One hundred and fifty-five years ago, on March 30, 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward and Russian envoy Baron Edouard de Stoeckl signed the Treaty of Cession. With a stroke of a pen, Tsar Alexander II had ceded Alaska, his country’s last remaining foothold in North America, to the United States for US.2 million.
That sum, amounting to just 8 million in today’s dollars, brought to an end Russia’s 125-year odyssey in Alaska and its expansion across the treacherous Bering Sea, which at one point extended the Russian Empire as far south as Fort Ross, California, 90 miles from San Francisco Bay.
Today Alaska is one of the richest U.S. states thanks to its abundance of natural resources, such as petroleum, gold and fish, as well as its vast expanse of pristine wilderness and strategic location as a window on Russia and gateway to the Arctic.
So what prompted Russia to withdraw from its American beachhead? And how did it come to possess it in the first place?
As a descendant of Inupiaq Eskimos, I have been living and studying this history all my life. In a way, there are two histories of how Alaska came to be American – and two perspectives. One concerns how the Russians took “possession” of Alaska and eventually ceded it to the U.S. The other is from the perspective of my people, who have lived in Alaska for thousands of years, and for whom the anniversary of the cession brings mixed emotions, including immense loss but also optimism.
Russia looks east
The lust for new lands that brought Russia to Alaska and eventually California began in the 16th century, when the country was a fraction of its current size.
That began to change in 1581, when Russia overran a Siberian territory known as the Khanate of Sibir, which was controlled by a grandson of Genghis Khan. This key victory opened up Siberia, and within 60 years the Russians were at the Pacific.
The Russian advance across Siberia was fueled in part by the lucrative fur trade, a desire to expand the Russian Orthodox Christian faith to the “heathen” populations in the east and the addition of new taxpayers and resources to the empire.
In the early 18th century, Peter the Great – who created Russia’s first Navy – wanted to know how far the Asian landmass extended to the east. The Siberian city of Okhotsk became the staging point for two explorations he ordered. And in 1741, Vitus Bering successfully crossed the strait that bears his name and sighted Mt. Saint Elias, near what is now the village of Yakutat, Alaska.
Although Bering’s second Kamchatka Expedition brought disaster for him personally when adverse weather on the return journey led to a shipwreck on one of the westernmost Aleutian Islands and his eventual death from scurvy in December 1741, it was an incredible success for Russia. The surviving crew fixed the ship, stocked it full of hundreds of the sea otters, foxes and fur seals that were abundant there and returned to Siberia, impressing Russian fur hunters with their valuable cargo. This prompted something akin to the Klondike gold rush 150 years later.
But maintaining these settlements wasn’t easy. Russians in Alaska – who numbered no more than 800 at their peak – faced the reality of being half a globe away from St. Petersburg, then the capital of the empire, making communications a key problem.
Also, Alaska was too far north to allow for significant agriculture and therefore unfavorable as a place to send large numbers of settlers. So they began exploring lands farther south, at first looking only for people to trade with so they could import the foods that wouldn’t grow in Alaska’s harsh climate. They sent ships to what is now California, established trade relations with the Spaniards there and eventually set up their own settlement at Fort Ross in 1812.
Thirty years later, however, the entity set up to handle Russia’s American explorations failed and sold what remained. Not long after, the Russians began to seriously question whether they could continue their Alaskan colony as well.
For starters, the colony was no longer profitable after the sea otter population was decimated. Then there was the fact that Alaska was difficult to defend and Russia was short on cash due to the costs of the war in Crimea.
Americans eager for a deal
So clearly the Russians were ready to sell, but what motivated the Americans to want to buy?
In the 1840s, the United States had expanded its interests to Oregon, annexed Texas, fought a war with Mexico and acquired California. Afterward, Secretary of State Seward wrote in March 1848:
“Our population is destined to roll resistless waves to the ice barriers of the north, and to encounter oriental civilization on the shores of the Pacific.”
Almost 20 years after expressing his thoughts about expansion into the Arctic, Seward accomplished his goal.
In Alaska, the Americans foresaw a potential for gold, fur and fisheries, as well as more trade with China and Japan. The Americans worried that England might try to establish a presence in the territory, and the acquisition of Alaska – it was believed – would help the U.S. become a Pacific power. And overall the government was in an expansionist mode backed by the then-popular idea of “manifest destiny.”
