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North to Alaska

A bunch of folks from the Federation of Genealogical Societies will be setting sail at the end of next week for a visit to the northernmost part of the United States — and parts of Canada — in a first-ever FGS cruise to Alaska.

seward-william-henryAnd if you think The Legal Genealogist is excited about this trip, you haven’t met my older sister, who is coming with me. She’s never been to Alaska before, and never been on a cruise before, and may not sleep the entire time for fear of missing something.

What I don’t want to miss are the bits and pieces of history — and of legal history — that go into making Alaska one of the most fascinating parts of our national lore, including that amazing bit of history we all heard about in school, called Seward’s Folly.

William Henry Seward was Secretary of State of the United States between 1861 and 1869. He was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln, and served as the chief negotiator for the U.S. in the 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia.1

The acquisition of this vast northern territory was first proposed in 1859:

Russia offered to sell Alaska to the United States in 1859, believing the United States would off-set the designs of Russia’s greatest rival in the Pacific, Great Britain. The looming U.S. Civil War delayed the sale, but after the war, Secretary of State William Seward quickly took up a renewed Russian offer and on March 30, 1867, agreed to a proposal from Russian Minister in Washington, Edouard de Stoeckl, to purchase Alaska for $7.2 million. The Senate approved the treaty of purchase on April 9; President Andrew Johnson signed the treaty on May 28, and Alaska was formally transferred to the United States on October 18, 1867. This purchase ended Russia’s presence in North America and ensured U.S. access to the Pacific northern rim.

For three decades after its purchase the United States paid little attention to Alaska, which was governed under military, naval, or Treasury rule or, at times, no visible rule at all. Seeking a way to impose U.S. mining laws, the United States constituted a civil government in 1884. Skeptics had dubbed the purchase of Alaska “Seward’s Folly,” but the former Secretary of State was vindicated when a major gold deposit was discovered in the Yukon in 1896, and Alaska became the gateway to the Klondike gold fields. The strategic importance of Alaska was finally recognized in World War II. Alaska became a state on January 3, 1959.2

And in the document memorializing this acquisition are several extraordinary provisions of interest to family researchers:

• Included in the description of the land ceded to the United States in the treaty of acquisition were “all public lots and squares, vacant lands, and all public buildings, fortifications, barracks, and other edifices which are not private individual property.” But the treaty also provided: “It is, however, understood and agreed, that the churches which have been built in the ceded territory by the Russian Government, shall remain the property of such members of the Greek Oriental Church resident in the territory as may choose to worship therein.”3

• Archival records in existence at the time of the cession were to be left in Alaska: “Any Government archives, papers, and documents relative to the territory and dominion aforesaid, which may now be existing there, will be left in the possession of the agent of the United States; but an authenticated copy of such of them as may be required, will be, at all times, given by the United States to the Russian Government, or to such Russian officers or subjects as they may apply for.”4

• And — sigh — while Russian citizens who chose to remain in Alaska were to be “admitted to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States, and shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty, property, and religion,” that privilege was not extended to the so-called “uncivilized tribes.”5 Natives were to be “subject to such laws and regulations as the United States may from time to time adopt in regard to aboriginal tribes of that country.”6 It wasn’t until 1915 that the very first procedure was put in place for Alaskan Natives to become citizens — and it was limited to those who had “severed all tribal relationship and adopted the habits of civilized life.”7

Any or all of these provisions may impact us as family historians if our roots run deep into this northern land.


Image: William Henry Seward, US Department of State

  1. See “William Henry Seward,” Biographies of the Secretaries of State, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State ( : accessed 18 Aug 2015).
  2. See “Purchase of Alaska, 1867,” Milestones: 1866-1898, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State ( : accessed 18 Aug 2015).
  3. Article II, The Treaty of Cession (1867), in Thomas H. Carter, The Laws of Alaska (Chicago : Callaghan & Co., 1900), xxxviii; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 18 Aug 2015).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., Article III.
  6. Ibid.
  7. See “Native Citizenship,” Governing Alaska, Alaska History and Cultural Studies ( : accessed 18 Aug 2015).
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