Seward’s Folly: The Purchase of Alaska


On March 30, 1867, Alaska was purchased from Russia by the United States for $7.2 million (about 2 cents/acre). Initiated by U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, the Alaskan purchase was ridiculed in Congress and in the press and was called “Seward’s folly,” “Seward’s icebox,” and President Andrew Johnson’s “polar bear garden.”

The government of Russia, which had established a presence in Alaska in the mid-18th century, first approached the United States about selling the territory during the administration of President James Buchanan, but negotiations were stalled by the outbreak of the Civil War. After 1865, Seward, a supporter of territorial expansion, was eager to acquire the tremendous landmass of Alaska, an area roughly one-fifth the size of the rest of the United States. The purchase treaty was ratified by a margin of just one vote on April 9, 1867. Six months later, Alaska was formally handed over from Russia to the United States. Despite a slow start in U.S. settlement, the discovery of gold in 1898 brought a rapid influx of people to the territory, and Alaska, rich in natural resources, has contributed to American prosperity ever since.