Seward's folly goes on celebrating Seward

Posted: Monday, March 28, 2005

Heading into the Seward's Day three-day weekend Friday, some state workers said they knew they were going to get the day off.

But they didn't know why.

A younger woman, smoking outside the State Office Building about a block away from Seward Street, said she knew nothing about William Henry Seward.

"A senator or a governor?" a man nearby asked, with a shrug.

Another woman pointed to an older crowd. "They might know," she said.

Inside the building, the Alaska Historical Library displays a bust of Seward. Next to it, a piece of paper explains some of his story.

Seward, then the U.S. Secretary of State, purchased Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million in 1867. Newspapers mocked the transaction as "Seward's Folly."

Sewards Day

State and city governments are closed today in observance of Sewards Day.

According to Zachary Kent's "William Seward: the Mastermind of the Alaska Purchase," the Chicago Evening Journal called Alaska "a dreary waste of snow and ice." The New York World said Russia sold the United States "a sucked orange."

Now Alaska, the sucked orange that cost 2 cents per acre in 1867, abounds with oil and optimism. In 1917, the third Alaska Territorial Legislature named March 31 Seward's Day to mark the signing of the treaty by which the United States bought Alaska from Russia. In the same year, the Legislature also named Oct. 18 Alaska Day to celebrate the formal transfer of the territory and the raising of a U.S. flag in Sitka in 1867.

Streets throughout Alaska are named after Seward. In addition to the city on the Kenai Peninsula that bears his name, Alaska has a glacier, a creek, a passage, a peninsula, a highway and mountains named for him.

Juneau's Seward Street was recorded as early as 1881, when a Navy officer from Sitka came to lay out the town's streets.

Seward was born May 16, 1801. He served as a New York state senator from 1831 to 1834 and as the state's governor from 1839 to 1843. President Abraham Lincoln appointed him secretary of state in 1861.

Seward started negotiating the purchase of Alaska, then Russian America, during Lincoln's presidency. According to Kent, Seward invited senators to dinner parties at his home.

"While the senators enjoyed fine food and wine, Seward described how beautiful Russian America was reported to be," Kent said.

The New York Herald, in an article titled "Mr. Seward's Dinner Diplomacy," said "Mr. Seward's dinner table is spread first with a map of Russian America, and this cloth is covered with roast treaty, boiled treaty, treaty in bottles . . . treaty clad in furs, ornamented with walrus teeth, fringed with timber and flopping with fish."

The night John Wilkes Booth fatally shot Lincoln, Seward was stabbed by Lewis Payne at his home. His son, Frederick, almost died when he tried to stop the attack.

Seward "always wore a scarf and high collar to cover the scar," said Alaska state archivist Ken Nail, who read about the assassination in Lincoln's biographies.

Seward survived the incident and continued to serve as secretary of the state under President Andrew Johnson. It was during Johnson's administration that Seward finished the negotiations with Russia.

The neoclassical marble bust of Seward at the entrance to the Alaska Historical Library portrays Seward with his prominent nose, deep eyes and broad forehead.

Chauncy Ives made the bust. Banker Francis Loring gave the bust to John Green Brady in 1900 to congratulate him for his re-appointment as Alaska's governor.

Loring said he acquired the sculpture with "an instant determination that its next and last resting place should be Alaska, which is Seward's monument."

• I-Chun Che can be reached at

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