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The Land of Tomorrow By William B. Stephenson Characters: 8733

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

THE writer lays no claim to being an historian, but a word in regard to Alaska's early history and how the country came to be a part of our national possessions may not be amiss.

When the Russians first came to the island of Unalaska they learned from the natives there of a vast country lying to eastward, the name of which was Alayeksa. Their own island, one of the Aleutian group, they called Nagun-Alayeksa, which means "the land next to Alayeksa." As is usually the case, especially in primitive languages, the word was gradually modified and in time it assumed three different forms. The Russians called the country itself Alashka. The peninsula became Aliaska, the island Unalaska. In English the word changed once more to the present name, Alaska, which means "The Great Country." It is a fitting name. All honor to those two good Americans, Seward and Sumner, who in the teeth of the most withering scorn, ridicule, and even opprobrium, saved for our country her most glorious and valuable possession,-the land discovered and partly explored by Vitus Bering in 1741.

The old saying that "Westward the star of empire takes its way" is not applicable to Alaska. She enjoys a reputation wholly unique in the history of nations. She is the only country acquired by any European power in America because of expansion eastward. The territory which lies between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River was our inheritance from the mother country. The two Floridas, Texas, New Mexico, and California we acquired, either directly or indirectly, from Spain. From France we purchased Louisiana. But about the middle of the sixteenth century there began in Russia a movement eastward similar to that which followed (westward) the American Revolution in our own country.

It was shortly after the overthrow of the Tartars and the establishment of a national monarchy. But there was as much difference between the motives underlying the westward movement in our country and the eastward movement in Russia as there was in the character of the pioneers who made them and the results which followed. The American pioneer was either a fur trader, a prospector, a hunter, a missionary, a soldier, or a farmer seeking land on which to settle. The Russian pioneer was usually either a fugitive from justice or a proved criminal who had been punished by exile to the vast wilderness which lay beyond the confines of the empire.

Commercial and military motives exist in all countries, however, and in this case both operated. The exigencies of commerce carry men to the far corners of the earth. The trade in furs had long been a leading industry in Russia. So as soon as it became known that the countries east of the Russian empire were rich in fur-bearing animals, particularly the highly-prized sable, the merchants at once sat up and took notice! They hastened to extend their trade eastward as rapidly as the country could be made Russian territory. So the Cossacks, pressing ever onward, at last reached the Straits. Eastward through Siberia, into Alaska they came for this purpose. Here they found not only furs but huge quantities of ivory which was embedded in the drift along the seacoast and the rivers.

It was during the reign of Peter the Great,-a reign which was significant for many reasons. He it was who was responsible for the promulgation of comprehensive exploring plans which resulted in the discovery of Alaska. He fitted out an exploring party under command of Vitus Bering, a Dane, who was accompanied by a Russian navigator named Chirikof. The story of Bering's exploration is now too well known to need elaboration here. On the morning of July sixteenth, 1741, Bering records that he "came in sight of a rugged coast, presenting a vast chain of mountains and a noble peak wrapped in eternal snows." This was Mt. St. Elias.

For some reason which seems unaccountable and has never been explained, Bering did not stop at this time for further exploration. Instead, he set sail for home to report his discovery. He never reached Russia, however. His boat, the St. Peter, was wrecked off a small island not far from Kamchatka, where, on December eighth, 1741, the commander died. He had discovered, explored, and named many of the small islands, but his crew had suffered miserably from scurvy. Many had died. The rest remained for nin

e months upon the little island which now bears the commander's name,-Bering Island. The other boat, commanded by Chirikof, had also a tragic experience. This navigator discovered the coast of Alaska not far from Sitka. In an attempt to land ten of his men were lost. A rescuing party sent in search of them met the same fate. Both were victims of the cannibalistic residents of the coast. They were sacrificed by the Kolosh Indians. A second rescuing party went after the others but just as they neared the shore a party of natives, looking as innocent as the cat who has eaten the canary, suddenly appeared upon the bank. The little boat load of rescuers stood not upon the order of their going. Regarding discretion as the better part of valor, they turned and fled. A few months later, haggard and famished, the remnant of the crew landed at Kamchatka.

Followed the long years of controversy in regard to trading privileges, but in time these were, in a manner, adjusted. A hundred and sixty-eight years later the United States added one more chapter in the history and growth of our national interests on the Pacific. She acquired Alaska. Beginning in Oregon, extending next to California, where they received their most powerful impetus, these interests have gradually increased to gigantic proportions. The markets of the Orient became alluring. The Pacific railways were constructed. Not to have profited by Russia's willingness to dispose of Alaska would have been madness.

Perhaps the story (vouched for by Charles Sumner) of how the purchase came about may also be of interest. It was during the administration of President Buchanan, in 1859. An unofficial representative of the President sounded the Russian minister as to the willingness of his government to sell Alaska. Being asked quickly what the United States would pay, the unofficial representative (who had not given the subject serious consideration and who, if he had done so, would have had no authority to answer such a question) was a bit nonplussed for the moment. But he sent out a feeler by saying suggestively, "Oh,-about five million dollars."

He saw at once that he had made an impression. He hastened to the assistant Secretary of State and reported the affair to him. The latter then approached the Russian minister, with the result that the matter was brought definitely before the government. But--. The Civil War broke out. And for the next six years there was no talk of buying anything! During these years, however, the people of what is now the State of Washington, along Puget Sound, had become deeply interested in the fisheries. In 1866, through their legislature, they petitioned the President of the United States to obtain for them from the Russian government permission to fish in Alaskan waters, asking also for a more complete exploration of the Pacific coast fisheries from "Cortez Bank to Bering Sea." It was this petition which revived the discussion in regard to the purchase of Alaska.

Fortune favored the project. As was the case with Napoleon, when he agreed to the sale of the Louisiana territory, Russia, bled by one war and already preparing for another, in danger of losing those of her possessions which had been threatened by the British navy during the Crimean war, the Russian-American Fur Company not disposed to accept such modifications of its charter as the government saw fit to grant, empowered the Archduke Constantine, brother of the Czar, to instruct the Russian minister at Washington to cede the territory of Alaska to the United States. Within a month all arrangements were complete. The treaty was signed March thirtieth, 1867. The price at first agreed upon was seven million dollars, but William H. Seward, Secretary of State, offered to increase this amount by two hundred and fifty thousand dollars on condition that Russia cede the territory "unencumbered by any reservations, privileges, franchises, grants or possessions by associated companies … Russia or any other…."

It seemed for a while that there would be a hitch in the negotiations due to the protest made by the Hudson Bay Company against this latter demand. But Seward stood firm. He insisted, wisely, upon this condition and secured it. Upon the entrance of the United States into the game the Hudson Bay Company retired permanently from the scene.

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