October 18, 2011 - Alaska Day

Did you know that the United States purchase Alaska from the Russians?

On this day in 1867, a Russian flag over Fort Sitka was lowered, and a U.S. flag was raised. So today is the anniversary of the formal transfer of ownership.

How do you think the native peoples whose ancestors had lived on this land for centuries or millennia felt about this purchase, sale, and transfer?

You want to buy what?

When U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward made the treaty, agreeing to pay more than seven million dollars for Alaska, many Republicans laughed at him. They called the purchase “Seward's folly.” According to my research, these scoffers didn't really think that $7,000,000 was too much for almost 600,000 square miles (more than a million and a half square kilometers!) of land...but the Republicans were against the president (Andrew Johnson), even though he was Republican, too. So many of them didn't argue about whether or not the purchase was a good idea—they just didn't like anything that came from the White House!

Most Americans apparently thought that the purchase was a good idea. They figured there had to be some resources in all that land, and they wanted to be on good terms with Russia (which really needed the money).

And of course, they were right about the resources: Discoveries of gold, copper, and oil were just the start!

Why did Russia sell such valuable land for so little?

Not only did Russia need money, apparently the tsar didn't think he could hold on to what he considered “Russian America.” He figured somebody—probably Great Britain—would just take the land, and if he ordered his army to defend Alaska, he was bound to lose, as Russia had just fought and lost the Crimean War with Britain. The smart thing would be to sell the land before he lost it, anyway!

Did you know...?

  • The highest point in all of North America is in Alaska—and this mountain has two different names: Mount McKinley and Denali. (I bet you can tell which name comes from the Native American language Athabascan.)

  • The longest highway tunnel in North America is in Alaska—all 13,200 feet of it! (That's more than four kilometers!)

  • Juneau is the state capital of Alaska – but it isn't very easy at all to get to Juneau from major cities like Anchorage or Fairbanks—at least, not by road! But you can get there by water! Loads of cruise ships visit Juneau every summer, and there are ferries as well.

  • Some inlets in Alaska have huge tidal ranges—every day low tide is 33 feet (11 meters) farther out than high tide. Wow!

  • One out of every ten active volcanoes in the entire world is in Alaska. Um...yikes!

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