Statue of William H. Seward is unveiled at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition on September 10, 1909.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 6/26/2007
  • Essay 8195
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On September 10, 1909, the William H. Seward statue is unveiled at the Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition in Seattle. Sculpted by Richard E. Brooks (1865-1919), the statue honors New York Senator and Secretary of State William Seward (1801-1872), who advocated for the United States purchase of Alaska from Russia. After the A-Y-P Exposition ends, the statue is moved to Seattle's Volunteer Park.


G. Beninghauser, a Seattle jeweler, is credited with suggesting that a monument be built to Seward in Seattle in appreciation for his statesmanship that resulted in the Alaska purchase. A Chamber of Commerce committee, headed by Judge Thomas Burke (1849-1925), with Professor Edmond Meany (1862-1935) acting as secretary, was charged with raising the $15,000 cost by subscription among the people of Seattle.

Richard E. Brooks, who created the statue of Governor John H. McGraw (1850-1910) located in Seattle’s Times Square, was chosen to sculpt Seward’s likeness. The completed bronze statue is almost nine feet tall, and weighs close to 2,500 pounds. It stands atop a pedestal of imported granite, 10 feet by 11 inches in height.  


The Seward statue was unveiled at the A-Y-P in front of the New York State Building, a fitting location since the structure was a replica of Seward’s mansion in Auburn, New York. More than 3,000 people attended the event.  

Reverend Mark Matthews (1867-1940) gave an invocation, and after various dignitaries made short speeches, Judge Thomas Burke introduced General W. H. Seward, the statesman’s son. Parts of General Seward’s speech are as follows:

"It is hardly necessary to say that I have listened with interest and gratification to what has been said here today. Let me assure you of my deep and heartfelt appreciation of this great tribute to my father’s memory.  It was a frequent remark of his during his life, that however much he might be misrepresented or misunderstood by his contemporaries he intended that his public acts should be such as would stand the test of time and the verdict of posterity.  This gathering, nearly forty years after his death, attests that his faith and confidence in the ultimate sound judgment of the American people was not mistaken or misplaced.  

"When Alaska presented herself at the door of our national domain there was an outburst of objections to her admittance.  First, she was too far away.  Next, she was too cold.  Finally, she was too poor.

"That she is not very far away is shown by the fact that we are nearer to her here today than we are to Chicago, Omaha, or San Francisco.  That she is not very cold is amply proved by the heaped up wealth of vegetation from forest, field, and farm that surround us at this exposition. That she is not very poor is attested by the millions that she is pouring into the national treasure, as well as into the pockets of the seekers for wealth.  Yet there are some of us here, who remember the days when grave statesmen stood upon the floor of Congress to declare that there was not a pound of mineral wealth in the whole territory, and that its produce consisted chiefly of icebergs and polar bears.  

"Before and after our great Civil War there were many evidence of unfriendly feeling on the part of foreign powers.  But Russia remained a constant friend.  Unequivocal good wishes for the maintenance and restoration of the Union were expressed by the emperor Alexander II, his prime minister, Prince Gortschakoff and their diplomatic agents.

"Senator Seward had now become secretary of state.  One of the lessons of the war had forcibly impressed upon him was the lack of naval outposts in the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean.  The cordial relations existing with Russia enabled him to at once open informal discussion of the subject with Mr. Stoecki, the Russian minister.  He found that Russia would in no case allow her American possessions to pass into the hands of any European power.  But the United States always had been and probably always would be a friend.  

"Russian America was a remote province, not easily defensible, and not likely to be developed.  Under American control, it would develop more rapidly, and be more easily defended.  To Russia, instead of a source of danger, it might become a safeguard.  To the United States it would give a foothold for commercial and naval operations accessible from the Pacific States.

"Seward and Gortschakoff were not long in arriving at an agreement upon a subject which, instead of embarrassing with conflicting interests, presented some mutual advantages.  

"On the evening of Friday, March 29, 1867, Seward was playing whist in his parlor with some of his family, when the Russian minister was announced.

“'I have a dispatch, Mr. Seward, from my government by cable.  The emperor gives his consent to the cession.  Tomorrow, if you like, I will come to the department, and we can enter upon the treaty.' 

"Seward with a smile of satisfaction, pushed away from the whist table, saying, 'Why wait until tomorrow, Mr. Stoecki? Let us make the treaty tonight!'

“'You have no clerks, and my secretaries are scattered about the town.'  

“'Never mind that,' responded Seward, 'if you can muster your legation together before midnight, you will find me awaiting you at the department, which will be open and ready for business.'

"By 4 o’clock on Saturday morning the treaty was engrossed, signed, sealed, and ready for transmission by the President to the Senate.  There was need of this haste, in order to have it acted upon before the end of the session, then near at hand.  

