Alaskan Gold for Irish Freedom

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 3 (Autumn 1996), Letters, News, Volume 4

Little did the Russians realise when they sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million that it would become one of history’s greatest bargains. Even many Americans were doubtful about its worth and ridiculed William H. Seward, the Secretary of State who had pushed for its purchase, by calling the new acquisition ‘Seward’s folly’ and ‘Seward’s ice box’. Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Herald, caustically advised European leaders to contact Seward if they had any worthless territories they wished to unload. However, with the discovery of gold on the Klondike in 1897, and the gold rush of the following year, Seward was not only redeemed but a flood of immigrants joined Americans in a frenzied effort to exploit the riches of Alaska’s frozen tundra.
As with most of the major events in United States history the Irish played a major role. A few of these ambitious Irish prospectors, having had some success amongst the gold mines of Fairbanks, proposed to copy Seward’s purchase by offering to do the same for Ireland. On 3 April 1909, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner printed two letters under the title:

Would purchase the green island—party of corpulent capitalists of the Tanana offer to take Ireland off the hands of Great Britain—would use it for a resort for impecunious millionaires and reformed politicians—England shaken to her very toes by the proposal.

Dear sir,
I am authorised by a party of United States and Alaskan (sic) here at present, and composed of Irishmen, Irish-Americans, Americans and an Englishman—to ascertain through some official channel if England would feel disposed to sell Ireland and at what price. The party I represent consider that England’s title to Ireland, the shocking manner in which Ireland has been so long persecuted and overtaxed, her consequent sufferings and the present expensive method of holding her down should be taken into consideration by your side in calculating an inordinate price. It is stated by some members of this party that Canadians claim they would not allow England to sell Canada, or permit her annexation to the United States without their consent, while other members of the party maintain that as you govern Ireland without her consent, you may dispose of her as you desire without consulting her wishes. My friends, after reading recent cabled messages relating to Home Rule, are confirmed in their opinions that England has neither the honest desire nor the ability to grant Ireland her just rights, and believe that, in order to avert further sufferings from disgraceful and cruel government in Ireland, and certain trouble with England, or other complications which might arise the easier and more peaceful way—although not the proper or most honorable way—to arrange matters, is to purchase Ireland and allow her to enter on the career of prosperity and contentment intended for her by nature and God Almighty. They were forced to make their generous proposition as they believe that diplomacy and promises have been too long and too often used—have got too old, in fact, and that some swift remedy should be applied. All over the world the Irish race, and other races besides, had a kind of hope that the Prime Minister’s promises of Home Rule would be fulfilled, but they were disappointed to see proposed in its stead a Bill which semi-savages would reject with scorn. For several years past it had been almost unendurable to some men of Irish blood on the American continent—men who acquired immense wealth and influence—to have the taunt flung in their faces that, although they were rich and took a lively interest in Ireland’s affairs, they tried no remedy to right her unheard of and prolonged wrongs. These taunts stimulated the patriotism of these wealthy men, set them thinking, and they hit on their proposed scheme of purchase in the event of Home Rule being refused. I may state that my friends desire it to be distinctly understood that in their purchase scheme no gain is contemplated—not on their side at least. The purchase money will be advanced by them as a loan to the Irish people, who will be expected to pay it back as it suits their convenience, and they will not in any manner interfere with the management of the Irish nation by the Irish people. Englishmen who know about the world and study conditions, as they are, make friends with the Irishman and are fond of calling him ‘brother’ and say they would be delighted to see justice done to Ireland. There are many of this class of Englishmen in this camp today, who, for their disappointment in the Home Rule promises, hang their heads and declare they are heartily ashamed of the narrowness, the blindness and the bigotry of their mother country in this age of progress.
Without further digressing form the purport of this letter—by entering more fully into arguments in favor of Ireland’s just claims which are as well known to yourself as they are to the rest of the civilised world—I wish to refer you regarding the bona fide of this transaction to Samuel A. Bonnifield, Esq., president of First National Bank, this City, and hope for a speedy reply to this letter.

Have the honor to remain, etc.,

Martin Gately

Surprisingly, they did receive an answer.

Sir,
I am desired by Mr. Birrell, Chief Secretary of Ireland, to say in reply of your letter of June 24th, that the suggestion you make therein is quite impracticable and could under no circumstances be carried out.

I am, yours faithfully,

W.R. Davies

Benjamin Kline lectures in history at San José State University, California.

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