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What is Seward's Folly?

By Kathy Hawkins
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term "Seward's folly" refers to the United States' Secretary of State William Seward's decision to purchase the Alaskan territory from Russia in 1867. At the time, Seward's decision to buy the land was regarded as a terrible one by many critics in the US.

In 1867, Czar Alexander II of Russia decided to sell the country's territory in Alaska, because Russia was having economic troubles and would not be able to sufficiently defend the territory from invaders. The czar reasoned that they would be better off selling the territory than waiting for it to be annexed by another country. He offered to sell the land to the United States, and sent a Russian diplomat to enter negotiations with William Seward.

Those negotiations resulted in the purchase of 6,000,000 square miles (15,539,928.66 square km) for $7,200,000 US Dollars (USD) — only a few cents per acre. Though public opinion of the purchase was generally positive, it was the words of several critics that gave "Seward's Folly" its name — most notably, The New York Tribune's Horace Greely, who claimed that Alaska "contained nothing of value but furbearing animals, and these had been hunted until they were nearly extinct. Except for the Aleutian Islands and a narrow strip of land extending along the southern coast the country would be not worth taking as a gift."

In the 1890s, however, large quantities of gold were discovered in the Alaskan territory, which made critics change their tune and praise Seward for his foresight. Unfortunately, he never got to see his decision acknowledged for the great accomplishment it was, as he passed away in 1872, before the gold reserves had been found.

Today, "Seward's Day" is celebrated in Alaska on the last Monday of March each year, in honor of Seward's purchasing the Alaskan territory from Russia. Though it was established as an organized territory in 1912, it did not ultimately become a state until 1959. Alaska is now by far the largest of the states in the United States.

Alaska has turned into a tourist destination for people who love the outdoors. Oil was also found in the state, though ongoing controversy remains as to whether it is right to drill for it in a wildlife refuge, where much of the oil is located. As of 2005, Alaska had a population of around 663,000, making it the least densely populated state in the nation.

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Discussion Comments

By anon139113 — On Jan 03, 2011

In response to "WaterHopper"s question, William Seward died October 10, 1872. After he left Washington, he traveled the globe. He slowly began to lose his strength during the following years. Finally, after working all morning on his notes of travel with his adopted daughter, he lay down for a rest, and the end came.

By anon133196 — On Dec 09, 2010

we have done research in school. each acre was only 2.5 cents. - OG BOY

By DinoLeash — On Nov 03, 2010

@WaterHopper: Lewis Powell was assigned to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward on April 14, 1865. Seward was at his residence recovering from a serious injury resulting from a carriage accident.

Powell pretended to be delivering medicine for Seward. Once he gained access to Seward’s home, he was confronted by Frederick, Seward’s son. He was told Seward was sleeping and couldn’t go in. Powell swung around and pointed the gun at Frederick’s head. His gun jammed, so he struck him over and over again in the head with the pistol.

He ran into Seward’s bedroom and stabbed him several times in the neck and chest but the injuries were not fatal due to the fact that he was wearing a neck brace from the carriage accident. He attacked another son, Augustus, a solider, nurse and a messenger while escaping. All of those attacked survived their injury’s including William Seward. Powell was hung on July 7, 1865.

William Seward died on October 10, 1872 in Auburn New York. Most likely he died from natural causes.

By WaterHopper — On Nov 03, 2010

I had heard that William Seward was killed when Lincoln was assassinated, but according to this article that couldn't be true. Does anyone know how and when he died?

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