alaska united states of america

Written by Summaiyya Qureshi 12:07 pm Articles, International Relations, Published Content

The US’s Purchase of Alaska

The United States of America purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 and made it one of its fifty states in 1959. It is a very important maritime strategic asset of the US. The author, Summaiyya Qureshi, looks at how this tender took place.
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Ms Summaiyya Qureshi completed her bachelor's degree in International Relations from the Lahore College for Women University, Lahore.  Her areas of interest include geopolitics, foreign policy analysis, and nuclearization.

Largest US State

The largest state of the United States of America, Alaska, is in the northwest corner of North America and is one of the two states of the US that does not share direct borders with the other states. It became part of the US in 1867. It shares a border with Canada on the Eastern side, and on the Western side, the Bering Strait—one of the famous straits of the world—connects the Pacific and the Arctic Ocean, so Alaska shares maritime boundaries with Russia.

There’s the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean in the north of Alaska, and in the south, the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Alaska. So technically, Alaska is in both the Western and Eastern hemispheres. The capital of Alaska is Juneau. Alaska is one of the wealthiest states in the United States of America due to its abundance of petroleum, gold, fur, timber, fish, walrus, ivory, copper, platinum, zinc, lead, and other resources.

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History of Alaska               

Russia first came to Alaska back in the 16th century to spread its orthodox Christian faith and have fur-trading lands. Russia started to make its way towards Siberian territory known as the Khanate of Sibir, controlled by the grandson of Genghis Khan. In their first 60 years in Siberia, Russians gained control over it and reached the Pacific Ocean in the East.

In the early 18th century, Russia’s first naval force was formed and it started to explore beyond the Asian landmass. In 1741, an officer, Vitus Bering, was tasked to lead Russia’s first trans-Pacific exploration; he crossed the ocean through the Bering Strait, which was eventually named after him. He caught sight of present-day Yakutat, Alaska, for the first time, as it is just 50 miles away from Siberia.

After discovering this fertile new land, 800 Russian settlers went to Alaska in search of furs. The first settlements were established near present-day Kodiak. Kodiak was Alaska’s capital until 1806 before Sitka. This land may have been rich in resources, but it was not an easy place to live as Russians were half a world away from their motherland, so communication was a problem and supplies could not be accessed easily.

By the mid-19th century, due to its rich resources, Alaska was the center of world trade. When Bering discovered Alaska in 1741, it was home to almost 100,000 people that were inhabitants of Alaska, including Inuit, Tlingit, Unangan, Yupik, and Athabasca. Russian settlers ruled over the native population in Alaska through oppression. Russia used firepower, gunpowder, swords, and canons to oppress the native people. On Aleutian island alone, the Russians killed thousands of Aleuts.

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The Alaska Purchase Treaty 1867

One of the main events that shocked the whole world was the Russian Tsar Alexander’s unexpected selling of Alaska to the US. Russia had been offering Alaska to America for a long time, but the American civil war outbreak in 1861 was a hindrance. On 30 March 1867, Russian envoy Baron Eduard de Stoeckl met US Secretary of State William H. Seward and sold him 370 million acres of Alaska for $7.2 million, which is 2 cents per acre.

The Senate ratified the Alaska Purchase Treaty by 37 to 2 votes on 9 April 1867 before US President Andrew Johnson signed the Alaska treaty on 28 May 1867. At that time, critiques of the Alaska treaty called it “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s icebox,” as Alaska was just a frozen piece of land until gold was discovered in 1896.

The Alaska Purchase Treaty marked the end of Russian expansion toward the Pacific Coast of North America. It also certified the US’s access to Northern Pacific Rim. Moreover, after realizing Alaska’s strategic importance in WWII to encounter Japan, the United States of America made Alaska its state in 1959.

Why did Russia Sell Alaska?

Russia wanted to sell Alaska as it was not territorially connected with Russia and hence was difficult to defend. One of the major reasons was the near extinction of sea otters just after 30 years of Russian settlement, as it was the Russians’ primary export. Moreover, the Russian defeat in the Crimean war (1953-1956) crippled Russia’s economy, making it difficult for Russia to support and secure Alaska.

On the other hand, Americans foresaw Alaska’s potential in gold, fur, and other natural resources. Plus, territorial gain (also known as Imperialism) was considered a symbol of power back then. So, the US was also trying to expand its territory. Moreover, they had a fear that Britishers might try to establish their presence in the Northern area. 

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US Secretary of State William H. Seward summed up the United States’ prevailing expansionist mindset in 1848, “Our population is destined to roll resistless waves to the eyes barrier of the north and to encounter Oriental Civilization on the shores of the Pacific.” Moreover, for the United States of America, Alaska was strategically in a favorable position to facilitate trade with China and Japan, which would help the US become a major power in the Pacific.

Importance of Alaska to the US

Owing to the richness of natural sources, Alaska is one of few states with no state-level or sale taxes; it provides its citizens with an annual stipend from the state’s massive resource income. For the US, Alaska is its gateway to the Arctic Ocean. Alaska has also become a very important strategic point to the US military and a prime point in the defense system.

The United States of America has set 9 military bases across Alaska, and the air force also has the largest presence in Alaska. The relationship between Russia and US was very favorable when the Alaska purchase took place, but now, the US uses Alaska to keep an eye on Russia and China.

The US has increased its protective basis in Alaska as Russia dominates most of the Arctic circle because 25% of its GDP is gained through natural resources from the Arctic circle. China is also working to increase its presence in the Arctic Ocean through the Polar Silk Road. China’s interest in the Arctic Ocean is the natural resources that include almost 90 billion barrels of oil and estimated trillion dollars’ worth of rare metals.

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