So a deal with incalculable geopolitical consequences was struck, and the Americans seemed to get quite a bargain for their .2 million.
Just in terms of wealth, the U.S. gained about 370 million acres of mostly pristine wilderness – almost a third the size of the European Union – including 220 million acres of what are now federal parks and wildlife refuges. Hundreds of billions of dollars in whale oil, fur, copper, gold, timber, fish, platinum, zinc, lead and petroleum have been produced in Alaska over the years – allowing the state to do without a sales or income tax and give every resident an annual stipend. Alaska still likely has billions of barrels of oil reserves.
The state is also a key part of the United States defense system, with military bases located in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and it is the country’s only connection to the Arctic, which ensures it has a seat at the table as melting glaciers allow the exploration of the region’s significant resources.
Impact on Alaska Natives
But there’s an alternate version of this history.
When Bering finally located Alaska in 1741, Alaska was home to about 100,000 people, including Inuit, Athabascan, Yupik, Unangan and Tlingit. There were 17,000 alone on the Aleutian Islands.
Despite the relatively small number of Russians who at any one time lived at one of their settlements – mostly on the Aleutians Islands, Kodiak, Kenai Peninsula and Sitka – they ruled over the native populations in their areas with an iron hand, taking children of the leaders as hostages, destroying kayaks and other hunting equipment to control the men and showing extreme force when necessary.
The Russians brought with them weaponry such as firearms, swords, cannons and gunpowder, which helped them secure a foothold in Alaska along the southern coast. They used firepower, spies and secured forts to maintain security, and selected Christianized local leaders to carry out their wishes. However, they also met resistance, such as from the Tlingits, who were capable warriors, ensuring their hold on territory was tenuous.
By the time of the cession, only 50,000 indigenous people were estimated to be left, as well as 483 Russians and 1,421 Creoles (descendants of Russian men and indigenous women).
On the Aleutian Islands alone, the Russians enslaved or killed thousands of Aleuts. Their population plummeted to 1,500 in the first 50 years of Russian occupation due to a combination of warfare, disease and enslavement.
When the Americans took over, the United States was still engaged in its Indian Wars, so they looked at Alaska and its indigenous inhabitants as potential adversaries. Alaska was made a military district by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant with Gen. Jefferson C. Davis selected as the new commander.
For their part, Alaska Natives claimed that they still had title to the territory as its original inhabitants and having not lost the land in war or ceded it to any country – including the U.S., which technically didn’t buy it from the Russians but bought the right to negotiate with the indigenous populations. Still, Natives were denied U.S. citizenship until 1924, when the Indian Citizenship Act was passed.
During that time, Alaska Natives had no rights as citizens and could not vote, own property or file for mining claims. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, in conjunction with missionary societies, in the 1860s began a campaign to eradicate indigenous languages, religion, art, music, dance, ceremonies and lifestyles.
It was only in 1936 that the Indian Reorganization Act authorized tribal governments to form, and only nine years later overt discrimination was outlawed by Alaska’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945. The law banned signs such as “No Natives Need Apply” and “No Dogs or Natives Allowed,” which were common at the time.
Statehood and a disclaimer
Eventually, however, the situation improved markedly for Natives.
Alaska finally became a state in 1959, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Act, allotting it 104 million acres of the territory. And in an unprecedented nod to the rights of Alaska’s indigenous populations, the act contained a clause emphasizing that citizens of the new state were declining any right to land subject to Native title – which by itself was a very thorny topic because they claimed the entire territory.
A result of this clause was that in 1971 President Richard Nixon ceded 44 million acres of federal land, along with
As winter phases into spring across the U.S., gardeners are laying in supplies and making plans. Meanwhile, as the weather warms, common garden insects such as bees, beetles and butterflies will emerge from underground burrows or nests within or on plants.
Most gardeners know how beneficial insects can be for their plots. Flies pollinate flowers. Predatory bugs, such as the spined shoulder bug, eat pest insects that otherwise would tuck into garden plants.
As a scientist whose research involves insects and as a gardener, I know that many beneficial insect species are declining and need humans’ help. If you’re a gardener looking for a new challenge this year, consider revamping all or part of your yard to support beneficial insects.
Lawns are insect food deserts
Some gardeners choose native plants to attract and support helpful insects. Often, however, those native plants are surrounded by vast expanses of lawn.
The vast majority of insect species find blades of grass as unappetizing as we do. Yet, lawns sprawl out across many public and private spaces. NASA estimated in 2005 that lawns covered at least 50,000 square miles (128,000 square kilometers) of the U.S. – about the size of the entire state of Mississippi.
A well-manicured lawn is a sure sign that humanity has imposed its will on nature. Lawns provide an accessible and familiar landscape, but they come at a cost for our six-legged neighbors. Grasses grown as turf provide very few places for insects to safely tuck themselves away, because homeowners and groundskeepers cut them short – before they send up flowering spikes – and apply fertilizers and pesticides to keep them green.
Entomologists have a recomendation: Dig up some fraction of your lawn and convert it into a meadow by replacing grass with native wildflowers. Wildflowers provide pollen and nectar that feed and attract a variety of insects like ants, native bees and butterflies. Just as you may have a favorite local restaurant, insects that live around you have a taste for the flowers that are native to their areas.
This bold choice will not just benefit insects. Healthier insects support local birds, and meadows require fewer chemical inputs and less mowing than lawns. The amount of attention lawns demand from us, even if we outsource the work to a landscaping company, is a sign of their precarity.
A meadow is a wilder, more resilient option. Resilient ecosystems are better able to respond to and recover from disturbances.
Entomologist Ryan Gott, integrated pest management and quality control specialist at Maitri Genetics in Pittsburgh, describes lawns and meadows as two opposite ends of a resiliency spectrum. “As far as basic ecological functions go, a lawn does not have many. A lawn mainly extracts nutrition and water, usually receiving outside inputs of fertilizer and irrigation to stay alive, and returns very little to the system,” he told me.
Native flowers, by definition, will grow well in your climate, although some areas will have more choices than others and growing seasons vary. Native plants also provide a palette of colors and variety that lawns sorely lack. By planting them as a meadow, with many different flowers emerging throughout the growing season, you can provide for a diverse assortment of local insects. And mowing and fertilizing less will leave you more time to appreciate wildlife of all sizes.
There are many different types of meadows, and every wildflower species has different preferences for soil type and conditions. Meadows thrive in full sunlight, which is also where lawns typically do well.
Making insects feel at home
Not every yard can support a meadow, but there are other ways to be a better, more considerate neighbor to insects. If you have a shady yard, consider modeling your garden after natural landscapes like woodlands that are shady and support insects.
What’s important in landscaping with insects in mind, or “entoscaping,” is considering insects early and often when you visit the garden store. With a few pots or window boxes, even a balcony can be converted into a cozy insect oasis.
If you’re gardenless, you can still support insect health. Try replacing white outdoor lights, which interfere with many insects’ feeding and breeding patterns. White lights also lure insects into swarms, where they are vulnerable to predators. Yellow bulbs or warm-hued LEDs don’t have these effects.[Get facts about coronavirus and the latest research. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]
Another easy project is using scrap wood and packing materials to create simple “hotels” for bees or ladybugs, making sure to carefully sanitize them between seasons. Easiest of all, provide water for insects to drink – they’re adorable to watch as they sip. Replace standing water at least weekly to prevent mosquitoes from developing.
A refuge in every yard
Many resources across the U.S. offer advice on converting your lawn or making your yard more insect-friendly.
The Xerces Society for Insect Conservation publishes a guide to establishing meadows to sustain insects. Local university extension offices post tips on growing meadows with specific instructions and resources for their areas. Gardening stores often have experience and carry selections of local plants.
You may find established communities of enthusiasts for local plants and seeds, or your journey could be the start of such a group. Part of the fun of gardening is learning what plants need to be healthy, and a new endeavor like entoscaping will provide fresh challenges.
In my view, humans all too often see ourselves as separate from nature, which leads us to relegate biodiversity to designated parks. In fact, however, we are an important part of the natural world, and we need insects just as much as they need us. As ecologist Douglas Tallamy argues in his book, “Nature’s Best Hope,” the best way to protect biodiversity is for people to plant native plants and promote conservation in every yard.
This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Brian Lovett, West Virginia University.
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Brian Lovett does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.