Tue, March 17, 2015

Debunking a Myth: Enough, Already!

by J. Pennelope Goforth

 [Reader discretion advised: this rant contains strong language and truthiness.]

It’s right up there with Dewey Wins! and Mission Accomplished and it’s just as wrong. The phrase has been said so many times in ignorant error that I refuse to let it be a search word term in this opinion piece. You know the one I’m talking about. The one that describes Secretary of State William Seward’s support for the Treaty of Cession as a mindless act of stupidity.


William Seward ca. 1849 from a daguerreotype made in 1849-1850 owned by his son Fred'k W. Seward, Montrose, N.Y. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

William Seward ca. 1849 from a daguerreotype made in 1849-1850 owned by his son Fred’k W. Seward, Montrose, N.Y. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Yet, every anniversary commemorating the cession of Russian America to the United States inevitably begins with it. It’s a hook, a writer’s tool to get your attention. Usually it leads to the made up story where the good conservative guys claim the purchase is a pig in a poke; that the bad politicians rammed it down the throats of unwilling Americans with Seward at the helm. And in the process showered Russia with millions of undeserved dollars. Rubbish. That a scurrilous phrase invented long after the event should define the purchase of Alaska is a travesty. The story line has been twisted, players miscast, and the whole show is a misleading sham passed off as history.


So I say enough already, stop perpetuating this myth! The purchase of Alaska is not the story of an ugly duckling, an underdog, or any other child’s cautionary tale. To continue to subscribe to the fantasy that the cession of Russian America represented an act of foolish recklessness demeans Alaskans, both Native and sourdough. It may be in vogue to bash government, but bloodying our own noses in the process is a greater folly. As Stephen Colbert would quip, Where is the truthiness in that?


So how did it come to this? Short answer: writers on autopilot, parroting a catchy phrase repeated over the decades without checking facts. Add to that the gradual memory loss over time, the lumping together of disparate events in hindsight. And the inevitable mishmash of who said what to whom when. In the span of 150 years since the event too many of the articles written and rewritten with different aims have misused the phrase. Like a lie repeated a thousand times, it comes to be perceived for truth. Plus, from a journalistic point of view, what’s going to sell newspapers: inflammatory rhetoric or documented evidence?


The truth is that phrase had nothing to with the treaty of cession that transferred the title of Russian America to the United States in 1867. Nada. Zip. Zilch. In fact, it wasn’t even written, much less printed or spoken, or even thought of in 1867!


You can look up the newspapers, journals and congressional records of the first couple of quarters of the year 1867. Check the political and editorial commentaries of the day. Read the research of others in both unpublished dissertations and published papers in journals. You won’t find that phrase because it wasn’t in use at the time.


Cartoon: Thomas Nast, April 20, 1867: Old Mother Seward. “I’ll rub some of this on his sore spot. It may soothe him a little.” (Courtesy HarpWeek)

Cartoon: Thomas Nast, April 20, 1867: Old Mother Seward. “I’ll rub some of this on his sore spot. It may soothe him a little.” (Courtesy HarpWeek)

Richard E. Welch, in his study of American opinion on the purchase of Russian America, surveyed 48 major news outlets of 1867 and 1868. He found that almost all of American editors and writers favored the idea. Except for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune−followed in lockstep by the Sun and the Independent. Colorful phrases abounded throughout his editorial vitriol: “Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden,” “Walrussia,” and “Russian Fairy Land”. Contrast that with the World statement in April 1867 advocating the purchase: “It is an advancing step in that manifest destiny which is yet to give us British North America.” But Greeley’s politically motivated opposition melted like ice during breakup even before the House approved the check for $7.2 mil to Russia.


The Philadelphia Inquirer was so bold as to editorially proclaim: “[Alaska] might become very useful to any power having naval interests in the Pacific…A time may come, when the possession of this territory will give us the command over the Pacific which our extensive possessions there require.” Welch goes on to report that papers received “numerous letters to the editor were published, all of them favorable to the purchase.”


The National Intelligencer trumpeted: “The Russian possessions will secure us furs, fish and lumber in the greatest abundance to say nothing of the undisputed route of an overland telegraph. The fisheries, in the hands of our hardy seamen, would be of priceless value…”


My personal favorite is the bold headline: “Now is the Day and Hour for the Confirmation of the Treaty with Russia”. The editorial went on to enthuse, “American civilization has pushed itself through to the Pacific sea where a commerce is growing up…”


Americans at that time were well aware of the commercial and economic bonanza that Russian America represented. Russia, in tough financial straits following the Crimean War and hostilities with the British, was in no position to grow the meager colonies. In fact, the Russian administration feared losing them to gold stampeders or other resource privateers since it didn’t have the navy in place to defend the vast territory. In the United States, western and eastern commercial interests in Russian America were already making fortunes for New Bedford, San Francisco, and Boston merchants. The overland telegraph expedition, the extensive whaling industry, the burgeoning codfishery, the wildly successful ice trade, proven reserves of coal and copper, plus rumors of gold fueled the dreams of American entrepreneurs and capitalists. To say nothing of the continuing value of the fur trade.


Following the California gold rush of 1849, the annexation of California and the opening of the Oregon Territory, American citizens believed it was their manifest destiny to continue to acquire land. Historian Howard I. Kushner wrote: “In San Francisco of the 1850s, increased interest in Russian-America was born of the hysteria and hope of instant fortune responsible for countless enterprising schemes.”


Congress was even more informed as they had been hearing proposals from their constituents in favor of acquiring Russian America as early as the 1850s. Historian Victor Farrar suggests the first purchase movement began as early as 1838 when negotiations over the 1824 convention broke down. California Senator William M. Gwin brought up the proposition to purchase it in 1859. Steady reports on the resources of the North Pacific had been coming in to numerous congressional hearings for years from various expeditions and surveys. Only the Civil War interfered with further action.


Author Walter Stahr, in Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man, reveals the true inception of that degrading slur on his subject. He tells us that at the time of the purchase, most Americans favored the move. It wasn’t until 1877, a decade later, that the phrase was uttered for the first time by ‘a settler’. “How else would the Secretary of State have been able to convince 37 U.S. senators, who never agreed on anything to ratify the agreement, with only two voting against it?…I essentially think it was a myth,” Stahr wrote.


So let the myth die. Cease the repetition of this untimely phrase in conjunction with the purchase of Alaska. Write enthusiastically, truthfully, about Alaska history as the 150th anniversary approaches. Let us as Alaskan writers, journalists, storytellers, and historians bear witness to Colbert’s truthiness, our own self-esteem, and respect for Alaskans. We can do this, Nation!



Colbert, Stephen.—truthiness. LAC: 031115

Farrar, Victor J. The Purchase of Alaska. 1934.

Welch, Richard E. American Slavic and East European Review, Vol. 17, No. 4, 1958.


Kushner, Howard I. Seward’s _____”?: American Commerce in Russian America and the Alaska Purchase. California Historical Quarterly Vol. 54, No. 1, 1975.

Stahr, Walter. Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2012.