Alaska's sale to USA was a load off Russia's mind

On October 18, 1867, the Russian flag in Alaska and adjacent islands was taken down and replaced by the U.S. flag. This occurred as a result of a sale of Russian territories in the New World to the Americans. These days many believe that the sale of Alaska was a big mistake of the tsarist government and a short-sighted decision. But is this really the case?

Thinking about the history of the sale of Alaska and other properties of the Russian Empire to the Americans, I am immediately reminded of the incident that took place in the village where I have a cottage. One of my neighbors had a vast plot of land adjacent to his plot that he never used. This area got gradually covered with weeds and young birch trees, which made it difficult to walk through it. The neighbor kept making plans on how to use the land, but his plans have never materialized.

In the end, the unused land started turning into a swamp. Then the owner finally realized that he had to urgently do something with this land because he was bothered by mosquitoes and the slope where his house was located began to erode. It would be too expensive to take care of the land, so he sold the swamp instead.    

Why am I reminded of this story? This is because the story of the sale of Alaska is very similar to my neighbor's story. The first Russian settlement in America was formed in 1772 on the island of Unalaska. Gradually, merchants, Cossacks and those who wanted to get rich moved further, and eventually occupied the entire Aleutian Islands, the Alexander Archipelago and the coastal part of the Alaska Peninsula. In 1799 a Russian-American Company was founded under A. Baranov. This company was supervising Russia's overseas colonies that formally belonged to the East Siberian governor-generalship.

Russia's latest acquisition on the American Continent was Fort Ross, located 80 kilometers north of San Francisco, California. It was founded by a Russian merchant Ivan Cuzco in 1812. Since that time, the territories that were conventionally called Russian America have formed. On the area of ​​over 1.5 million square kilometers at a single point in time no more than 2,500 Russians resided. They were lost against the background of nearly 70,000 Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts. This explains why the term "Russian" in the name was relative since Russians constituted a minority.

However, this minority started active development of the region, which, sadly, turned into robbing of its natural resources. The colonists were mainly engaged in hunting for fur animals, both on land and sea. Their main prey was sea otters that they destroyed in the most barbaric ways. Incidentally, thanks to this "sea robbery," Russian settlers have completely destroyed a friendly and harmless Steller's sea cow - a marine mammal (it was hunted for its meat).

Since there were not enough Russians, Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts were used as the main labor force. Merchants and industrialists, acting ostensibly on behalf of the "White King" (that is, the Emperor), made local communities pay a hefty tribute (Yasaka). If the natives did not meet the "plan," they were flogged, put in the stocks, their village were ravaged, their women and children were taken to debt slavery. Sometimes the colonists staged robbery raids on villages of the natives, taking away all their furs and food supplies. After such raids the locals had nothing else to do but become slaves to the Cossacks.

Not surprisingly, the local population hated the foreigners. Cossacks did not help their reputation either. They often stole women from Aboriginals and raped them. Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church destroyed local places of worship and persecuted Aboriginal shamans. In contrast to what was then written by the Russian press about Russian America, there was no peaceful existence of foreigners and natives. 

The shameful acts of the colonists against the natives were not part of the policy of the Government of the Russian Empire. The Government has always respected the principle developed during the joining of Siberia that emphasized impermissibility of violence towards natives.  Unfortunately, the government agencies had no means to control the events in Russian America. It took officials sent with an audit a year to get to their destination.  

The Russian-American company that actually ran the settlements did anything it wanted. The colonists were usually not the best representatives of the Russian society, but quite the opposite. Russian America was populated by fugitive criminals, adventurers and seekers of easy money who did not abide by law and had no respect for human life, including their own.

As a result, in early 19th century, uprisings of Indians, Aleuts and Eskimos took place in Russian territories in America. In the spring of 1802, the Tlingit Indians captured and burned Mikhailovsky castle. In the 1804, a major armed conflict between Indians and the Russian colonists took place. In 1805, Yakutat castle fell. During the assault and looting of Yakutat, 14 Russians and many of their native workers were killed. The youngest son of the commandant of the fortress Larionov spent 15 years in Tlingit captivity. In 1816, a series of clashes between the Indians and Russians in the Fort Ross took place after the attempt of Russians to make the nativestheir slaves   (later the relationship was improved).

The settlers often could not even defend their territory, not to mention the punitive raids in response to the attacks because of the low numbers of the residents of Russian America. They had to act in a roundabout way, play the natives off each other, bribing their chiefs and giving gifts to their subordinates. This required significant funds, and in early 19th century the colony became very unprofitable for the Empire.

In addition, there were serious problems with the delivery of food and medicine. Flights from mainland Russia were extremely irregular, so settlers often had to starve and experience a deficit of vital goods. Diseases were rampant, particularly tuberculosis and scurvy. The Russian government had more trouble than real benefits from the Russian colonies in the Americas.

