Little Bits of History

Seward’s Folly

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 30, 2013
Alaska map superimposed over the lower 48 states

Alaska map superimposed over the lower 48 states

March 30, 1867: America buys Alaska. William H. Seward was the Governor of New York and then a US Senator; he became the Secretary of State in 1861 under President Abraham Lincoln. He was a vocal abolitionist and a great force within the newly formed Republican party. As John Wilkes Booth entered the President’s box at Ford Theater, Lewis Powell went to the Seward house. William had been involved in a serious carriage accident nine days earlier. Powell gained access by claiming to have medicine for the still-recovering man. Seward’s son was attacked on the stairway and left in critical condition. Seward was stabbed in the face and neck by the intruder, but survived. He bore the scars of the attack for the rest of his life.

He remained the Secretary of State under Andrew Jackson. He negotiated with Russia for the purchase of Alaska. The 586,412 square miles were purchased for $7,200,000 or 2¢/acre ($120 million adjusted for inflation). The purchase was dubbed “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox.” It was also known as Johnson’s “polar bear garden.” Today, Seward’s Day is celebrated on the last Sunday in March and the following Monday is a state holiday for government workers in Alaska.

Alaska was purchased in March, but the official surrender of the lands did not take place until October 18. The change of the colors took place in Sitka, the largest city in the US. (The city is approximately the size of Connecticut.) Legend says the Russian soldiers had difficulty lowering their flag. One soldier climbed the flagpole to release a knot and the Russian flag fluttered free and landed on a bayonet, speared. The new US flag was raised without difficulty. The natives of the area, the Tlingit, claim the Russians only owned Sitka and had no right to sell all of Alaska to anyone.

Alaska was first a district and became a territory on August 24, 1912 and then the 49th state on January 3, 1959. The capital is Juneau but there have been repeated attempts to move it to Anchorage, so far without success. Alaska covers as much area as Texas, California, Montana, and Idaho with a little left over. More people live in Alaska than in either North Dakota or Vermont. There are 12 times as many people living in New York City than in the entire State of Alaska and there are 23.5 times as many people living in Shanghai, China – the most populous city in the world.

“The image problems Alaska faces, and the global misconceptions of Alaska, are as great today as when Alaska was mislabeled Seward’s Folly.” – Rob Allyn

“To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.” – John Muir

“The state of Alaska has been waiting a long time to let the United States of America, which they’re part of, share in their abundance of oil, and today we finally have said that it’s time.” – Pete Domenici

“Alaska is a land of great opportunity for scientific research.” – Charles Groat

This article first appeared at in 2010. Editor’s update: Alaska is the largest state in overall area, but it is also one of the most spread out states and is larger by itself than all but 18 sovereign countries. It is larger than the 22 smallest US states combined and if placed over the 48 contiguous states, would stretch from one ocean to the other and nearly from the northern border to the south. The most populous region of Alaska is the South Central area with Anchorage being the largest city. It was settled in 1914 and the unified borough and city cover 1961 square miles. The city itself is home to about 226,000 but the metro area includes 381,000 residents. Juneau is larger and covers 3255 square miles (city and borough) but only has a population of 17,000 with a metro population of 32,000.

Also on this day: Pencil plus – In 1858, erasers were added to pencils.
It’s a Knock Out – In 1842, a general anesthetic was first used for surgery.
Underground – In 1954, Toronto’s Yonge Street subway opened.

One Response

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  1. Hubs spends a lot of time working all over Alaska and just got back from Seward; he didn’t know this, so thanks, cos I was able to teach HIM something for once!

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