- Historic Sites
Seward’s Wise Folly
In Alaska a much-abused Secretary of State saw a fabulous bargain, and what might have been a Russian beachhead became instead our forty-ninth state
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
America does not greatly love nor long remember her Secretaries of State. Upon this melancholy fact William Henry Seward of New York had more reason than most to rellect. In 1860 he stood at the pinnacle of a brilliant political career, and when the Republican party gathered in Chicago early that summer to choose a candidate for President, he was not alone in believing that the choice would fall upon him. it went instead to an obscure lawyer from Illinois, and Seward, pocketing his hopes, accepted Abraham Lincoln’s offer of the top post in his Cabinet.
There he served with distinction, staying on under Andrew Johnson following Lincoln’s tragic death. Rut he became the target of bitter abuse, particularly alter helping to persuade Johnson to adopt Lincoln’s moderate Reconstruction policy. One after another, friends of long standing within Scward’s own party deserted him until, toward the end of his second term, he found himself almost alone. Even Scward, eternal optimist that he was, knew he had come to the end of the road.
“Grey, bent, and weary,” in the words of his son, he stood in the parlor of his Washington home one evening in 1868, musing pensively before the portraits of the world’s rulers which covered the walls. To his guests he pointed out those who, during his brief eight years in the State Department, had passed from the scene. Death had taken Leopold of Belgium and Frederick of Denmark; Isabella of Spain, “fat and fair,” had been dethroned and exiled; Pope Pius IX, “gentle old man,” had been shorn of his temporal domains by Italian nationalists and now was a lonely prisoner in the Vatican; Medjid of Turkey had been assassinated and poor Maximilian of Mexico shot before the eyes of his army, his empress left to wander the earth.
“It is a sermon on the instability of human greatness,” said one of Seward’s listeners.
“Perhaps so,” he answered with a wintry smile. “I can only hope that they all enjoyed the prospect of getting out of office as much as I do.”
Yet his country has many reasons to remember William Seward with gratitude, and among them one seems likely to make the gratitude endure: in 1867, alone and in the face of public apathy and political opposition, he negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia, acquiring a fabulously wealthy area about one-fifth the size of the continental United States, and more than twice the size of Texas, for the equivalent of two cents an acre. The deal was borne to conclusion on a flood tide of Russian-American friendship: “Well, we have sold to you too cheaply,” a Russian said to Cassius (Hay, our minister at St. Petersburg, “but it’s all in the family.” The sentiment today has the ring of irony: one need only contemplate the present implications of Alaska as a strong Russian beachhead in North America—instead of as the union’s forty-ninth state—to realize how history has justified, in a way and to a degree even he could not have foreseen, the bold action of that “grey, bent, and weary” man.
The territory which Russia sold so cheaply she had won at the cost of much hardship, but for a lime it had brought her rich rewards. Her original impulse toward America had come during the reign of Peter the Great (1682–1725), who in 1725 dispatched Vitus Bering, a forty-four-year-old Danish veteran of the Russian Navy, to seek the answer to a question then puzzling the academic world: Were Asia and America joined?
Bering’s first voyage, in 1728, was inconclusive, but on a subsequent expedition in 1741, one of his ships sighted land on July 15 near Cape Addington off southeastern Alaska, and on the following day Bering himself glimpsed through suddenly clearing clouds the rugged coast line of Kayak Island and a soaring, snow-capped mountain which he named Mount St. Elias after the saint of the day. Bering had found America.∗
∗ But he was not the first Russian to do so. It seems probable that “Bering” Strait had been penetrated by Simon Dezneff in 1648; and between Bering’s first and second voyages an army officer named Michael Gvozdev sailed to within sight of Alaska. Probably other voyages were launched unofficially and never recorded, but Bering’s was the official one, and brought him enough hardship and grief to merit the credit.
He never returned to Russia to claim what fame and fortune his journeys may have won. On the way back, lashed by Arctic storms and ice that rotted his ship’s rigging and turned her sails to boards, he anchored off a bleak island in the Commander group; there, on December 8, 1741, Vitus Bering, huddled in a pit scooped out of the sandy shore and fighting off a swarm of vicious blue foxes, died of scurvy.
The survivors—forty-six of a crew of seventy-seven—struggled back to Kamchatka the following September, having lost their ship and been forced to build another to bring them home. Hoping to salvage something from the voyage, they managed to bring back nearly one thousand peltries, among (hem many sea-otter skins, which at the great Russian-Chinese trading post at Kiachla brought the modern equivalent of seventy-five to eighty dollars apiece.