SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


William Henry Seward 1801-1872
By June Allen


March 27, 2006

We Alaskans don't seem to remember the state holiday until it happens, but every year Seward's Day rolls around, always on the last Monday in March. This year it will be March 27. There's generally someone or several someones who say, "A state holiday? For Seward? Oh yeah. He had something to do with buying Alaska, didn't he?  Say, do you know if the banks are closed?"

jpg William H. Seward

"The weather of this broad climate of Alaska is severely criticized
 in outside circles for being too wet and too cold
it must be a fastidious person who complains
 of climates in which, while the eagle delights to soar,
the hummingbird does not disdain to flutter."
--William H. Seward in a speech at Sitka, 1858
Photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

William Henry Seward ought to be a more shining figure to Alaskans if only for the fact that he did indeed almost single-handedly engineer the Purchase of Alaska. He visited this great land generations before its majesty earned the description as the home of  America's Crown Jewels. He fell in love with Alaska just like those of us who live here have done.
Also to his credit, Seward claimed the distinction of being the beloved President Abraham Lincoln's best friend. Both men are large figures in American history, and both are immortalized in totem poles in Saxman Totem Park just south of Ketchikan. A top-hatted Lincoln stands alone and high atop a starkly uncarved pole ­ a position of high honor. His image was, however, carved from an oval-framed photograph that ended at his knees. His top-hatted totem likeness, too, is missing his lower legs.
Seward is also at the top of his more traditional pole, the totemic features of his face painted bright red. The Tongass Tlingits explain today explain that it is red because it is a shame pole noting the fact that the Secretary of State didn't bring gifts to the potlatch thrown in his honor during his visit to Alaska in 1868, a year after Alaska's Purchase from Russia. Maybe. and maybe the red face represented still unhealed scars from Seward's attack the night of Lincoln's assassination.
The two famous men differed in background. Seward was born into a wealthy family and was a sophisticated New York lawyer as well as an openly ambitious politician. And like Lincoln, Seward was a statesman, an orator, and one of the most popular politicians of his day. In fact, Seward had been expected to receive his party's nomination for President of the United States, an honor that unexpectedly went instead to Lincoln!
Both men were attorneys and shared similar political beliefs. Lincoln delighted in portraying himself as the rumpled backwoods bumpkin he always claimed to be. In fact, the President and his wife were seen in just that eyebrow-raising, rustic light by most  in Washington D.C.'s refined social circles. Today, Lincoln is one of our most revered presidents in  history. Is there any American, any schoolchild who can't picture the tall, gangly Lincoln, his craggy features, top hat and all?
Unlike Lincoln, Seward, was born into a wealthy family and became a sophisticated New York lawyer. He was a short man and his most outstanding feature was a very large nose! In fact, Seward must have delighted in that "noble" Roman nose of his because many of his photographs are posed in profile. He also had a bit of a receding chin with small wattles down to his Adam's apple that that made his nose seem even more prominent. Add to that his overly large ears and quizzical eyebrows that just naturally angled up toward each other like a baffled arch and you have a picture of William Henry Seward. Not pop star material. But just maybe it was that unprepossessing appearance that put others at ease, and masked the quick intellect, the persuasive powers of his silver tongue as well as an uncanny ability to change the minds of even the most obstinate of men.
On quiet evenings during his presidency, Lincoln would sometimes stroll the several blocks from his home through Washington D.C.'s dark, rutted streets thick with mud and horse dumplings to Seward's three-story brick house in order to spend a relaxing hour or two with his friend, telling jokes and maybe having a nip of fine whiskey. Not everyone could tolerate the thick and acrid smoke from chain-smoking Seward's cigars. His temporary home was thought of as a "bachelor" retreat for himself and at times his adult sons. Mrs. Seward had preferred to remain in the couple's home in the more civilized town of Auburn, N.Y.
Politically, Seward was something of a zealot. At a time when Manifest Destiny, allied with the "Go west, young man" position, was in vogue, Secretary of State William Henry Seward had even larger ambitions. Manifest Destiny, loosely defined as part of the belief that the United States would eventually expand across the "hips" of the North American continent to the Pacific Ocean, was just the beginning for Seward. He had his eye on Canada, too, by annexation or otherwise! The jutting peninsula of Alaska was also part of that vision, in order to control most of the Pacific Coast. He was not alone in this visionary prediction of the future; there were others who shared it. There were those who called this mindset Manifest Destiny, and there were others who called it American Imperialism.
