William Seward – maligned founder of America’s 49th state

Time before Now, October 1872 Yellowstone had become the nation’s and the world’s first national park in March.  Dry goods salesman,  Aaron Montgomery Ward, issued the first mail order catalog business and John F. Blondel of Thomaston, Maine patented the automated donut cutter.  Another New Englader, prolific Massachusetts inventor Luther Childs Crowell had filed his first patent for an “Aerial Machine” in 1862.  Considered a prototype for the helicopter, it predated the Wright Brothers “Wright Flier” by 40 years.  It wasn’t terribly successful, but his February 1872 patent was – a machine to manufacture the square-bottomed grocery bag.   

October 10, 1872

On this day William Henry Seward died at the age of 72.   “Old Glory” might have been short a star had he not purchased Alaska.

Seward (left) had cheated death twice before this date; first at the hands of an assassin in 1865 and three years later surviving a near-fatal disease.  His purchase of the nation’s most northern territory was mockingly characterized as “Seward’s Folly,” and “the Secretary’s Icebox,” by many newspapers of the day.   It was in fact, a land deal of monumental proportions.  

At $7.2 million, about $130 million today, Seward paid Russia’s Alexander II about two cents an acre for 586,412 resource-rich square miles, less than half of the four and a half cents an acre President Thomas Jefferson paid Napoleon’s representative, François Barbé-Marbois in the Louisiana Purchase.

Serving as Secretary of State for Abraham Lincoln, the man who had cost him his party’s presidential nomination, he became one of the most steadfast members of Lincoln’s storied “team of rivals.” Continuing to serve the increasingly unpopular and inept President Andrew Johnson, (left) Seward’s council, however, was often ignored.

 Born in the small town of Florida, New York, to a prosperous slave holding doctor and his wife, Seward became a devout abolitionist, serving as New York’s 14th governor barely a decade after the state had abolished slavery. Following election to the U.S. Senate, Seward and his committed abolitionist wife, the former Francis Miller, (right) the couple’s Auburn, New York, home became a safe house on the Underground Railroad.

He failed to win the Republican Party’s nomination for president, losing to Lincoln, considered a moderate on the question of slavery. But Seward nearly didn’t survive the nation’s great divide over the issue which cost Lincoln his life. 

Recovering from a horse accident, the Secretary was confined to his Washington home, unable to rise from bed the night Lincoln was shot.  Wearing a draconian neck brace for his injuries, his would-be killer,  21-year-old ex-Confederate soldier Lewis Powell, managed to enter Seward’s bedroom and stab him repeatedly in the face and neck.  

Spared by the neck brace, the attack none the less forever changed the Seward family.  Frances’s health declined precipitously following the event.  She died just months later.  The couple’s son Frederick, received a near fatal blow to the head and some sources say he never fully recovered.  Another son, Augustus, was also wounded.  In addition, a soldier, a nurse and  messenger, Emetic Hansell, arriving from Ford’s Theatre, were all injured.  Hensell was left permanently paralyzed.

Seward’s only daughter, Fanny, (above) was at her father’s bedside at the time of the attack.  She and Seward’s Army nurse, George Robinson, (right) most probably saved Seward’s life.  They treated the other injured victims, as well.  But like her mother, the events surrounding the assassination attempt impacted her health.  She too died less than a year later of tuberculosis .  

Seward nearly met his end again in 1866 after contracting what was probably cholera during President Andrew Johnson’s disastrous “Swing Around the Circle” campaign tour.  Near death, he was returned to Washington, D.C. by special train car.

Continuing to support Johnson, even as Congress attempted to impeach the President, Seward vigorously campaigned for Johnson’s renomination.  Instead the party chose Civil War hero, General Ulysess S. Grant, who easily won the election. 

But so contentious was the relationship between Grant and Johnson that the President Elect refused to occupy the same carriage with his predecessor to the inauguration ceremony.  Johnson, along with his entire Cabinet, didn’t even attend Grant’s swearing in.  Animosity for Johnson spilled over to the members of his Cabinet and  Seward retired from public life, returning to his home in Auburn.

For much of his remaining years, he traveled, first to Alaska and then around the globe. The 68-year-old, however, set tongues wagging over his close relationship with Olive Risley.(Right)   The 28-year-old Risley had been a friend of daughter Fanny’s, and she and her sister, Harriet, joined Seward in his globe trotting.  It touched off persistent rumors of an impending marriage, which Seward ended by not wedding the young woman, but adopting her as a daughter.  

He and Risley began work on a book recounting their travels after returning to the U.S., but Seward died before the book was published, 77 years before Alaska became a state.   Risley completed the memoir, publishing “William H. Seward’s Travels Around the World” in 1873, which became an instant best-seller.  She went on to cofound the Literary Society of Washington with her long-time companion, Sara Carr Upton, and authored a travel book for children of her own entitled “Around the World Stories.”  She died in 1908 at the age of 64.

There were few happy endings to the Seward family’s saga, least of all for the would-be assassin, Lewis Powell. (Right)  He died on the gallows along with four other of John Wilkes Booth’s conspirators July 7, 1865   All were buried on the grounds of Washington Arsenal.   

In 1869 family members of the condemned requested their remains be returned to them.  Apparently the Powells failed to reclaim Lewis and he was reinterred in Washington’s Holmead’s Burying Ground.  But according to Powell family history, when his brother George came to receive the remains, it was discovered the skull was missing.

Lewis’s body was re-buried several times before permanently coming to rest in Geneva Cemetery, Seminole County Florida, absent the missing skull.  It was discovered later at the Army Medical Museum at Ford’s Theatre.  It then made its way to the Smithsonian Institution, where it was mistakenly mingled with the museum’s Native American collection.  Finally, in  1974, the skull was returned to Powell’s 70-year-old great-niece, Helen Alderman, and interred at Geneva. 

Seward House, 33 South Street, Auburn, New York, is both archives and museum of the Seward family.  Built in 1816 by Frances Seward’s father, Judge Elijah Miller, it served as the home of William and Frances beginning with their marriage in 1824.  In addition to exhibits of books, furniture and personal effects, it includes the Diplomats Gallery, more than 120 photographs, engravings and portraits of kings, queens, presidents and diplomates acquired during Seward’s tenure as Secretary of State to both President Abraham Lincoln and President Andrew Johnson.  

Set amid two and a half acres of lush gardens, the house was added to the list of National Historic Landmarks in 1964 and the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. It is open to visitors only on guided tours on Thursday through Saturday.  Tours start on the hours beginning at 10 with the last tour starting at 3.  Sunday tours are at noon, 2 and 3.  Admission is $14 for adults, $12 for seniors and active military and $8 for students with ID.  Reserve by contacting the museum at the website, sewardhouse.org/visit, e-mail  info@sewardhouse.org, call (315) 252-1283 or write, Seward House Museum,  33 South St. Auburn, NY 13021.

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.