Seward's Folly: History & Explanation

Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

This lesson discusses the controversial purchase of Alaska that was known as Seward's Folly. Learn more about the real estate deal negotiated by Secretary of State William Seward that gave the United States control of Alaska, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Russian-America Land up for Sale

In the late 1860s, Emperor Alexander II was ready to unload Russian-America. The massive colony to the west was too difficult to defend. More importantly, Russia had recently come out of the Crimean War and if there was another war with the British, England might get control of Russian-America. That would give the British a base of operations that was too close to Russia for comfort.

So, in December 1866, Alexander started looking for a buyer. The most logical country was the United States. It was close, in the market for expansion, and Alexander thought that the lure of gold in the region would be too tempting for Americans to pass up. The Russians knew about the gold but they did not have the money or the patience for mining. Americans, on the other hand, would probably flock to Alaska just on the mere possibility of gold. Alexander, of course, was right.

Secretary of State William Seward

Seward and Johnson Eye Expansion

President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward were very intrigued by the idea of getting control of Alaska. Just the sheer size of it was tempting. Twice the size of Texas and one-fifth the size of the entire country, Russian-America would significantly increase the U.S.'s land holdings. There was also the matter of expanding republicanism and reducing the influence of monarchies in the western hemisphere. It did occur to Johnson and Seward that if they could get Alaska, perhaps it was only a matter of time before the U.S. could get Canada from Great Britain. Factor in the natural resources such as fish, lumber, and gold, and Johnson was convinced. He told Seward to begin negotiations.

Negotiating the Deal

Seward and the Russian minister to the United States, Eduard de Stoeckl, were the primary negotiators in the deal. Seward first asked if the U.S. could establish trade and fishing rights in the region. The Russians said no. Seward countered with an offer to purchase the colony outright, which is what Alexander wanted all along.

Seward's offer of $5 million was declined, but on March 29, 1867, Alexander sent a telegram to Stoeckl to tell him he approved the sale price of $7.2 million. Seward and Stoeckl worked on the deal through the night, and by 4:00 a.m., it was done. That was not the end of the story, though. The treaty was ratified by the Senate two weeks later, but getting money for the deal was a different matter.

Seward's Folly

When news of the treaty spread, critics thought Seward had gone mad. They called it 'Seward's Folly' and 'Johnson's Polar Bear Garden.' Seven million dollars for an unexplored, ice-covered desert? The New York Tribune published a scathing editorial about the territory, saying that it was full of 'savage Indians of the most dangerous character.' The paper went on to point out that it cost $115,000 'to kill one Indian' in Nebraska and 'it would cost $300,000 a head to kill Seward's Indians.' Less harsh criticism questioned the cost of making the territory habitable and establishing a government.

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