Secretary of State Seward served his President well during their first term together. With Lincoln's re-election to a second term, the two men entered the year 1865 with optimism. But then came April 14 of that year. The Lincolns would attend a play at Ford's Theater that night. Seward was confined to his bed at home after a serious carriage accident that left him bruised and battered. And both would fall prey to an assassin.
Lincoln and Seward were part of the larger assassination plan for the night that targeted not only President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward but Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant as well. President Lincoln was fatally shot at the theater by John Wilkes Booth. At the last minute another assassin lost his resolve and made no attempt on the Vice President, his assigned target. Gen. and Mrs. Grant had  cancelled plans to attend the theater at the last minute, thus escaping the threat to their lives.
Seward, however, did not fare as well as Johnson and Grant. He was recuperating at home from a rather serious carriage accident a few days before when a wild-eyed man named Lewis Payne rushed into Seward's third-story bedroom brandishing a pistol! The intruder pointed the gun at the bedridden Seward and pulled the trigger, but the weapon misfired. So the panicked assassin pulled out a knife and started to attack him. But by that time Seward's son Frederick had entered the room and grappled with the man for the knife. Payne apparently lost his nerve and fled down the stairs, out the door, and jumped on his horse to make his escape. Secretary Seward was cut and bloody from the struggle but was not more dangerously harmed.
Seward regained his health and went to work as Secretary of State for the slain Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson. The assassins and their cohorts, eight in all, were captured. All were tried an convicted. Four were hanged, including a woman. One died in jail. Three received presidential pardons in 1869. 
One of Seward's responsibilities as Secretary of State was to deal with foreign powers. So, when in 1867 the United States of America was offered the chance by Russia to purchase the northwestern shoulder of the North American Continent called Alaska, it was Seward who handled the negotiations. And he put his heart and soul into it.
The Czar had named a dapper little Frenchman, a member of the Russian diplomatic corps, to negotiate the deal. His name was Edouard de Stoeckl, a man who had married an American heiress, called himself a baron, and boasted a silver tongue said to have equaled Seward's own. This dapper little diplomat was charged with negotiating the sale only if the price were high enough ­ with a preferred offer of no less than five million dollars.
Negotiations began on Friday, March 29, 1867. Working non-stop, Seward haggled the price up to $7,200.000, at which point he became stubborn about going any higher. In addition to the tensions of haggling, Seward was especially aggressive because the U.S. Senate was due to adjourn almost immediately. He had to hurry to strike while the iron was hot, before the Senators had too much time to think about it. Agreement had to be reached and soon. De Stoeckl was also feeling the pressure.
And so, under the hiss of gaslights and billowing clouds of cigar smoke the two men, their weary aides and secretaries watching, wrote out provisions of a sale agreement and finished at four o'clock in the morning of Saturday, March 30. It was the final day before the Senate's adjournment.
Groggy but determined, Seward took the sale agreement to the Senate that day. His popularity had cooled in the two years since Lincoln's assassination and his own close call with death. The Senators were lukewarm at best. They knew little about Alaska and cared less. But their Secretary of State still had his silver tongue, all his well known powers of persuasion. After several tentative votes, the final tally counted, and the Purchase of Alaska was a reality ­ by one vote! Just one.
William Henry Seward took a voyage to Alaska the following year. He stopped first at the Tlingit village at the mouth of Portland Canal and, according to the Indian legends, made his long-remembered blunder with the Tongass tribe. From there he sailed to Sitka, which was, back in 1868, about all there was other than Native villages, about the only town of any size at all in the new American Alaska!
There Seward made a speech in which he told the small assemblage of Russians and at-attention American military that Alaska was all he knew it would be - beautiful, rich in natural resources, strategic in its location. He also was the very first to predict that one day Alaska would become a Territory and then a full state, a contributing member of the United States of America!
He was so right.



Related Article:

SEWARD'S DAY MARCH 30: Celebrating the Alaska Purchase By June Allen
SitNews - March 21, 2003

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Ketchikan, Alaska