William Henry Seward was secretary of state under President Abraham Lincoln when he began negotiating a deal for the United States to buy Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million–or 2 cents an acre.
Seward, born May 16, 1801, served as New York state senator from 1831 to 1834, then as the state’s governor from 1839 to 1843. Lincoln appointed him secretary of state in 1861. During Lincoln’s presidency, he began negotiating the purchase of Alaska, then Russian America. Zachary Kent, in “William Seward: the Mastermind of the Alaska Purchase,” reports how Seward invited senators to dinner parties at his home. According to Kent, “While the senators enjoyed fine food and wine, Seward described how beautiful Russian America was reported to be.”
The purchase agreement was signed by Seward on March, 30, 1867, and approved by the U.S. Senate May 27, 1867. President Andrew Johnson signed the final treaty the following day and the transfer was made Oct. 18, 1867, in Sitka. In 1917, the third Alaska Territorial Legislature created Seward’s Day to mark the signing of the treaty. That same year, lawmakers also designated Oct. 18 “Alaska Day.”
Many Americans of the period called the purchase “Seward’s folly” or “Seward’s icebox,” thinking Alaska a snowy, icy wastelands. Of course, that was before Alaska was discovered by gold seekers, oil companies and tourists.
Many streets throughout Alaska have been named after William Seward. A city on the Kenai Peninsula bears his name, and Alaska has a glacier, a passage, a peninsula, a creek, a highway and mountains named for him as well.
And what about William Seward himself? The night John Wilkes Booth fatally shot Lincoln, a Confederate veteran named Lewis Payne entered Sewards bedroom and attacked him with a large knife. Fortunately, the blows were blunted by a neck brace Seward was wearing (according to The Lost Museum, a Web site sponsored by the City University of New York and George Mason University.). Seward continued to serve as secretary of the state under President Johnson, and it was during Johnson’s administration that Seward completed the negotiations with Russia.