March 30 is the official holiday in Alaska to celebrate the day when 586,400 square miles of Russia’s northern Pacific territory became the property of the United States. This deal, worth over $7 million, was signed in 1867 and became known in history as the Alaska purchase.
This event put an end to Russian efforts to expand trade and settlements to the North American Pacific coast. Ever since 1725, when Vitus Bering was dispatched to explore the region by Russian Tsar Peter the Great, and discovered Alaska in 1741, Russia had a keen interest in this region, rich in fisheries and furs, though scarcely populated.
In 1799 the Russian-American Company was founded there, the monopoly in charge of all of the region’s natural resources, and responsible for gathering together these resources. Moscow, however, lacked the financial resources to support major settlements or a military presence along the Pacific coast of North America, as it was turning its attention to East Asia and still recovering from defeat in the Crimean War of 1854. The number of permanent Russian settlers in Alaska never exceeded 600.
The idea of selling Alaska was first delicately and secretly voiced by the Governor-General of the Eastern Siberia. He was convinced that selling Alaska to the States was only a matter of time.
The final decision about the purchase was preceded by an internal debate. The younger brother of Emperor Alexander II, Konstantin, strongly advocated the sale, while Russian Foreign Minister Gorchakov suggested that Russia should hold on to the territory. Baron Ferdinand von Wrangell, the chief manager of the Russian-American Company and a member of its board of directors, cited the enormous potential of Russian America.
Nevertheless, the decision was made by Emperor Alexander II on December 28, 1866, and on March 30, 1867 the treaty was signed after the Russian minister to Washington, D.C., Edouard de Stoeckl, and U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, successfully negotiated the deal for the bargain price of two cents per acre.
The Senate approved the purchase treaty on April 9, President Andrew Johnson signed the treaty on May 28, and Alaska was formally transferred to the United States on October 18, 1867.
With the purchase of Alaska, the United States acquired an area twice as large as Texas, but its purchase wasn’t appreciated and long derided as "Seward's Folly" and an icebox. Only the great Klondike gold strike in 1896, and rich oil and gas resources, made Alaska a valuable addition to American territory, though the Alaskan deal itself was regarded as a major achievement of President Johnson’s administration.
The discovery of the major gold deposits in the Yukon in 1896, with Alaska becoming the gateway to the Klondike gold fields, spawned predictably pessimistic moods in Russia. Russian officials realized that they had overextended themselves; the decision was premature, but Russian America was lost.