Seward’s Folly

On March 30, 1867, Secretary of State William H. Seward agreed to purchase Alaska from Russia for 7.2 million dollars. Critics attacked Seward for the secrecy surrounding the deal, which came to be known as “Seward’s folly.” The press mocked his willingness to spend so much on “Seward’s icebox” and Andrew Johnson’s “polar bear garden.”

Portrait of Secretary of State William H. Seward, officer of the United States government. Brady National Photographic Portrait Galleries (Washington, D.C.), photographer, ca 1860-1865. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division

Under the aegis of explorer Vitus Jonassen Bering, Russia established a presence in Alaska in the early eighteenth century. Russia initially approached the United States about selling the territory during President James Buchanan‘s administration, but the Civil War stalled negotiations. Seward, secretary of state under presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, supported American expansion and was eager to acquire Alaska. However, convincing skeptics that Alaska was an important addition to the United States was a challenge. Thanks to strong support by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, the Senate approved the treaty by a vote of 37-2 on April 9, 1867. Nonetheless, the appropriation of money needed to purchase Alaska was delayed by more than a year due to opposition in the House of Representatives. The House finally approved the appropriation on July 14, 1868, by a vote of 113-43.

The discovery of gold in the late 1890s increased Alaska’s value as a U.S. possession and boosted its population. In 1912, the region was granted territorial status. During World War II, Japan invaded the Aleutian Islands of Agattu, Attu, and Kiska in 1942. Although the islands were retaken by U.S. troops within a year, the threat to Alaska prompted the construction of the Alcan Highway and an increased military presence in the region.

Alaskans approved statehood in 1946 and adopted a state constitution in 1955. On January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower announced Alaska’s entrance into the Union as the 49th state.

Seward, Alaska, 1915. F.W. Sheelor, photographer, 1915. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

The town of Seward, Alaska, located on the Kenai Peninsula at the head of Resurrection Bay, was founded in 1903 as a supply base for the construction of a railway to the Yukon Valley.

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