Seward and the Tlingit nation: A great diplomat's last treaty

Note: The following letter was received from Tony Tengs of Juneau, a version of which was previously published in the Juneau Empire, and is re-printed here with permission of the author.

Kudos to the William H. Seward commemorative statue committee for a decision concerning the statue they have commissioned for the 150th anniversary of the U.S. purchase of Russian interests in Alaska. They voted unanimously to let Ketchikan sculptor Dave Rubin depict Seward as he appeared when he conducted the purchase in 1867 -- with a significant facial scar.

Seward is truly significant. I have an antique Alaskan souvenir spoon depicting a likeness of Seward around which is the motto, "The Father of Alaska." In terms of this land becoming part of America, that statement pretty much says it all.

When we think about Seward, if we think of him at all, many of us don't think about him working at President Lincoln's side as Secretary of State and how he narrowly escaped death by the same conspiracy the same night that Lincoln was assassinated. One of the conspirators broke into Seward's home, and after attacking his son and daughter, tried to stab him to death in his chambers. Seward survived only because a neck brace he was temporarily wearing protected him enough to prevent fatal damage. He was left disfigured, however, from the event.

Depicting Seward's scar is important because it speaks volumes about the man's immense personal sacrifice and mojo. The facial scarring that Seward bore would figure into honors given to him by the Tlingit people when he visited Southeast Alaska in 1869.

Reading a preview chapter from "Across the Shaman's River," an upcoming book by Haines historian Dan Henry, has been most informative regarding Seward's life and trip to Sitka and Klukwan.

Klukwan was long known as the "mother village." If there was a capital of the Tlingit nation, this was it. Visiting Sitka in 1869, Seward was enticed to go there by geographer George Davidson. Davidson had been sent to survey the new territory and was in Klukwan as a guest of Koh'klux, the Chilkat sháade háni, or "chief" spokesman.


Davidson's main interest there was to observe a total eclipse of the sun. He had determined Klukwan would offer a perfect viewing site. When the time of the predicted eclipse drew near, amazingly, the clouds parted as if on cue. The observation was a success and made quite an impression on the Chilkat witnesses.

It was an occasion for much feasting and Seward happily joined in. As the "Great Tyee" from Washington, he was asked to reconcile a dispute with the Sitka people. The Tlingit knew from experience that scars often revealed not those who had done the least, but those who had done the most.

Standing next to Koh'klux, who himself bore significant facial scars, Seward weighed and solved the dispute without bloodshed through the payment of blankets. The resolution left everyone celebratory because many of them had relatives in Sitka.

Seward then invited clan leaders to dine with him that evening on board his touring ship, the Active. We can imagine how magnificent it must have been for him to host such a group of leaders in their finery arriving in a brightly colored flotilla of canoes.

Unlike other white leaders, Seward left with respect. Dan Henry writes: "He had faced the most 'feared' Indian in the territory, and found 'Kla-kautch' (Koh'klux) to be an intelligent, hospitable leader whose resources were considerable."

Henry writes of Koh'klux: "That he tattooed Seward's name in his arm further demonstrated Koh'klux's faith in the Tyee's word, so much that he finally freed his own slaves in 1883, twenty-one years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation."

Once again, Seward's early life mission to abolish slavery, resonated -- only this time, in Alaska, the territory of his greatest achievement.

Born in Juneau and a longtime resident of Haines, Tony Tengs has been a commercial fisherman, ice cream parlor operator and bartender on Alaska state ferries. He is friends with both author Dan Henry and sculptor Dave Rubin.

Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham has been a reporter and editor at the ADN since 1994, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print.