Myths about Alaska purchase have a long reach

Across Alaska interest will focus throughout this year, and especially next month, on the sesquicentennial of the purchase of the territory from Russia in 1867.

Anniversaries provide an opportunity for reflection on the people and events that produced the world we live in today. Such reflection can generate insights into the complicated nature of history and remembering.

Nuances get lost when, for the sake of convenience, we latch onto shorthand explanations, which serve as mere indicators of complex events. The Alaska purchase is a prime example.

[Alaska purchase is just one reason Seward is one of the most important men in U.S. history]

The purchase was negotiated and signed in March 1867, ratified by the U.S. Senate in April, signed by Czar Alexander II in May, signed copies formally exchanged in June, and the territory formally conveyed at Sitka in October.  Appropriation of the funds would wait until the following summer.

A simple text, the deal Secretary of State William Seward and Russian Foreign Minister Eduard Stoeckl negotiated to finality on the night of March 30 was said to be so unpopular, newspaper editors and pundits could not find enough phrases of ridicule to express their disapproval: Seward's Folly, Walrussia, Icebergia.

But that's not the way it was, as students of the affair have long known. Half a century ago a scholar combed the major urban newspapers publishing in 1867 to find what they actually said. Of the 48 significant papers of the day, he found 44 of them either supported the purchase or were mute on the subject.


Even the most widely circulated opposition sheet, Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, tempered its antagonism as the vote in the Senate neared. And in the Senate the treaty passed easily.

A procedural vote taken shortly before the formal ratification found one more than the required two-thirds majority in favor of the purchase. The recorded, favorable final vote was 37-2. That doesn't suggest the purchase was unpopular.

Why, then, has the myth of the unpopularity of the purchase persisted? The cultural context in which it took place is part of the reason.

At the time Seward was negotiating the Alaska acquisition, Congress was making war on President Andrew Johnson over how to reconstruct the union after the Civil War. A year later Congress would come within a vote of impeaching him.

Seward, Johnson's principal adviser, was seen as a presidential ally, a view he overcame through vigorous lobbying for Alaska. Also, prominent cartoonists of the day, foremost among them Thomas Nast, could not resist lampooning the purchase. Their humorous images didn't reflect informed opinion, but they had staying power.

[A statue of Seward in Juneau would also honor painful history in Alaska]

But there's a broader reason the unpopularity myth has held on, especially in Alaska: it reinforces the notion Alaska has always been misunderstood, and mistreated, by the federal government and others Outside who refuse to learn about Alaska and have implemented policies here that don't fit, or that interfere with the settlers' (it's a complaint from the non-Native population more than from Alaska Natives) attempts to be free and productive.

As many Alaskans would have it, the state has been abused right from the very beginning, and the abuse continues today. (For a state that gets more federal money per capita than almost all other states and whose population, both Native and non-Native, the federal government has consistently supported from even before the purchase until now, it's a strange complaint with its own complicated history.)

Another contributor to the unpopularity myth is the whiff of bribery, both in the Senate vote in 1867 and the House appropriation of the money a year later.  Then, as now, the line between lobbying and bribery was murky. Seward or Stoeckl may have paid directly or indirectly for some votes, but the evidence is slim, and inconclusive. But the idea they did has fueled the myth.

Since few have the time to read the scholarly explorations of the historical context, a reliable, single book for getting to the reality of the Alaska purchase is Walter Stahr's biography, "Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man."

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott is coordinating sesquicentennial events around the state, and Gov. Bill Walker and his wife, first lady Donna Walker, are hosting a fund-raising reception at the Governor's Mansion in Juneau on March 6.

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

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com


Steve Haycox

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