Controversy has erupted over President Obama’s plans to rename Alaska’s Mount McKinley, which Congress named after U.S. president William McKinley in 1917, to Denali, the Athabascan word meaning “the high one.”
Alaska has long been a mix of cultures, sometimes leading to clashes of controversy and diplomacy, as I wrote about in my book, American Phoenix. Here’s an excerpt.
As August 1810 came to a close, U.S. diplomat to Russia John Quincy Adams sensed the winds of autumn cooling his arctic post in St. Petersburg, which was then the capital of Russia.
Once again Adamsvisited the Russian Chancellor, Count Romanzoff, as his home on the czar’s palace square. Adams wanted to discuss American trade with Russia and Napoleon’s attempts to thwart it in Western Europe. In contrast, the count wanted to discuss other business, the territory occupied by the Aleutian people on Alakshak, “the great land.”
Shortening the Aleutian name, the Russians called the peninsula Alaska.
Russia had long traded exclusively with China from posts in that expansive territory. Members of the Russian government wanted to open the route to American trade. They had only one prerequisite. The U.S. government must prevent the sale of weapons from its Northwest Territory to the region’s native tribes, who used the guns against Russian traders.
Adams’s reserved nature probably kept his eyes from opening wide in disbelief. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The United States held no more control over its western territories than it did over Great Britain. Explorers Lewis and Clark had only recently achieved their western explorations. The U.S. government could barely manage Indiana, much less posts along the Pacific Northwest.
Romanzoff might as well have asked Adams to wrestle a grizzly bear or move a mountain. Opening trade on these routes was plausible, but restricting weapon sales to tribes? Impossible. Holding back his opinion, Adams deftly agreed to write the U.S. government about the count’s proposition.
On October 9, John Quincy received received a summons to visit Count Romanzoff again. He feared the news he carried would not please Romanzoff.
Adams had recently received instructions from the US government regarding trade with Russia’s Alaska territory. The Russian envoy to America had also raised the matter in Washington D.C. with the U.S. secretary of state, who sent John a reply.
It was the “sincere and earnest desire of the President of the United States to concur in any measure which might be useful to the Russian dominions and agreeable to His Imperial Majesty,” Adams told the count.
The crux of the matter, however, was territorial limits or jurisdiction. The U.S. government could not restrain its citizens from trading guns with the region’s native people.
“The people of the United States were so extensively engaged in commercial navigation to all parts of the world, that the traffic with the Indians on the northwest coast could not be prevented by special prohibitions of law.”
The problem was also about practicality. America didn’t have customhouses and trading posts established on the northwest coast. Americans were only beginning to explore the West.
“And although nothing could be easier than to draw upon an article of a convention to prohibit the trade, it would indicate a want of frankness and candor in the United States to contract engagements and then find them not executed,” John noted.
Congress could easily pass a law preventing gun trade with tribes in Alaska. Enforcing the law was impossible. Passing such a law would be dishonest without enforcement. He waited for Romanzoff ’s response.
Was the chancellor angry that the US government had refused the request? Or did he understand?
The count responded cautiously, saying that it was not a matter of great concern and he would pass the news along to the czar.
Relieved, John then raised another question. Where did Russia draw the boundary between their lands?
“As to the fixing a boundary, it would be most advisable to defer that to some future time,” Romanzoff replied, not wanting to “strike a new spark” of dispute. Given the lack of peace in Europe, the Alaska question would have to wait until another era.
Adams reassured him. His government believed that Russia had never
been friendlier toward America. Romanzoff paused, taking in the information
before making a careful reply.
“Our attachment to the United States is obstinate—more obstinate than you are aware of,” Romanzoff stated as firmly and emphatically as he possibly could.
While the meaning was a bit vague, the intensity and inflection on the word obstinate were strong. With no elaboration, Romanzoff continued their conversation.
Discover more about this story in American Phoenix.
End of excerpt
Years later in 1867, Russia sold the territory of Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million. Secretary of State William Seward was credited for the Alaska Purchase.
A gold prospector in Alaska unofficially named the mountain peak Mount McKinley in 1896 after Ohio’s William McKinley, a strong proponent of the gold standard. McKinley became president and was assassinated. Congress made the name official in 1917.
The territory of Alaska became a state in 1959.
Author Jane Hampton Cook is known for making history memorable and relevant to today’s news, current events, and modern-day life. A frequent guest on the Fox News Channel and other outlets, Jane is the author of eight books, including American Phoenix, America’s Star-Spangled Story, and Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War. Jane is also a former White House webmaster. She lives with her husband and three sons in Fairfax, Virginia.