This series has seven easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: 1867 Perspective on Alaska.
The purchase of Alaska added almost half as much territory as the United States already possessed; the chain of Aleutian Islands stretches far toward the Orient. Its position on the planet will increase its geo-political importance as the centuries go by.
This selection is from Charles Sumner’s Speech to the Senate During the Alaskan Treaty Ratification Debate in 1867. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
U.S. Senator Charles Sumner had a lengthy record an abolishing slavery and then on civil rights. On May 22, 1856 he was almost killed on the floor of the Senator by a Congressman from the South. After the war he was a principal advocate for civil rights for African-Americans.
Place: Washington, D.C.
You have just listened to the reading of the treaty by which Russia cedes to the United States all her possessions on the North American continent in consideration of seven million two hundred thousand dollars, to be paid by the United States. On the one side is the cession of a vast country, with its jurisdiction and its resources of all kinds; on the other side is the purchase-money. Such is this transaction on its face.
In endeavoring to estimate its character I am glad to begin with what is clear and beyond question. I refer to the boundaries ﬁxed by the treaty. Beginning at the parallel of 54° 40′ north latitude, so famous in our history, the line ascends Port land Channel to the mountains, which it follows on their summits to the point of intersection with 141° west longitude, which line it ascends to the frozen ocean, or, if you please, to the North Pole. This is the eastern boundary, separating this region from the British possessions, and it is borrowed from the treaty between Russia and Great Britain in 182 5, establishing the relations between those two Powers on this continent.
It will be seen that this boundary is old; the rest is new. Starting from the frozen ocean the western boundary descends Bering Strait, midway between the two islands of Krusenstern and Ratrnanov, to the parallel of 65° 30’, just below the point where the continents of America and Asia approach each other the nearest; and from this point it proceeds in a course nearly southwest through Bering Strait, midway between the island of St. Lawrence and Cape Chonkotski, to the meridian of 1 72° west longitude, and thence, in a southwesterly direction, traversing Be ring Sea, midway between the island of Atton on the east and Copper Island on the west, to the meridian of 193° west longitude, leaving the prolonged group of the Aleutian Islands in the possessions now transferred to the United States, and making the western boundary of our country the dividing-line that separates Asia from America.
Look at the map and see the conﬁguration of this extensive region, whose estimated area is more than ﬁve hundred seventy thousand square miles. Including the Sitkan Archipelago at the south, it takes a margin of the mainland, fronting on the ocean, thirty miles broad and three hundred miles long, to Mount St. Elias, the highest peak of the continent, when it turns with an elbow to the west, and then along Bering Strait northerly, when it rounds to the east along the frozen ocean. Here are more than four thousand statute miles of coast, indented by capacious bays and commodious harbors without number, embracing the Peninsula of Alaska, one of the most remarkable in the world, ﬁfty miles in breadth, and three hundred miles in length; piled with mountains, many volcanic and some still smoking; penetrated by navigable rivers, one of which is among the largest of the world; studded with islands that stand like sentinels on the coast; and ﬂanked by that narrow Aleutian range which, starting from Alaska, stretches far away to Japan, as if America were extending a friendly hand to Asia.
This is the most general aspect. There are details specially disclosing maritime advantages and approaches to the sea which properly belong to this preliminary sketch. According to accurate estimates the coast-line, including bays and islands, is not less than eleven thousand two hundred seventy miles. In the Aleutian range, besides innumerable islets and rocks, there are not fewer than ﬁfty-ﬁve islands exceeding three miles in length; there are seven exceeding forty miles, with Ounimak, which is the largest, exceeding seventy-three miles. In one part of Bering Sea there are ﬁve considerable islands, the largest of which is St. Lawrence, more than ninety-six miles long. Add to all these the group south of the Peninsula of Alaska, including the Shumagins and the magniﬁcent island of Kodiak, and then the Sitkan group — archipelago added to archipelago — and the whole constitutes the geographical complement to the West Indies.
The title of Russia to all these possessions is derived from prior discovery, which is the admitted title by which all European powers have held in North and South America, unless we except what England acquired by conquest from France; and here the title of France was derived from prior discovery. Russia, shut up in a distant interior and struggling with barbarism, was scarcely known to the other powers at the time they were lifting their ﬂags in the western hemisphere. At a later day the same powerful genius that made her known as an empire set in motion the enterprise by which these possessions were opened to her dominion. Peter the Great, himself a shipbuilder and a reformer, who had worked in the shipyards of England and of Holland, was curious to know whether Asia and America were separated by the sea or constituted one undivided body with different names, like Europe and Asia. To obtain this information, he wrote with his own hand the following instructions, and ordered his chief admiral to see them executed:
One or two boats with decks to be built at Kamchatka, or at any other convenient place, with which inquiry should be made with relation to the northerly coasts, to see whether they were not contiguous with America, since their end was not known: and, this done, they should see whether they could not somewhere ﬁnd a harbor belonging to Europeans or a European ship. They should likewise set apart some men who should in quire after the name and situation of the coasts discovered. Of all this an exact journal should be kept, with which they should return to Petersburg.”
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