Seward’s Day

Black and white illustration of William H. Seward in profile facing left with his signature underneath the engraving.
Image credit: engraved profile of William H. Seward courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

Yesterday marked a statewide holiday throughout Alaska, one that is observed on the fourth Monday of each March.

Each year, the state of Alaska observes Seward’s Day on behalf of William H. Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state and individual who orchestrated the purchase of the Alaska territory from Russia. At the time, the move was ridiculed as “Seward’s Folly” and the Alaska territory as “Seward’s Icebox”. But for approximately $7.2 million dollars, the United States now had millions of dollars worth of gold, fur, and (in 1968) the discovery of offshore oil in Prudhoe Bay.

Alaska Purchased by Seward Fifty Years Ago Tonight at a Card Table; The real story of the purchase of Alaska, or rather, the final move after a long series of conferences, is contained in a fragment of Frederick W. Seward's story of his father's purchase of Alaska from Russia for the United States in 1867 as told in "Reminiscences of a Wartime Statesman and Diplomat." On the evening of Friday, March 29, Seward was playing whist in his parlor with some of his family, when the Russian minister was announced. "I have a dispatch, Mr. Seward, from my government by cable. The emperor gives his consent to the cession. Tomorrow, if you like, I will come to the department and we can enter upon the treaty." Seward with a smile of satisfaction, pushed away the whist table, saying: "Why wait until tomorrow, Mr. Stoeckl? Let us make the treaty tonight." "But your department is closed. You have no clerks, and my secretaries are scattered about the town." "Never mind that," responded Seward. "If you can muster your legation together before midnight you will find me awaiting you at the department, which will be open and ready for business." In less than two hours afterward light was streaming out of the windows of the state department, and apparently business was going on as at midday. By 4 o'clock Saturday morning the treaty was signed, sealed and ready for transmission by the president to the senate. There was need of this haste in order to have it acted upon before the end of the session, then near at hand. The Seward Gateway and The Alaska Evening Post: Volume XI. Number III; Seward, Alaska, Thursday, March 29, 1917; Ten Cents the Copy; Land of the Last Frontier; Gold, Coal Copper and Fish.
Image credit: March 29, 1917 issue of the Seward Gateway and the Alaska Evening Post, courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

The holiday in honor of a man responsible for the further loss of Indigenous land is a difficult issue, and contributes to the legacy of historical trauma. According to William L. Iggiagruk Hensley, the purchase of Alaska was steeped in the concept of “Manifest Destiny” an expansion of the American empire. Additionally, Seward viewed the vast natural resources in Alaska as a valuable asset to the United States. Many historical accounts credit Seward for ending Russian occupation and enslavement of Natives during the fur trade. Yet Seward’s expansionism was made plain in 1848, in that “our
population is destined to roll its resistless waves to the icy barriers of the north, and to encounter oriental civilization on the shores of the Pacific.”

Black and white print from the painting: the Signing of Treaty of Cessation, March 30, 1867. Shown left to right; Robert S. Chew; William. H. Seward (Secretary of State), William Hunter; Mr. Bodisco; Baron de (Eduard) Stoeckl (Russian Diplomat); Charles Sumner and Frederick W. Seward.
Image credit: A print from the painting by Emanuel Leutze, Signing of Treaty of Cessation, March 30, 1867, showing the Alaska Purchase. Shown left to right; Robert S. Chew; William. H. Seward (Secretary of State), William Hunter; Mr. Bodisco; Baron de (Eduard) Stoeckl (Russian Diplomat); Charles Sumner and Frederick W. Seward. Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

Yet as one of two Alaska-centric holidays throughout the year (Alaska Day being the other one), Seward’s Day is a time to reflect on the state’s history- and, for many government employees, to take a paid holiday.

Kids Rejoice! Tomorrow Big Holiday Date: Acting Governor Thiele Sends Glad Tidings of the Great Joy: There will be no school tomorrow, in observance of Seward Day,--in honor of the memory of William H. Seward, the great Secretary of State under President Abraham Lincoln, who brought about the purchase of Alaska from Russian and withstood the gibes and criticism of short-sighted men who though Alaska was an iceberg. March 30 is now a legal holiday in the Territory of Alaska. All offices and schools will be closed. The "glad tidings of great joy", as the children regard, came today from Acting Governor Carl Thiele at Juneau. The anniversary was not observed last year, due to lack of arrangements, but it is now a redletter date and established custom.
Image credit: The Cordova daily times. (Cordova, Alaska), 29 March 1922. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072239/1922-03-29/ed-1/seq-8/>
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