. Alaska had a longer and more complicated path to statehood than other western territories; the difficulty for settlers to reach the state, as well as groups with a vested interest in preventing statehood, slowed down the process. During World War II and the Cold War, the increase in attention for what was a geopolitically important area helped to drive the statehood movement. The Alaska Statehood Act was signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on July 7th, 2958, admitting Alaska as the 49th U.S. State.

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