Alaska's Heritage


Americans begin to look at Alaska

John Ledyard, an American who served as a marine corporal on Cook's third voyage of exploration, was probably one of the first Americans to talk of the advantages of the Pacific Northwest Coast trade for the United States. One of the listeners may have been John Adams, President of the United States between 1797 and 1800. In a diary entry for June 19, 1783, Adams noted the existence of an island called "Alaschka" and asked:

What should hinder the Empress of Russia from establishing a trading city on the Sea of Kamchatka, and opening a commerce with Pekin, Nankin, and Canton, the cities of China? It (Alaska) is so near the Islands of Japan, the Phillipines, the Moluccas, that a great scene may one day be opened here.

A year after Adams wrote that. New England merchants sent the ship Empress of China to Canton in 1784. The Empress returned loaded with porcelain, silk, nankeen-a cotton cloth preferred for gentlemen's breeches. The voyage proved, however, that the 13 Chinese officials who had exclusive rights to European and American trade would not give much for New England products. A third party had to join in the trading. Natives of the Pacific Northwest Coast, including Alaska, became that third party in 1787. In that year two ships from New England, the Columbia and the Washington, sailed along the Northwest Coast. They traded alcohol, mirrors, iron tools, firearms and ammunition, and knick knacks from New England for sea otter pelts. The New Englanders then took the pelts to Canton and traded them for Chinese goods desired in the United States and in Europe.

Americans compete in Alaska fur trade

The result of this American competition was that the Chinese gave the Russians only half of their expected prices for furs from Alaska. Reacting, Russian diplomats proposed in 1810 that the United States prohibit its citizens from trading alcohol, arms, and ammunition on the Northwest Coast. These were among the most desired trade goods. They also made Alaska's Natives more difficult for the Russians to control. The Russians said that if the Americans would agree not to trade guns and ammunition to the Natives, they would let the Americans trade at Russian settlements in Alaska. An agreement was never reached. New England whiskey and gunpowder threatened to ruin the Russians' already shaky reign over the Natives of Southeast Alaska.

As a result of this danger, Tsar Alexander I issued an 1821 order forbidding non-Russian ships from coming within 100 miles of coasts in Russian possession. These coasts were defined to include the Northwest Coast of North America above 51 degrees North latitude and from the Aleutian Islands to Siberia. In the area set aside, commerce, whaling, and all fisheries were granted solely to Russian subjects.

The United States and Britain protested the tsar's ruling immediately. A series of negotiations followed. In an April 1824 treaty Russia agreed with the United States to a south boundary for Alaska of 54 degrees 40 minutes North latitude. The treaty also allowed Americans to trade in Alaska for ten years after the treaty was signed. The Americans were to stop trading alcohol and firearms to Alaska Natives, but enforcement of this ban was left to United States authorities. After this, Russia agreed in a February 1825 treaty with Britain to the 141st meridian as the eastern boundary of Alaska.

American and Russian traders also cooperate

Americans and Russians in Alaska often cooperated while politicians negotiated. American ships brought food to the Russian settlements, assisted in fur hunts, and took furs away.

If American ships did not actually save the Sitka colony from starvation a couple of times, they at least relieved a great shortage of food. Over the years the Americans sold thousands of dollars of goods to the Russians. One man who apparently had a regular trade agreement with the Russian-American Company was John Jacob Astor of New York, who sent several ships to Alaska.

The Russian-American Company also contracted with American trading vessels to hunt sea otters. At least 12 different American vessels took part in 15 voyages that carried from 24 to 130 Aleut or Alutiiq hunters to California waters for hunting. The Americans paid the hunters for their work, and the Russian-American Company got half of the skins taken. A few American ships recruited either Haida or Tlingit hunters at Tongass. There was often trouble with these hunters, however, and it was not done often.

