I’ve been traveling lately and just got back from Alaska, a state I’ve wanted to visit since reading about “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Icebox” in a history class back In the 1940s. Just think, a geographical area more than three times the size of Texas, over 375 million acres for a price of little more than seven million dollars which Alaskans refer to as a bargain price at less than two cents an acre!
Secretary of State, William H. Seward didn’t start out to arrange the purchase of Alaska from Russia. He just sought concessions for American fur traders who wanted to engage in the Alaskan fur business. But Russia was having some economic issues going back at least as far as the 1850s when the first offer to sell to the U.S. was made. Russia was still plagued by economic issues in the 1860s and had been very friendly to the U.S. during the Civil War years, so the time was right. The sell offer was made again and immediately accepted by a wise Secretary of State serving in Andrew Johnson’s administration, a president soon to be impeached by a hostile Congress.
Seward was a good man, a strong personality, probably an imperialist at heart and certainly a man who knew an opportunity when he saw one. The nation’s attention was on trying to recover from the Civil War, and that recovery process included the practical as well as the moral issues of how to treat the South. Johnson had authorized Seward to negotiate the purchase with the Russian ambassador, and the purchase treaty was signed on March 30, 1867. Surprisingly, in those turbulent times, the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, 37-2, just ten days later! But the money had yet to be appropriated, even though it was supposed to be paid to Russia within ten months.
Almost singlehandedly, Seward began a vigorous public campaign to pressure the Congress for the appropriation. Editorials nationwide supported the purchase, noting the enormous natural resources of Alaska, fishing, lumber, furs, etc. and even speculating on mining possibilities, thus foreshadowing the gold rush of the 1890s. It took more than a year, but Congress did appropriate the money, and Russia was fully paid in August, 1868.
Ninety years later, on 4 July 1958, President Eisenhower signed into U.S. law the Alaska Statehood Act, and Alaska was admitted to the Union in January, 1959, our 49th state.
I waited nearly 60 years before I had the time and the resources to visit Alaska. I deplored our early history of exploitation of that territory, the decimation wrought by our early fishing, lumber, and mining industries, the subjugation of the native people. I still deplore all that. But today’s Alaska is a much different place. Conservation and restoration and pride in the natural, rugged beauty of the topography were evident wherever I visited, though, I admit, I probably saw and experienced less than half of one percent of that enormous land and seascape. I may not visit again because there are so many other places to see and experience and so little time remaining. I say a belated thanks to William Seward, however. His vision and dedication and devotion were his unselfish gifts to his country and were the instruments which eventually made a U.S. state called Alaska possible. Ken McCullough