is the highest peak in North America, and the tussle over
its name symbolizes the U.S. relationship with Alaskas
Denali tinged pink by alpenglow - NPS Photo / Kent Miller
One hundred and fifty years ago, on March 30, 1867, U.S. Secretary
of State William H. Seward and Russian envoy Baron Edouard de Stoeckl
signed the Treaty
of Cession. With a stroke of a pen, Tsar Alexander II had ceded
Alaska, his countrys last remaining foothold in North America,
to the United States for US$7.2 million.
That sum, amounting to just
$113 million in todays dollars, brought to an end Russias
125-year odyssey in Alaska and its expansion across the treacherous
Bering Sea, which at one point extended the Russian Empire as far
south as Fort Ross, California, 90 miles from San Francisco Bay.
Today Alaska is one
of the richest U.S. states thanks to its abundance of natural
resources, such as petroleum, gold and fish, as well as its vast
expanse of pristine wilderness and strategic location as a window
on Russia and gateway to the Arctic.
So what prompted Russia to withdraw from its American beachhead?
And how did it come to possess it in the first place?
As a descendant of Inupiaq Eskimos, I
have been living and studying this history all my life. In a
way, there are two histories of how Alaska came to be American
perspectives. One concerns how the Russians took possession
of Alaska and eventually ceded it to the U.S. The other is from
the perspective of my people, who have lived in Alaska for thousands
of years, and for whom the anniversary of the cession brings mixed
emotions, including immense loss but also optimism.
soft gold of the sea otter was what drew so many
Russians to Alaska. Laura Rauch/AP Photo
Russia looks east
The lust for new lands that brought Russia to Alaska
and eventually California began in the 16th century, when the country
was a fraction of its current size.
That began to change in 1581, when Russia
overran a Siberian territory known as the Khanate of Sibir,
which was controlled by a grandson of Genghis Khan. This key victory
opened up Siberia, and within 60 years the Russians were at the
advance across Siberia was fueled in part by the lucrative fur
trade, a desire to expand the Russian Orthodox Christian faith to
the heathen populations in the east and the addition
of new taxpayers and resources to the empire.
In the early 18th century, Peter the Great who created
Russias first Navy wanted to know how far the Asian
landmass extended to the east. The Siberian city of Okhotsk became
the staging point for two explorations he ordered. And in 1741,
Vitus Bering successfully crossed the strait that bears his name
and sighted Mt. Saint Elias, near what is now the village of Yakutat,
Although Berings second Kamchatka Expedition brought disaster
for him personally when adverse weather on the return journey led
to a shipwreck on one of the westernmost Aleutian Islands and
his eventual death from scurvy in December 1741, it was an incredible
success for Russia. The surviving crew fixed the ship, stocked it
full of hundreds of the sea otters, foxes and fur seals that were
abundant there and returned to Siberia, impressing Russian fur hunters
with their valuable cargo. This prompted something akin to the Klondike
gold rush 150 years later.
But maintaining these settlements wasnt easy.
Russians in Alaska who numbered no more than 800 at their
peak faced the reality of being half a globe away from St.
Petersburg, then the capital of the empire, making communications
a key problem.
reach into North America once extended as far south as California,
as evidenced by this Russian Orthodox church in Fort Ross.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo
Also, Alaska was too far north to allow for significant agriculture
and therefore unfavorable as a place to send large numbers of settlers.
So they began exploring lands farther south, at first looking only
for people to trade with so they could import the foods that wouldnt
grow in Alaskas harsh climate. They sent ships to what is
now California, established trade relations with the Spaniards there
and eventually set up their own settlement at Fort
Ross in 1812.
Thirty years later, however, the entity set up to handle Russias
American explorations failed and sold what remained. Not long after,
the Russians began
to seriously question whether they could continue their Alaskan
colony as well.
For starters, the colony was no
longer profitable after the sea otter population was decimated.
Then there was the fact that Alaska was difficult to defend and
Russia was short on cash due to the costs of the war in Crimea.
Americans eager for a deal
So clearly the Russians were ready to sell, but what
motivated the Americans to want to buy?
In the 1840s, the United States had expanded its interests to
Oregon, annexed Texas, fought a war with Mexico and acquired California.
Afterward, Secretary of State Seward wrote
in March 1848:
Our population is destined to roll resistless waves
to the ice barriers of the north, and to encounter oriental civilization
on the shores of the Pacific.
Almost 20 years after expressing his thoughts about expansion
into the Arctic, Seward accomplished his goal.
In Alaska, the Americans foresaw a potential for gold, fur and
fisheries, as well as more trade with China and Japan. The Americans
worried that England might try to establish a presence in the territory,
and the acquisition of Alaska it was believed would
help the U.S. become a Pacific power. And overall the government
was in an expansionist mode backed by the then-popular idea of manifest
So a deal with incalculable geopolitical consequences was struck,
and the Americans seemed to get quite a bargain for their $7.2 million.
