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Celebrating 60 years of ‘Seward’s Folly’

March 28, 2019
Alaska state flag(University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

In 1927, an Aleut teenager—13-year-old John Bell Benson—won a competition by the Alaska Department of the American Legion with his design idea for an Alaskan flag. Chosen for its simple look of the Big Dipper and North Star, this particular example is now part of the University’s William Henry Seward Papers.

Time to celebrate: this month, 152 years ago, the Russian Empire sold its Alaskan territory to the United States for $7 million—a bargain at roughly 2 cents an acre. It was Seward, a prominent New York politician and secretary of state to Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, who negotiated the Alaska purchase. The acquisition on March 30, 1867, was ridiculed at the time in Congress and the press as “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Ice Box.” Sixty years ago, on January 3, 1959, Alaska became the 49th state of the Union, making it a diamond jubilee of sorts.

Not only did Seward have the last laugh, his papers and ephemera today form one of the most frequently accessed collections at the University’s Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation, where they have become an important resource for scholars and students of 19th-century America.


Read more about Seward at Rochester

gold snuff box with SEWARD engraved on it
The myth—and memorabilia—of Seward’s Folly
Take a visual tour of just some of the items in the William Seward collection at Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation.
two librarians working at a desk, with a painting of Lincoln's cabinet behind them
Seward Family Digital Archive project tops $1 million
The project brings together students in the humanities and computer science with retired volunteers to help transcribe the thousands of Seward family letters written in Victorian-era cursive handwriting.

 

 

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