OUR TWO CENTS (AN ACRE’S) WORTH: ‘SEWARD’S FOLLY’ TURNED OUT TO BE QUITE A BARGAIN, IN “DEED”

On April 9 in 1867, Congress ratified the purchase of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million, or two cents per acre.

Secretary of State William Seward

The deal had been in the works since 1859, when Russian offered Alaska to the U.S. as a way of preventing the expansion of the British empire into the territory. However, the American Civil War put the sale on hold. When the war ended, Secretary of State William Seward resumed negotiations with the Russians. Congress ratified the deal 154 years ago today, and President Andrew Johnson signed the treaty on May 28, 1867. The transfer of land became official on October 18 of that year.

Russian America Treaty

The U.S. did literally nothing about Alaska for the next 30 years – sometimes having no government presence at all – and many Americans who envisioned the territory as nothing more than a frozen wasteland derided the acquisition as “Seward’s Folly.”

That changed with the discovery of gold in the Yukon in 1896, and the territory became the road to the mines. It also became a strategic part of American expansion and, ultimately, defense. The acquisition stopped Russian expansion (the Russians already had built settlements down the Pacific Coast, including Fort Ross in Sonoma County) as well as that of the British, who colonized British Columbia in 1849.

Attu Island – 49th State of the Union

During World War II, the Japanese saw Attu, an island in Alaska’s Aleutians chain, as a potential stronghold. They captured it in 1942, only to be driven out by U.S. forces that included 6,300 members of the Alaska Territorial Guard, who joined the U.S. Army at no pay to defend their home land.

In 1959, Alaska became the 49th state admitted to the Union. It remains an important part of U.S. national defense with nine active military installations split evenly among the Air Force (Eielson, Elmendorf, and Clear), Army (Fort Richardson, Fort Wainwright, Fort Greely), and Coast Guard (Kodiak, Valdez, and Juneau).

It is home to the town of North Pole, four national parks (Denali, Katmai, Kenai Fjords, and Glacier Bay), fisheries, and is a major tourist destination.

At two cents an acre, “Seward’s Folly” was in “deed” a bargain.

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