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March 30, 1867: "Russian Fairy Land"
The Treaty of Cession was submitted to the U.S. Senate, which would hand over control of Alaska to the United States.
Alaska is an American state with a wealth of resources. The value at the time was much lower than the level of yields it would produce. The contemporary press chastised Secretary of State William Seward for his expansion project, but time proved to be the ultimate judge. As America grew into the preeminent force of western power, the nation’s expansive gold deposits and oil fields would prove vital.
After a destructive civil war that ripped the American nation apart, a young democracy was uncertain about its future. Signs of this wavering revealed themselves before, during, and after the war. But the process of turning America into a global powerhouse sped up in the years following the turbulent 1860s.
In that same decade, one specific land sale would prove valuable in the years to come. Uninhabitable and inhabitable parts of Alaska existed under the auspices of a Russian company with a tenuous relationship with the Indigenous populations and British interests to the South. Yet, the destructive results of the Crimean War made Russia hungry for money. Thus, the Alaska venture was not profitable with it being difficult to travel to and exploit. As William Seward took an interest in the land (in part due to outreach from a Russian minister by the name of Eduard de Stoeckl), the Smithsonian Institution also explored the land and documented its characteristics.
The key for Seward was not only appealing to a vindictive and distasteful President Andrew Johnson but getting Republican reformers in the House to look past Johnson and appropriate funding. This coalition was fuming over Johnson’s dismissal of the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton after Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act. Stanton was an ally of “radical” Reconstruction and thus viewed as antithetical to Johnson's Southern sympathies. This law barred the president from getting rid of civil servants without Senate approval - deemed unconstitutional in 1926.
A propaganda campaign commenced. One aspect meant showing representatives some of the findings from the Smithsonian. The tenacious Seward found an ally in the Pennsylvania Republican representative, Thaddeus Stevens. Thus, appropriations were on the way. Due to the delay, the purchase was for 7.2 million dollars instead of 7. (Remember, we are entering an era where industrial elites could bail out the U.S. government with their own funds.)
Papers called the initiative “Seward’s Folly.” In a political cartoon in Harper’s Weekly, the effort was dubbed “Russian Fairy Land.” To many, this seemed to be a fantastical pursuit to create a distraction from the turmoil of the Johnson presidency.
Alaska gained statehood in 1959 - nearly 100 years after the initial sale. Gold reserves, oil deposits, and bountiful land for farming, fishing, and raising cattle all makeup Alaska's economic profile. Though it wouldn't be fully realized until the next century. By the modern era, this land was vital to an expansion of a historic commercial empire.
The Treaty of Cession is the moment the U.S. acquired Alaska diplomatically. But in the 1970s, the removal of the Indigenous land title occurred.
The colonization of Alaska happened in ways that don’t necessarily parallel the colonization of other Native American groups. There was exploitation and internecine fighting between government forces, Indigenous communities, and settlers. Yet, settlement within the cumbersome landscape is sparse in comparison to the continent. This is due to the state's intimidating topography despite its awe-inspiring beauty. Modern industrial collectives would need to aid the humans who didn't naturally come from the region. Also, the U.S. government didn’t recognize or tamper with Native titles until the 1930s. As technology and state powers within the U.S. grew, the nation's ability to take advantage of the resource-rich state also expanded.
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 extinguished Native title to the land. It transferred 44 million acres of land to the government, with one billion dollars in compensatory funds distributed. By the 70s, the government's interest in constructing the Trans-Alaska pipeline acted as an incentive.
Supernations compete on the global stage with their resources and populations. So, it turns out that “Russian Fairy Land” was as magical as sarcastic satirists depicted it to be during the dark days of post-Civil War America.
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