William Seward, U.S. Secretary of State, signs a treaty with Russia to purchase the vast landmass of Alaska, adding over half a million square miles to the U.S. He had trouble convincing Congress of the value of the deal, even with a purchase price of about two cents an acre. The Senate finally ratified the deal by just one vote. Congress and the press called it “Seward’s Folly” and President Andrew Jacksons “polar bear garden.”
Russia had wanted to sell Alaska during Pres. Buchanan’s term but the Civil War came along and interrupted the negotiations.
Alaska had been a very profitable territory for Russia while under the leadership of Alexander Baranov who oversaw the Russian interests in the territory. Baranov built a strong trade economy, built schools and factories. He brought Russia over 1000% profit.
When he resigned, the leadership was taken over by a group who set high salaries for themselves and reduced by half the price paid to the natives for seal fur and walrus ivory. This price reduction forced the natives to double the killing just to make enough money to live, resulting in actions that almost killed off all of the sea otters. Sufferings by the natives brought about uprisings and protests which were stopped by the Russians firing on the natives from their military ships. It was a far cry from the prosperous time under Baranov.
When the Crimean War broke out, Russia found it difficult to defend two fronts and they began talks with the U.S. about selling Alaska.
The territory was slow to become populated by the U.S. citizenry (only about 2000 people lived there in 1867), but when gold was discovered about 30 years later, there became a huge influx of people to the new territory. Between 1890 and 1900, the population doubled from around 30,000 to 63,000. Less than 1% of those who ventured to Alaska came away rich with gold.