Whaling begins in Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea

The 1824 treaty did not end Russia's problems with Americans in Alaska. The trade from New England to the Northwest Coast to China continued and United States authorities did little to enforce the ban on trading alcohol/ ammunition, and firearms. Then a new threat appeared when the New England whaling ship Ganges opened the Gulf of Alaska whale fishery in 1835. Many whalers from New England followed the Ganges. In 1846, 290 American whaling ships sailed from New England for the North Pacific. Two years later, Captain Thomas Roys in the ship Superior, of Sag Harbor, New York, began bowhead whaling in the Bering Sea. The Superior had such a successful whaling season that in 1852 more than 200 whaling ships hunted bowhead whales in arctic seas. The catch that year was valued at a record $14 million.

Early whaling voyages usually lasted at least two years. Ships set out from Atlantic Ocean ports in the fall, rounded the tip of South America, and hunted whales in the southern Pacific Ocean until early spring. The ships unloaded the winter's oil and baleen catch in the Hawaiian Islands and took on provisions there for the summer season, which they would spend in Alaskan waters. They hunted whales in the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean until fall storms and ice forced them south.

Most whaling crews traded with Eskimos. They exchanged tobacco, liquor, and other items for ivory and furs. This disrupted the traditional trade network between Siberian and Alaskan Eskimos. Because coastal Eskimos could trade with whalers for more valued items, they traded less with other Native groups. As a result, inland Eskimos were often unable to acquire trade goods they depended upon. Some moved to coastal villages.

Whalers changed the Eskimos' traditional life in another way by hiring them to work aboard ship. Men worked as deckhands and hunters, and women made clothing. This employment altered the Eskimos' annual hunting cycle. The Eskimos hunted less for themselves while they worked for the whalers. Instead of trading one kind of goods for another, they now exchanged their labor for goods.

Americans consider Alaska purchase

American companies experimented with cod-fishing voyages to Alaskan waters. American ships continued in the maritime fur trade along Alaska's coasts. Americans developed large-scale economic interests in Alaska and at the same time were beginning to believe that it was the United States destiny to rule all of North America.

Money to be made and the idea of the national destiny may have inspired the first suggestion that Russian America was properly a United States possession. Senator Robert J. Walker of Mississippi is said to have proposed this to President-elect James K. Polk in 1845. The United States Congress also discussed the idea in 1846 when it debated the question of where Oregon's northern boundary should be drawn.

Reports of New England ship captains on the resources of Alaska gave Americans much information about the territory, as did the United States Navy's North Pacific Exploring Expedition of 1855. A ship of the expedition, the Fen/more Cooper, surveyed the Aleutian Islands and stopped at Sitka to visit the Russians there on its way south.

As early as September of 1860, William Henry Seward, who served President Abraham Lincoln as United States Secretary of State during the Civil War, said in a speech at St. Paul, Minnesota:

Standing here, and looking far off into the North-west, I see the Russian, as he busily occupies himself establishing seaports, and towns, and fortifications, on the verge of this continent, as the outposts of St. Petersburg; and 1 can say: 'go on, and build up your outposts all along the coast, up even to the Arctic Ocean; they will yet become the outposts of my own country-monuments of the civilization of the United States in the Northwest.'

Lincoln himself is said to have believed that the United States suffered from a lack of naval outposts in the North Pacific. At one time he suggested that Tsar Nicholas of Russia allow the United States to control the Pacific coast up to the Arctic Ocean.

Informal negotiations about the United States taking over Alaska actually began even before Seward's 1860 speech. Senator Gwin of California, acting for the president who preceded Lincoln, James Buchanan, talked with Russia's Minister to the United States, Edward de Stoeckl, on the subject. Gwin said the United States might buy Alaska for $5 million, but the talks ended without result in the summer of 1860. They were not taken up again for several years because of the United States Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865.

