I recently saw the Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln – a film that focuses on Abraham Lincoln’s effort to get the 13th Amendment passed by Congress in early 1865. As expected, the movie was well produced, directed and acted. It provided insight into the political mind and stealth of Lincoln (played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis), along with his close relationship to his Secretary of State, William Seward (portrayed by actor David Strathairn).
The real William Seward was a political dynamo in his own right. Had it not been for Lincoln, he may have very well become President of the United States. It is fascinating to consider, then, that Seward has strong ties to our corner of New York State, helping to resolve a crisis early in Chautauqua County History.
Born in Florida, New York in 1801, he was the son of a wealthy physician who became a judge. Seward began practicing law in 1823, gaining a reputation as a skilled criminal lawyer. He first became active in politics with the Anti-Mason party, then by supporting the (unsuccessful) reelection bid of President John Quincy Adams in 1828.
Seward entered elective politics by serving in the state senate from 1830 to 1834, wherein he established himself as a leader of the Whig party. He was also elected governor of New York in 1838 and reelected in 1840, returning to private legal practice at the end of his second term. He reentered elective politics in 1849 when the state legislature choose him to represent New York in the U. S. Senate, where he served two terms lasting until 1861 – when Lincoln tapped him to serve as Secretary of State.
In 1860, Seward was the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. After losing on the third ballot to Lincoln, he campaigned actively for his Republican rival. After the election, Lincoln rewarded Seward’s loyalty by appointing him Secretary of State. Seward did not disappoint while on the world’s stage – serving as Lincoln’s closest adviser during the Civil War while also easing relations between the U.S. and Great Britain and France.
Following the war and Lincoln’s assassination, Seward remained Secretary of State under Andrew Johnson. An enthusiastic expansionist, he negotiated the annexation of the Midway Islands and the purchase of Alaska, both in 1867. He retired from politics at the end of Johnson’s term in March 1869. After touring the Pacific Northwest, he returned to Auburn, New York, where he died in 1872.
It was between his time as State Senator and Governor of New York that Seward’s path crossed with Chautauqua County, N.Y. In 1836 the Land Company that sold the land in Chautauqua County wasn’t making as much of a profit on the sales as it had anticipated. As a result, the company tried to renegotiate the terms, forcing residents to pay their debts sooner than what had originally been agreed to. This led to a group of disgruntled local land owners organizing a raid on the Land Company office in Mayville in an effort to destroy the land records. The raid was unsuccessful, but the result would have significant implications for local and national history.
The Land Company made the decision to move the office to Westfield and the resident agent at the time, William Peacock, stepped down from that position. The land company was then faced with the dilemma of finding a replacement for Peacock who would also be able to help smooth relations with local residents. Enter William Seward.
Seward came to Westfield on July 25, 1836 to serve as agent for the Land Company. He spent the first two months living in the village tavern. But by late September, he had relocated to the McClurg Mansion. Of the move, he wrote:
“It would do your heart good to see me seated at my own table, in ‘my own hired house,’ with my own books and papers, and my own hired family, around me. In truth, I became very lonely and uncomfortable at the tavern.”
While in Chautauqua County, Seward was successful in easing tensions with local landowners. He remained in Westfield until 1838, when he returned to Auburn to run once again for Governor, which he won and took office in 1839.
On Oct. 7, 1939 – Chautauqua County Historical Society member and historian G. P. Crandall delivered a lecture that went into great detail about Seward’s role as land agent in Chautauqua County and the time he spent in Westfield. A complete document of the lecture is available via PDF download at the Historical Society’s Collection Page:
An interesting side-note: While in Chautauqua County, Seward made the acquaintance of Donald Mackenzie, a retired fur trapper who had spent a deal of time out west in what is presently the province of British Columbia, Canada. It is said that McKenzie’s meetings with Seward in Chautauqua County are what may have planted the seeds that led to the purchase of Alaska from Russia years later in 1867, when Seward was Secretary of State.