New books on Alaska purchase give different perspective
On the 150th anniversary of the Alaska purchase, and with Seward’s Day on Monday, two new books by Anchorage writer Michael Dunham and his talk last week shed some new light on the personalities surrounding what Dunham calls “the world’s best real estate deal.”
Dunham gave a slide-show talk, “Seward and the Tsar: Emancipation and Alaska” last Thursday at the Pratt Museum. Todd Publications recently published two companion books by Dunham, “The Man Who Bought Alaska” and “The Man Who Sold Alaska.” A retired arts editor and reporter from the Alaska Dispatch News, Dunham lived in Homer from 1962-66 when his parents, Jack and Mary Ann Dunham, taught elementary school here.
Two leaders played a role in the history of the Alaska purchase:
• Tsar Alexander II, the Russian monarch who sold Alaska for a cool $7.2 million to the United States, and
• William H. Seward, Secretary of State under President Abraham Lincoln and later President Andrew Johnson, the man whobrokered the Alaska purchase.
While numerous books have been written about Seward, Dunham said his book about Alexander II might be the only and first English language work. The purchase began when Russia’s friendship with America got forged during the Civil War.
“America and Russia were great friends, which was weird,” Dunham said “We had this upstart democracy and this dictatorship, but they had the same enemies.”
In 1862, with Great Britain sympathetic to the Confederacy and France urging a peace that would in effect destroy the union, the Russian war fleet visited New York and San Francisco.
“The signal was sent to the world. If you want to get involved in America’s Civil War, you’re going to have to settle with our other emancipator, Alexander II,” Dunham said.
In Russia, Alexander II is remembered for his reforms. He expanded freedom of speech and the press and allowed Jews to serve in government. In 1861 he freed the serfs. He also gave constitutional rights to the Finns, then under Russian rule.
Born in 1801 in Florida, N.Y., Seward came to political prominence in 1848, when he was elected U.S. senator from New York. An abolitionist, he opposed slavery not only in Congress. In his own Auburn, N.Y., home he offered sanctuary to slaves running away to freedom as passengers on Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad. He later ran for the Republican Party nomination for president, losing to Abraham Lincoln. But he campaigned for Lincoln and they became friends and later Seward became Lincoln’s Secretary of State.
It was during the Russian fleet’s visit to the Union that the seeds of the Alaska purchase were sown. Russian officials visited the White House and Seward. California had become a state and America sought to expand its Pacific territories. At the same time, the Russians had new ports at Petropavlovsk and Vladivostok in Eastern Russia. During the Crimean War, the British fleet attacked Petropavlovsk, showing the vulnerability of Russian Alaska.
“If the fleet had turned north, it could have grabbed Sitka, and we’d all be speaking Canadian,” Dunham said.
By 1867, talk of selling Alaska got serious. Alexander II’s brother, the Grand Duke Konstantin, wanted to sell Alaska. On March 29, the Russian minister to the U.S., Edouard de Stoeckl, visited Seward during a card game at his home in Washington, D.C., bearing word that the emperor agreed to sell Alaska. Stoeckl said they could make the deal in the morning.
“Seward pushed the table away and said, ‘Let’s do it right now,’” Dunham said. “By dawn the documents were signed.”
That day, the treaty got pushed through the U.S. Senate right before it adjourned, passing 37-2.
“The sale of Alaska is the one act for which Russians have not forgiven Alexander the II,” Dunham said.
In his talk, Dunham also spoke of two other key figures in the Alaska purchase: Gen. Jefferson Columbus Davis, a Civil War hero sent to Sitka as American Alaska’s first military governor. Known for shooting in a duel a bullying general, Davis might have thought he got sent to Alaska as punishment. In Sitka, Davis had to settle a dispute with Koh’Klux, a powerful Tlingit chief from Klukwan who showed up in 1868 with a contingent of 50 Chilkats. Koh’Klux came to negotiate reparations for two Chiklats killed by the Sitka people the year before.
Things got tense when a curfew was imposed on the Native part of town. Koh’Klux humiliated a sentry when he snatched a rifle. Davis demanded the Sitka people surrender Koh’Klux, but they didn’t want to go to war with the Chilkat. Finally, Davis walked into the village and arrested Koh’Klux.
Later, when American scientists said they wanted to visit Klukwan to observe an eclipse there, Davis made a deal with the powerful chief. He would free him if his people gave the scientists safe passage. Koh’Klux said they would be treated as honored guests.
In July 1869, Seward himself met Koh’Klux on a trip to Southeast Alaska on the yacht Active. He visited Klukwan for the eclipse of Aug. 7. Seward found himself sucked into another delicate negotiation when Koh’Klux demanded Seward settle a dispute between the Chilkats and the Sitkans, who had killed three Chilkats. Koh’Klux demanded lives for lives, but Seward would not allow that. Instead, he arranged a trade: blankets for the murdered men. The deal was made, and Seward treated Koh’Klux to a feast on the Active.
Dunham said that’s another story that begs to be told: the biography of Koh’Klux.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.