Original Alaska Purchase Documents travel to the Anchorage Museum

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Alaska Purchase. To celebrate, the National Archives at Seattle has added 150 images from the Alaska Digitization Project to their Flickr gallery. 

Today’s post comes from Jim Zeender, Senior Registrar in the National Archives Exhibits Office.

On the morning of February 27, 2017, I left Washington, DC, with temperatures forecast in the 70s. Later that day, I was flying north from Seattle along the western coast of Canada, over Vancouver Island on my way to Anchorage, Alaska. Along the way, the endless snow-topped Rockies spread out below to the horizon east and north.

Finally, as we approached Anchorage, I could see the majestic Denali in the distance with lesser mountains running down to the coastal areas. When we touched down, I was greeted with temperatures in the teens and 20s. At night, I stayed warm in my hotel room when the temps dove to single digits.

My destination was the Anchorage Museum to participate in installing an exhibition called “Polar Bear Garden,” commemorating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Alaska Purchase Treaty and celebrating the American, Russian, and Native peoples who settled this rugged land.

Visitors viewing Alaska Purchase documents at the Anchorage Museum, 2017. (Photo by Georges Toumayan)
The purchase added more than 586,000 square miles to the United States. At the time, some called it “Seward’s Folly” (named for Secretary of State William Seward, who negotiated the treaty), but before long, Seward was vindicated when large gold and oil deposits were found.

Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, ca. 1860-1865. (National Archives Identifier 528347)
Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, ca. 1860-1865. (National Archives Identifier 528347)

After the Crimean War (1853-56), Russia feared that Alaska was vulnerable and that Great Britain or another world power would soon capture it. They offered to sell the territory in the late 1850s.

Great Britain was not interested, and then-President James Buchanan decided to leave the matter to his successor, President Abraham Lincoln, who shelved the matter during the U.S. Civil War. After the war ended, Tsar Alexander II instructed the Russian Minister to the U.S., Eduard de Stoeckl, to try again.

De Stoeckl soon began negotiations with a receptive William Seward, and in final negotiations on March 23, 1867, Seward sent the following message to the Russian Minister:

I must insist upon that clause in the sixth article of the draft which declares the cession to be free and unincumbered by any reservations, privileges, franchises, grants or possessions by any associated companies . . . and must regard it as an ultimatum. With the President’s approval, however, I will add two hundred thousand dollars to the consideration on that account.  

Seward to Stoeckl regarding proposed convention for the cession by Russia of American territory, March 23, 1867. (Records of the Department of State, National Archives)

On March 29, de Stoeckl wrote to Seward that the Tsar had agreed to the terms.

I have the honor to inform you that by a telegram dated 16/28 of this month from St. Petersburg, Prince Gorcharov informs me that his Majesty the Emperor of all the Russias gives his consent the cession of the Russian possessions on the American continent to the United States for the stipulated sum of seven million two-hundred thousand dollars…

A deal was struck early on the morning of March 30, 1867. The final amount was $7.2 million.

The Senate gave its advice and consent on April 9, 1867. President Andrew Johnson ratified the treaty on May 28, 1867, and it was publicly proclaimed on June 20, 1867. The formal transfer of land took place at Sitka on October 19, 1867, but required some additional discussions with the Russian government.

On August 15, 1867, Seward sent this note to de Stoeckl:

General Grant, the Acting Secretary of War, expressed a desire to be informed as to the extent of the accommodations for troops and their supplies which will be turned over to the United States by the Russian Government at Sitka. . . . This information is important in view of the  fact that the season will have advanced too far to admit of the erection of suitable buildings, after our troops shall have reached there.

Seward to Stoeckl regarding requests on behalf of the War Department about the extent of accommodations for troops and other supplies to be turned over the U.S. by the Russian government at Sitka, 08/15/1867. (Records of the Department of State, National Archives)

Congress did not appropriate funds to pay Russia until the following summer, and the Treasury issued a check for the full amount on August 1, 1868. The canceled check was returned to the Treasury and ultimately made its way to the National Archives.

Check for $7.2 Million for the Purchase of Alaska, 8/1/1868. (National Archives Identifier 301667)

The National Archives Conservation staff deemed the red wax seals on the American copy of the treaty to be too fragile for travel. Instead, we were able to lend President Johnson’s ratification of the treaty and the canceled check.

The documents were prominently displayed near the exhibition entrance, where visitors could not miss them.

During my visit, Registrar Maria McWilliams and Director of Exhibits Ryan Kenny worked carefully and diligently to install the documents in their dedicated case. Both Maria and Ryan had worked previously for Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC. Ryan and his team were able to devise a visitor-activated lighting device to minimize light exposure on our documents.

I spent most of my time with Maria and learned about the challenges she faced shipping valuable artifacts to and from Anchorage. Maria first came to Anchorage about a decade ago and then returned to DC, but thought she would eventually return and she did.

Jeanette Moore gave me a wonderful tour of the museum, not surprisingly because she had worked for years in Anchorage Tourism office.

Faced with many objects needing conservation treatment, they struck on an innovative idea—a gallery that once featured a large collection of objects was converted into a temporary Conservation Lab, where visitors could see work in progress and once a week talk to conservators about their work.

Credit: Anchorage MuseumConservation Lab
Anchorage Museum Conservation Lab. (Photo Courtesy of the Anchorage Museum)

Next, we came to the Science Lab, which included many engaging exhibits for the museum’s younger visitors. The highlight was the Arctic Studies Center, a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, the Anchorage Museum, and local tribes.

Credit: Chuck Choi/Anchorage MuseumYup'ik case Needs Metadata Gallery
Arctic Studies Center, Anchorage Museum. Photo by Chuck Choi.

At the end of the day, Jeanette volunteered to take me on a tour of Anchorage.

With just over 736,000 residents, in 2016 over 2.07 million people visited Alaska resulting in an economic impact of $4.17 billion.

The city consists of almost 2,000 square miles (about the same size as Delaware), so we had a lot of ground to cover. We drove down to the river where the oldest parts of the city are located near the railroad tracks. Not far away is the downtown shopping district, where the Iditarod has its ceremonial start before moving hundreds of miles north.

We drove out of downtown and past the airport, a hub for international cargo shipments between Asia and North America. Farther along, we came to Kincaid Park for spectacular views of the city over the river. We were fortunate to have a clear day and could see Denali about 200 miles away to the northeast.

In the park, we also saw our share of cross-country skiers but no moose or reindeer. At the end of the tour, Jeanette dropped me off at the Glacier Brew Pub, one of many good ones in the city, for a hearty meal.

I woke at 4 a.m. the next day for my long trip home. As a result of equipment problems, I did not make it home until 2 a.m. the next morning. The temperature was in the 40s, and I was glad to be home, but I thoroughly enjoyed my Alaskan adventure thanks to the staff at the Anchorage Museum.

In addition, to Maria, Ryan, and Jeanette, I met and was welcomed by:

Monica Shah, Director of Collections and Chief Conservator
Janet Northey, Collections Manager
Ted Gardeline, Lead Exhibitions Technician
Greg Danner, Director of Science and Discovery Exhibitions
Rex Schloeman, Exhibitions Technician
Sarah Owens, Conservator
Julie Decker, Director

I am thankful to all of them for making my visit go so smoothly and sharing their knowledge with me. I am also grateful for all the support I received back home at the National Archives from Lisa Royse, Cathy Farmer, Karen Hibbitt, Jane Fitzgerald, Lee Johnson, Terry Boone, Abigail Aldrich, Patrick Kepley, Alexis Hill, Anita Dey, Sheri Hill, and Myron Fleming.

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Anchorage Museum Discovery Center. (Photo by Chris Arend)

For more information visit the Anchorage Museum website.

Visit the National Archives website to learn more about our Alaska holdings. 


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