Telegraph project expands knowledge of Alaska

While the war was going on, however, efforts to build a globe-circling telegraph line produced much new information about the territory. An undersea Atlantic cable to speed communications between Europe and the United States had been a goal on both continents for some time. Technical difficulty prevented completion of such a link but an alternative overland route had been proposed as early as 1857. The overland route was to run north from the United States, through Canada, through Alaska, across the Bering Sea, and then east through Russia to Europe. The Western Union Telegraph Company got permission from the British and Russian governments to work in their territories. In 1864 the company financed explorations and preliminary line surveys in Alaska, Canada, and Siberia.

Part of this telegraph expedition was a Scientific Corps. Naturalist Robert Kennicott led the seven-member corps, which was to collect information about the lands through which the telegraph line would pass. He recruited other scientists and assigned them to two groups. One group would explore the Yukon River east from Nulato to meet a Canadian survey team. The other group would travel west to the mouth of the Yukon River and north to the Seward Peninsula. Just reaching Nulato was difficult. Kennicott died at Nulato in May of 1866. William H. Dall succeeded Kennicott as leader of the Scientific Corps. In the summer of 1866 three members of the corps traveled up the Yukon River in a kayak to reach Fort Yukon.

The next year, Dall and corps artist Frederick Whymper left Nulato, where they had spent the winter, and traveled the same route. On their return to Nulato in mid-July they were called to St. Michael. There they learned, to their dismay, that the overland telegraph route had been abandoned. A cable had been successfully laid beneath the Atlantic Ocean between the United States and Europe. While the telegraph project was not completed, much of value resulted from the corps' investigations.

The scientists' reports detailed Alaska's vast resources for the first time. Whymper's sketches of interior Alaska and the Athabaskans who lived there provided a unique glimpse of life along the Yukon River. Dall and the others identified a large number of previously unknown plants and animals. Today, many of these species bear Dall's name, among them the Dall sheep (Ovis dalli) and the blackfish (Dallis pectoralis).

United States renews and fulfills purchase interest

Shortly after the Civil War, the California Fur Company of San Francisco raised the idea of an Alaska purchase again. The company wanted to take over the fur trade of the Russian-American Company and asked the United States Minister to Russia, Cassius M. Clay, for assistance. This came to nothing, but Russian opinion was moving toward selling Russian interests in Alaska.

An 1866 poll of advisors to the tsar indicated that the Russian-American Company was nearing bankruptcy. It would need direct government aid to survive. The advisors also said that Russia's American colonies were impossible to defend. The Russian treasury could not afford either a rescue of the company or a war with the United States or Britain over colonies on another continent. Stoeckl, who had been recalled to Russia for these discussions, returned to the United States. In early 1867 he opened negotiations for the sale of Alaska to the United States.

On March 29, 1867, Stoeckl informed Secretary of State Seward that the tsar had agreed to sell Russian interests in Alaska to the United States. The Russian minister and Seward drafted a treaty that same night. On June 20 President Andrew Johnson signed the treaty and sent it to the United States Senate for confirmation.

Russian and American soldiers, sailors, and civilians took part in the October 18, 1867, ceremonies at Sitka that transferred Russian interests in Alaska to the United States. Held at Baranov's Castle in Sitka, the ceremonies marked the beginning of a te
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, Alaska Miscellaneous Arts and Illustration Collection.
Identifier: PCA 62-185
The "Treaty Concerning the Cession of the Russian Possession in North America by His Majesty the Emperor of All the Russias to the United States of America" provided for a purchase price of $7,200,000 in gold. All private property was to be retained by its owners, with Russian Orthodox Church members assuming title to churches built in Alaska by the Russian government or the Russian-American Company. Inhabitants of Alaska, excepting those the Russians classified as "uncivilized tribes," could remain in the newly-acquired territory and become citizens of the United States. They could also choose to go to Russia. "Uncivilized tribes" were to be subject to such laws as the United States might adopt about them.

The United States Senate approved the treaty by a large majority. Only two senators voted against it. Although the House of Representatives did not appropriate money for the purchase until 1868 after much debate, the American government went ahead with plans to take over Russian America. On October 18, 1867, transfer ceremonies were held at Sitka and Alaska became a United States possession.