I have heard that it was as long ago as the administration of President Polk. It is within my knowledge that the Russian Government was sounded on the subject during the administration of President Buchanan.
Continuing The Alaska Purchase,
our selection from Charles Sumner’s Speech to the Senate During the Alaskan Treaty Ratification Debate in 1867. The selection is presented in seven easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The Alaska Purchase.
Place: Washington, D.C.
So little were those possessions regarded during the last century that they were scarcely recognized as a component part of the empire. I have now before me an authentic map, published by the Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg in 1776, and reproduced at London in 1787, entitled “General Map of the Russian Empire,” where you will look in vain for Russian America, unless we except that link of the Aleutian chain nearest to Asia, which appears to have been incorporated under the Empress Anna at the same time with Siberia. Alexander Humboldt, whose insight into geography was unerring, in his great work on New Spain, published in 1811, after saying that he is able from official documents to give the position of the Russian factories on the American continent, says that they are “nothing but sheds and cabins employed as magazines of furs.” He remarks further that “the larger part of these small Russian colonies do not communicate with each other except by sea.”
I am not able to say when the idea of this cession ﬁrst took shape. I have heard that it was as long ago as the administration of President Polk. It is within my knowledge that the Russian Government was sounded on the subject during the administration of President Buchanan. This was done through Mr. Gwin, at the time Senator from California, and Mr. Appleton, Assistant Secretary of State. For this purpose the former had more than one interview with the Russian Minister at Washington some time in December, 1859, in which, while professing to speak for the President unofﬁcially, he represented “that Russia was too far off to make the most of these possessions; and that, as we are near, we can derive more from them.” In reply to an inquiry of the Russian Minister, Mr. Gwin said that “the United States could go as high as ﬁve million dollars for the purchase,” on which the former made no comment. Mr. Appleton, on another occasion, said to the Minister that “the President thought that the acquisition would be very proﬁtable to the States on the Paciﬁc; that he was ready to follow it up, but wished to know in advance whether Russia was ready to cede; that if she were, he would confer with his Cabinet and inﬂuential members of Congress.” All this was unofficial; but it was promptly communicated to the Russian Government, who seem to have taken it into careful consideration. Prince Gortschakoff, in a dispatch that reached Washington early in the summer of 1860, said that “the offer was not what might have been expected, but it merited mature reﬂection; that the Minister of Finance was about to in quire into the condition of these possessions, after which Russia would be in a condition to treat.” The Prince added for himself that he was “by no means satisﬁed personally that it would be for the interest of Russia politically to alienate these possessions; that the only consideration which could make the scales in cline that way would be the prospect of great ﬁnancial advantages; but the sum of ﬁve million dollars does not seem in any way to represent the real value of these possessions”; and he concluded by asking the Minister to tell Mr. Appleton and Senator Gwin that the sum offered was not considered “an equitable equivalent.” The subject was submerged by the approaching Presidential election and then by the Civil War.
After the Civil War had been brought to an end, peaceful enterprise was renewed, which on the Paciﬁc coast was directed toward the Russian possessions. Our people there, wishing new facilities to obtain ﬁsh, fur, and ice, sought the intervention of the National Government. The Legislature of Washington Terri tory, in the winter of 1866, adopted a memorial to the President of the United States, entitled “In reference to the cod and other ﬁsheries,” in which they said: “Your memorialists, the Legislative Assembly of Washington Territory, beg leave to show that abundance of codﬁsh, halibut, and salmon of excellent quality has been found along the shores of the Russian possessions. Your memorialists respectfully request your Excellency to obtain such rights and privileges of the Government of Russia as will enable our ﬁshing-vessels to visit the ports and harbors of its possessions, to the end that fuel, water, and provisions may be easily obtained; that our sick and disabled ﬁshermen may obtain sanitary assistance, together with the privilege of curing fish and repairing vessels in need of repairs. Your memorialists further request that the Treasury Department be instructed to forward to the collector of customs of this Puget Sound district such fishing-licenses, abstract journals, and log-books as will enable our hardy fishermen to obtain the bounties now provided and paid to the fishermen in the Atlantic States. Your memorialists finally pray your Excellency to employ such ships as may be spared from the Pacific naval fleet in exploring and surveying the fishing-banks known to navigators to exist along the Pacific coast from the Cortes bank to Bering Strait, and as in duty bound your memorialists will ever pray.”
This memorial, on its presentation to the President in February, 1866, was referred to the Secretary of State, by whom it was communicated to Mr. De Stoeckl, the Russian Minister, with remarks on the importance of some early and comprehensive arrangement between the two Powers in order to prevent the growth of difficulties, especially from the fisheries in that region.
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