It was one of the most unlikely transactions in all of geographic history. One nation did not want to sell its patrimony. The other nation did not want to buy a worthless bit of real estate that was too far away to be of concern. To the seller, the price was too low. And besides, the buyer refused to pay. The deal was simply not supposed to occur. But sometimes things happen despite the best preventive efforts of both logic and adult supervision. Fate intervenes. Destiny controls. Welcome to Alaska.
Russian Odyssey, Russian America
In an article published two years ago in Whiskey & Gunpowder entitled “Odyssey to Tsushima,” I discussed Russian expansion across Asia and Siberia in the 1600s and 1700s. To make a long story short, by about 1740, the Russians had sent explorers into North America. These explorers established a land called “Russian America” (it would not be commonly called the Aleut name of “Alyeska” until the 1860s), with trading posts down the West Coast of North America to as far as what is now San Francisco. We now return to that theme.
Trade and Oil Seeps
From the mid-1700s when they first arrived to well past the mid-1800s when jurisdiction changed hands, Russia had a significant presence on the West Coast of North America. The Russians physically controlled the coastline of Russian America, as much as any nation could control such wild and rugged territory. And by virtue of sovereignty, the Russians controlled key trade routes, sources, and goods, to include whale products, furs, timber, other fish and food products, and some primitive manufactured items. Fur products from Russian America were of particular value in China, where they were easily and profitably exchanged by Russian merchants for Chinese tea, spices, and silver.
For 100 years, Russians traded extensively with the native populations in Russian America and western North America, and tightly controlled the movement of commerce from what would become Canada, meaning that Russia placed particular controls over British commerce. Despite the political constraints, however, at the level of the trading desk, the Russians gladly exchanged goods with British merchants, as well as with the merchants of Mexico and Spain to the south, and with the few Americans who ventured so far to the west in the early part of the 19th century. As to those Americans who had reached the western side of their great continent, in the early and mid-1800s, their nation was a new and struggling place with enough to think about simply taming the lands of the Ohio River Valley and Midwest. The young United States, that place that Alexis de Tocqueville described in his monumental work Democracy in America, were expanding slowly to the west from the original domain on the East Coast of North America. Few informed observers believed that America could or would expand to the West Coast for at least another 100 years.
Of interest, as early as the 1790s, Russian traders noticed and recorded oil seeps along the coastline of Russian America, in the area of the Kenai Peninsula. But this was long before anyone knew what to do with an oil seep. For that particular insight, and the technical and cultural development it conferred, mankind would have to await the events that occurred in Titusville, Pa., in 1859 and thereafter. And by then, other things had taken on a life of their own. But this gets ahead of the story.
Edouard de Stoeckl
In 1841, an elegant young Russian man was posted by his government to a diplomatic assignment in Washington, D.C. His name was Edouard de Stoeckl (1804-1892). He intended on pursuing a career in the Russian diplomatic service, and his American assignment was to the secretariat of Russian Legation. He would remain posted to the United States for the next 27 years, and at the end of his posting would alter the trajectory of history.
Stoeckl was urbane and sophisticated. He spoke flawless French and excellent English, with just an engaging hint of Russian accent. In the 1840s, he stood out in Washington, which was then a coarse and often violent place, where even members of Congress walked about armed. Quickly, Stoeckl became a frequent guest at the most selective of social gatherings and a confidant of many of the leading politicians and public intellectuals of the day.
But the American embrace of Stoeckl was not grounded purely on social desires. In the first half of the 19th century, the U.S. relationship with Russia was mutually cultivated, because both nations had an interest in competing with and constraining the British. The Russians saw Britain as a rival great power in Europe, and the U.S. saw Britain as a danger, past and present, lurking to the north in its Canadian possessions. Both Russia and the U.S. saw Britain as a rival in maritime trade and naval power. So it was not unnatural that both Russia and the U.S. would seek common ways to restrain Britain.
In the late 1840s and early 1850s, Stoeckl was witness to an astonishing and all but instantaneous surge of U.S. power and territorial expansion. In 1847 and 1848, he saw the U.S. whip itself into wartime frenzy toward Mexico, and seize and annex Texas and much of the land to the west. And between 1848-1850, the U.S. presence utterly overwhelmed California, in the months after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. This display of almost breakneck U.S. expansionism, coupled with a close reading of the U.S. concept of its own “Manifest Destiny” to expand westward, convinced Stoeckl that it would not be long before the U.S. also moved north into Canada and eventually up the western coastline to Russian America. This message and warning is what Stoeckl repeatedly sent back to the Russian Foreign Ministry in St. Petersburg.
