March 30, 2010

March 30 - On This Date in History

On this day in 1867, the United States agreed to purchase Alaska from Russia for the sum of $7.2 million dollars. It had belonged to Russia for about 125 years, since Russians had been the first European explorers to get to the place and had proclaimed it their territory in 1741.

The American Civil War ended in 1865, and a couple years later, on this day in 1867, the deal to buy Alaska was negotiated and signed by President Andrew Johnson's secretary of state, William Seward. He announced that someday this big chunk of land would be a U.S. state. The American public by and large was not sold on the purchase of frozen tundra. People thought it was a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a faraway place, which they alternately referred to as Andrew Johnson's "polar bear garden" and "Seward's Icebox." In fact, the purchase became commonly known as "Seward's Folly."

But then gold was discovered there in the 1890s and the Klondike Gold Rush followed, with tens of thousands of people heading north to try to strike it rich. They settled in as fishers and miners and trappers and producers of minerals, and Alaska was granted territorial status in 1912. It became the 49th state of the union, the largest one (consisting of 663,268 square miles) and also the least densely populated state. In 1968, oil was discovered at the far northern part of the state, at Prudhoe Bay. A pipeline was built and began to pump oil in 1977, and now the area near Prudhoe Bay is the largest oil field in the U.S.

From the Writer's Almanac

Sometimes the visionaries are right and the American public are not.