If the United States were to purchase Iceland and Greenland, it follows that Canada—now flanked to the west by recently acquired Alaska and to the east by these new possessions—would be compelled “peacefully and cheerfully, to become a part of the American Union.” This from a report compiled by a mining engineer named Benjamin Mills Pierce in late 1867, on the recommendation of then-American secretary of state William H. Seward.
Seward had been keen on expansion—particularly to the North—throughout his political career. He was first elected to the U.S. senate in 1849 and became Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, a title he carried during the Civil War and afterwards. Seward was part of a long line of American leaders who believed in Manifest Destiny—the U.S. would one day control all of North America. He figured British North America (before it became Canada) could be convinced to join the United States.
He recognized the land’s vast resource potential. Writing in his journal in 1857 during a fishing trip in Labrador, he marvelled at the “wheat-fields in the West, its broad ranges of chase at the North, its inexhaustible lumber lands, the most extensive now remaining on the globe, its invaluable fisheries and its yet undisturbed mines.”
The U.S. Civil War erupted in 1861 and any ideas Seward had were put on hold. When the gruesome fighting ended four years later, the U.S. government had a massive reconstruction effort ahead of it. Meanwhile, negotiations intensified to unify provinces under the Dominion of Canada.
Then, in 1867, the dominoes started to fall. Russia approached Seward about his interest in Alaska. Russia, still reeling economically following the Crimean War, found it too costly to maintain its interests in Alaska and it did not want the territory to fall to the British. The two sides swiftly negotiated a US$7.2-million price (roughly $125 million today) for Alaska. The U.S. now had a piece of the Arctic.
Just days earlier, Queen Victoria had signed the British North America Act to create the Dominion of Canada. Still, Canadian leaders were fretting about possible American expansion. With good reason: Seward and his contemporaries thought the territories which had not yet signed onto Confederation—including British Columbia and Rupert’s Land (owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company)—could be persuaded to join the U.S. now that it was bordered by Alaska to the northwest. (They even sent spies to the Red River to assess local sentiment towards America.) Taking the next step in Seward’s logic, if the U.S. could acquire Greenland and Iceland, perhaps all of Canada would acquiesce.
How close was this to happening?
“I don’t think there was a ghost of a chance,” says Shelagh Grant, historian and author of the comprehensive history of Arctic and North American sovereignty, Polar Imperative. There were many reasons why. First, Seward had already expended his political capital with the Alaska Purchase, which some dubbed Seward’s Folly. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Americans had the huge task of rebuilding their country and money spent on a faraway tract of Arctic land appeared frivolous in contrast.
Further, Grant believes Seward also underestimated the devotion—even
anti-Americanism—from the population north of the border. “The Americans did not truly recognize the strength of British loyalty in British North America,” she says. Seward’s plan to induce the annexation of British Columbia and Rupert’s Land to the U.S. proved a tactical miscalculation, she argues in Polar Imperative—it actually provided Canada with added motivation to bring the two territories into the fold.
But the scenario presents an interesting ‘what if’ question.
Had Seward succeeded, Grant believes much of the west and north would have been nothing more than a treasure chest of water, wood and other mineral resources to be sent to the most productive areas of the United States.
“Somebody will say we’re doing that anyways,” Grant says with a laugh.