Just in terms of wealth, the U.S. gained about 370 million acres
of mostly pristine wilderness almost a third the size of
the European Union including 220 million acres of what are
now federal parks and wildlife refuges. Hundreds of billions of
dollars in whale oil, fur, copper, gold, timber, fish, platinum,
zinc, lead and petroleum have been produced in Alaska over the years
allowing the state to do without a sales or income tax and
give every resident an annual stipend. Alaska still likely has billions
of barrels of oil reserves.
The state is also a key part of the United States defense system,
with military bases located in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and it is
the countrys only connection to the Arctic, which ensures
it has a seat
at the table as melting glaciers allow the exploration of the
regions significant resources.
the U.S. treated Alaskas Native population much better
than the Russians, its still been a rocky relationship,
even today. Al Grillo/AP Photo
Impact on Alaska Natives
But theres an alternate
version of this history.
When Bering finally located Alaska in 1741, Alaska was home
to about 100,000 people, including Inuit, Athabascan, Yupik, Unangan
and Tlingit. There were 17,000 alone on the Aleutian Islands.
Despite the relatively small number of Russians who at any one
time lived at one of their settlements mostly on the Aleutians
Islands, Kodiak, Kenai Peninsula and Sitka they ruled over
the native populations in their areas with an iron hand, taking
children of the leaders as hostages, destroying kayaks and other
hunting equipment to control the men and showing extreme force when
brought with them weaponry such as firearms, swords, cannons
and gunpowder, which helped them secure a foothold in Alaska along
the southern coast. They used firepower, spies and secured forts
to maintain security, and selected Christianized local leaders to
carry out their wishes. However, they also met resistance, such
as from the Tlingits, who were capable warriors, ensuring their
hold on territory was tenuous.
By the time of the cession, only 50,000 indigenous people were
estimated to be left, as well as 483 Russians and 1,421 Creoles
(descendants of Russian men and indigenous women).
On the Aleutian Islands alone, the
Russians enslaved or killed thousands of Aleuts. Their population
plummeted to 1,500 in the first 50 years of Russian occupation
due to a combination of warfare, disease and enslavement.
When the Americans took over, the United States was still engaged
in its Indian
Wars, so they looked at Alaska and its indigenous inhabitants
as potential adversaries. Alaska was
made a military district by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant with Gen.
Jefferson C. Davis selected as the new commander.
For their part, Alaska Natives claimed that they still had title
to the territory as its original inhabitants and having not lost
the land in war or ceded it to any country including the
U.S., which technically didnt buy it from the Russians but
bought the right to negotiate with the indigenous populations. Still,
Natives were denied U.S. citizenship until 1924, when the Indian
Citizenship Act was passed.
During that time, Alaska Natives had no rights as citizens and
could not vote, own property or file for mining claims. The Bureau
of Indian Affairs, in conjunction with missionary societies, in
began a campaign to eradicate indigenous languages, religion,
art, music, dance, ceremonies and lifestyles.
It was only in 1936 that the Indian
Reorganization Act authorized tribal governments to form, and
only nine years later overt discrimination was outlawed by Alaskas
Act of 1945. The law banned signs such as No Natives Need
Apply and No Dogs or Natives Allowed, which were
common at the time.
Dwight Eisenhower signs a proclamation admitting Alaska as
the 49th state on Jan. 3, 1959. Harvey Georges/AP Photo
Statehood and a disclaimer
Eventually, however, the situation improved markedly
Alaska finally became a state in 1959, when President Dwight
D. Eisenhower signed the Alaska
Statehood Act, allotting it 104 million acres of the territory.
And in an unprecedented nod to the rights of Alaskas indigenous
populations, the act contained a clause emphasizing that citizens
of the new state were declining any right to land subject to Native
title which by itself was a very thorny topic because they
claimed the entire territory.
A result of this clause was that in 1971 President Richard Nixon
44 million acres of federal land, along with $1 billion, to Alaskas
native populations, which numbered around 75,000 at the time. That
came after a Land Claims Task Force that I chaired gave
the state ideas about how to resolve the issue.
Today Alaska has a population of 740,000, of which 120,000 are
As the United States celebrates the signing of the Treaty of
Cession, we all Alaskans, Natives and Americans of the lower
48 should salute Secretary of State William H. Seward, the
man who eventually brought democracy and the rule of law to Alaska.
L. Iggiagruk Hensley is a Visiting Distinguished Professor at
of Alaska Anchorage. He also serves as Chair of the First Alaskans
Institute, Vice Chair of Aqqaluk Trust and Vice Chair of the Charter
College. He is a member of the Democratic Party.