What could have been the real-estate boondoggle of the century turned out to be a boon for the Old West and the Last Frontier.
It’s been 150 years since William H. Seward bought the place lock, stock, and barrel from the Russians, a prescient real estate purchase considering the Alaska Gold Rush wouldn’t begin for more than a decade. To the outside observer at the time, the territory might not have seemed like more than one huge Arctic mistake.
When gold was first discovered in Alaska, in Juneau in 1880, the Far North quickly became the new Wild West. Little could Seward have known.
After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Alaska Purchase might have been the deal of the 19th century: On March 30, 1867, U.S. Secretary of State Seward and Russian Minister to the United States Edouard de Stoeckl finished negotiations and signed a treaty that put $7.2 million in the pockets of the Russian Empire and put the former Russian America on the U.S. map. The deal — which Russia sought in an effort to avert war or eventual loss to American settlers poised to overrun the territory — was a steal at 2 cents an acre for 375,303,680 acres (586,412 square miles). Then criticized as Seward’s Folly and Mr. Seward’s Ice Box, the purchase gave the United States a resource-rich and geographically strategic chunk of the planet that would eventually become the country’s 49th state.
Though the purchase took place on March 30, 1867, the formal transfer didn’t take place till almost seven months later. The formal flag-raising took place at Fort Sitka on October 18, a day now celebrated as Alaska Day. The land deal had furthered western expansion in both location and character and set the stage for a lot of Old West-style history that would play out in that Far North known as The Last Frontier.
Seward is said to have had an interest in whaling, which may account for his focus on Alaska. A determined opponent of slavery and strong Union supporter, he had served the country as a governor of New York, U.S. senator, and prominent leader in the Republican Party. After being defeated by Abraham Lincoln for the party’s nomination for president, he served as Lincoln’s secretary of state and survived an assassination attempt that was part of the same plot that killed the president. John Wilkes Booth co-conspirator Lewis Powell found Seward at home and brutally stabbed him in the neck and face; along with five others in the household who were also attacked, Seward managed to survive.
Two years later Seward would finalize the Alaska Purchase.
After he retired in 1869, he finally visited Alaska as part of a world tour. He died three years later. One biographer would describe Seward as a politician whose legacy was a “foreign policy built for the future.” He had acquired bases and naval stations and had added territory without resorting to aggression. His most significant acquisition and greatest accomplishment may have been Alaska. It was the cornerstone of his vision and desire to “prepare America for the great era which lay ahead.”
On January 3, 1959, Alaska became the 49th state, not quite 92 years after Seward bought it.
Find out more about Alaska’s Wild West days in our October 2017 issue.