For reasons I no longer remember, I signed up for Quora some time back. If you've never been there, Quora is a social media site where people ask questions and the site tries to match them up with who can answer the questions. As a break from working on the book, this spring, I started looking at the questions they sent to me. I do not understand their sorting algorithm. Okay, I went to UofWA, I understand why I get questions on that. I live in Anchorage, Alaska, so I understand getting question on both parts of that. I volunteered mammoths so I expect questions on that and understand why I get occasional questions on paleontology.
Then there are the silly questions. Some silly questions have nothing to do with anything have claimed any knowledge of. Typical among these would be something like: "If Godzilla and Optimus Prime was to fight, who would win? Posted, December 2014. 47 answers. 98k views." Even if I had a strong opinion, why would I pur myself at the bottom of that queue? (By the way, the answer is King Kong, who would let them beat themselves into rubble, then squash their remains.) The most "relevant" question I get is endless variations of "What would happen if Russia invaded Alaska? (Answer: It would be one of the stupidest military moves in the history of stupid military moves.) Another too frequent question is some variation of "Why is Alaska part of the US instead of still Russia/Canada/Japan/Ecuador/Senegal?" Today, I had one of the latter. It was just posted and the only answer was very brief, so, on a whim, I decided to give the questioner a serious answer. Mind you, I did this mostly from memory (based on reading Hector Chevigny's Russian America back in the 80s). I expect my Alaskan friends to correct numerous details.
Why did Russia abandoned (sic) Alaska?
Russian America was an expensive liability. It had never particularly been profitable. Since Eastern Siberia had no roads to speak of, it was far too difficult to settle. The Russian America Company had exhausted the sources of the most profitable fur animals. The few Russians there bought most of their food and supplies from California, meaning much of the small amount of wealth the colony produced was not going to Russia. The incompetent rule by the Russian America Company was becoming an embarrassment to the imperial government, as difficult as that was to accomplish. And it was impossible to defend. Russia had no navy to speak of in the Pacific and the transport situation in Siberia meant it would have taken months, even a full year, to move troops there.
That last point was the final straw. In 1854, during the Crimean War, french and British forces laid siege to Petropavlovsk, the main town on the Kamchatka Peninsula and the main port serving Russian America. Although the siege was unsuccessful, it greatly alarmed the imperial government. If the western allies had attacked the capital of the colony, Novo Arkhangelsk (Sitka), there would nave been nothing to stop them. Britain would almost certainly have annexed it to Canada (which didn’t yet exist, but you get the idea) which would have been a huge humiliation to the imperial government, especially considering how big it looks on the map.
After the California Gold Rush, some of the newly rich entrepreneurs in San Francisco had expressed interest in buying the colony to monopolize it’s fishing potential. Their offer was not without precedent. The area around Ft. Ross, California was controlled by the Russian America Company for about thirty years although the imperial government had never made a formal claim to it. When that area was trapped out and efforts to produce food for Russian America turned out to be less productive than they hoped, the company sold its claims to John Sutter, who promptly discovered gold there. The imperial government had no interest in letting the company sell the colony, but once the idea was implanted in their minds, it looked like a possible way to unload the colony with the minimum amount of embarrassment.
The younger brother of tsar Alexander II was a major proponent of the sale, and negotiations were well along when Lincoln was elected the Civil War broke out. In the US, one of the major proponents of the purchase was California senator William Gwin, who briefly advocated for California secession before being arrested. Back in the colony, a new governor had started making the long needed reforms. However, when gossip reached them about the eagerness of the government to dump the colony, all his efforts were put on hold. One by one, families began to pack up and return to Russia. After the war, The American Secretary of State, William Seward, one of the founders of the Republican Party and a proponent of the purchase since day one, negotiated the final sale and convinced the Republican Senate to rarity the treaty.
There is an interesting side note to the story. Russia and the US had always had a good relationship. Catherine the Great was one of the first foreign heads of state to recognize American independence. These good feelings continued for the next century, aided by the fact that we had almost nothing to with each other and knew almost nothing about each other, except that our relations with the British were often tense. In 1863, a bloody rebellion broke out in Russian Poland. As France had always been a supporter of the Poles, the imperial government feared a reopening of the Crimean War hostilities. This time their great fear was that Britain and France would move against their fleet which was bottled up in the Baltic Sea at St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, the French and British had been helping Confederate blockade runners and even threatened to recognize the Southern government. A deal was struck, whereby the Russian left the Baltic while these still could and sailed to New York. This saved the Russian fleet and was seen as a major show of support for the Union by a major European power. Mixed in with the purchase price for the Alaska was a Union payment for the the Russian fleet’s expenses. Hiding this payment was one more reason for Russia to go ahead with the sale.
And they all lived happily ever after except for the Russians in Alaska who were fairly quickly driven out by the military governor sent to administer the new acquisition, a very bitter man named Jefferson Davis who—probably correctly—believed that his name had frozen his military career and deprived him of the opportunity to find glory and promotions during the war.
I've already had on upvote.