On this day in history, Oct. 18, 1867, United States purchases Alaska from Russia for cool $7.2 million

On this day in history, October 18, 1867, the United States struck the deal of the century – securing the vast Alaskan territory from Russia for $7.2 million.

The transfer of 665,000 square miles of land between future rivals for global hegemony had a profound impact on the geopolitical balance of power that is still felt today.

“The purchase of Alaska in 1867 marked the end of Russian efforts to expand trade and settlement into the Pacific coast of North America, and became an important step in the rise of the United States as a major power in the Asia-Pacific region,” writes the historian’s office of the United States Department of State.

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After months of international negotiations and political wrangling in Washington, DC, the deal was ceremoniously cemented with the lowering of the Russian flag on Castle Hill in Sitka and the raising of the American flag.

October 18th is celebrated each year in Last Frontier as Alaska Day, an official state holiday.

Those shown signing the Alaska Cancellation Treaty are (left to right) Robert S. Chew (Chief Secretary), William H. Seward (Secretary of State), William Hunter (2nd Assistant Secretary of State), Mr. Bodisco, Russian Ambassador Baron Edward de Stoeckl, Charles Sumner (Senator) and Fredrick W. Seward (Deputy Secretary of State).

Those shown signing the Alaska Cancellation Treaty are (left to right) Robert S. Chew (Chief Secretary), William H. Seward (Secretary of State), William Hunter (2nd Assistant Secretary of State), Mr. Bodisco, Russian Ambassador Baron Edward de Stoeckl, Charles Sumner (Senator) and Fredrick W. Seward (Deputy Secretary of State).
(Getty Images)

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The land grab amounts to a meager 1.7 cents an acre for an area more than twice the size of Texas and more than three times the size of California.

Secretary of State William Seward and Russian Minister Edouard de Stoeckl negotiated the agreement.

The treaty created a geographic oddity. The United States and Russia are now direct neighbors. The two nations are separated by just 2.4 miles of ocean in the Bering Strait between the islands of Big Diomede (part of Russia) and Little Diomede (part of Alaska).

Russian nationalists are said to still lament the loss of such a vast treasure trove of natural resources.

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“If Russia owned Alaska today, the geopolitical situation in the world would have been different,” Sergei Aksyonov, Crimea’s prime minister, reportedly said in a 2017 local TV interview marking the 150th anniversary of the deal.

“October 18th is celebrated as Alaska Day each year in Last Frontier, an official state holiday.”

According to numerous media reports, Russian official and Vladimir Putin’s ally Vyacheslav Volodin said this summer that his nation may seek to retake Alaska in response to US and NATO sanctions over the war in Ukraine.

A street scene on Baranof Island, Sitka, Alaska, featuring St. Michael's Cathedral.  The Alaskan Territory was officially transferred from Russia to the United States on October 18, 1867 with a flag ceremony in Sitka.

A street scene on Baranof Island, Sitka, Alaska, featuring St. Michael’s Cathedral. The Alaskan Territory was officially transferred from Russia to the United States on October 18, 1867 with a flag ceremony in Sitka.
(Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

But hindsight is 20-20.

Alaska was then considered a wasteland by both nations.

Tsar Alexander II was reportedly willing to give the country away. American political and media pundits devastated the administrations of Seward and then-President Andrew Johnson for wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on what they believed to be an empty, frozen wasteland.

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“Critics attacked Seward for keeping the deal secret, in what became known as ‘Seward’s folly,'” according to the Library of Congress.

“The press ridiculed his willingness to spend so much on ‘Seward’s Ice Box’ and Andrew Johnson’s ‘Polar Bear Garden.'”

The land grab amounts to a meager 1.7 cents per acre.

The New York Tribune and its powerful publisher Horace Greeley were among the staunchest opponents of the deal.

Alaska's Gold Rush.  From Juneau, Alaska, to the Yukon.  Photograph of Winter and Pond, 1896.

Alaska’s Gold Rush. From Juneau, Alaska, to the Yukon. Photograph of Winter and Pond, 1896.
(Getty Images)

“The area that [Russia] Property in America was not only worthless … but was an expense and a nuisance the Tsar would like to get rid of,” reported the Tribune earlier in 1867 when news of the pending deal broke, naming the Russian royal family in St. Petersburg as source.

“The press scoffed [the] willingness to pay that much for ‘Seward’s Ice Box’ and Andrew Johnson’s ‘Polar Bear Garden’.”

“Russia would be willing to cede the territory as a gift to the United States if it were desirable for the republic. That’s for sure. It is also certain that Secretary Seward knew of this fact.”

It wasn’t until the 1880s and subsequent years that public opinion began to turn when massive gold discoveries were discovered in Alaska.

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Americans began flooding the territory during the Alaska Gold Rush, putting it on the path to statehood.

Alaska became the 50th state to join the Union on January 3, 1959, while October 18 remains a celebrated date in the state’s history.

“Featuring a parade and a series of events lasting longer than the Fourth of July, Alaska Day is Sitka’s signature celebration, well known statewide,” reports state travel website Alaska.org.

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“The festival week ends on October 18 when a re-enactment of the changing of the flag takes place on Castle Hill, the former seat of the territorial governor and chief manager of the Russian-American Society.”

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