The Crimean War and American Support of Russia
In the early 1850s, tensions flared in Europe between Russia, France, Britain, and Ottoman Turkey. By 1854, Russia was involved in full-scale war with Britain, France, and the Turks, with most of the fighting taking place in the Crimea and the Black Sea. Popular opinion in the U.S. concluded that Britain, France, and the Turks were in the wrong, and were unjustifiably waging war against Russia. U.S. policy took a decided tilt in favor of Russia.
During the course of Crimean War hostilities, 1854-1856, U.S. ships assisted Russian ships in distress. The U.S. government of President Franklin Pierce allowed U.S. merchants to sell arms to the Russians, and even oversaw the delivery of fine DuPont gunpowder to Russia. One unit of 300 Kentucky sharpshooters presented itself to go to Crimea and fight for Russia, while U.S. surgeons provided medical care to wounded Russian soldiers in field hospitals. The U.S. minister to London, an up-and-coming political star named James Buchanan (1791-1868), passed intelligence on British policy to the U.S. secretary of state, who in turn relayed the information to the Russian Legation in Washington. In 1856, while still posted in London, Buchanan would be nominated as a candidate, and in due course elected to the office of U.S. president.
One beneficiary of this outpouring of U.S. support for Russia in the Crimean War was the Russian diplomat posted to Washington, Edouard de Stoeckl. His contacts in Washington, cultivated during the previous decade, facilitated many of the U.S. policies that benefited Russia. In 1856, Stoeckl was appointed as first minister to the U.S., and soon thereafter came to be a close correspondent with the new U.S. President Buchanan.
Buchanan’s presidency, however, coincided with the descent of the U.S. toward its Civil War, a topic far too broad for this article to discuss in detail. Suffice to say that Buchanan had to deal with the judicial and political fallout of the Dred Scott holding, issued by the Supreme Court in 1857; the economic fallout of the Panic of 1857; and the social fallout of events such as “Bleeding Kansas” of the late 1850s, and the more easterly John Brown raid on Harpers Ferry in the fall of 1859. The expansive U.S. nation was tearing itself apart politically, and under the presidency of Buchanan headed for war. The election of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) cast the final die, and on April 12, 1861, Confederate shots were fired at Fort Sumter, S.C.
The Civil War interrupted the “Manifest Destiny” expansion of the U.S. to the west, while the various states of the Union and Confederacy were involved in other matters. Still, Stoeckl watched with trepidation and, taking a long view, did not cease to anticipate a time when the U.S. would seize Russian America as part of its effort to consolidate the territory of North America under one flag. The solution, thought Stoeckl, would be for Russia to “sell” its Russian America territory to the U.S. Again and again, Stoeckl raised the issue with his home office in St Petersburg.
In St. Petersburg, the idea of selling any part of Russian territory was out of the question. Where the Russian flag was raised, it would never come down. Indeed, 100 years of Russian colonization in Russian America had planted the seeds of the orthodox religion among both settlers and natives. Selling the territory would be the equivalent of abandoning these souls to some unknown, and probably cruel, fate.
The Civil War and Russian Support for the U.S.
As the U.S. Civil War raged, Russia again found herself, in mid-1863, facing the possibility of another war with Britain over the fate of Poland. But this time, it did not seem likely that the now-divided U.S. would be able to assist Russia, as had occurred during the Crimean War, either diplomatically or militarily, or with materiel of any sort. So the Russians decided to alter the diplomatic climate to their own benefit, and secretly dispatched numerous elements of their navy to U.S. ports. In September 1863, coincidentally just two months after the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), Russian warships sailed into and anchored in the harbors of New York on the East Coast and San Francisco on the West Coast.
The specific Russian military purpose was to protect these otherwise vulnerable ships from any attack by superior British naval forces. But to the American perception, the docking of the vessels made a statement by Russia that Britain should not intervene in the American war on the side of the Confederacy. The public within the Northern states went wild with acclaim for the Russian warships. News reports all but sang paeans to the Russian ships, and lionized the Russian officers and crew. “Thank God for the Russians,” wrote Secretary of War Gideon Welles in his diary. The Russian ships remained in U.S. ports for seven months, and received courtesy calls by numerous politicians and prominent journalists and individuals of wealth and power. Even Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the U.S. president, paid a call upon the Russian flagship in New York. This Russian naval maneuver effectively brought an end to the possibility that any European nation would provide aid or assistance to the Southern states, and thus doomed the Confederacy to suffer under a Northern war of attrition.
The Civil War and Russian America
Although the Civil War ended with a Northern victory over the South, the U.S. was a shambles. Total U.S. casualties were of biblical proportions. The U.S. government had incurred great debt to fight the war, and wartime inflation was raging. The South was rapidly becoming lawless, and its economy was destroyed by war and plunder. The economy of the North was badly distorted by the effects of wartime industrial production. The assassination of President Lincoln, in April 1865, only added to the national discord, in that an ostensible Southerner, Andrew Johnson, became president and was distrusted by many Northerners and Southerners alike.
