State employees have a holiday every Oct. 18 due to the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States on that date in 1867.
March 30, the date the Treaty of Cessation was signed by Secretary of State William H. Seward and Baron de Stoeckl, is likewise celebrated as Seward’s Day in Alaska.
Seward was appointed to the top cabinet post by President Abraham Lincoln, who won the Republican nomination over the former New York governor.
Born May 16, 1801, in Florida, N.Y., the son of a slave-owner, William Henry Seward grew up in that small town. Eager to learn, a friend was compelled to say, “While some boys run away from school and go home, he ran away from home to go to school.” He studied law in the office of an attorney in his hometown and then practiced before the bar in the larger city of Auburn. He became interested in politics and was linked with Thurlow Weed, a widely-known political figure in that city.
Seward served in local government and was a member of the Anti-Masonic Party until 1834 when he joined the Whigs, then became a Republican in 1855. He was elected Governor of New York in 1839 and served one two-year term, then was elected to the United States Senate in 1849, serving there for two six-year terms. He was considered to be the leading candidate for nomination as the Republican presidential candidate in 1960 but was defeated by the tall Illinois lawyer, Lincoln. Although deeply hurt by the loss, he campaigned enthusiastically for the nominee.
Although slaves were employed on his father’s small farm in their rural community, Seward became an advocate for the abolition of slavery.
In local government and as governor, he supported legislation giving rights to freed slaves. According to biographers, he advocated their right to own property and to vote. His wife Frances, a schoolmate from their hometown, reportedly ran a safe house along the Underground Railroad, sheltering those who escaped from bondage and fled north.
As Secretary of State, Seward was faced with several issues with international impact. At home, there was the threat of secession by southern states. Tantamount among concerns was whether Britain and France might support the South in the conflict. It was Seward’s responsibility to see that they did not. He met with representatives of both countries to argue for them to remain neutral. Had they backed the opposition to the Union, it was feared that the Confederacy would become a separate nation.
Ft. Sumter, a Union post located in Charleston harbor, commanded an important shipping location. It was blockaded by the South Carolina militia. Seward recommended that Lincoln be prepared to ask Congress to declare war on any foreign nations that supported an attack on that bastion. When Southern troops fired on the fort, however, it was the start of the War of Secession. European countries did not openly join the conflict, thanks largely to Seward’s efforts.
Prior to being named Secretary of State, Seward developed a vision of expanding the United States over the entire continent. He saw North America as one entity even though Russia claimed Alaska and part of the West Coast, in the south, Mexico had won independence from Spain, and colonies within what is now the Dominion of Canada were linked with Britain. When he was approached by representatives of the Russian czar with an offer to sell their interests, Seward felt it was a worthwhile move. The Civil War, however, required all the Union’s resources, forcing the matter to be postponed.
The fighting ended with the surrender of the Confederate Army, Seward was able to proceed with negotiations.
Russia had not yet recovered from its losses in the costly Crimean War, and Emperor Alexander II’s government was in a state of distress. Known as “The Liberator” for ending the serf system—where landed gentry “owned” the peasants who worked their land—his reign was besieged by conflict, and he was constantly under threat. He reign ended in 1881 when he was assassinated. The deal was concluded after an all-night discussion ending in the early morning of March 30, 1867. Alaska was purchased for $7.2 million, roughly two cents an acre.
In August of 1869, 67 days shy of the two-year anniversary of the transfer, Seward spoke to an assemblage at Sitka, then the capital of the new possession. In the lengthy address, he indicated a wide knowledge of what Alaska had to offer. He listed the minerals that had been found and was optimistic about the future benefits—something that has proved true well beyond his expectations. He foresaw a major shipbuilding industry springing from the timber resources of Southeast Alaska; that prediction fell short, however, with wooden hulls then the norm made obsolete by steel.
The flowery language used by Seward brought to mind the late Gov. Jay Hammond, the import of whose words were sometimes lost in the poetry that surrounded them.
His greeting, for example, was, “You have pressed me to meet you in public assembly once before I leave Alaska. It would be sheer affectation to pretend to doubt your sincerity in making this request, and capriciously ungrateful to refuse it, after having received so many and varied hospitalities from all sorts and conditions of men. It is not an easy task, however, to speak in a manner worthy of your consideration, while I am living constantly on ship-board, as you all know, and am occupied intently in searching out whatever is sublime, or beautiful, or peculiar, or useful.”
On his view of Alaska, he said this: “The rivers are broad, shallow, and rapid while the seas are deep but tranquil. Mr. Sumner, in his elaborate and magnificent oration, although he spake only from historical accounts, has not exaggerated—no man can exaggerate—the marine treasures of the Territory. Beside the whale, which everywhere and at all times is seen enjoying his robust exercise, and the sea-otter, the fur-seal, the hair-seal, and the walrus, found in the waters which embosom the western islands, those waters as well as the seas of the eastern archipelago are found teeming with the salmon, cod, and other fishes adapted to the support of human and animal life. Indeed, what I have seen here has almost made me a convert to the theory of some naturalists, that the waters of the globe are filled with stores for the sustenance of animal life surpassing the available productions of the land.”
In that speech, he hinted at his vision of a unified North America.
He noted that British Columbia was ruled by another nation, but spoke of a common link in the desires of citizens of the two nations.
Seward also foresaw Alaska becoming a state, as it was to do 90 years later. He told the crowd, “Nor do I doubt that the political society to be constituted here, first as a Territory, and ultimately as a State or many States, will prove a worthy constituency of the Republic.”
On Oct. 18 we celebrate Alaska Day, the anniversary of the lowering of the Russian Eagle and the raising of the Stars and Stripes (there were 12 fewer stars back then).
We acknowledge William Seward on March 30, when we celebrate the day he bought Alaska for two cents an acre.