Wall Street History
Wm. Seward and Alaska
On March 30, 1867, thanks to the efforts of Secretary of State
William Seward, the United States acquired the territory of
Alaska from Russia. The Senate approved the treaty on April 9,
1867, and thus we celebrate the 140th anniversary of this rather
[The House, however, waited until July 14, 1868, to pass
legislation appropriating the monies to be spent, mainly because
Republicans opposed it over their hatred for President Andrew
Johnson. Passage, 114-43, was finally assured thanks to Russia’s
envoy in Washington bribing a few key members of Congress
who then influenced others.]
The purchase of Alaska really goes back to two main concepts of
United States foreign policy; “Manifest Destiny” and the
Manifest Destiny is a term that was coined in 1845 by a
newspaper editor, John L. O’Sullivan, and picked up by
President James Polk in relation to his designs on Mexico.
Essentially, it means it is God’s will that the U.S. rule over lands
in which it has an interest.
But the far more important Monroe Doctrine relates to the time
of our fifth president, James Monroe (1817-1825), and his
influential Secretary of State John Quincy Adams.
Back in 1821, Czar Alexander I of Russia had issued a decree
whereby Russia announced it ruled all the lands in the Pacific
Northwest above the 51st parallel and that no foreign vessels
would be permitted within 100 miles of the coastline. Thus
Russia was denying the United States its rights to fish and trade
in the newly acquired (from Spain) Oregon Territory.
Secretary of State Adams then told the Russians “the American
continents are no longer subjects for any new European colonial
establishments,” while convincing President Monroe that it was
time for the U.S. to issue a unilateral declaration asserting its
independence from Europe in also arguing for complete freedom
of action in the Western Hemisphere.
So Monroe included the new doctrine in his annual address to the
people, December 2, 1823.
“Putting forward the principle that ‘the political system of the
allied powers is essentially different from that of America,’ he
announced that the United States would view any interference in
the internal affairs of the American states as an ‘unfriendly’ act.
He coupled this with the statement that the United States itself
adhered to a policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of
other nations. A third principle, the work of Secretary Adams,
concerned Russian expansion on the West Coast and declared
that the United States considered the Americas closed to
European colonization.” [Graff, “The Presidents”]
Over time, though, Russia began to view Alaska as a financial
and strategic liability. Enter William Seward (1801-1872),
secretary of state under both Presidents Abraham Lincoln and
Andrew Johnson from 1861-69. Seward, a New York lawyer,
was first elected governor in 1839 and then to the U.S. Senate in
1848 and is certainly one of the more important cabinet
members in American history.
Seward wanted American manufacturers to gain access to Asian
markets, but to do so he had to remove all the impediments
blocking use of the valuable natural ports on the northern Pacific
coast. It was in 1866 that Seward first learned of Russia’s
interest to sell Alaska, though at first Seward was afraid the
British would buy it. He was also particularly anxious because
while Alaska had a reputation for fishing and fur trapping, and
little else, his sources told him of rich mineral deposits and great
So when Russia’s envoy approached Secretary Seward, the two
quickly hammered out a deal; $7.2 million in gold for 586,400
square miles, or two cents an acre, thus securing the last piece of
westward expansion for America.
Believe it or not, what proved to be the biggest bargain since the
Louisiana Purchase was at first scoffed at because of the price. It
was labeled “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Icebox,” though as
noted above it eventually cleared Congress.
Seward now had his trade outposts to Asia and around the same
time he also annexed the Midway Islands west of Hawaii. But he
failed to gain British Columbia, whose inhabitants opted to join
the new Confederation of Canada in 1870.
So what happened in Alaska? The first major gold strike was
near present-day Juneau in 1880 by Richard T. Harris and Joseph
Juneau. Mr. Juneau’s place thus became the first American town
in the fledgling territory.
Alaska became a civil and judicial district in 1884, and then in
1896, George Carmack and his Indian companions discovered
gold on the Klondike, a tributary of the Yukon River [present-
day Yukon Territory.] Today, there is indeed a town called
“Carmacks” up there.
What would be known as the Klondike gold rush began in
earnest in August 1897, with some 1,500 people from Seattle,
including the mayor, sailing there within 10 days of the news.
Before it was over, 100,000 set out for Dawson City [present-day
“Dawson”], but only half made it as it was far from an easy trip
in those days.
Writing in his book “The Power of Gold,” Peter Bernstein
estimates 4,000 found gold in the Yukon and of those 400 struck
it rich. But by 1900, the best areas were basically used up.
Bernstein writes: “For all the hoopla, all the gold mined in
Alaska since 1880 has amounted to less than 10% of the gold
mined in all other parts of the United States over the same period
Of course later folks realized there was a ton of oil and natural
gas in Alaska and by 1973, Congress approved plans for the 799-
mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to the loading
port of Valdez, which then went into full operation on July 28,
1977. [Well, if you lived in the Eastern time zone, actually it
was 4:02 a.m. on July 29, to be totally accurate.]
Peter L. Bernstein, “The Power of Gold”
Paul S. Boyer, editor, “The Oxford Companion to United States
Henry F. Graff, editor, “The Presidents”
Paul Johnson, “A History of the American People”
Pauline Maier, Merritt Roe Smith, Alexander Keyssar, Daniel J.
Kevles, “A History of the United States: Inventing America,
Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steele Commager, William E.
Leuchtenburg, “The Growth of the American Republic”
George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi, “America: A Narrative
I am traveling overseas next week. Wall Street History will
return April 20.