On the same night that Lincoln was murdered, his Secretary of State William Seward (1801-1872) was also severely wounded in a failed attempt to take his life. Seward had made a political career as an ardent expansionist and proponent of U.S. Manifest Destiny, and in the course of his career had become a close acquaintance of Russian Minister Stoeckl. On many occasions, Seward and Stoeckl had discussed issues concerning Russian trade with California out of “Alyeska,” and in the process, the two had discussed the future of Russian America, and which nation would eventually control those lands. It was Seward’s belief in the need to look out for the long-term interests of the U.S., and particularly its continuing territorial expansion, that caused him to decide to stay on with the new Johnson administration, and for that act, he forfeited most of his political support.
On the one hand, in 1865, Russian America was not for sale by the Russian government. In Russia, the belief was that the postwar U.S., with its economy so distorted and dislocated, would need to trade in order to obtain many kinds of essential goods. The products and resources being exported from Russian America could provide many of those goods to the markets of Oregon and California. In addition, in the Russian perception, the weakened U.S. was no longer in a position to exert a threat to Canada, and by extension to Britain. So the U.S. could not be counted on to work in concert to protect Russian interest against Britain. There was nothing to gain by selling out.
But on the other hand, from his post in Washington, Russian Minister Stoeckl persisted in making a case to sell the Russian territory to the U.S. He continually advocated to the Russian government the sale of Russian America (by now being called “Alyeska” so as to minimize its Russian character) to the U.S., arguing that this would allow the Russian government to concentrate its resources on Eastern Siberia, particularly the problematic Amur River border area with China. Also, insisted Stoeckl, by selling the North American possession to the U.S., Russia would avoid any future conflict with America due to what he believed would be inevitable, eventual territorial expansion.
At one point, the Russian government recalled Stoeckl to St. Petersburg, in order to give him a promotion that would remove him from Washington and stop further discussion of selling the North American colony. But in a twist of fate, Stoeckl used his return to Russia as another forum from which to advocate selling “Alyeska.” Finally, at a secret meeting in the Winter Palace held in December 1866, Russian policymakers conceded to Stoeckl the authority to sell the North American holdings, but “not for less than $5,000,000.00.”
By March 1867, Stoeckl was back in Washington, negotiating with Seward for the sale of Russian America to the U.S. Eventually, Stoeckl got Seward up to $7,200,000.00, which was little enough. Indeed, the Russian navy cost twice that much to operate every year. $7,200,000.00 was a relative pittance. The Russians may as well have just given the place away.
“Unfit for Civilized Men”
Seward quickly took the agreement to the U.S. Senate, where he immediately encountered stiff resistance. Much of the resistance was because the sale was perceived as Seward’s idea, and Seward’s stock was low. But through much suasion and not a few promises of future benefit of one sort or another, the Senate finally voted to approve the purchase, 27-to-12, only one vote more than the two-thirds vote required to ratify a treaty.
Now Seward was faced with the prospect of obtaining funding from the U.S. House. The opposition to paying any money to Russia was furious, even $7,200,000.00 for all of Alaska. At root, it was all about animosity toward Seward and the president he served, Andrew Johnson. But from the rhetoric, it was also clear that the warm feelings toward Russia from the days of the Crimean War were gone. And it was as if Russian ships had not sailed into New York Harbor at a critical time of the Civil War. As far as many members of the U.S. House were concerned, Seward’s deal with the Russians was just a golden payback for a notorious publicity stunt. The entire landmass of “Alyeska” was characterized as nothing but “Seward’s Icebox” and the deal was “Seward’s Folly.” The House Foreign Affairs Committee issued a scathing report in which it categorized as worthless the timber, the fish, the minerals, and the furs of Alaska. These resources were all “unfit for civilized men,” stated the report. This stigma, certainly untrue and entirely unfair, would attach to Alaska and persist for many decades.
But in July 1868, the U.S. House finally voted in favor of funding the purchase of Alaska from Russia. According to a note left in the papers of President Johnson, Seward had arranged for many of the House members to receive substantial bribes to vote in favor of the purchase and funding. In other words, it almost did not happen.
Stoeckl returned to Russia under a cloud of suspicion. He was accused of sedition, denied another diplomatic post, and quietly pensioned off to live out his life in Paris. He is barely remembered in Russian history, and if mentioned, it is usually in the context of selling out Russian interests to the U.S.
Seward served out his term under President Johnson, and retired when Ulysses Grant was inaugurated as the 18th U.S. president, in March 1869. Seward returned to his home in Auburn, N,Y., where he died on Oct. 10, 1872. Seward’s last words were to his children: “Love one another.” Seward was buried near his home, and his headstone says not a word about Alaska, but simply reads, “He was faithful.”
Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
June 4, 2007