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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  Government  >  Making of Alaska
Alaska Purchase
By Jennifer Houdek Page 1 of 2   Next ยป

The name Alaska is fitting for a state famed for its vast spaces, exquisite landscapes, and abundant natural resources. The name most likely came from the Aleut word Alyeska, meaning the great land. Yet as great as Alaska is, when the United States was pushing for the purchase of Russian Alaska in the late 1800s, it was a tough sell. Critics argued against spending millions on such a remote, barren region -- especially as the United States was emerging from its own Civil War.

Alaska's price tag was $7.2 million, roughly 2 cents an acre; however, the deal also included the transfer of its trading rights and all public buildings, fortifications, barracks, and other properties within an already sizeable infrastructure. Not included in the sale were the Russian Orthodox churches, which would remain the property of the members. Looking back nearly 14 decades, few would argue that the United States benefited greatly from the deal, even though it almost fell through. In 1867, the purchase treaty passed the required two-thirds vote in the House of Representatives by merely one vote.

The key proponent in the purchase was William H. Seward, who was appointed Secretary of State by President Abraham Lincoln and later served under President Andrew Johnson. Seward's name became linked with Alaska's during the debate in Congress and in the media, as the faraway land was mocked as Seward's Icebox, Icebergia, Seward's Polar Bear Garden, Walrussia, and perhaps the press favorite, Seward's Folly. Although the Senate approved the purchase in executive session, when the treaty came to the House, certain representatives were strongly opposed. Nearly a century later, Ernest Gruening, a former Alaska territorial governor and later Alaska's U.S. senator, told of that debate during his address to the American Meterological Society in 1962.

"Alaska was pictured on the floor of the House of Representatives and in a substantial section of the press as a frozen waste with a savage climate," Gruening said, "where little or nothing could grow, and where few could or would live."

Gruening quoted House members who referred to Alaska as an "inhospitable and barren waste" that would "never add a dollar to the wealth of our country or furnish any homes to our people." He named Missouri Rep. Benjamin F. Loan, who called Alaska "utterly worthless" and asserted that "to suppose that anyone would leave the United States . . . to seek a home . . . in the region of perpetual snow is simply to suppose such a person insane." The Minority Report of the House Committee on Foreign Relations offered this opinion: "[Alaska] has no capacity as an agricultural country" and "no value as a mineral country." Furthermore, the report added that Alaska's timber was "generally of poor quality and growing upon inaccessible mountains." Its fur trade was "of insignificant value, and will speedily come to an end." Fisheries: "of doubtful value." Climate: "unfit for the habitation of civilized men."

In the end, Alaska itself would prove them wrong.

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Print of signing of treaty
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Map in 1867

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