University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Seward's Folly, A Son's View

Volume XXII · Spring 1967 · Number 3
Seward's Folly: A Son's View

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Alaska's purchase from Russia by the United States, and in taking note of this historic event, the editors of the Library Bulletin are publishing a speech written by Frederick W. Seward, the son of Secretary of State William H. Seward who negotiated the purchase.

Frederick Seward's Alaskan speech is included in the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts which comprise the William Henry Seward Papers housed in the University of Rochester Library.

Seward, as Secretary of State under President Andrew Johnson, negotiated the purchase of Alaska for $7.2 million—2 cents an acre. He received little thanks from his generation; instead, was taunted about the purchase as "Seward's Folly."

Alaskans, all this year, will be commemorating the purchase which culminated in statehood on January 3, 1959. Congress has appropriated $4.6 million to be used on a matching basis for centennial projects. It also put up $600,000 for traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibits tracing Alaska's history from the sixteenth century. Alaska expects 200,000 visitors during this year-long celebration throughout their 586,400 square miles of land.

Frederick Seward's speech, printed below, was written in the early 1900 's, more than thirty years after the Alaska Purchase, and portions of it published in his 1916 autobiography, entitled Reminiscences of a War-Time Statesman and Diplomat. His remarks also were used by his brother, General William H. Seward, Jr., at ceremonies during the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition at Seattle, Washington in 1909.— The Editors

Two ships came sailing over the North Pacific Ocean more than a century and a half ago. One was named St. Peter and the other was named St. Paul. Over both flew the broad blue cross of St. Andrew. They had been blessed and prayed for in churches and cathedrals, after the fashion of those times, for their errand was to carry civilization and Christianity to regions unexplored and unknown. They had been sent by the government of Russia, to continue explorations begun by order of Peter the Great, to ascertain the extent of his vast dominions, and to find out whether Asia and America were connected by land or separated by water. Captain Vitus Behring was in command.

In the long days of June they crossed the narrow Sea with a favoring wind. Soon a lofty mountain was seen in the distance over the St. Paul's bow. To right and left and all around it were a myriad of islands and rocky islets, partially covered with evergreens. No white man had ever seen them before. Now they were discovered by Russians, and so they would henceforth be Russian soil. He cruised along the shore to north and east, far into the Arctic Ocean. Then storms assailed his craft. Sickness attacked his crew. He sought to return, but was wrecked on a desolate island, and Behring's life ended in Behring's Sea.

The survivors made their way back to Russia. They had marvelous tales to tell of the newly discovered coast, —of its seals, its sables, its martens, its foxes and its sea-otters. Already Siberia and Kamchatka had been ransacked for these costly furs and now here there was a new field overflowing with opportunities for wealth. Traders and trappers from Siberia, merchants and adventurers from Moscow and St. Petersburg, hastened there by hundreds and even thousands. They had to improvise their own means of conveyance. The first ones hewed canoes out of trees, built boats of planks, lashed together with strips of rawhide or sealskin. Later, wealthy merchants built ships and regularly engaged in the fur trade. One man brought back the first summer 5000 skins, and so achieved a fortune. Every such story brought a rush of fresh seekers for wealth.

It was a wild and lawless region for a time. There was no governmental authority to check the sway of drunkenness and robbery, fraud and force. The white men sometimes killed each other, but the chief sufferers were the poor natives. However, this came to an end, when the imperial government slowly extended its long arm of power and grappled with its unruly colonists. Military and naval and civil officers were sent out. Forts were built and garrisoned. Landing places and trading settlements were established, and a governor appointed to supervise the whole.

Of the successive Russian governors some traditions are still extant, especially of the benevolent Shelikoff, who built churches and schools, opened courts, heard and redressed grievances, and sought to supersede savage customs by the usages of civilization. Also of the rough, rugged, hospitable Baranoff, who built his castle on the rock at Sitka, and from thence ruled his subjects with a rod of iron, though in the main with sagacity and rude justice.

Adventurers and traders from other lands began to find their way to Russian America, in such numbers as to threaten the ultimate extermination of the fur bearing animals. The Russians wanted to keep the fur trade in their own hands. They were ready to sell furs to all comers, but preferred to control the hunting and trapping themselves. The Americans wanted to share in the profitable traffic. The British wanted to push their Hudson's Bay Company's stations across the continent to the Pacific. So arose questions of boundary and of commercial and national rights. It soon became necessary to make treaties to define them. Negotiations were begun, and lasted several years. In these participated such eminent diplomatists as Nesselrode and Poletica on the part of Russia, John Quincy Adams, Richard Rush and Henry Middleton of the United States, and Sir Charles Bagot, Stratford Canning and the Duke of Wellington for Great Britain. Finally, all was duly and peaceably settled. Russia conceded maritime rights and privileges, in accordance with international law, but held tenaciously to her sovereignty over the forests and broad plains at the north, and to the long and narrow lisiere, at the south, between the mountains and the sea. Thus matters remained for forty years.

