Russia had been intrigued by the Alaskan wilderness for over a century. In 1725, the Russian czar, Peter the Great, sent a Danish explorer and Russian army officer, Vitus Bering, to investigate the Alaskan coast. (The Bering Strait is named after him.) Some Russians later settled there, and Russia tried to establish some military outposts. Meanwhile, American explorers and settlers were also making their presence known. Russia found it difficult to compete with America’s influence in Alaska, particularly after its 1856 defeat in the Crimean War at the hands of Britain and its allies.
Soon Russia decided that Alaska was more of a burden than an asset. In the hope of offsetting Great Britain’s power somewhat, it offered to sell it to the U.S. in 1859, when James Buchanan was president. But the government was preoccupied with a looming Civil War, which broke out when Abraham Lincoln was elected the next year.
Lincoln chose a fellow Republican and abolitionist, William Seward, to be his secretary of state. Seward, the former governor of New York, had actually been expected to win the Republican nomination over Lincoln that year, but he was too outspoken on the slavery issue for many voters.
Tragically, Lincoln did not survive his presidency. A few days after the Civil War’s end, he was shot by an assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Booth was not acting alone; he was one of ten conspirators. Their plan was to kill not only Lincoln, but also his vice president, Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State Seward, and General Ulysses Grant at the same time that day.
When Russia renewed its offer to sell Alaska to the U.S., Seward negotiated the purchase of 663,300 square miles of land for $7.2 million. In spite of their frosty relationship with the new president, Congress approved the purchase treaty. The press made fun of the Alaska purchase, calling it “Seward’s Folly” and "Seward's Icebox.” But the critics were silenced a few years later when gold was discovered there, triggering the Klondike gold rush in 1896. Today, Alaska, the “last frontier,” is one of America’s most valuable assets, thanks to William Seward, the Secretary of State who almost didn’t make it.