Seward’s Folly becomes U.S. Treasure

Russia officially turned Alaska over to the Americans in October 1867 in the Southeast town of Sitka, seen here in the 1880s.
Russia officially turned Alaska over to the Americans in October 1867 in the Southeast town of Sitka, seen here in the 1880s.

On April 9, 1867, by a margin of just one vote, the U.S. Senate voted to ratify the treaty to purchase Alaska from Russia. The purchase of the northern frontier was ridiculed by the press at the time and called “Seward’s folly,” “Seward’s icebox” and President Andrew Johnson’s “polar bear garden.”

But its main architect, Secretary of State William Seward, saw a huge benefit to owning the land that sat so close to Russia.

“Standing here and looking far off into the northwest, I see the Russian as he busily occupies himself in establishing seaports and towns and fortifications on the verge of the continent … and I can say, ‘Go on and build up your outposts all along the coast, up even to the Arctic Ocean; they will yet become the outposts of my own country – monuments of the civilization of the United States in the northwest!’ ”

So predicted Seward in a memorable speech many years before the purchase took place. That Alaska came into the possession of the United States was almost wholly due to Seward’s foresight and persistent efforts.

The Imperial Government of Russia first approached the U.S. government with a secret offer to sell its Russian possessions in America in 1859. The Russians had expended vast amounts of capital during the Crimean War in a futile struggle with France and England and needed to replenish the royal coffers.

However, with the Civil War raging during the early 1860s, the United States didn’t pursue the purchase of Alaska until March 1867 when Seward received word that the Russians were ready to unload their northern property.

Seward was playing a game of whist with members of his family when he was interrupted by a late call from Russian Ambassador Baron Edouard de Stoeckl, who came to announce the arrival of a dispatch from St. Petersburg conveying the Emperor’s assent to the cession of Alaska to the United States.

The Russians wanted “a cash payment of $7 million, with an additional $200,000 on condition that the cession should be free and unencumbered by any reservations, privileges, franchises or possessions by any associated companies, corporate or incorporate, Russian or any other.”

The Secretary of State abandoned his game of whist. He and the Russian ambassador collected their clerks and had the treaty ready for transmission to the U.S. Senate by sunrise.

But many legislators didn’t think the purchase was a good idea. “… that Alaska was created for some purpose I have just as little doubt as I have had since the Rebellion of the necessity for the infernal regions …,” one member of Congress said. Most Americans at the time also thought the idea fantastic and ridiculous. Some asked, “How can there be anything of value in that barren, worthless, God-forsaken region.”

Six months after the Senate ratified the purchase, Russia officially turned Alaska over to the Americans in a ceremony held in Sitka. And since the hand off, Seward’s “God-forsaken region” has yielded millions of dollars in resources for its sister states, including furs, fish, coal, copper, gold and crude oil.

20 comments on “Seward’s Folly becomes U.S. Treasure

  1. That is a fantastic piece of history. You often don’t realize the true value of something until later. I’m glad we have Alaska.

  2. That was a great deal for 7 million and then 200K. I never realized this piece of history.

  3. My 17 year daughter was also telling me about this history fact about Alaska. I went to school I Jamaica so this is all new to me, and a wonderful history lesson

  4. Yes, Marielle, the Russians arrived in Alaska in the mid-1700s. At the same time as many other countries were exploring Alaska, but only the Russians stayed!

  5. Your daughter is right, Veronica – I was in Jamaica last month and toured the pineapple plantation up in the hills above Montego Bay. Beautiful country!

  6. I’m glad, too, Deborah. If Seward hadn’t been persistent, we might be speaking Russian up here still!

  7. My book, The Dragline Kid, tells about my birth back in 1939 in none other than SEWARD, Alaska. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Secretary Seward who was nearly murdered during the Lincoln assassination conspiracy. If not for Secretary Seward, I would probably be a “California girl” or a Russian peasant instead of a born and raised, very proud Alaskan. Love ya Cusel!

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