Seward in the Grand Canyon

My wife Masami and I are just back from four great days in the Grand Canyon. We joined an REI Adventures group, two guides and seven guests, walking down to the bottom of the Canyon, spending two nights at the Phantom Ranch, then walking back up on the fourth day. My wife Masami, once again, proved that she is tough; the last day is a ten-mile uphill hike, and she made it in good time and good spirits. The only part she found difficult was the ice on the last mile and half; fortunately the guides provided us with traction devices, sort of chains for our boots, and with those and the hiking poles we were fine. We had good weather, good company, good food. We learned a lot from the guides, about geology, history, hydrology, biology, native peoples.

On the way down the trail, a number of people were talking about Alaska, even talking about Seward, Alaska. I mentioned to the lead guide that, if he wanted, if others wanted, I could give a little talk about why Seward purchased Alaska. So one evening, after an early dinner, we gathered around a picnic table as the sky darkened to talk about Seward and Alaska.

It was in a way a perfect venue for such a talk. No, Seward never visited the Grand Canyon. But he did see much of the American wilderness, including California and Alaska. And Arizona was part of the great problem that his generation faced; whether the territory acquired from Mexico should be slave territory or free territory. Without Arizona and the other Mexican territory, there probably would not have been a Civil War. Northerners would have tolerated slavery in the South, southerners would have tolerated antislavery in the North. But southerners could not tolerate the idea that they could not move to Arizona taking along their property, that is their slaves, with them.

Seward was interested in Alaska as a base for whaling. In 1852, he gave a long learned speech about whaling in the Senate, talking in particular about the Bering Sea, and urging a naval survey of that area. So he knew about Russian America, and its resources, long before the Civil War. He was also interested in Alaska as a bridge to Asia. He predicted that the United States would someday have more trade with Asia than with Europe—at the time an eccentric view—today common sense. Seward also hoped that, by purchasing Alaska, he would hasten the process of acquiring British Columbia from the British government.

I also talked a bit about why the Russians were willing to sell Russian America. It was impossibly distant from St. Petersburg and Moscow, so that supplying or defending it was difficult or impossible. The Russians had watched what happened in Texas; how a few Americans arrived, then more and more, and soon the province of Mexico was part of the United States. Already some Americans were settling in Russian America; would it follow the same path? Better to sell, get paid, than to lose the colony to American intruders.

I finished with Seward’s trip to Alaska. In the summer of 1869, after he retired from the State Department, he went to the West. While in San Francisco, he mentioned that he would like to see Alaska, and a wealthy merchant volunteered his boat and crew. Seward went first to Sitka, at the time the largest town in the territory, spending several days there, joking that he had met everyone in the town. While there, he learned of a government scientific expedition, under George Davidson, to see the eclipse of August 7, 1869. Seward and friends went north, into the Chilkat Valley, part way by steam boat, part way by canoes paddled by local Indians. As the skies started to darken, the Indians refused to paddle any farther, so Seward saw the eclipse from the side of the river, a bit short of Davidson’s camp.

The Grand Canyon group had some good questions, including “why do you write books.” The best answer to that is the one that Benjamin Franklin gave, that I quoted more or less. “If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.”

Good advice.