Coffee and the ‘folly’: Museum event honors William Henry Seward

Nearly 150 years ago, speaking to the people of Sitka, William Henry Seward predicted that Alaska would one day be a U.S. state. Seward was no longer secretary of state at the time. The “ardent expansionist” was on a personal trip to see the only land he had acquired under his term.

“He foresaw Alaska being one or more states even back in 1869,” Wayne Jensen told a crowd of about 20 people gathered in the Juneau-Douglas City Museum on Saturday morning. January’s edition of Coffee and Collections, a monthly museum event, was all about Seward and his supposed “folly” in honor of the sesquicentennial of the Alaska Purchase.

Jensen is the president of Jensen Yorba Lott Inc., a Juneau-based architecture firm. He also is a member of the Alaska Historical Commission and an amateur Seward historian. When it came time to select a speaker for Saturday’s event, he was a good fit, said Majorie Hamburger, curator of public programs for the museum.

“We’ve just got our feelers out all the time here at the museum, and Wayne has his finger in a number of pies,” she said.

And one of those proverbial pies is certainly Seward. Jensen said that in the past couple of years, he became interested in Seward’s life and contributions to the United States — which, he pointed out, are “not very well known.”

“I just got interested in him; one thing led to another, and I ended up with all of these photographs, so I needed somebody to show them to,” Jensen told the small crowd, referring to his power point presentation, which contained several historical images.

In Alaska, Seward is well known for purchasing Russian America. The state even celebrates two holidays — Seward day and Alaska Day — in honor of this accomplishment. But we also celebrate a third holiday because of Seward: Thanksgiving Day. Seward drafted the Proclamation of Thanksgiving. Wonderful though Thanksgiving may be, this was not nearly the most important piece of legislation Seward drafted. He also drafted the 13th Ammendment, the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery.

Jensen has read his fair share of history regarding Seward, who “has been called the best secretary of state the United States has ever had,” but he has also played a role in making history on Seward’s behalf. Jensen is a member of the Seward Sculpture Committee, which has been working to place a statue of Seward in the Dimond Courthouse Plaza.

Seward stands, in statue form, in cities all across the United States, from New York City to Seattle. Come July 3, 2017 — to mark the 150th anniversary of “Seward’s Folly” — he will also stand here in Alaska’s capital city.

“This will be the next thing that will help us remember him is the statue right here in Juneau,” Jensen said.

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