Cold Open - Awa’uq Massacre
It’s August 14, 1784, on an island just off the southern coast of present-day Alaska.
A young indigenous boy huddles with his family, and hundreds of his people, in a cove near the waterfront. His mother offers him a bite of dried fish. He takes the food in hand, but he’s too anxious to eat. For months, the Sugpiak people have been at war with Russian fur traders who are trying to dominate their lands. The Sugpiak far outnumber the enemy, but the Russians have more firepower. After a recent skirmish, the boy and his people retreated here, to the safety of this sheltered cove. But the Russians have followed them.
The boy drops his dried fish as he sees out in the distance on a ridge just across the cove, a group of armed Russian traders with cannons in tow.
Others see them too. And soon, the women and children begin to flee as the Sugpiak warriors prepare for battle. The boy wants to fight, too, but he’s too young. His mother grabs him by the hand and forces him to run.
As the Russians unleash their cannons, the boy’s mother drags him to the water’s edge, where kayaks are waiting.
They climb inside and hunker down to hide. The boy peeks his head out to watch the battle. The Sugpiak warriors draw their bows, take aim… and let loose their arrows.
But the Russian weapons are more powerful - they tear down men, women, and children alike. The boy’s eyes fill with rage as he watches the Russians advance toward their camp. He climbs out of the kayak and grabs a weapon from a fallen warrior.
His mother calls out to him to come back. But the boy ignores her and charges the Russians, fully prepared to sacrifice his life to save his people and their land.
During the Refuge Rock Massacre, as this event will come to be known, countless Sugpiak will die. Modern estimates range from several hundred to as many as five thousand. And this is just the beginning of the turmoil. As the Russians seek to exert dominance over fishing and trade in the region, the native peoples of Alaska will pay a hefty price. Not long after the Refuge Rock Massacre, the Russian Empire establishes an official colony in the region. But Russian America - as it’s known - is doomed to fail. For the leaders of the Russian Empire, the colony is too far away to properly develop or defend.
So decades later, the Russian Empire will look for a way to cut its losses and identify a buyer for the territory. They will find a willing partner in United States Secretary of State William Henry Seward, who is eager to expand America’s land in the West. With the help of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Secretary of State Seward will achieve this goal when the United States formally takes control of Alaska on October 18th, 1867.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is October 18th, 1867: The United States Takes Control of Alaska.
Act One: Seward negotiates the purchase of Alaska
It’s about ten o’clock in the evening on March 29th, 1867; almost a hundred years after the Refuge Rock Massacre.
US Secretary of State William Seward sits in the parlor of his home in Washington, D.C. - playing cards with his family. But his game is interrupted by a member of his staff announcing a visitor: Baron Eduard de Stoeckl, the Russian Minister to the United States. Immediately, Seward knows why Stoeckl is here. He wants to discuss the Russian Empire’s colony in North America.
Russian America is mostly located in present-day Alaska, though there are small pockets in places like California. The Russian Empire once had big hopes for the territory. Initially, the colony thrived on the back of a prosperous fur trade. But by the middle of the 19th century, overhunting and logistical challenges led to its decline. Now, the Russian Empire is looking to unload the burdensome territory. But they don’t want to hand it over to a European rival. They’d prefer to sell it to a remote ally, like the United States.
And Secretary of State William Seward’s had his eye on Russian America for years, even since before the outbreak of the American Civil War. During the conflict, Seward realized that America was short on naval outposts, especially in the Northern Pacific. The territories of Russian America solves that problem. Also, the abundant region is twice the size of Texas. It would drastically grow the country, and give the United States access to valuable natural resources and trade routes to the East. Seward and Stoeckl have been in formal discussions for some time. But tonight, Seward hopes the talks will finally come to an end with an agreement.
Soon, Stoeckl enters the room with a telegram in hand. He clears his throat and proudly announces that "The Emperor gives his consent to the cession.” A smile washes over Seward’s face. And Stoeckl proposes they meet tomorrow to finalize details. But Seward doesn’t want to put it off any longer. He puts his cards down, and asks, “Why wait till tomorrow? Let us make the treaty tonight.”
