How did Alaska get its name?

Russia transferred Alaska to the United States at Sitka in 1867.
Russia transferred Alaska to the United States at Sitka in 1867.

The man credited with purchasing Alaska from the Russians in 1867 probably signed his name to more government documents than any man of his day. He also appears to be the chief architect of the name given to America’s new possession.

William H. Seward, born May 16, 1801 in Orange County, New York, held many high political offices during his career in government. Along with the Treaty of Cessation for the purchase of Alaska, he also signed the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, signed on July 9, 1868, which grants citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including slaves recently freed. It also forbade states from denying any person “life, liberty or property, without due process of law,” and guaranteed equal protection under the law to all.

Prior to that, the people of New York had elected Seward governor of their state – twice – and he served as the state’s U.S. senator. He later joined the anti-slavery movement, which split the Whig Party. He then ran in the Republican primary against an Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. He lost the primary, but Lincoln appointed him his Secretary of State.

Seward also may have been responsible for giving Russia America its new name following the famous land negotiations during 1867. His son, Frederick W. Seward, was the assistant secretary of state at the time and witnessed his father deciding what the new possession would be called after he struck a deal with the Russians, according to an article titled, “What’s In The Name ‘Alaska?’ written by Jay Stauter of Seward for The Anchorage Times on May 16, 1966.

Stauter found the following excerpt in the middle of page 364 in junior Seward’s book, Reminiscences Of A Wartime Statesman And Diplomat, published in 1916.

“On a bright day in August [actually was Oct. 18], 1867, with brief but impressive ceremonies, amid salutes from the Russian and American naval vessels, the American flag was raised over the new territory thenceforth known as ‘Alaska,’” Frederick Seward wrote of the transfer ceremony in Sitka.

“This ceremony might be called a christening as well as the transfer. The territory had previously been known as ‘Russian America.’ During the progress of the treaty through the Senate, there were occasional discussions of the name to be bestowed upon it by the United States.

“Several were suggested as appropriate, among them ‘Sitka,’ the name of the capital, ‘Yukon,’ that of its chief river, ‘Aliaska’ or ‘Alaska,’ derived from the name of its great peninsula ‘Oonalaska’ and ‘Aleutia,’ derived from its chain of islands. Seward, with whom the final decision rested, preferred ‘Alaska’ as being brief, euphonious (agreeable to the ear), and suitable. The name was generally accepted with favor and began to be used before the transfer was made.”

Stauter went on to say that since William Seward was in intimate daily contact with his father, and included in conferences and correspondence during this period, he is a rather reliable witness to how the name Alaska was chosen over all other names suggested at the time.

2 comments on “How did Alaska get its name?

  1. this is so interesting Laurel! As always, can’t thank you enough for these history lessons.

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