While Alaska is widely known today as the largest state in the USA, it once part of Russia. For around a hundred years from the mid 18th century onwards, Alaska was a Russian colony but, after a handsome price was negotiated in 1867, it became US territory and eventually became the 49th state of the USA.
At around the time that the rest of America was being colonised by English settlers, Alaska was discovered by the Russian navy in 1741. While indigenous people had been present for many centuries, the first time that Alaska was viewed by European eyes came when Vitus Bering set sail aboard the vessel St Peter. The expedition brought back sea otter pelts which were greatly sought after but more importantly, the first contact with Alaska had been made.
Over the course of the next few years, Russia and Spain led several expeditions here and for a time, there was some dispute over the claims to Alaska but in time, it officially became part of Russia and known as New Archangel.
Russia never fully colonized Alaska: The region was sparse, vast and overall fairly barren and it remained unprofitable for all the years that Russia laid claim to it.
Although, Alaska itself was only a few miles from mainland Russia, it was underused and largely uncharted.
At the time of the mid 19th century, Russia was experiencing financial problems as a nation and it had held an increasing fear that they would lose the territory of Alaska in a future conflict. In particular, they were fearful that Alaska would be lost to the British, who Russia had battled in the Crimea War and who controlled the neighbouring (now Canadian) territory.
Although there was still very little interest in the colony and very few settlers, the nearby area of British Columbia had begun to develop thanks in the main to the gold rush of the time.
Suspecting that any loss in battle would not improve their financial position, Russia sought to literally ‘sell’ Alaska.
When the Tsar made his decision, both the British and the USA were approached but Britain showed no interest in the proposition whatsoever. The Tsar then concentrated on the Americans but negotiations in this respect were made impossible due to the American Civil War.
Finally, with the USA free to open talks, the country became receptive to Russian proposals and Alaska was subsequently sold in 1867 for a figure of $7.2m.
The deal was officially known as the Alaska purchase but many American’s referred to it as Seward’s folly after the then Secretary of State William H Seward. Clearly many American’s were unhappy with the deal for land that was so barren and seemed at the time to be of negligible use.
So when you ask how much did Alaska cost, the answer in simple terms is $7.2m dollars. Conservative estimates have put that figure to be worth in excess of $1 billion in today’s money and as we move towards the 150th anniversary of the purchase, are both sides still happy with the deal?
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