Signing the Alaskan Treaty: 150 years ago, after a long, all-night negotiating session, the United States purchased the Imperial Russian territory of Alaska. On behalf of Tsar Alexander II (1855-81), Captain Alexei Peschukorov passed over Alaska, all 600,000 square miles of it, with the words: “By authority from his Majesty, the Emperor of Russia, I transfer to the United States the territory of Russia”.

 What did it cost the USA?

$ 7.2 million.            (c. $ 120 million/c. £ 93 million in today’s money)

What was Russia doing in North America?  If you look at the two pages of the Great Soviet World Atlas, gifted to the RSGS by Syracuse University in 1944, you can make out the vast extent of Russian Empire by the end of the 18th century. In fact, at its height, Russia spanned three continents-Europe, Asia and North America. Reaching Alaska was a continuation of Russian Imperial eastward expansion.  Just as the American journalist Horace Greeley famously said: “Go West, young man”, many Russians equally responded to: “Go East, young man”.  Encouraged by the Tsars, from Ivan the Terrible (1533-84) onwards, Russia’s boundaries spread east across the Ural Mountains in 1581, a movement initiated by a band of Cossack fortune-hunters marking the beginnings of a long-term settlement of the 4.95 million square miles that is Siberia (from Sybyr-a Tatar word meaning “The Sleeping Land”), finally reaching the Pacific Ocean by 1648. Like Australia, Siberia afforded useful sites for penal colonies, but many people, including freebooters and merchant adventurers, voluntarily went to Siberia:

  • in search of furs from the Tundra and Taiga forests (as in Canada), and later, for gold and diamonds, and timber that could be floated down the great rivers, for example, the Ob, Yenisey and Lena
  • as land-hungry pioneer settlers looking for cultivable land along the thin wedge of steppe grasslands flanking the southern border of the Taiga
  • as intrepid explorers. These included the Danish sailor and cartographer, Vitus Bering (1681-1741), who, as part of two scientific missions initiated by the modernising goals of Tsar Peter the Great (1682-1725), sailed in 1725 from Okhotsk aiming to establish whether or not the Asian and American landmasses were linked. A second expedition in 1741, ‘discovered’ the Aleutian Islands and mainland Alaska; Bering claimed them for the Russian crown, and had a strait, an island, a glacier and a sea named after him.

Russian settlement in Alaska (and California) Before 1867, Alaska was essentially a Russian fur-trading colony. Its coastline was found to be teeming with sea otters and fur seals: a potentially rich haul for enterprising Russian merchants willing to trade with Chinese merchants on the Siberian-Mongolian boundary. By the early 1800s, a valuable trade in pelts was well underway, involving various companies.

Trade also meant initiating Russian settlements as bases for hunting expeditions and storing pelts, Anchorage, for example, was established in 1744. In 1799, a joint-stock venture, The Russian–American Company founded its HQ, Novo-Arkhangel’sk, on Sitka Island off the Alaska coast. Encouraged by the Russian government, it set out to exploit coastal areas as far south as 55o North (near present day Alaska’s southern boundary), and to explore and colonise ‘unoccupied’ (ie native Amerindian) lands. Such a strategy brought the company into California as far south as San Francisco Bay; indeed, in many ways, they were the first Europeans to foresee the possibilities of settling in California.

Fort Ross, California

Fort Ross was built by Russian pioneers in 1812, the same year that Napoleon reached Moscow! Located about 150 miles north of San Francisco, it  was set up because of declining numbers of seals and otters in Alaska,  the harsh weather conditions, and lack of supply vessels, especially during the winter of 1805-06. At Fort Ross, the Russians persevered for three decades, leaving in 1845 – four years before the California Gold rush.  At its maximum settlement phase, there were up to 100 Russians (including many Poles) and  125 native Alaskans living there: hunting, farming and ranching.  Ultimately, Fort Ross was abandoned because autocratic Tsar Nicholas I (1825-55) was unwilling to recognise the legitimacy of Mexico’s 1823 independence claim from Spain as a condition of continued Russian occupation of the site. Today, the Fort  is a Historic State Park, with tours in English and Russian.

Why did the Russians sell Alaska ?  By the middle of the 19th century, Russia became increasingly reluctant to pursue further its colonial and trading activities in North America. This was because:

  • Russia was financially weakened after the Crimean War (1853-56), and lacked the resources to support and defend settlements in Alaska
  • it was too remote in terms of time and cost, especially for a colony that at its maximum had only some 400 Russian inhabitants
  • Russia believed that Britain, with its global naval strength, might seize Alaska in any future war
  • the population of western Canada- the future British Columbia- was increasing, and plans were underway to incorporate it into the Empire. This would have meant a British-Russian land boundary !

Three final counterfactual – “what if ?”- historical thoughts to ponder: What might have happened if Alaska had never been sold by the RussiansWhat might have been the geopolitical implications ?

Great Soviet World Atlas – 18/19th century Russia

The RSGS was gifted this Russian Atlas in 1944 by Syracuse University, USA. It is Volume 1 of a National Atlas, whose production was encouraged by Lenin in 1921, and was finally published in 1938. According to one American academic, the Atlas was “an outstanding example of geographic and cartograpic research in the USSR.”

These two pages show the historical situation around the time of Russian colonial expansion, eastwards across Siberia and into North America and into Central Asia.

It is worth attempting to look closely and get an idea of the size of Siberia – just think, how many times would the British Isles  fit into Siberia!

Don’t be put off by the Russian (Cyrillic alphabet !). Dates are shown in English and you can compare names with the school atlas and map provided.

Visit the RSGS visitor centre from Tue-Sat 1pm-4:30pm (entrance by donation) and see the atlas mentioned in Kenneth’s article. If you are planning a specific trip please call 01738 455050 to make sure the centre is open.

Thank you to Collections Team member Kenneth Maclean for his research and writing!