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Steve Haycox: Alaska Day marks both Seward's drive to buy the territory and his long-range vision for its role

Steve Haycox

The commemoration of Alaska Day, remembrance of the official transfer of Russian America to the United States on Oct. 18, 1867, passes rather quietly these days. Not everyone remembers what it's all about, perhaps not until they find a state office closed for the day.

Acknowledgement of the purchase is plain enough, a major historical marker. But over time, as scholars and researchers have probed the documentary record and reflected on how history really evolves, important complications have come to light. Today more people know that the supposed unpopularity of the purchase, signified by such terms as "Seward's Folly," "Walrussia" and "Icebergia," is largely mythical. Partly that's because some version of Alaska history is required to be taught in all school districts in Alaska. Those terms were used, certainly, but only for a short time, just when the treaty was announced but before Congress and the press had an opportunity to study the facts.

The treaty became public in March. By the time of the transfer ceremony at Sitka on Oct. 18, anyone with a true interest in knowledge of the world understood Alaska's potential and had learned of the many Russian scientific reports that described its extent, climate and resources. The U.S. Senate's approval of the purchase treaty, by the overwhelming margin of 37-2, showed a more mature and informed perception of Alaska.

Somewhat slower to penetrate popular understanding is appreciation of William Seward's motivation in negotiating the Alaska purchase. Seward was not blind to Alaska's long-term potential but he grasped fully that development here would likely be a 20th century phenomenon, not anything he would see in his lifetime. Much of the land had yet to be described scientifically, the character of the Native population was not well understood, and undeveloped resources closer to mainstream markets -- in the Mountain West and Pacific Northwest, for example -- would attract investors long before they would turn their attention to Alaska.

Seward had a long vision into the future and what most concerned him was the opening of the United States to the Pacific and East Asia. In 1867, the United States had barely had sovereignty over California, the mouth of the Columbia River and Puget Sound for 20 years. But Seward realized that America would be vulnerable along its Pacific front. He also imagined, long before thoughts of an isthmus canal became serious, that the U.S. would need a vigorous trade with the East.

Alaska had a role in this vision but it wasn't one that had much to do with Alaska's own resources. Rather, Seward saw Alaska as a stepping-stone to the East. American possession of Alaska would prevent England from getting it and would establish an American presence in the North Pacific. At the same time, it would facilitate a provisioning port for the U.S. Navy and for ships of the American commercial marine.

It was a limited vision but a correct one for the time, for more than a decade later, the first decennial census conducted here found only 435 non-Natives, which, even if an undercount, suggests there was yet no great interest in developing the territory.

Still less well appreciated in popular culture is the relationship of Alaska Native people to the Alaska purchase. Some know that the Tlingit and Haida people objected to the purchase on the grounds that they had property rights in Alaska that had never been acquired by the Russians. Tlingit and Haida Indians would win recognition of this fact in a landmark legal case a century later.

But fewer people know that Natives and mixed heritage people, called "creoles" by the Russians, had standing in Russian law that gave them certain legal rights. They lost such standing, and the rights that went with it, under American law because the American courts would not grant them citizenship.

A comprehensive grant of citizenship would not come until 1924 and the full legitimacy of Alaska Native people would not be broadly embraced in Alaska until after the claims settlement in 1971.

Commemorations such as Alaska Day, then, can add important texture to our notion of the past, helping us understand the relationship of past and present and how the two are persistently and inextricably intertwined.

Steve Haycox is professor of history emeritus at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Steve Haycox