Alaska’s 150th Anniversary
Still a good deal all
these years later
By Will Swagel
For more than sixty years, people in Sitka have taken a week in October to com- memorate Alaska Day, which marks the
transfer of Alaska from Russian control the
United States. On October 18, 1867, atop a
promontory above downtown Sitka, the Russian double-eagle banner was lowered and the
Stars and Stripes was raised in its place. Sitkans
observe the occasion with a week of concerts,
costume balls, and contests, culminating in a
parade to the base of the promontory—called
Castle Hill—and a costumed reenactment
of the transfer ceremony of 1867. Because
2017 marks the 150th anniversary of Alaska’s
transfer to the United States, commemorative
events are taking place all year long.
And not just in Sitka. In communities
throughout the state, Alaskans attend lectures,
conferences, and view displays that examine
both the importance of the Russian period and
the aftereffects of the transfer to the United
States. In Juneau in July, a statue of former Secretary of State William H. Seward, the American architect of the sale and transfer, was unveiled across the street from the Capitol.
Emanuel Leutze’s 1868 painting “Signing of
the Alaska Treaty” was displayed in Alaska for
the first time in 2017 and will be in the Alaska
State Museum in Juneau starting this month.
After resolving to recognize the 150th anniversary (also known as the sesquicentennial) of
the transfer, the state Legislature charged the
Alaska Historical Commission with encouraging and coordinating commemorative events,
though no special funds were appropriated.
Alaska State Historian Jo Antonson says
the hope was that public-private partnerships
would sponsor sesquicentennial activities
with an emphasis on high-visibility public
events scheduled for March 30, the anniversary of the treaty signing, and October 18, the
anniversary of the ceremonial transfer. The
Alaska Historical Commission and local partners also developed materials and held events
designed to educate school children about the
importance of the 1867 signing. After a canvassing, about twenty-five small grants were
passed out to communities and organizations.
“[The Alaska Historical Commission]
wanted the events to be inclusive, to get more
of the story from the Alaska Native perspec-
tive,” Antonson says. “And there were a lot of
cherished myths that needed to be addressed.”
One of those famous myths is that Wil-
liam H. Seward was widely ridiculed by his
contemporaries for the US purchase of Alas-
ka, calling it “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s
Polar Bear Garden.”
“Historians have looked at editorials in what
were then the country’s major city newspapers,
and few of them had anything negative to say,”
notes Antonson. “The treaty was approved by
the Senate on the first vote: 37-2.” Criticism of
the Alaska purchase was actually spearheaded
by Seward’s political enemies, she adds.
Countering another myth—that few
Americans knew anything about Alaska in
the 1860s—Antonson says that, in fact, many
Americans were aware of Alaska’s vast natural resources and the opportunities they offer, even in the 1800s.
Another goal for the sesquicentennial is to
explore and to educate the public about some
of the hard truths of the past 150 years, such
as the experiences of Alaska Natives, to acknowledge a more complete history as a way
to move forward.
A Russian Territory
Russians took Sitka by force in 1804, shelling
the resident Tlingit’s stout timber fort from
a warship. The battle could have gone either
way, but the Tlingit defenders lost nearly all
their ammunition when the canoe carrying
it exploded. They made a strategic retreat
but prevented the Russians from controlling
much of anything beyond Sitka itself. The Russians built their headquarters on the promontory—called Noow Tlein, or Large Fort, in
Tlingit—where the transfer of Alaska to the
United States would ultimately take place.
The Russian hold on Sitka was brief, only sixty-three years, but Sitka (which the Russians
named Novo Archangelsk, or New Archangel) was once the most developed European-
On Alaska Day, Transfer Day revelers swarm Sitka streets.