Selling Stolen Land: A Reexamination of the Alaska Purchase and its Colonialist Legacy

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An illustration of Sitka, Alaska, completed in the 1870s, shortly after the Alaska Purchase. Photo: Sheldon Jackson

Indigenous peoples have inhabited the Arctic since time immemorial, establishing rich regional cultures and systems of governance long before the introduction of modern borders. The Arctic Institute’s Colonialism 2022 series explores the colonial histories of Arctic nations and the ever-changing relationships between colonizing governments and Arctic Indigenous peoples at a time of renewed Arctic exploration and development.

Arctic Institute Colonialism Series 2022


In March 1867, the United States accepted a proposal from the Russian minister in Washington to purchase the territory of Alaska for 7.2 million dollars. The negotiations were led by Secretary of State William Seward who believed Alaska’s greatest value was as a trade link between the United States and Asia. A common misconception in American history is that the Alaska Purchase was widely unpopular. The phrase “Seward’s Folly” is often associated with the decision, but in truth the purchase was almost unanimously viewed favorably in national newspapers. In addition to being an economic bridge to Asia, the Alaska Territory was seen as a stepping stone to further American expansion as well as a buffer against European interests in North America. A later advantage of Alaska included expanses of timber and fish (and later gold and oil) resources. For Russia, the sale of Alaska alleviated the financial costs of the Crimean War and, importantly, relieved them of a region virtually impossible to defend against growing British and American ambitions.

For the two powers involved, the exchange of territory was apparently without any controversy or ulterior motive, but the native tribes of Alaska were conspicuously absent from the discussions. At no time during the negotiations were Alaska Natives present or consulted. On the contrary, the Alaska Natives were ignored, even though Russia and the United States knew that policing the territory would require governing a large native population. The ignorance did not stop at the issue of sovereignty, but extended to the indigenous culture and people. It was not until 1880 that the first US census of Alaska was taken, and although it was impossible to visit all parts of Alaska, the results revealed a total population of 33,426 of which only 430 were non-indigenous. The indigenous population, especially in the more northern and interior regions, was probably larger even in 1867.

Although the United States was not concerned with the Alaskan native’s opinion on the transfer, the reverse was not often true. In Sitka, headquarters of the Alaska Department of the US government, the Tlingit population did not hesitate to express their dissatisfaction with their new occupants. The commander of the United States Army in Alaska, General Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Confederate president), complained that many Tlingit “frequently took the opportunity to express their dislike of not having been consulted on the transfer of territory”. However, sympathy or remorse was lacking. The overwhelming attitude toward Alaska Natives was that they were an obstacle to white settlement and development. Early military reconnaissance of Alaska reported that settlement in some areas of the new territory, particularly further north, was likely to be resisted by the native population. The solution, recommended to General Henry Halleck, commander of the Army’s Pacific Division and now in charge of Alaska, was that “a demonstration of military might be made as soon as possible.” Two years after the purchase, tensions between the occupying U.S. Army and the Alaska Natives finally reached a breaking point.

In January 1869, in what has been described as “an incredibly stupid act of feigned camaraderie,” General Davis invited three well-known Tlingits to his government quarters and gave them each a bottle of whiskey to celebrate the New Year. Later that evening, soldiers came upon the three drunken Tlingits outside customs and attempted to chase them away. A scuffle ensued in which a Tlingit, a young man named Cholckeka, stole a soldier’s rifle and escaped through the Sitka Gate. When the incident was reported to General Davis the next morning, he ordered Cholckeka’s arrest and the weapon retrieved, but when soldiers entered Cholckeka’s village, a fight ensued and a soldier was shot. In response, four heavily armed ships moved into Crescent Bay and pointed their guns at Tlingit Village, which was home to over nine hundred Tlingits, the majority of whom were women and children. General Davis stood on a nearby parapet and prepared to give the signal to fire, holding out a white handkerchief. In the event of a fall, the ships were to destroy the village. According to one soldier, General Davis teased the handkerchief drop several times before Cholckeka finally agreed to surrender and spend thirty days in prison. This was unfortunately only the beginning of a tragic episode between Americans and Alaska Natives.

When the ships first anchored at Crescent Bay, General Davis had given the order to fire on any Tlingit attempting to leave the village. After Cholckeka’s arrest, this order was rescinded. Unfortunately, news of the canceled order was either not shared or blatantly ignored. The day after Cholckeka’s arrest, a soldier opened fire on a canoe that had driven off the beach near the village, killing two men, one a Tlingit, the other a Kake, as those were called. who lived on the neighboring island of Kuiu. General Davis was unfazed by the news and refused to acknowledge any mistake or wrongdoing by the soldier. However, the Tlingit expected reparations in the form of money or trade goods for the deaths of the two men, as was the custom in many native Alaskan cultures. As custom dictated, if reparations were denied, which was the case in this case, the penalty could be imposed on relatives or clansmen of the offending party. When no reparations were offered, the penalty fell on two random and hapless white prospectors who were killed to equalize the debt.

Ironically, the US military enforced a similar code. General Halleck had issued an order stating, “If any member of a tribe mistreats a citizen of the United States, the whole tribe and especially its chief shall be held responsible for the offence,” but the U.S. military did not not recognized the irony of the Alaska Natives. keep the army at the same level. On the contrary, General Davis believed that this incident was the perfect opportunity to finally display a show of military might against the native population. He commandeered a small steamer called the Saginaw and marched to Kuiu Island to demand the surrender of those responsible for killing the white prospectors. The Kakes however, had seen the Saginaw approach and evacuate the village. When Davis arrived and found the island abandoned, he ordered the entire village, containing twenty-nine houses and numerous canoes, to be burned. Fortunately, it remains unlikely that a Kake was killed in this attack, but the cruelty of the American response demonstrated not only an ignorance of native customs, but also an unwillingness to grant equal protection under the law to the Native American population.

This brief glimpse into Alaskan history was unfortunately not a singular event. Throughout the early period of the American occupation, there were a number of similar instances of Alaska Natives being killed by white settlers or soldiers; the US military refusing to hold the killers accountable and the Alaska Natives forced to seek justice or redress on their own. After which, as in the case of Kuiu Island, the United States would react violently and forcefully. These interactions between the U.S. military and Alaska Natives were a microcosm of the relationship between the United States and Native peoples in the 19th century. Native sovereignty was believed to have to be subdued by force because Native American culture was incompatible with white American values ​​like capitalism, Christianity, and individualism. What often ensued was a process of forced assimilation, as well as physical relocation to reservations, as a means of subduing indigenous identity.

Unfortunately, the legacy of this colonialism remains evident in the 21st century, notably in the propensity to ignore indigenous voices. Those who study the Arctic must recognize the connection between past and present and realize that the concerns of Indigenous communities continue to be ignored today, just as they predated the Alaska Purchase. Indigenous voices serve as crucial guides to a deeper understanding of the human experience. The inclusion of such voices, not reluctantly after the fact, but eagerly as remedies, is necessary and must be done so always and automatically. The Alaska Purchase marks America’s origin as an Arctic nation, but ignorance toward Alaska Natives warrants a re-examination of this event and what it means for the United States of America. to be an arctic nation. Additionally, the myth that buying Alaska is folly should also be re-examined. It is almost certain that the Alaska Purchase was, indeed, unpopular. Unpopular among those who lived there long before the arrival of Russians and Americans on the shores of Alaska.

Samuel Kramer is a recent graduate of Montana State University, where he earned a master’s degree in history. With areas of interest including the Arctic, Alaska, and the American West, Samuel hopes to begin a career of Arctic research, study, and writing.

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