Alaska Redux

2002-08-22

I recently received an email from Mark Chryson, chairman of the Alaskan Independence Party, who read my recent post about Alaska. Mr. Chryson reports that the acquisition of Alaska by the USA is even more tangled than I had supposed. It turns out that Russia, from whom the USA "bought" Alaska in 1867, never owned Alaska in the first place! He also claims that what Russia sold was the Russian Trading Company (or Russian America Company), including its trading rights to Alaska and the 540 acres of land the company owned -- not the other 365 million acres of land in Alaska. Uncle Sam promptly sold the Russian Trading Company to San Francisco merchants Lewis Gerstle and Lewis Sloss, and claimed all the land.

So how did the supposed purchase of all Alaska come about? I just did a little research by consulting Google. As explained here, in 1863 the Russian Navy sent ships to New York harbor and harbors on the West Coast to discourage Great Britain from interfering in the Civil War:

In 1863, Great Britain, using an insurrection in Poland as her pretext, again decided to put together an anti-Russian alliance. Russia responded by defending the Gulf of Finland and also dispatching cruisers. The Atlantic squadron of Rear Admiral Lesovsky, including the screw-frigates Alexander Nevsky, Oslyabya, Peresvet, the corvettes Vityaz and Varyag and the clipper Almaz, arrived in New York. At approximately the same time, Popov's squadron of propeller corvettes Bogatyr, Kalevala, Rynda and the clippers Abrek and Gaydamak gathered at ports on the west coast of the United States. This American "expedition" enabled the Russian fleet to achieve two objectives. Firstly, Great Britain did not continue its naval struggle with Russia because the British perceived a very real threat at sea. Second, by their presence, Russian seamen were able to support the United States in its struggle with the Confederacy.

As further noted on this page (which contains a great many details about the entire chronology):

The crowning period of humanist U.S.-Russian collaboration was during the Lincoln administration, when a wartime alliance between the United States and Russia was negotiated by U.S. Ambassador to Russia Cassius Clay (1861-1862 and 1863-1869). This is a chapter of American history which is no longer known today by Americans: It was Russia's military weight and threats of reprisals against Britain and France, that prevented any British-led intervention against the Union.

Naturally these "services" were not offered for free. Mr. Chryson told me that the Russian government demanded a large sum of gold in payment for the protection provided during the Civil War, but I have not yet been able to find evidence of that "smoking gun" (further research required -- this page may provide some clues). However, it's not surprising that in 1867, less than two years after the Russian navy withdrew from American ports and after extensive negotiations and communication between the Russian and American governments, the U.S. government purchased Russia's interests in Alaska for $7.2 million in gold. I get the sense that digging out the true story here might be a good project for some history major looking for a thesis topic -- or for me when I have more time.

On a happier note, isn't that Alaskan flag beautiful?


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal