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AFSC Historical Corner:  1741 - 1869

Agency Timeline
Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
fishing fleet
Salmon fishing fleet in Uyak Bay, Alaska.  U.S. Fish Commission photo, 1898.


Our history of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC) begins in 1867 when the United States purchased Alaska, with its vast but untapped marine and anadromous fishery resources, from Russia for $7.2 million (less than 2 cents an acre). Spencer Fullerton Baird, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution played a key role in influencing Congress to approve the purchase.

Early Russian events:

  • "Beginning in 1725, when Russian Czar Peter the Great dispatched Vitus Bering to explore the Alaskan coast, Russia had a keen interest in this region, which was rich in natural resources and lightly inhabited."  (U.S. Dept. of State website).
  • In 1741, as part of Bering's "voyage of discovery" in the North Pacific, Georg Wilhelm Steller became the first European to see northern fur seals. The species was given a formal name, Phoca ursina, in 1758.
  • In 1758, the Pribilof Islands were discovered by the crew of the Russian ship St. George under the command of Gerasim Pribilof.

"Seward's Folly"

  William Seward
William Seward.
Library of Congress photo.

"As the United States expanded westward in the early 1800s, Americans soon found themselves in competition with Russian explorers and traders. Moscow, however, lacked the financial resources to support major settlements or a military presence along the Pacific coast of North America and permanent Russian settlers in Alaska never numbered more than four hundred. Defeat in the Crimean War further reduced Russian interest in this region.

Russia offered to sell Alaska to the United States in 1859, believing the United States would off-set the designs of Russia's greatest rival in the Pacific, Great Britain. The looming U.S. Civil War delayed the sale, but after the war, Secretary of State William Seward quickly took up a renewed Russian offer and on March 30, 1867, agreed to a proposal from Russian Minister in Washington, Edouard de Stoeckl, to purchase Alaska for $7.2 million. The Senate approved the treaty of purchase on April 9; President Andrew Johnson signed the treaty on May 28, and Alaska was formally transferred to the United States on October 18, 1867. This purchase ended Russia's presence in North America and ensured U.S. access to the Pacific northern rim.

For three decades after its purchase the United States paid little attention to Alaska, which was governed under military, naval, or Treasury rule or, at times, no visible rule at all. Seeking a way to impose U.S. mining laws, the United States constituted a civil government in 1884. Skeptics had dubbed the purchase of Alaska "Seward's Folly," [or "Seward's Icebox"] but the former Secretary of State was vindicated when a major gold deposit was discovered in the Yukon in 1896, and Alaska became the gateway to the Klondike gold fields. The strategic importance of Alaska was finally recognized in World War II. Alaska became a State on January 3, 1959."  (U.S. Dept. of State website, last accessed 7-9-14)

See also: Willliam H. Seward, Political Fixer. 49 History, The Blog of the Alaska Historical Society website, last accessed 7-9-14

U.S. fur seal management

Furs, rather than fishes, were Alaska's most prominent resource, and on 27 July 1868, Congress, concerned about the exploitation of northern fur seals, outlawed the killing of seals within the territory of Alaska. The U.S. Treasury Department assumed responsibility for fur seals on the Pribilof Islands. Later the U.S. Fish Commission would move to protect the northern fur seal from high-seas harvest.

By Joint Resolution of 3 March 1869, the Pribilof Islands, Saint Paul and Saint George, were declared a special conservation reservation for government purposes. The fur seals were now protected with regards to breeding and birthing both on land and during their sea migration. Over the next 40 years, the U.S. Government awarded leases to two private San Francisco firms – the Alaska Commercial Company from 1870-1889, and the North America Commercial Company from 1890-1909 – to harvest only male fur seals at the Pribilofs.

1870-1884  >>

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