Alaska Then

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“Alaska” came from an Aleut word for “great land” though some believe the Aleut word meant “mainland” to those residing on the Alaska Peninsula. Scientist and surveyor William Healey Dall wrote in 1870: “This name, now applied to the whole of our new territory, is a corruption, very far removed from the original word … called by the natives Al-ak-shak or Al-ay-ek-sa. From Alayeksa the name became Alaksa, Alashka, Aliaska, and finally Alaska. We have, then, Alaska for the territory, Aliaska for the peninsula.”

Alaska today refers to the entire state as well as the Peninsula. “Alyeska” is still around, though, as the name of a ski resort in Girdwood, as well as the name of the Anchorage consortium overseeing the trans-Alaska pipeline company.

Purchase: William Henry Seward was secretary of state under President Abraham Lincoln when he began negotiating a deal for the United States to buy Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million — or 2 cents an acre. Seward, born May 16, 1801, served as New York state senator from 1831 to 1834, then as the state’s governor from 1839 to 1843. Lincoln appointed him secretary of state in 1861. During Lincoln’s presidency, he began negotiating the purchase of Alaska, then known as Russian America. Zachary Kent, in “William Seward: The Mastermind of the Alaska Purchase,” reports how Seward invited senators to dinner parties at his home. According to Kent, “While the senators enjoyed fine food and wine, Seward described how beautiful Russian America was reported to be.”

The purchase agreement was signed by Seward on March, 30, 1867, and approved by the U.S. Senate on May 27, 1867. President Andrew Johnson signed the final treaty the following day and the transfer was made Oct. 18, 1867, in Sitka. In 1917, the third Alaska Territorial Legislature created Seward’s Day to mark the signing of the treaty. That same year, lawmakers also designated Oct. 18 “Alaska Day.”

Many Americans of the period called the purchase “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox,” thinking Alaska a snowy, icy wasteland. Of course, that was before Alaska was discovered by gold seekers, oil companies and tourists. Many streets throughout Alaska have been named after William Seward. a city on the Kenai Peninsula bears his name, and Alaska has a glacier, a passage, a peninsula, a creek, a highway and mountains named for him as well. And what about William Seward himself? The night John Wilkes Booth fatally shot Lincoln, a Confederate veteran named Lewis Payne entered Seward’s bedroom and attacked him with a large knife. Fortunately, the blows were blunted by a neck brace Seward was wearing (according to The Lost Museum, a website sponsored by City University of New York and George Mason University). After Lincoln's death, Seward continued to serve as secretary of the state under President Andrew Johnson, and it was during Johnson’s administration that Seward completed the negotiations with Russia.


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