Seward's Folly...Or Not!

When the United States purchased the territory now known as Alaska from Russia in March 1867 there was a lot of speculation around the substantial purchase of the little-known land to the North. In 1854, Russia was in the midst of the Crimean war against the United Kingdom, the French, and the kingdom of Sardinia. Russian America was using up valuable resources and attention of which the troubled kingdom had none to spare. Russia needed money to fund its expansive war and was also afraid of Britain invading the land and using it against them in the conflict. Britain signed a gentleman’s agreement at that time assuring it would not invade Russian America, however. After Russia was defeated in the Crimean war in 1856, the country had a new interest in selling off the land to the East--the need to pay the surmounting debt from war and defeat. It soon was discovered that no country was interested in the territory other than the United States. At that time, Russia sent ambassadors to Washington to negotiate a deal. The idea of selling was bantered about for several years; however, by the time Russia was ready to sell its North American claim, the United States had entered into the Civil War and was not prepared to make such a deal. 

At the end of the Civil War, America revisited the idea of purchasing the land from Russia.  Russia sent Ambassador Stoeckl to Washington, D.C. to negotiate a deal; William H. Seward, then the Secretary of State for President Andrew Johnson participated in the process. Seward was an expansionist who had a great interest in the purchase of the land. He was adamant about pursuing the treaty as quickly as possible. Indeed, he entered talks with the Russian ambassador before gaining authorization by the President. Seward was zealous in his negotiations and trumped his own offer of five million dollars, before Russia could respond with a second offer of $5.5 million. While Russia looked over the price agreement Seward went to a cabinet meeting and asked for permission to spend $7 million for the purchase. He received no objections and by March 23, the two negotiators had agreed upon the main points of the deal. By March 29 Stoeckl had pushed Seward to the full $7 million.  Russia agreed and Seward, being as fervent as he was about obtaining the land, coordinated for that same evening to have the treaty signed. Russia wanted to make some last minute changes to the deal, and as Seward did not want to make these changes he agreed to pay Russia $200,000 more than the agreed upon price. The treaty was signed at 4 a.m. In the end, Seward bought 586,400 square miles of territory for the United States in about a two week time span. The very same day the Senate was called upon to ratify the treaty.  The Senate opposed the buying of Alaska, and after much negotiation finally voted in favor of the treaty by a narrow margin of one vote. Congress approved the treaty and named the new territory Alaska from the native Aleutian word for the mainland (Wheeler).

The U.S. government endured a lot of bad press for the new purchase. The media portrayed this buy as “unusable, uninhabitable, and unworthy of purchase” (Wheeler).  It described the far away territory as a wasteland and deemed it “Seward’s Folly,” “Seward’s Icebox, and “Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden.”   Seward, however, felt otherwise; he once said the most significant act in his career was the “purchase of Alaska!" But understood that it would "take people a generation to find that out” (Wheeler).  And so it did. Alaska initially was viewed as a great block of ice that was largely unpopulated with vast and dangerous wilderness that could not be tamed. It took another thirty years and the discovery of gold to slowly begin to change American minds. The territory held on to its stigma of being uninhabitable, even into the 1930s. Many still today see the land as being overly cold and inhospitable. Yet the stigma of Seward’s Folly has since waned,and with the land now chiefly used for the extraction of resources, the general consensus of Alaska is of a beautiful and distinct facet of the United States. The region offers visitors magnificent terrain as well as a rich native heritage, and will continue to be one of the greatest frontiers Americans have ever acquired.

When actually arriving in Alaska my fear of a far off land was quickly put to rest.  Even in its remoteness, Alaska seemed to be completely tied into our culture. At times it seemed strange to think that we were even disconnected from the lower 48; yet, at other times, we felt so insignificant in its majestic beauty that there seemed to be no other people on the planet besides us. Evidence of its somewhat recent pioneering past can still be seen throughout its towns; many places lay claim to the title pioneer and the overall landscape and size of the cities show their recent development since becoming a state. The landscape of this massive region is beautiful, and as each day passes we still find ourselves in awe of everything around us. Denali National Park and Preserve is the epitome of beauty in our nation. Climbing to the top of huge ranges that have graced this land for millions of years gives one an entirely new perspective on time, the natural environment and our place alongside the vast wilderness. There was no folly in Seward's decision to purchase Alaska from Russia. Alaska is one of the greatest treasures of our nation and should be noted as one of our highest accomplishments in its acquisition. Beyond its mineral wealth, Alaska offers our nation a fleeting glimpse of undisturbed wilderness, untarnished by human interaction. Never will there be a greater feat in the history of acquisition in the United States then that of Seward and his Alaskan Wonderland.
~Keagan Johnson

Naske, Claus-M., and Herman E. Slotnick. Alaska: A History. 3. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011. Print.

Wheeler, Keith. The Alaskans . Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books Inc., 1977. Print.

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