It was during this period, that Senator William Henry Seward, in a speech at St. Paul, Minnesota, made his memorable prediction:

"Standing here and looking far off into the Northwest, I see the Russian, as he busily occupies himself in establishing sea-ports and towns and fortifications, on the verge of this continent as the outposts of St Petersburg: 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."

Soon after came our great Civil War. There were many evidences of unfriendly feeling on the part of foreign powers. But Russia remained a constant friend. Unequivocal good wishes for the maintenance and restoration of the Union were expressed by the Emperor Alexander II, and his prime minister, Prince Gortschakoff, and their diplomatic agents. As a manifestation of national amity two fleets were sent over, one anchoring at San Francisco, and the other visiting Washington and New York, where exchange of hospitalities marked the entente cordiale, between the governments.

Senator Seward had now become Secretary of State. One of the lessons which the war had forcibly impressed upon him was our lack of naval outposts in the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean. The cordial relations existing with Russia enabled him to at once open informal discussion of the subject with Mr. Stoecki, the Russian Minister. He found that Russia would in no case allow her American possessions to pass into the hands of any European power. But the United States always had been, and probably always would be a friend. Russian America was a remote province, not easily defensible, and not likely to be soon developed. Under American control it would develop more rapidly and be more easily defended. To Russia, instead of a source of danger, it might become a safeguard. To the United States it would give a foothold for commercial and naval operations, accessible from the Pacific States.

Seward and Gortschakoff were not long in arriving at an agreement upon a subject which instead of embarrassing with conflicting interests, presented some mutual advantages. After the graver question of national ownership came the minor one of pecuniary cost. The measure of the value of land to an individual owner, is the amount of yearly income it can be made to produce. But national domain gives prestige, power and safety to the state, and so is not easily to be measured by dollars and cents. Millions cannot purchase these, nor compensate for their loss. However, it was necessary to fix upon a definite sum, to be named in the treaty,—not so small as to belittle the transaction in the public eye, nor so large as to deprive it of its real character as an act of friendship on the part of Russia toward the United States. Neither side was especially tenacious about the amount. The previous treaties for the acquisition of territory from France, Spain and Mexico seemed to afford an index for valuation. The Russians thought $10,000,000 would be a reasonable amount. Seward proposed $5,000,000. Dividing the difference made it $7,500,000. Then at Seward's suggestion, the half million was thrown off, but the territory was still subject to some franchises and privileges of the Russian Fur Company. Seward insisted that these should be extinguished by the Russian Government before the transfer, and was willing that $200,000 should be added on that account to the $7,000,000. At this valuation of $7,200,000 the bargain could be deemed satisfactory, even from the stand point of an individual fisherman, miner, or woodcutter, for the timber, mines, furs and fisheries would easily yield the annual interest on that sum.

On the evening of Friday, March 29th, Seward was playing whist in his parlor with some of his family, when the Russian Minister was announced.

"I have a dispatch, Mr. Seward, from my government, by cable. The Emperor gives his consent to the cession. Tomorrow, if you like, I will come to the Department and we can enter upon the treaty."

Seward, with a smile of satisfaction pushed away the whist table, saying:

"Why wait till tomorrow, Mr. Stoeckl? Let us make the treaty tonight."

"But your Department is closed. You have no clerks, and my secretaries are scattered about the town," said Stoeckl.

"Never mind that," responded Seward. "If you can muster your legation together before midnight, you will find me awaiting you at the Department, which will be open and ready for business."

In less than two hours afterward light was streaming out of the windows of the Department of State and apparently business was going on as at midday. By four o'clock on Saturday morning, the treaty was engrossed, signed, sealed and ready for transmission by the President to the Senate. There was need of this haste, in order that it might be acted upon before the end of the session, now near at hand.

I was then the Assistant Secretary of State. To me had been assigned the duty of finding Mr. [Charles] Sumner, the Chairman of the Committee of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, to inform him of the negotiations in progress, and to urge his advocacy of the treaty in the Senate…

On the following morning, while the Senate was considering its favorite theme of administrative delinquencies the Sergeant-at-Arms announced: "A message from the President of the United States." Glances were significantly exchanged, with the muttered remark, "Another veto!"—Great was the surprise in the Chamber, when the Secretary read, "A Treaty for the cession of Russian America."—Nor was the surprise lessened, when the Chairman of Foreign Relations, a leading opponent of the President, rose, to move favorable action. His remarks showed easy familiarity with the subject, and that he was prepared to give reasons for the speedy approval of the treaty.

