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This Week in History
August 9-15, 2015

William H. Seward Inspects the Alaska Purchase

August 12, 1869

by Pamela Lowry

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Signing the Alaska Treaty of Cessation, by Emmanuel Leutze. L. to R.: Robert S. Chew, Secretary of State (USA), William H. Seward, William Hunter, Mr. Bodisco, Russian Ambassador Baron de Stoeckl, Charles Sumner, Fredrick W. Seward.

When U.S. Secretary of State William Seward left office, after serving in the administrations of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, he embarked upon a world tour. When he reached San Francisco, he couldn’t resist boarding a steamboat which was provided to enable him to see Alaska, which he had done so much to obtain for the United States. In purchasing this large expanse of territory, Seward was following the policy of his mentor, John Quincy Adams, who was responsible for extending the United States to the Pacific Ocean, and who envisioned a nation more oriented toward trade with Russia and China than toward the Atlantic trade with Europe. Adams favored purchasing territory rather than engaging in war for it, and he had many a time stood up firmly against the British Empire’s attempts to dominate North America by manipulating the Americans to fight for territory.

John Quincy Adams.

William Seward had worked closely with Adams and was known as the “Adams man” in the eastern half of the country. When Adams died in 1848, Seward continued his policies of ending slavery and developing the American west. Seward also continued the friendship with Russia, which had begun on an equal footing when John Quincy Adams began serving as the first U.S. ambassador to Russia in 1809. Czar Alexander I and his successors recognized that the United States could serve as a counterweight to the British Empire, which was always stirring up wars in Europe. In contrast, the United States and Russia had little to quarrel about, and commercial treaties, not military treaties, brought the two nations into good relations for their mutual benefit.

Russian America, as Alaska was known then, was difficult to maintain for a country whose capital was located thousands of miles away. During the 1850s, it became clear that Russia wanted to sell, but the American Civil War cancelled any such plans. However, during Seward’s tenure as Secretary of State in the Johnson administration, the Russian Ambassador – Baron Edouard de Stoeckl – had a meeting with Seward about Russian America. Seward sensed that the Russian Czar Alexander II was ready to sell, and he moved quickly to write up a treaty. President Johnson and his cabinet agreed to the purchase, and so it would be up to Congress to give final approval. Ambassador Stoeckl cabled the Czar to approve the final price – 7 million dollars, or about two cents an acre – and the Czar approved, but was amazed at how quickly things were moving. Stoeckl had cabled him that “This whole affair has been managed in the go-ahead way of the Americans.”(1)

When Stoeckl told Seward that the Czar had approved, Seward proposed that they gather their staff and write up the treaty immediately. Thus, on March 30, 1867, at 4:00 A.M., the treaty was duly signed. At 10:00 A.M. Seward got the treaty to the Senate, and although it was two hours before adjournment, the senators decided to stay in Washington to discuss this momentous development. A newspaper campaign for and against the treaty developed, with old enemies of Seward and President Lincoln, such as newspaper owner Horace Greeley, ranting against the acquisition of Alaska. But Senator Charles Sumner, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, did his own research and led the fight for the treaty. One of the most persuasive arguments for the treaty was that Alaska had large deposits of coal, which would mean that the trans-pacific steamboats would not have to sail south to the Sandwich Islands (modern Hawaii) for fuel before sailing to the Orient. The Alaskan coal turned out to burn too hot for the steamboats, but there were many other Alaskan resources, as well as its strategic location, that turned the tide in favor of the treaty. Sumner also provided a new name – the Indian word Al-ay-ek-sa, which meant “great land,” and the name was adopted. On October 18, 1867, Alaska became American territory.

When Seward reached Sitka in August, 1869, he was greeted joyfully by the Ganaxadi indian tribe. The fierce tribes in the Sitka area often attacked the Ganaxadi and then enslaved those they captured. This enslavement extended to the victim’s family and lasted in perpetuity. Now the Ganaxadi would be free, and their Chief, Ebbetts, ordered two fifty-foot totem poles to be carved to celebrate the occasion. At the top of one stood Abraham Lincoln wearing his tall stovepipe hat, and on the other was pictured a sitting Seward, wearing a tall chief’s hat.

Seward was shown the explored regions of southern Alaska, and while there he joined a scientific expedition that was studying an eclipse of the sun. He also mediated a dispute between two tribes, which was solved by awarding the injured tribe a large stack of blankets. When the time came to depart, Seward was asked to give an address to the assembled residents, who asked him repeatedly about whether he thought there was a guarantee that Alaska would progress and eventually join the U.S. as one of the states. He answered them as follows:

“Within the period of my own recollection I have seen twenty new States added to the eighteen which before that time constituted the American Union, and I now see, besides Alaska, ten Territories in a forward condition of preparation for entering into the same great political family. I have seen in my own time not only the first electric telegraph, but even the first railroad and the first steamboat invented by man. And even on this present voyage of mine, I have fallen in with the first steamboat, still afloat, that thirty-five years ago lighted her fires on the Pacific ocean. These, citizens of Sitka, are the guaranties, not only that Alaska has a future, but that that future has already begun....”(2)

After Seward had crossed the Pacific and sighted the coast of Japan, he thought again of Alaska and its strategic location: “We have crossed the Pacific Ocean. How much it is to be regretted that we must make such long stretches, and yet see so little! How profitable it would be to study the North-Pacific American coast, the shores of Puget Sound, the Territories on the Columbia River, and Alaska, in a near future the great fishery, forest, and mineral storehouses of the world! – the Aleutian chain of islands hereafter to be the stepping-stones between the two continents....”(3) When asked by a friend shortly before his death, what he considered to be the most significant act of his career, Seward replied, “The purchase of Alaska! But it will take the people a generation to find it out.”(4)


(1) Clinton, Susan, “The Story of Seward’s Folly” Regensteiner Publishing, 1987, p. 16.

(2) Seward, William Henry, “Alaska: Speech of William H. Seward at Sitka, August 12, 1869. Sabin Reprint of Philp & Solomons, Washington, D.C., 1869, p. 15.

(3)Seward, William H., “Travels Around the World” D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1873, p. 35.

(4) Cohen, Daniel, “The Alaska Purchase” Millbrook Press, Brookfield, Connecticut, 1996, p. 11.