Harmon’s Histories: Happy Seward’s Day! Let’s party!
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
What holiday, you ask? Why it’s Seward’s Day, of course.
I know, it’s only celebrated in Alaska. But I could use a day off, so I’m partying like it’s 1999! Well, actually – like it's 1867!
The National Park Service reminds us that “William Henry Seward was appointed Secretary of State by Abraham Lincoln on March 5, 1861, and served until March 4, 1869. Seward carefully managed international affairs during the Civil War and also negotiated the 1867 purchase of Alaska.”
The purchase price was $7.2 million, a number so high that some folks began calling the purchase “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox.” They saw no value in the frozen wasteland – well, until later, when a little something called gold sparked a stampede.
“Seward’s Day (named for W.H. Seward) commemorates that land purchase from Russia (and) is annually held on the last Monday of March. Some schools and businesses close on this day.”
Oh, the town of Seward, Alaska, is named after the man as well. The town (on the Kenai Peninsula) was founded in 1903 “as a supply base to construct a railway to the Yukon Valley.”
But there’s so much more to William Henry Seward.
He was born in New York in 1801, graduated from Union College in 1820, and quickly became involved in politics. He was a New York state senator, a governor of New York, and by 1860 was viewed by many as the “top Republican presidential candidate.”
He was, of course, not the candidate. The delegates, instead, chose a relatively unknown man, Abraham Lincoln.
So Seward hitched his star to Lincoln, campaigning for the nominee, and after the election became Lincoln’s Secretary of State.
Seward weighed in on many important decisions, including a delay in “the timing of the Emancipation Proclamation (until) a decisive victory on the battlefield: the battle of Antietam.”
But Seward’s name soon would be remembered for all of history as a result of what happened on the night of April 14, 1865.
While John Wilkes Booth carried out his assassination of President Lincoln, “Lewis Powell and his lookout David Herold were sent to assassinate Secretary Seward. Seward was at home and bedridden following a recent carriage accident.”
“Powell was able to gain entry to the home by saying that he had medicine for the Secretary. Once inside the home, Powell attacked two of Seward's sons (and) Sergeant George Robinson. (He) knocked Seward's daughter, Fanny, to the floor before brutally stabbing Seward in the face and throat.”
“The attack left Seward with permanent facial scars, but he survived and continued to serve as Secretary of State in the Johnson administration.”
Seward would die seven years later, in 1872, so he never knew his name would one day be associated with an Alaska state holiday.
His “folly” was, of course, no folly at all, given the natural resources soon discovered in Alaska.
I’ll admit that I was so enamored with the lure of Alaska back in my high school years (maybe it was Johnny Horton’s song, “North to Alaska”) that I sent letters to colleges and universities as well as the state tourism office for information about the alluring state.
In the end, the allure of California sunshine won out, leading me south to San Francisco and eventually to my career travels around much of the western U.S.
But I’m still celebrating Seward’s Day – after all, any excuse to party is a good excuse, especially on a Monday. So Happy Seward’s Day!
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.