As we enter the 150th anniversary year of the purchase of Alaska, let’s take a look at the transfer ceremony and the circumstances Americans faced in 1867.
Secretary of State William Henry Seward engineered the deal that gave Russia $7.2 million, roughly two cents an acre, for what was known as Russian America. Strongly ridiculed in the press as “Seward’s Folly,” the investment has been repaid thousands of times over.
Representing Emperor Alexander II at the treaty signing was Minister Edouard de Stoeckl. He and Seward worked on the wording until 3 a.m. on the morning of March 30. The Senate 10 days later recommended approval; it was confirmed on May 28 and proclaimed by President Andrew Johnson on June 30. It was not until August 1, 1868, however, that Treasury Warrant No. 927 in the amount of $7,200,000 was handed over to Stoeckl.
It was determined that the Army would be assigned the duty of administering the new possession. Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, commander of the Military District of the Pacific was given the task of organizing the change of government. He saw the need for troops to be sent north before the onset of winter, but with forces still depleted following the Civil War and demands related to western expansion, it was to take longer than expected.
Logistics presented a challenge as there was little information available about what to expect. In addition, there were no direct communication facilities because mail was dependent on ships. That was before telegraph lines were extended to Alaska and wireless telegraphy (radio) would not be invented for another quarter of a century.
General Ulysses S. Grant appointed Brevet Maj. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis as commander of the new Military District of Alaska.
Davis had served in the Mexican War as well as the War Between the States and had risen through the ranks in the Union Army. As a colonel in the Regular Army he was commander of the 23rd Infantry Regiment.
Under Davis were to be Battery H, 2nd Artillery and Company F of the 9th Infantry Regiment.
They were to be shipped to Sitka with sufficient stores to last for a year. They were to be accompanied by lumber and supplies to build needed quarters plus a fire engine and other items needed for public safety and other purposes.
At the time, it was believed that there were 300 residents who were American or foreign, 500 Russians, 1,500 “Creole” or mixed race, and 24,000 to 29,000 Natives. Russians had the choice of remaining in Alaska or returning to their native land. Still dealing with Indian tribes in some of the Western states, the Army was unsure what to expect from the indigenous population. Davis was cautioned that the Natives could be expected to be “warlike and treacherous.”
Preparing for the transfer, commissioners representing the United States, including Gen. Rousseau, and Russian commissioners Capt. Alexy Pestchouroff and Capt. Kuskul met with Ambassador Stoeckl in New York. Rousseau was to represent the American government while Pestchouroff was the official representing the Emperor and Kuskul represented the Russian-American Trading Co., the firm that had in effect managed all of Russian-America.
The commissioners set sail for San Francisco on Aug. 31. Traveling around the Cape of Africa, they arrived there on Sept. 22. They left two days later enroute to New Archangel, today’s Sitka, aboard the USS Ossipee. Troops of Co. F, 9th Infantry, and Battery G, 2nd Artillery, departed on Sept. 25 on the military transport John L. Stephens. Traveling with the troops were members of the press and other civilians. The ship also was loaded with cargo and supplies to sustain the troops. The Stephens anchored in the harbor at the Russian capital on October 9. The Ossipee and the commissioners did not arrive until the morning of October 18.
The troops remained aboard the Stephens while awaiting the commissioners’ arrival.
A newspaper correspondent named Del Norte of Alta, Calif., described what he saw in New Archangel as quoted in U.S. Army Pamphlet 360-5, “Building Alaska with the United States Army:”
“Really, there is only one street in the town…and this turning toward the beach, terminates in the only road leading from town. It runs along the shore for a mile and turning north is stopped at the base of a jagged mountain. It affords the only pleasant walk on the island, and on a fair day has been for many years the fashionable promenade of both the aristocracy and the plebians of New Archangel.”
Near the wharf were batteries of cannon. The Russian-American Company warehouses used to store furs dominated the waterfront. These two-story buildings were painted yellow, with metal roofs painted red. The governor’s house stoop atop a bluff above the business district. In the middle of the plaza was the Greek Church, which Norte said was “the only building in town having any claim to architectural beauty.”
Nearby was the Lutheran Church and beyond was the Club House occupied by unmarried officers of the trading company, the school, hospital and various workshops. Private homes were located close by, mostly built of logs.
The actual transfer ceremony took place at 3:30 p.m., with Russian and U.S. troops resplendent in dress uniforms. It was said to be a pleasant, although partly cloudy, day. The temperature was not recorded, but likely on the cool side.
At three o’clock, the Russian company of 100 soldiers attired in “dark uniforms trimmed in red and wearing flat glazed hats” gathered near the flagpole in front of the governor’s house. Launches carrying 200 U.S. troops landed at the same hour, “the sheen of muskets and colorful uniforms [creating] an inspiring sight.”
Gen. Davis and an honor guard marched to the left of the flagpole.
The Russian troops saluted the Americans as they passed, their salutes formally returned. A large crowd of spectators gathered around. Among them were 98 officers of the American warships, 80 Marines and about 60 civilians. Prince Dmitri Maksoutoff, governor of Russian-America, and the commissioners exited the governor’s house and took their place at the flagpole to complete the official assemblage, acknowledged with salutes by the uniformed men of both countries.
At precisely 3:30, the Russian Eagle was lowered. As it came slowly down, a booming 21-gun salute was fired by each country. The Ossipee’s cannon fired the first shot, it being answered by one from a Russian shore battery. When the 42 rounds had been fired, Capt. Pestchouroff turned to Gen. Rousseau to recite the formal words of transfer, with Rousseau accepting.
With the proclamation stated, George Rousseau, the general’s 15-year-old son, aided by a midshipman, raised the Stars and Stripes. This time the Russians’ cannon fired the first shot in a 21-gun salute, The Ossipee’s guns alternating until the salute was completed.
With that formal ceremony now complete, Russian-America became the American possession to be known as Alaska.
The ceremony will be re-enacted this year with full pomp and circumstance on Oct. 18 to mark the 150th Anniversary of the purchase. In the meantime, many observances of the Sesquicentennial will be held as Alaskans prepare to mark the day.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com.