Seward’s Folly: Who’s Laughing Now?

By Karen Harris

Artwork Based After The Signing of the Alaska Treaty of Cessation, March 30, 1867 by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, shows William Henry Seward as the second person from the left. (Assistant Secretary of State). Source: (Getty Images)

When then-Secretary of State, William Henry Seward under President Andrew Jackson approached Congress for approval to purchase Alaska from the Russians in 1867, he met with plenty of opposition. Most of the members of Congress scoffed at the idea of adding 586,000 square miles of frozen nothingness to holdings of the United States, but Seward, an expansionist with an eye for a bargain, was persuasive enough to get the purchase approved but the margin of just one vote. But it made him the butt of jokes about the worthless purchased…called Seward’s Folly. A few decades later, however, Seward got the last laugh. 

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Alaska was a Bargain

The United States purchased Alaska from the Russians for $7 million dollars. That works out to roughly two cents per acre…truly a bargain basement price. Still, most people thought the purchase was a waste of money. They envisioned Alaska as a vast frozen expanse with nothing to offer. Boy, were they wrong. 

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Why did the Russians want to Sell Alaska in the First Place?

In the early part of the 1800s, Alaska was a booming region and a hub of trading. The region was controlled by the RAC, Russian-American Company, a trading organization founded by Russian businessmen and entrepreneurs. The trade posts and settlements along the coast of Alaska were governed by Alexander Baranov, a man with a knack for growth and leadership. Under him, trade expanded, schools and factories were built, and the economy of the area thrived. 

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After Baranov, Alaska Declined

When Baranov retired, a new leader was appointed. Captain Lieutenant Ludwig von Hagemeister lacked the passion for Alaska and its people that Baranov had had. Instead, Hagemeister sought to line his own pockets. Among his first acts as the regions, new leader was to jack up his own salary to an astronomical amount. Soon, it was clear that Hagemeister was not a good businessman, leader, or entrepreneur. He lacked foresight and negotiating skills. Trade declined and the economy suffered. Alaska became a financial drain on the Russian government. 

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The Crimean War Forced Russia to Make a Decision

In 1953, the Russians were engaged in the Crimean War and fighting a combined enemy of France, Britain, and Turkey. Resources were spread thin. The Russians realized that they could no longer funnel money into Alaska, nor could they defend their trading outposts there. Russia feared that the entire Alaskan territory could be seized by the French or British. Their best option was to unload the territory and hope to get something…anything…for it. 

William Henry Seward. Source: (

The Treaty of Alaskan Cessation

On March 30, 1867, the United States and Russia officially signed the purchase agreement, the Alaska Treaty of Cessation, which called for the territory to be officially handed over to the United States within six months. The move was relatively smooth, although some Russian nationalists living in Alaska were forcibly removed. 

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.