"The debate which followed in the Senate was animated and earnest, but in the end the treaty was confirmed without serious opposition.  But the purchase was not consummated without a storm of raillery in conversation and ridicule in the press. Russian America was declared to be a ‘barren, worthless, God-forsaken region, whose only products were icebergs and polar bears.’ It was said that the ground was ‘frozen six feet deep and the streams were glaciers.’ 'Walrussia,’ was suggested as a name for it, if it deserved to have any. Vegetation was said to be ‘limited to mosses,’ and ‘no useful animals could live there.’  There might be some few ‘wretched fish,’ only fit for ‘wretched Eskimos’ to eat.  But nothing could be raised or dug there.  Seven millions of good money was going to be wasted in buying it.  Many millions more would have to be spent in holding it and defending it -- for it was ‘remote, inhospitable, and inaccessible.’ It was ‘Seward’s Folly.’ It was ‘Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden.’ It was ‘an egregious blunder,’ ‘a bad bargain,’ palmed off on a ‘silly administration by the shrewd Russians,’ etc., etc., etc.  Most of these jeers and flings were from men who disliked the president and blamed Seward for remaining in his cabinet. Perhaps unwillingness to admit that anything wise or right cold be done by ‘Andy Johnson’s administration’ was the real reason for the wrath visited upon the unoffending territory.

"Alaska was left for some years under the supervision of the military, naval, and revenue officers of the government, their chief duties being to keep the peace, arrest criminals, collect the revenue and prevent smuggling, especially of illicit liquors and firearms.  Miners, fur traders, and explorers continued to go there in increasing numbers, but emigrants generally were deterred from going to a region where the settlers could not get a title to a house or land and could not feel assured of adequate protection or redress at law.  Congress was engrossed by other interests, and so neglected the remote province, which the general public seemed to regard with indifference -- for the old notion of its being all bleak and barren still had hold on the popular imagination.  

"Yet there were sagacious and enterprising business then, especially on the Pacific Coast, who perceived that there were potentialities of wealth in Alaska,  They availed themselves of the opportunities and organized companies for seal fishing, fur trading, salmon canning, and quartz mining -- most of which succeeded beyond expectation.

"But most important and beneficent of all was the work done by the missionaries and school teachers.  

"It was a surprise to the Eastern public when they were informed a few years ago, that the neglected territory was already paying more into the national treasury more than it had cost and that its productions and revenues were yearly increasing.  Within another decade, the explorers, miners, and prospectors began to report their discoveries of gold, silver, copper, and coal, in apparently inexhaustible supply.  Alaska commenced repaying its cost price over and over again each year -- so that now, in lieu of seven millions, we are likely to have seventy times seven.

"Still another development of Alaska begins to loom up in the future.  Railway systems and modern civilization are steadily pushing up towards Bering Strait, both in the eastern and western hemispheres. When they meet at its shores, it will be found that America and Russia are separated only by the distance that separates England and France.  Trade and travel will inevitably open communication between them, and Alaska may ultimately be destined to become a thoroughfare between the Old World and the New.  

"During the last year of Seward’s life he was visited at Auburn by Frank Carpenter, who painted the historic picture of The Emancipation Proclamation. The artist asked him, 'Gov. Seward, which if your public acts do you think will live longest in the memory of the American people?'

"Seward replied, 'The purchase of Alaska. But,' he added, 'It will take another generation to find it out.' 

"That was thirty-seven years ago. A new generation has come, and they have ‘found it out.’ "

The Unveiling  

Other speeches followed, including one from W. T. Dovell, who represented the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Professor Edmond Meany read a poem he composed, entitled, “Hail to Thee, Seward.” The poem was dedicated to New York Senator Benjamin Wilcox -- also in attendance -- and the copy read at the ceremony was given to General Seward.

A few days earlier, 10-year-old W. H. Seward Jr., a grandson, was asked to unveil the statue, but declined. Instead, the honors were given to little Harriet May Baxter, granddaughter to former Washington Governor John McGraw, who was also in attendance. As the Star Spangled Banner played, she unfurled the flag which was wrapped around the statue. Cheers rang out. After the unveiling, a banquet was held in the New York State building in honor of General Seward.  

Where Should it Go?

A month later, a small controversy erupted on where the statue would be placed once the A-Y-P ended in October. Judge Burke felt that it should go downtown in Yesler triangle, in front of where the old City Hall had once stood. A library was slated to be built there, which Burke objected too, feeling that an open park would be more suited to the site. Executors of the Henry Yesler estate noted that Yesler’s will explicitly called for a library to be located on the site and that no change would be made to this plan.  

Yesler’s executors recommended that the monument replace the totem pole in Pioneer Place, feeling that the statue would lend more dignity there than the pilfered Tlingit totem pole which had recently been erected there. Eventually it was decided to place the Seward statue at Volunteer Park, where it has stood ever since.


"Girl to Unveil Seward Statue," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 10, 1909, p. 5; "Tribute Pair Memory of Seward," The Seattle Times, September 10, 1909, pp. 1, 4; "Statue of Buyer of Golden North unveiled at Fair," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 11, 1909, pp. 1-2; "Proposes to Put Statue of Seward in Pioneer Place," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 8, 1909, pp. 1, 4.

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