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Historian tells the story behind Alaska Day

Posted: October 19, 2012 - 12:09am
Historian John Venables, portraying Judge James Wickersham, talks with Helen Abbott Watkins during the Alaska Day breakfast at the Juneau Senior Center on Thursday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Historian John Venables, portraying Judge James Wickersham, talks with Helen Abbott Watkins during the Alaska Day breakfast at the Juneau Senior Center on Thursday.

Alaska Day is one of John Venables busiest days of the year.

The area historian and re-enactor, who created the educational program Alaska Living History, receives requests to retell the story behind the state holiday, and this year was no exception.

The Empire caught up with him for a quick history lesson on Thursday at the Senior Center after he performed before a crowd of at least 150 people.

He tells us all the things we want to know: How much money was Alaska purchased for? What led up to the purchase? What happened in the secret midnight meeting between the secretary of state and the Russian minister?

But first things first: What is Alaska Day?

“The simplest answer,” Venables says, “is it is the day in 1867, October 18, that the United States of America took control of the Alaska territory. Some people want to say, ‘Oh, that’s when Alaska was first purchased.’ No, the contract was purchased, was negotiated on March 30, 1867, why we celebrate Seward’s Day, the other state holiday.”

Here’s that story, in his own words:

“The United States and Russia had been talking about the purchase of Alaska for more than 10, 15 years, but Russia was making so much money from the sea fur-bearing animals that the profits were incredible. So there was never an early serious discussion about the purchase of whatever Russia claimed as their rights. Somebody from Russia — Admiral Bering — landed in 1741. He puts the Russian flag down and Russia claims all of Alaska, even though they don’t have the security to protect it or defend it. They’re interested in just one thing — how much money can they squeeze out of the sea fur-bearing animals. And when that depleted itself, they decided, ‘Hey, we better get out of here — there’s pirates going up and down the coast, they could come in and take over our place, and we’d have nothing.’

The Civil War, which went from 1861 to 1865, delayed the activities toward serious negotiation, so the United States was preoccupied with the Civil War ... In 1887, the czar finally signed off on having the purchase of Alaska to the United States.

The Russian minister (Edward de Stoekl) knocks on (Secretary of State William Henry Seward’s house) door at 9 o’clock (p.m. on March 29, 1867). Seward is playing his favorite card game, which is similar to the card game of Bridge nowadays but this one was called Whist. And the Russian Minister says I want to make an appointment to conclude these negotiations at your office tomorrow. And Seward says why wait until tomorrow? Let’s do it tonight. He says I can get my secretaries together and we’ll be in the state department building at midnight.

So there’s a secret meeting and in four hours, they hash the terms and negotiations. Russia said do you think you could pay us 10 million dollars? William Henry Seward said I’ll offer you five million. And like all real estate purchases, they meet in the middle.

And so they’re ready to sign the contract for 7 million dollars. And then the Russian Minister says, wait a minute — I have some bills that have to be paid. But William Henry Seward had been in these kinds of deals before — he knows the sight of a bottomless pit that could never be reached or filled up. So he says look I’ll give you $200,000 more, and you pay the bills, and we’ll write that in the contract.

That’s why the famous trivia question — the purchase of Alaska was 7.2 million dollars. It is two cents an acre. It’s the best real estate transaction that has ever occurred. Nobody knew the untold riches of gold and oil. There was just some thought that there was something worthwhile. And they called it Seward’s Folly, Seward’s Icebox, Andrew Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden.

This was signed, I think, on a Friday night, and the next Tuesday morning, the president Andrew Johnson signs the contract. Everybody in the cabinet was in favor of it. The U.S. Senate ratified it within 30 days, and the U.S. House of Representatives had a lot of renegades. They delayed their approval and payment of this transaction for over a year. They paid the bill on August 1, 1868. It took more than a year.

... So they signed the contract, and Seward had the dream that someday Alaska would become a state. He’s quoted as having that as a high priority future item. He said it won’t be in my lifetime, but I know that Alaska will become a state in the union.”

A transfer ceremony of the territory from Russia to the United States took place in Sitka on Oct. 18, 1867, which is today honored, observed and celebrated as Alaska Day. Venables described the ceremony in his book as such:

“Russian and American soldiers paraded in front of the governor’s house; the Russian flag was lowered and the American flag was raised amid peals of artillery. Captain Alexis Pestchouroff said, “General Rousseau, by authority from His Majesty, the Emperor of Russia, I transfer to the United States the territory of Alaska.” General Lovell Rousseau accepted the territory. General Jefferson C. Davis established his residence in the governor’s house, and most of the Russian citizens went home, leaving a few traders and priests who chose to remain.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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