Flag Changing at Sitka
October 18, 1867: The US officially takes possession of the Alaska Territory. The land was purchased from Russia on March 30, 1867 for $7.2 million. William Henry Seward had been opposed to the Gadsden Purchase which was made in 1853. At that time the US bought land from Mexico and straightened the border between the two countries. The 29,640 square miles brought most of Arizona south of Phoenix and a small portion of New Mexico in the Union. He had also been against an attempt to purchase Cuba from Spain. It is thought today that this may have been because he considered these to be possible areas for slavery to increase. After the Civil War, new lands would not mean more slaves.
Even while working as a senator, Seward had been interested in whaling. His interest in Russian America was due to whaling and even before 1860 he had predicted that Alaska would become part of the US. In 1864, he learned the land might be for sale and he pressed the Russians who were allied with the US at the time, to begin negotiations. When the Russian minister made his way back to the homeland in 1866, he feared the lands would be overrun by American settlers and lost regardless and so urged the government to sell the lands instead. The minister returned in March 1867 having been authorized to negotiate a sale. Seward originally offered $5 million and the end price was settled at $7 million. When presented to Congress, several concerns were raised and the price was raised to $7.2 million in order to quell those concerns.
On this day, the official ceremony was held at Fort Sitka. The parties met at Castle Hill, a rock outcropping about 60 feet in height. It is near the edge of Sitka Harbor where the city-borough of Sitka resides on Baranof Island. The name is taken from the Tlingit word for the area they had occupied for over 10,000 years. The Russians had settled in Old Sitka in 1799 and named it for Saint Michael as Fort Arkhangela Mikhaila. There were about 250 US soldiers present who marched from the Governor’s house to Castle Hill. They were met there by Russian troops awaiting the transfer. The Russians lowered their flag after a gun salute had been fired. The Americans then raised their flag and as the flag reached the top, a second salute marked the end of the ceremony.
It is interesting to note that at the time of the transfer, Russia was still using the Julian calendar and there is an 11 hour time difference between Sitka and St. Petersburg, then capital of Russia. They therefore give this date as October 7. In Alaska, the day is marked yearly with a parade held in Sitka. Alaska Day is a state holiday and state employees get the day off. Schools are usually let out early so that children may celebrate. At Sitka, there is a yearly reenactment of the flag raising to commemorate the shift from Russian to American. The Tlingits maintain that Russia only owned Baranof Island and had no right to sell the entire 586,412 square miles of Alaskan territory.
Someday … this part of the world is going to be so important that just to say you’re an Alaskan will be bragging. – Edna Ferber
To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world. – John Muir
The American dream is not dead. It is gasping for breath, but it is not dead. – Barbara Jordan
Abandon your animosities and make your sons Americans. – Robert Edward Lee
Also on this day: Le Bateau – In 1961, Henri Matisse’s painting was hung at the Museum of Modern Art – upside down.
Not the Essex – In 1851, Moby-Dick was published in England.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre – In 1009, the church was destroyed.
Terrorism – In 2007, a suicide bomber attacked Benazir Bhutto.
Movable Music – In 1954, the transistor radio was developed.