The debate which followed in the Senate was animated and earnest, but in the end the treaty was confirmed. But the purchase was not consummated without a storm of raillery in conversation and ridicule in the press. Russian America was declared to be, "a barren, worthless, God-forsaken region, whose only products were ice bergs and polar bears." It was said that the ground was frozen six feet deep and the streams were glaciers. "Walrussia" was suggested as a name for it, if it deserved to have any. Vegetation was said to be limited to mosses, and no useful animals could live there. There might be some few wretched fish, only fit for wretched Esquimaux to eat. But nothing could be raised there. Seven millions of good money were going to be wasted in buying it. Many more millions would have to be spent in holding and defending it,—for it was remote, inhospitable, and inaccessible. It was "Seward's Folly." It was "Johnson's Polar Bear Garden." It was "an egregious blunder, a bad bargain, palmed off on a silly Administration by the shrewd Russians…

Most of these jeers and flings were from those who disliked the President and blamed Seward for remaining in his Cabinet. Perhaps unwillingness to believe that anything wise or right could be done by "Andy Johnson's Administration," was the real reason for the wrath visited upon the unoffending Territory. The feeling of hostility to the purchase was so strong that the House of Representatives would not take action toward accepting the territory or appropriate any money to pay for it.

The Russian Government courteously waived any demand for immediate payment, and signified readiness to make the final transfer whenever the United States might desire. Accordingly, commissioners were appointed, who proceeded to Sitka. On a bright day in August, 1867, with brief but impressive ceremonies, amid salutes from the Russian and American naval vessels, the American flag was raised over the new territory to be thenceforth known as "Alaska."

It was not until the 27th of July in the following year that the act making appropriation to pay for Alaska was finally passed and approved—the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House, Gen. Banks, being its effective advocate. On the next day the Secretary of State made his requisition upon the Treasury for $7,200,000 to be paid to the Russian Government.

The United States, at first, merely garrisoned the forts at Wrangell, Tongass and Sitka, with small detachments of troops. The Russian inhabitants generally remained, but they were few. The Indians were peaceable and friendly in the neighborhood of the forts, though sometimes warlike in the remoter regions. A shrewd old Indian chief was one day watching the soldiers drilling. He said to the commander: "What for you work your men on land with guns? Why you no work them on water with canoes?" It was a valuable suggestion. As the Indians lived principally on fish and marine animals, their villages were all on the shores of bays, sounds and rivers. Armed vessels, patrolling the waters could easily control them, while soldiers cooped up in garrison or struggling through forests would be useless. When this became understood at Washington, naval vessels and revenue cutters were ordered to Alaskan waters, and rendered good service there…

Alaska was left for some years under the supervision of the military and naval and revenue officers of the government—their chief duties being, to keep the peace, arrest criminals, collect the revenue and prevent smuggling, especially of illicit liquors and firearms.—Meanwhile, fur traders and explorers continued to go there in increasing numbers, but emigrants generally were deterred from going to a region where the settler could not get a title to house or land, and could not feel assured of adequate protection or redress at law. Congress was engrossed by other matters, and so neglected the remote province, which the general public seemed to regard with indifference,—for the old notion of its being all bleak and barren still had hold of the popular imagination.

Yet there were sagacious and enterprising business men, especially on the Pacific Coast, who perceived that there were potentialities of wealth in Alaska. They availed themselves of the opportunities and organized companies for seal fishing, fur trading, salmon canning and quartz mining, —most of which succeeded beyond expectation.

But most important and most beneficent of all was the work done by the missionaries and school teachers. Various denominations established missions, churches and schools at widely separated points. The Presbyterians took the lead, but were soon followed by others. Wisely devoting their chief attention to the education of the native children, they soon wrought a marvellous transformation. Laying aside the habits and ideas of savage life, these pupils began to acquire those of educated American citizens. The government at Washington next took part in the good work, and Congress made an appropriation for schools, that were placed under the supervision of the Bureau of Education. Under the judicious direction of Dr. Sheldon Jackson and others, instruction was given not merely in school books but in useful trades and handicrafts, enabling the pupils to become at once civilized and self supporting.

It was a surprise to the Eastern public, when they were informed, a few years since, that the neglected territory was already paying into the national treasury more than it had cost, and that its productions and revenue were yearly increasing. Within another decade, the explorers, miners and prospectors began to report their discoveries of gold, silver, copper and coal in apparently inexhaustible supply. Alaska commenced repaying its cost price over and over again, each year,—so that now, in return for our seven millions, we are likely to have seventy times seven.

During the last year of Seward's life [1872] he was visited at Auburn by Frank Carpenter, who painted the historic picture of "The Emancipation Proclamation." The artist asked him:

"Governor Seward, which of your public acts do you think will live longest in the memory of the American People?" Seward replied, "The purchase of Alaska. But," he added, "it will take another generation to find it out."