Seward’s Folly   4 comments

March 30, 1867, Secretary of State William H. Seward signed an agreement with Baron Edouard Stoeckl, the Russian Minister to the United States, ceding possession of the vast territory of Alaska to the United States for the sum of $7.2 million. That’s about two cents an acre, by the way. Few citizens of the US could fathrom what possible use or interest the 586,000 square miles of land would have for the country. The press immediately dubbed it “Seward’s Folly. Eighteen months later (August 12, 1868), Secretary Seward gave a speech in Sitka, the Russian territorial capital in Alaska, in which he claimed he had no doubt “that the political society to be constituted here, first as a Territory, and ultimately as a state or many States, will prove a worthy constituency of the Republic.” President Andrew Johnson sent General Jefferson C. Davis to command a military force of about 500 men to maintain peace and order, and expected that Congress would establish the civil organization of the territory.

The 40th Congress (1867-1869) passed a law which made Alaska a customs district of the U. S. but made no other efforts to establish the civil infrastructure that President Johnson had hinted at. The relations between settlers and Tlingit/Haida/Aleut Natives of Alaska were tense and the Navy forces under Commander L. A. Beardslee were called upon to maintain order. From 1879-1884, the Navy governed Alaska, as most of its inhabitants of American citizenship were located in the coastal southeastern “panhandle” of the state. Seventeen years after the purchase, the 1884 First Organic Act made Alaska a civil and judicial district and provided the territory with judges, clerks, and marshals. Curiously, the general legal code of the state of Oregon was adopted. Why? I’ve never found a historian who knows. Thirteen officials were made responsible for a population of 32,000 people. Only 430 were non-Native settlers.

Many settlers came to Alaska with the expectation that the territory would follow the path of the Western states to official state status. However, the First Organic Act did not provide for an eventual representative government and Alaska was consigned to territorial status, similar to the colonial relationship of the early American colonies. The U. S. government asserted imperial administrative control over the noncontiguous territory, but due to its focus on Southern Reconstruction and rapid incorporation of several contiguous states, it demonstrated little real interest in Alaska. Although there were rumors about the wealth of furs, seals, fish, and minerals to be found in Alaska, the conventional wisdom about the territory was summed up by James Gordon Bennett in the New York Herald, who suggested that any impoverished European monarchs who wanted to sell worthless territory should apply to “W. H. Seward, State Department, Washington, D. C.” Alaska was just too remote to inspire much interest.

Posted December 26, 2013 by aurorawatcherak in Alaska

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4 responses to “Seward’s Folly

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  1. Reblogged this on The Political Chef™ Blog and commented:
    Love history


  2. Excellent, as usual.


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