One hundred and fifty-six years ago, the papers were signed, the ink was dry, and Alaska became the property of the United States of America.
Russia needed cash because the Crimean War had sapped its treasury, and Secretary of State William Seward thought the land of the north was a good addition to the growing nation, what with all the timber and fish. That was before gold was discovered in Alaska.
Russia, which had conquered and claimed Alaska during the explorations of Vitus Bering, had offered several times to sell the land beginning in 1859, and America had interest in buying it — but also had an ongoing civil war to fight starting in 1861 and not nearly enough resources to go around until 1867.
The actual transfer ceremony took place at Castle Hill in Sitka on Oct. 18, 1867, where reenactments are still done each year and where the day is most celebrated.
Alaska was not a territory until 1912, and just five years later, in 1917, the territorial legislature declared Alaska Day a holiday. It is now a paid holiday for state employees.
Alaska Day is protested by some who view it as a celebration of colonialism and the unlawful taking of land from the Native people who lived on it.
Native groups say the land was not Russia’s to sell and therefore it does not belong to the United States. For the past few years, objectors have shown up at the Alaska Day celebrations to show their disapproval of the day and to ask for it to be rebranded as a day of reconciliation, or for reparations.
This year, Alaska Day comes just before the opening of the Alaska Federation of Natives annual conference in Anchorage. The AFN convention, Oct. 19-21 at the Dena’ina Convention Center, is a forum for the Native community to participate in steering public policy and to advance Native interests.
More about the purchase of Alaska at the U.S. State Department site at this link.