(WHTM) On October 18, 1867, the flag of Russia at the governor’s house in Sitka, Alaska was lowered, a United States flag rose in its place, and America took control of the Alaskan territories.

Mocked as “Seward’s Folly” and “Andrew Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden”, the purchase of Alaska from Russia turned out to be one of the greatest real estate deals in the history of the United States.

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This story actually begins in 1725, when Danish cartographer Vitus Bering (as in the Bering Sea and Bering Strait) explored the Alaskan coast for Russian Czar Peter the Great. Alaska became Russian territory, mostly concentrating on fur trading. (The indigenous population’s feelings on the matter were ignored.)

But maintaining the Russian colony was an expensive proposition. Plans to expand the colony south along the coast ran afoul of British and American traders. Then in the 1850s the Crimean war against Britain and France left the Russian economy teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Russia needed cash more than an enormous patch of real estate, and they were worried about what might happen if Alaska ended up in the hands of the British.

In 1859 Russia, then led by Czar Alexander II, offered to sell Alaska to the United States. Not only would they get some much-needed money, but the American presence would scuttle any plans Russia’s hated rival Britain might have for the area.

Canceled check in the amount of $7.2 million, for the purchase of Alaska, issued August 1, 1868; Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury; (National Archives)

American Secretary of State William H. Seward, anxious to expand American Territory, signed a treaty for the sale on March 30, 1867, purchasing Alaska for 7.2 million dollars. At 586,412 square miles, that worked out to less than two cents per acre. Despite all the ridicule the Seward’s purchase was subjected to, in April the Senate ratified the treaty-by two votes. Once again, the indigenous people were not given a voice in the matter.

There was no great hurry on the part of Americans to move into the land Russia vacated-until 1897, when gold was discovered in the Klondike region. More gold was discovered in more locations, and prospectors flocked to Alaska. By 1900 the territories’ population stood at 63,592. Other resources were discovered; Alaska now supplies the United States with 25 percent of its oil-and 50 percent of its seafood.

In 1869, after retiring from the government, William Seward traveled north to take a look at his “folly”, predicting Alaska would someday become a state-and a tourist attraction. Alaska became the 49th state on January 3, 1959, and despite Covid, tourism is a major revenue source, pumping millions of dollars into Alaska’s economy every year.