Stoeckl is surprised and a bit confused. At this hour, all of the offices are closed. The secretaries and clerks they rely on for important diplomatic business are all at home. But Seward assures Stoeckl that if the Russian Minister can muster his delegation by midnight, Seward will be waiting at the state department ready to make a deal. Stoeckl agrees and says they will make it happen.
So around midnight, Seward welcomes Stoeckl and his colleagues into his office. Soon, they get to work hammering out details. And in the end, they come to an agreement. The US will purchase the territory for 7.2 million dollars, the equivalent of over 140 million today.
The men also agree that Russian citizens in the region will have three years to return to Russia or accept U.S. citizenship. With both men in accord, they order their clerks to prepare final drafts. At about four o’clock in the morning, Seward and Stoeckl sign the documents.
But Seward knows his work is just beginning. As Secretary of State, Seward has the power to negotiate treaties on behalf of the president. But for this treaty to take effect, it must first be ratified by the Senate with a Two-third majority vote. Seward knows that will be hard to achieve. Many in the Senate adamantly oppose Seward’s boss: the divisive president, Andrew Johnson. And Seward doesn’t want his treaty to be collateral damage in the ongoing feud between Congress and the president. So immediately, Seward starts lobbying for support.
He hosts a series of lavish dinner parties to wine and dine the Senators and make his case. He says the treaty isn’t about President Andrew Johnson, it’s about keeping America safe and making her rich. He highlights the many benefits of the vast region: the potential for naval bases, the whaling, the trade routes, and the abundance of natural resources. In the end, Seward’s persuasive arguments pay off.
On April 9th, 1867, the Senate approves the treaty by a vote of 37 to 2. The so-called “Alaska Purchase” will later be called “one of the greatest real estate bargains in history.” In the end, the US will acquire the vast territory for less than 2 cents an acre.
In later years, a myth will emerge that Seward’s treaty with Russia was immediately, and widely ridiculed. While some will later call the treaty “Seward’s Folly”, many Americans at the time supported it. Newspapers from New York to California praised Seward for advancing U.S. interests. But in getting the deal done, there is one group of people Seward failed to consider: the native Alaskans. For the indigenous peoples who’ve called this vast region home for thousands of years, the Alaska Purchase will threaten their culture, their customs… and their lives.
Act Two: The Transfer Ceremony + Potlatch
It’s October 18th, 1867 in Sitka, a village in Russian America. Though after today, this land will be known by another name: Alaska, which derives from an indigenous word meaning, roughly, “mainland”.
Near the oceanfront, a native Tlingit man stands near the entrance to his clan’s plank house, a large dwelling meant to house multiple families. He rubs the head of one of his watchdogs affectionately, then walks down to the water’s edge.
There, other members of his clan are already making preparations to embark on a short journey. When the man joins them, they untie their canoes, climb on board and push out onto the water. They row along the shore, from their village at the edge of Sitka, toward a nearby fort.
From the water, the Tlingit and his fellow clansmen watch as a group of Russian soldiers lines up across from a formation of American troops. Soon, the Russian flag is slowly lowered and a flag with stars and stripes goes up in its place. As the new banner reaches the top of the pole, the Tlingit can hear the cheering from the Americans, and the sound of cannonfire signaling the end of the ceremony.
This Tlingit man does not fully understand the transition that’s just occurred. But he knows this much: he doesn’t trust any of these men in a uniform - Russian, American, or otherwise. Eventually, the Tlingit man will come to learn that the Americans have supposedly purchased Alaska from Russia. The idea that his homeland can be bought and sold is bewildering to the man and his people. In the end, he will discover he was right to be wary.
Just over one year later, on January 1st, 1869, an old Chief and two other Tlingit leaders walk the grounds of Fort Sitka, a US military outpost in Alaska. They’ve just come from a meeting with the American officer in charge of this region.
