Seward’s time-traveling folly

Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.

Treasury Warrant in the Amount of $7.2 Million for the Purchase of Alaska (ARC301667)
Treasury Warrant in the Amount of $7.2 Million for the Purchase of Alaska (ARC301667)

One hundred forty three years ago today, the people of Alaska went to bed under the Russian flag, and awoke under the Stars and Stripes. They also woke up eleven days in the future.

The purchase of Alaska was not an easy sell for anyone. Russia wanted to offload the frozen territory in the 1850s. They tried to start a bidding war between Great Britain and the US for its purchase, but Great Britain wasn’t very interested. Then the American Civil War broke out. Then Lincoln was assassinated and the notoriously unpopular Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency. The unfortunate task of convincing an angry Congress that Alaska was a steal at 2.3 cents an acre fell to Johnson’s Secretary of State William Seward (7.2 million total). Somehow Seward managed though, and on October 18, 1867, Russian General Lovell Rousseau handed over the territory to US General Jefferson Davis. Or was that October 7?

Among the overwhelming drama of the unpopular purchase–one newspaper referred to it as a “sucked orange,” another called the buy a “dark deed done in the night”–no one seemed to notice that Russia worked off the Julian calendar, and the US worked off the Gregorian. The result was time travel.

That night, the calendar was officially changed from the Julian to the Gregorian, and all Alaskans lost 11 days out of their year.

For a time, the calendar was all that changed. The Army ran Alaska for a while. Then the Navy. Then the Treasury Department. Occasionally, no one seemed to run the place until 1884 when a civil government was instituted. Twelve short years later, the gold rush was underway, and Alaska had proved its worth. An estimated 12.5 million ounces of gold have been discovered in the Klondike region since. In today’s gold prices that’s $16,250,000,000. Not a bad profit for 7.2 million dollars and eleven lost days.

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