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The charter of the Russian-American Company


Baron Eduard Stoeckl
Baron Eduard Stoeckl

In 1843 U.S. secretary of state William Marcy and Senator William M. Gwin, both ardent expansionists, asked Baron Eduard Stoeckl, the Russian ambassador to the United States, if rumors that the colony was for sale were true. Stoeckl said no, but the question had been raised.

The charter of the Russian-American Company was renewed for 20 years in 1844. The company attempted to diversify the economy by mining coal, catching whales, and exporting ice to San Francisco, but these ventures amounted to little. By the late 1850s, after Russia lost the Crimean War against the British and French, the government became convinced that it could ill afford the luxury of an American colony. Russia decided to sell its American colony and instructed Stoeckl to negotiate with the United States. Stoeckl began discussions with U.S. secretary of state William H. Seward on March 11, 1867, and at the end of March they drew up the Treaty of Cession and sent it to their governments for ratification. The agreed price was $7.2 million.

Seward had some difficulty getting the Senate of the United States to ratify the treaty, but he carried on a vigorous campaign to gain support, and the Senate agreed by a vote of 37 to 2. A few newspapers denounced what they called “Seward’s Folly” or “Walrussia,” but the vast majority of the nation’s press supported the purchase. Proponents argued that purchasing Alaska would strengthen fishing and fur trading enterprises in the North Pacific, allow the United States to build important naval outposts in the region, prevent European countries from developing a stronghold in North America, and enhance existing ties of friendship between the United States and Russia. In 1868 the merits of the Alaskan purchase were fully debated in the U.S. House of Representatives, which had to appropriate the money to pay for the purchase.

The House eventually voted on July 18, 1868, to pay Russia for the land. Meanwhile, the United States had taken possession of Alaska on October 18, 1867.

The Russian phase of Alaskan history had lasted 126 years. Russian activities had been mainly limited to the Aleutians, Kodiak, and the Alexander Archipelago. There was some exploration of the Interior, but little settlement. At its peak the Russian population numbered no more than 700. The greatest impact of this period was the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church and its priests among the Aleut and Tlingit, which continues today.

The United States was not much better prepared than the Russians to administer Alaska. The new possession was remote, and most Americans knew little about it. The American Civil War (1861-1865) had just ended, and the country’s leaders were intent on dealing with the problems left by that conflict. However, many Americans had been coming to Alaska for more than 75 years to trade, sell supplies, and later hunt whales. Furthermore, in 1864 the Western Union Company, through its subsidiary the Collins Overland Line, had embarked on building a telegraph line through Alaska to connect North America with eastern Asia and Europe.

This enterprise collapsed when a transatlantic cable was completed in 1866. Western Union’s effort, however, stimulated American interest in Alaska, and a scientific expedition from the Smithsonian Institution brought back extensive data about the region’s resources and climate. In addition, the Russians had accumulated much information about Alaska, which became available to the United States after the purchase. Encarta "USA" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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