Under the previous rule of the Russian Empire, most foreign traders respected Tlingit law. The Russian military presence was small - abiding by Tlingit tradition helped them maintain peace. But the American army has shown less interest in indigenous laws and customs. The Chief and his associates came here to ask the American officer for assistance and cooperation. The details of the meeting are unknown, but what is certain is that the Chief and his associates left with a gift: two bottles of whiskey. Now, they head for the exit on their way back to their village.
But on their way, an American soldier blocks their path and harasses the Chief and his associates. The Chief ignores him and tries to keep walking. Agitated, the soldier kicks the Chief from behind. The Chief turns around in disbelief and growing anger. He grabs the soldier’s rifle and pries it out of his hands. Then he and his associates turn and walk away.
In the following days, the American officer in command of the fort will send soldiers to arrest the Chief. The Tlingit defend their leader, and their village, with guns. They’re able to repel the soldiers, but several are wounded during the skirmish. To avoid further violence, the Chief surrenders to the Army. But the situation continues to spiral. Before long, two unarmed Tlingit are killed by American soldiers. When the Army refuses to make amends, Tlingit warriors respond by killing two white settlers. In retaliation, the U.S. army will bomb several Tlingit villages, razing them to the ground.
For the Tlingit people, the violence is a portend of what’s to come. Over the years, their customs, traditions, and sovereignty over these lands will be trampled, as more and more American soldiers and settlers flood into the region, turning the Tlingit’s home into the next American frontier.
Act Three: William Henry Visits Alaska
It’s August 12th, 1869 in Sitka, several months after the bombing on the Tlingit villages.
Former Secretary of State William Henry Seward stands on a raised platform. He looks out over the crowd of American soldiers, former Russian citizens, and newly arrived American settlers who’ve come to hear him speak.
Seward is now retired from public service, but he came here to Sitka to see for himself this great land he worked so hard to acquire. Seward knows his words will be reported in the press. So this speech is an opportunity to celebrate the treaty he brokered and hopefully, encourage more Americans to come here to settle in Alaska.
As he addresses the crowd, Seward extols the great natural resources of Alaska. He praises the weather, the animals, the timber, and minerals. But when he comes to the subject of the Native Alaskans he changes his tone. In Seward’s mind, the various nations of Alaska have failed to make the most of the land’s resources. He predicts that eventually, their communities will be gone, replaced by a prosperous territory that will one day join America as an official state.
But still, during his visit, Seward meets with Chief Ebbits, the leader of a local Tlingit clan. At their meeting, Seward participates in a potlatch ceremony, a great show of respect from the Tlingit people. The Chief honors Seward with lavish gifts including furs, a hat, a beautifully decorated chest, and more. The Chief hopes to show Seward that the Tlingit people are worthy of respect, and consultation about Alaska’s future.
But the meaning of the ceremony seems lost on Seward. He leaves without offering the Chief anything in return as is tradition. Years later, the Tlingit erect a shame totem pole, a ceremonial carving with a caricature of Seward at the top. Over the years, the elements take their toll, and the Tlingit people are forced to replace the pole - most recently in 2017, the 150-year anniversary of the Alaska Purchase. Today, for many Tlingit people, the shame pole is more than a symbol of Seward’s snub. It represents the feeling that the United States, like Russia before it, never respected their sovereignty.
That same year, in 2017, a different kind of monument to William Seward is erected in front of the State Capitol building in Juneau, Alaska. At the dedication ceremony, participants hail Seward’s vision for establishing an American territory in the North Pacific; even as they acknowledge that Seward ignored the rights of Indigenous people to the lands he purchased - a consequential and complicated legacy that is felt even today, over a century and a half after the United States formally took control of Alaska on October 18th, 1867.
Next onHistory Daily: October 19th, 1781. After a French naval victory over the British, George Washington and the Continental Army win the American Revolution when the Siege of Yorktown comes to an end.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Ruben Abrahams Brosbe.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.