Alaska Map, Getty Images, 2017

Historical Context

Alaska was first discovered when Danish explorer and Russian naval officer Vitus Bering was sent by Russia’s Czar Peter the Great in 1725, and then again in 1741, by Empress Anna Ivanovna, in an effort to expand trade and settlements for Russia in the Pacific coastal region of North America. He landed in the Aleutian Islands, and although he would die from scurvy, his crew would return to Russia to tell of his accomplishments.This would lead to Russia claiming much of this land for fur trading.

Czar Peter the Great, Royal Collection Trust

Empress Ana, AKG Images

Vitus Bering, Alaska Digital Archives 

Map of Vitus Bering's Exploration, Britannica Kids

Captain James Cook, Royal Museums Greenwich

James Cook's Pacific Voyages, Britannica

In order to compete with rivals such as Russia, Spain, and France, Great Britain’s Captain James Cook explored the coast of Alaska on June 1, 1778, in order to try to find the Northwest Passage, an all-water route connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Although he was unsuccessful, this would lead to Great Britain’s claim to much of the land in Alaska.

Captain James Cook’s sextant, Britannica ​​​​​​​

 After much debate, Russian and British diplomats signed the St. Peterburg Treaty of 1825 to define the boundaries between Russia America and Great Britian's claim. From 1853 to 1856, Russian military forces fought in the Crimean War against an alliance of Great Brittain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia for control of the Crimean Peninsula and access of the holy lands of the Middle East.  When Russia lost the war, they were in severe debt.  This led them to ask the United States if they were intrested in purchasing Alaska; in order to keep it out of the hands of the British. ​​​​​​​

To His Excellency Prince A. M. Gorchakov: ​​​​​​​

“In view of the straitened circumstances of the State finances I am now looking for ways of reducing our naval appropriation and would like very much to reduce the estimated requirement by one quarter of the total estimated sum. However, in spite of all that we can do in this direction, such a tremendous economy, decidedly harmful to the development of our naval forces, will bring a comparatively small profit to the State Treasury. Therefore, in order to get out of the difficult situation besides the considerations just mentioned it becomes necessary to turn to other more effective measures. I think we would do well to take advantage of the excess of money at the present time in the Treasury of the United States of America and to sell them our North American colonies. This transaction would be very timely, as we must not deceive ourselves and must forsee that the United States, constantly aiming to round out their possessions and desiring to dominate undividedly the whole of North America, will take the afore-mentioned colonies from us and we shall not be able to regain them.”


Crimean War, Getty.images 

Civil War, Britannica.com

Letter from Grand Duke, Library of Congress

Russian and British Traders, Alaska Digital Arhives

From 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War was being fought within the United States, as the southern and northern states disagreed over slavery and its expansion into newly formed western territories. Because of the cost of the war, the United States was not initially interested in purchasing Alaska. This would be a distraction to the people over the cost of the war.