William Henry Seward was born May 16, 1801 in Florida, New York.
Seward became an American politician and served as the 12th Governor of New York, a United States Senator, and as Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.
As a determined opponent of the spread of slavery in the years leading up to the American Civil War, Seward was a dominant figure in the Republican Party in its formative years, and was widely regarded as the leading contender for the party’s presidential nomination in 1860.
Denied the nomination, he became a loyal member of Lincoln’s wartime cabinet, and played a role in preventing foreign intervention early in the war.
On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, he survived an attempt on his own life.
Then as Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of State, Seward engineered the 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia in an act that was ridiculed at the time as “Seward’s Folly” (no valuable minerals, let alone gold or oil, were discovered in Alaska until 1880, eight years after Seward’s death.)
His contemporary Carl Schurz described Seward as “one of those spirits who sometimes will go ahead of public opinion instead of tamely following its footprints.”
The name “Alaska” was introduced in the Russian colonial period, when it was used to refer to the peninsula.
It is derived from the Aleut alaxsxaq, meaning “the mainland” or, more literally, “the object towards which the action of the sea is directed”.
It is also known as Alyeska, the “great land”, an Aleut word derived from the same root.
Although it had been occupied for thousands of years by indigenous peoples, world powers considered the territory of Alaska ripe for exploitation.
Some researchers believe that the first Russian settlement in Alaska was established in the 17th century. According to this hypothesis, in 1648 several koches of Semyon Dezhnyov’s expedition came ashore in Alaska by storm and founded this settlement. This hypothesis is based on the testimony of Chukchi geographer Nikolai Daurkin, who had visited Alaska in 1764–1765 and who had reported on a village on the Kheuveren River, populated by “bearded men” who “pray to the icons”. Some modern researchers associate Kheuveren with Koyuk River.
The first European vessel to reach Alaska is generally held to be the St. Gabriel under the authority of the surveyor M. S. Gvozdev and assistant navigator I. Fyodorov on August 21, 1732 during an expedition of Siberian cossak A. F. Shestakov and Belorussian explorer D. I. Pavlutsky.
Another European contact with Alaska occurred in 1741, when Vitus Bering led an expedition for the Russian Navy aboard the St. Peter. After his crew returned to Russia with sea otter pelts judged to be the finest fur in the world, small associations of fur traders began to sail from the shores of Siberia toward the Aleutian Islands. The first permanent European settlement was founded in 1784.
Between 1774 and 1800, Spain sent several expeditions to Alaska in order to assert its claim over the Pacific Northwest. In 1789 a Spanish settlement and fort were built in Nootka Sound. These expeditions gave names to places such as Valdez, Bucareli Sound, and Cordova. Later, the Russian-American Company carried out an expanded colonization program during the early-to-mid-19th century.
Russian America was the name of Russian colonial possessions in the Americas from 1733 to 1867 that today is the U.S. state of Alaska and settlements farther south in California. Formal incorporation of the possessions by Russia did not take place until a ukase (a proclamation or decree of the tsar) in 1799, which established a monopoly for the Russian-American Company and also granted the Russian Orthodox Church certain rights in the new possessions.
Sitka, renamed New Archangel from 1804 to 1867, on Baranof Island in the Alexander Archipelago in what is now Southeast Alaska, became the capital of Russian America. It remained the capital after the colony was transferred to the United States. The Russians never fully colonized Alaska, and the colony was never very profitable. Evidence of Russian settlement in names and churches survive throughout southeast Alaska.
The local indigenous peoples of Alaska experienced smallpox outbreaks from the late 1700’s through the mid-1800’s. The most devastating epidemic occurred in the 1860s, resulting in high fatalities and social disruption.
United States purchase of Alaska
William H. Seward, the United States Secretary of State, negotiated the Alaska Purchase (also known as Seward’s Folly) with the Russians.
Then the United States purchased Alaska from Russia on March 30, 1867, with the signing of the “Alaska Treaty of Cessation” for $7.2 million ($120 million adjusted for inflation) at approximately two cents per acre.
It was not until October of that year that the Commissioners arrived in Sitka and the formal transfer was arranged. The formal flag-raising took place at Fort Sitka on October 18, 1867.
The original ceremony included 250 uniformed U.S. soldiers, who marched to the Governor’s house at “Castle Hill”.
Here the Russian troops lowered the Russian flag and the U.S. flag was raised.
The official account of the affair as presented by General Lovell Rousseau to Secretary of State William H. Seward:
… The troops being promptly formed, were, at precisely half past three o’clock, brought to a ‘present arms’, the signal given to the Ossipee … which was to fire the salute, and the ceremony was begun by lowering the Russian flag … The United States flag … was properly attached and began its ascent, hoisted by my private secretary [and son], George Lovell Rousseau, and again salutes were fired as before, the Russian water battery leading off. The flag was so hoisted that in the instant it reached its place the report of the big gun of the Ossipee reverberated from the mountains around … Captain Pestchouroff stepped up to me and said, ‘General Rousseau, by authority from his Majesty the Emperor of Russia, I transfer to the United States the Territory of Alaska’ and in a few words I acknowledged the acceptance of the transfer, and the ceremony was at an end.”
Due to the 11-hour time difference between Sitka and St. Petersburg, and the fact that Russia still used the Julian Calendar, the date is sometimes given as Saturday, October 7.
William Seward died October 10, 1872 at the age of 71 in Auburn, New York.
Alaska was then loosely governed by the military initially, and was administered as a district starting in 1884, with a governor appointed by the President of the United States. A federal district court was headquartered in Sitka.
For most of Alaska’s first decade under the United States flag, Sitka was the only community inhabited by American settlers. They organized a “provisional city government,” which was Alaska’s first municipal government, but not in a legal sense.
Legislation allowing Alaskan communities to legally incorporate as cities did not come about until 1900, and home rule for cities was extremely limited or unavailable.
Starting in the 1890s and stretching in some places to the early 1910s, gold rushes in Alaska and the nearby Yukon Territory brought thousands of miners and settlers to Alaska.
Alaska was officially incorporated as an organized territory on May 11, 1912. Alaska’s capital, which had been in Sitka until 1906, was moved north to Juneau.
During World War II, the Aleutian Islands Campaign focused on the three outer Aleutian Islands – Attu, Agattu and Kiska – that were invaded by Japanese troops and occupied between June 1942 and August 1943. Unalaska/Dutch Harbor became a significant base for the U.S. Army Air Corps and Navy submariners.
The U.S. Lend-Lease program involved the flying of American warplanes through Canada to Fairbanks and thence Nome; Soviet pilots took possession of these aircraft, ferrying them to fight the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The construction of military bases contributed to the population growth of some Alaskan cities.
Statehood for Alaska was an important cause of James Wickersham early in his tenure as a congressional delegate. Decades later, the statehood movement gained its first real momentum following a territorial referendum in 1946. The Alaska Statehood Committee and Alaska’s Constitutional Convention would soon follow. Statehood supporters also found themselves fighting major battles against political foes, mostly in the U.S. Congress but also within Alaska.
Statehood was approved by Congress on July 7, 1958.
Alaska was officially proclaimed a state on January 3, 1959.
October 18th, Alaska Day was declared an annually observed state legal holiday in 1917, the anniversary of the formal transfer of the Territory of Alaska from Russia to the United States which occurred on Friday, October 18, 1867.
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