That is why in 1841 the Russian-American Company decided to sell the Fort Ross that stopped being profitable. It was purchased by a Mexican of Swiss decent John Sutter for 42 thousand 857 rubles in silver, and his descendants re-sold the land to a U.S. citizen George Colley. In 1847, the issue of the sale of the rest of Russia's colonies in the Americas was raised for the first time, but there was no buyer. It became clear to many that Russia could not hold on to these lands. Establishment of normal state power on this territory required a great deal of money, and the Empire that just eliminated the financial consequences of the war in 1812 simply did not have it.

When the Crimean War and the British ships attacked many remote Russian ports (such as Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka), the government got seriously concerned. The British could easily take over the entire Russian America, because there were almost no regular troops there and it was dangerous to create self-defense units using the natives. However, there has not been a single attempt to attack Alaska from Canada, the then British territory.

After the Crimean War, the Russian government has returned to the subject. Since the loss from the war was estimated at 800 million rubles in gold, it became clear that there will be no funds to ensure maintenance of the overseas colonies. Russia did not want to give this land to Britain, but the U.S. was not interested in buying "rocks and ice", as the land was referred to in New York newspapers. However, Russia has managed to talk the Americans into the idea, largely because of the help Russia provided in a British-American conflict, sending its fleet to the harbor for marine demonstrations.

On December 16, 1866 a special meeting was held attended by Emperor Alexander II, as well as the Russian ambassador in Washington, Baron Eduard de Stoeckl. All participants endorsed the idea of ​​selling, and in March of 1867 Stoeckl arrived in Washington and reminded the Secretary of State William Seward of the proposals made in the past about the sale of the Russian colonies. He added that the imperial government intended to enter into negotiations. With the agreement of President Johnson, Seward was able to discuss the main provisions of the future agreement in the second meeting with the Stoeckl, held on March 14th.

This agreement was drawn up and signed on March 30th of the same year, and on May 3rd it was ratified by the Congress. Under its provisions, all Russian possessions in America ceded to the United States for 735,000 dollars (11 million Russian rubles). On October 18th of the same year, the Russian flag in Alaska and adjacent islands was replaced by the U.S. flag.

During the transaction Stoeckl made one mistake. He was authorized to insist that the payment should be made in gold. However, this clause was not included in the final version of the agreement and the payment was made in U.S. dollars.

The check was made in Stoeckl's name, and the money was transferred to the London branch of the Baring Brothers bank. From there, also by bank transfer, the money came to Russia. In terms of gold the Russian government has received a smaller amount, a little over $5 million. Due to the budget deficit, the government was happy with that amount.       

There is a myth that Alaska actually was not sold, but leased for 99 years (the text of the agreement, which was also preserved, does not confirm this). Another myth says that due to certain breaches of the agreement (i.e., payment in bonds instead of gold), the transaction may be challenged. This is not the case because of statute of limitation according to both the laws of the Russian Empire and U.S. 

This is how Alaska, that the U.S. government did not want to buy, became a U.S. territory. The region continued to be unprofitable for the Treasury until gold was found on its territory. Strictly speaking, the Klondike gold mine is located in Canada, but the river brought the sand to Alaska. This was sufficient, and profits from the mining of gold dust in 1904 amounted to 11 million U.S. dollars. That is, the cost of purchase was fully paid off.

Now, many Russians believe that the sale of Alaska was a big mistake and a short-sighted decision. They believe that if Russia retained the territories, in the Soviet times they would have been finally taken care of and Russia would have established gold mining, oil drilling, forestmanagement, build cities and deployed a missile defense system for protection from the United States. But those who think so do not take into account one simple thing - would Russia be able to hold on to these colonies in the rough 20th century? For example, they could have been taken away by Japan during the Russian-Japanese, as well as during World War II.

The Japanese Army managed to take over the stronger and more populated Sakhalin in 1904. During World War II, the Japanese managed to make a landing in the Aleutian Islands. And if the Americans who were not then engaged in a war with Germany were able to quickly take care of it, the Soviet Union could have hardly done it as the Soviet troops were on the Western Front.

It is not ruled out that the Russian America could become a refuge for the White Guard units that could have evacuated there after the defeat in the Civil War on the mainland. In that case, the colony would still have been lost to the Soviet Union. 

In short, Russia would not have been able to hold on to Alaska under any scenario. Therefore, the decision on the sale of Alaska to the American authorities in any situation was the only right one, not only at the time, but from a historical perspective as well.

Anton Evseev


Read the original in Russian

Subscribe to Pravda.Ru Telegram channel, Facebook, RSS!

Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov