Russia Formally Transfers Alaska to the U.S.
Today Alaska celebrates a unique statewide legal holiday called “Alaska Day” to celebrate the ceremony that took place in Sitka on Oct. 18, 1867, when Russia formally transferred the Territory of Alaska to the United States. Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. for $7.2 million on March 30, 1867—a transaction that many members of Congress and the press mocked at the time as “Seward’s folly” in disrespect to U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, who negotiated the purchase. It took nearly seven months after the purchasing treaty was signed before the American and Russian commissioners could arrange to meet in Sitka for the transfer ceremony, and many Americans at that time were still opposed to spending millions of dollars on a “frozen wasteland.” However, no one was laughing 92 years later when Alaska was admitted to the Union as the 49th state on Jan. 3, 1959—by then, Alaskan gold, salmon and timber had generated billions of dollars, and oil exploration was promising a robust petroleum industry.
The 1867 transfer ceremony was a formal affair, with troops from both sides on parade and the Russian forts and fleet firing off their guns in salute. However, as the article below details, there was one snag in the ceremony: the Russian flag refused to come down off the flagpole and was torn in the process, and a Russian princess participating in the ceremony wept audibly.
This account of the transfer ceremony was published by the Cincinnati Daily Gazette (Cincinnati, Ohio) on Nov. 14, 1867:
Transfer of the Territory
New Archangel [Sitka], October 8 [on the Julian Calendar], via Swinomish, W. T., November 11.
The formal transfer and delivery of Russian America to the United States Government took place today between Captain Pestrechoff, Acting Commissioner on behalf of the Russian Government, and Major General Rousseau.
At 3 P.M. a battalion of United States troops, under command of Major Chas. O. Wood, Ninth Infantry, was drawn up in front of the Governor’s residence. By half-past three a large concourse assembled, comprising Americans, Russians, Creoles, and Indians.
At the last named hour the Russian forts and fleet fired salutes in honor of lowering the Russian flag, but the flag would not come down. In lowering it tore its entire width close by the halyards and floated from the cross-trees forty feet from the ground. Three Russian sailors attempted to ascend the inch and a half guy ropes, supporting the flag-staff, but each failed. A fourth ascended in a boatswains chair, seized the flag and threw it in a direction directly beneath him, but the motion of the wind carried it off.
Five minutes after lowering the Russian flag, the stars and stripes went gracefully up, Gen. George Lovell Rousseau having the honor of flinging the flag to the breeze. The United States steamers Ossippee and Resaca at the same time honoring the event by firing salutes.
As the Russian flag was lowered Capt. Pestrechoff stepped forward and addressed Gen. Rousseau as follows:
General: As Commissioner of His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of Russia, I now transfer and deliver the Territory of Russian America, ceded by his Majesty to the United States.
Gen. Rousseau in response, as the American flag ascended, said: “Captain, as Commissioner on behalf of the United States Government, I receive and accept the same accordingly.”
The Commissioners spoke in a tone of common conversation, and were heard only by Gov. Makesataff, Gen. Jeff. C. Davis, Capt. Kuskal and a few others who formed the group.
Several ladies witnessed the ceremonies, among them Princess Makesataff, Mrs. Gen. Davis and Mrs. Major Wood. The Princess wept audibly as the Russian flag went down.
The transfer was conducted in a purely diplomatic and business-like manner, and the entire transaction was concluded in a few hours. The Ossippee, with the Commissioner on board, steamed in to the harbor at 11 o’clock in the forenoon, and at 4 o’clock in the afternoon a dozen American flags floated over the American city of Sitka.