There is a wealth of Alaskan history in the old books and documents which are digitized and online, available to read, download, save to your Kindle or other device, or otherwise enjoy in multiple formats. The Library of Congress has an astonishing collection of historic documents, as expected, including Alaska-specific volumes such as the Treaty concerning the cession of the Russian possessions in North America by His Majesty the emperor of all the Russias to the United States of America (1867), a 1967 facsimile of the limited official edition of the original Treaty of Cession. You can read the text-only version over at the Yale Law Library, or in the Harvard Classics at Bartleby, and there’s a transcribed photo version at the Alaska State Library.
The history behind the treaty was reported on the front page of newspapers across the U.S., such as this leading article from The New York Tribune for April 1, 1867 (top of the fifth column). The history is also well explained at Wikipedia: “The Alaska Purchase (Russian: Продажа Аляски, tr. Prodazha Alyaski, Sale of Alaska) was the United States’ acquisition of Alaska from the Russian Empire. Alaska was formally transferred to the United States on October 18, 1867, through a treaty ratified by the United States Senate and signed by President Andrew Johnson.”
The article continues with the history, public opinion about the purchase, the transfer ceremony, the aftermath, and much more, including their always-valuable references, further reading, and external links. While some people dismiss Wikipedia itself as a resource, I find the additional resources Wikipedia freely shares to be of utmost value, and the best reason to keep it among my bookmarked research sources. As an example, a linked reference under See Also led me to the “Alabama Claims, the US demands for British reparations after the Civil War, which Seward thought would lead to the cession of western Canada.”
I’d heard the term before, but I didn’t know the history, so I was surprised to learn that our Secretary Seward had higher aims than just Alaska: “The Alabama Claims were a series of demands for damages sought by the government of the United States from the United Kingdom in 1869, for the attacks upon Union merchant ships by Confederate Navy commerce raiders built in British shipyards during the American Civil War. The claims focused chiefly on the most famous of these raiders, the CSS Alabama, which took more than sixty prizes before she was sunk off the French coast in 1864.”
“Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, originally wanted to ask for $2 billion in damages, or alternatively, the ceding of Canada to the United States. When American Secretary of State William H. Seward negotiated the Alaska Purchase in 1867, he intended it as the first step in a comprehensive plan to gain control of the entire northwest Pacific Coast. Seward was a firm believer in “Manifest Destiny”, primarily for its commercial advantages to the United States. Seward expected the West Coast Province of British Columbia to seek annexation to the United States and thought Britain might accept this in exchange for the Alabama claims. Soon other U.S. politicians endorsed annexation, with the goal of annexing British Columbia, the central Canadian Red River Colony (later Manitoba), and eastern Nova Scotia, in exchange for dropping the damage claims.”
It’s all quite fascinating, and if you’ve read this far you should click here and read the entire article to learn why the claim was dropped without our annexing a large part of Canada. There are also many interesting links to references, a bibliography, and external links which lead to books, articles, newspaper accounts, and much more. One link took me to another particularly interesting online book, Great Britain and the American Civil War, and another to a detailed breakdown of the Alabama Claims and their “final and amicable settlement,” written in 1871.
In my opinion the best book about the entire affair is the 1900 book written by Thomas Willing Balch titled simply The Alabama Arbitration. It is available to read or download free at The Internet Archive.
There are also good articles at:
• Office of the Historian for the U.S. Department of State
• JSTOR “The arbitration which led to this result has been described as one which, whether measured by the gravity of the questions at issue or by the enlightened statesmanship which conducted them to a peaceful determination, was justly regarded as the greatest the world had ever seen.” -JB Moore, History and Digest of the International Arbitrations to which the United States has been a Party (Washington, 1898)
Alaskan History Magazine • 1 year subscription
A one year subscription to Alaskan History Magazine is six bimonthly issues, featuring well-researched stories of the people, places and events which shaped the history of Alaska from prehistory to Statehood. Full color, no advertising, 48 pages per issue. Back issues are always available.