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Who was William Henry Seward — part one

May 1, 2013
By Marybelle Beigh - Westfield Historian ( , Westfield Republican / Mayville Sentinel News

"Outside the Lafayette Square home of Secretary of State William Henry Seward, in the shadows of an early spring evening in Washington, two assassins watched and waited... Powell was upon Seward in an instant, pressing him down into the bed with one arm, raising the knife with the other, and stabbing down with all his force... Powell's first blow missed. But he stabbed again and again, cutting Seward's face and neck with long bloody slashes... pushed Seward off the bed... Fanny [Seward's daughter] rushed back to her father's bed... at the side of the bed she saw what she first thought was 'a pile of bedclothes.' Then she realized that this bloody mess was her father, and she ran to his side screaming, 'Oh my God! Father's dead!'"

Quotes are from the introduction to a new historic biography, "Seward - Lincoln's Indispensable Man" by Walter Stahr, 2012.

In Westfield, N.Y., William Seward is often mentioned as one of our most famous residents, as indeed he was both - a Westfield resident for a short time and quite famous in many ways - as Governor for New York State, as Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State and as negotiating the purchase of Alaska, variously nicknamed "Seward's Folly" or "Seward's Ice Box."

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William Henry Seward

"Seward survived Powell's knife, and the death of his friend and leader Lincoln, and the death soon thereafter of his own wife... Seward not only lived; he continued to serve as Secretary of State for another four years..."

William Henry Seward was born May 16, 1801, the third child in his family, having two older brothers, Benjamin Jennings and Edwin Polydore, the boys being called by their middle names, Jennings, Polydore and Henry. W. H. Seward graduated from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1820, becoming involved in politics, practiced law in Goshen in 1821-22, and then moved to Auburn, N.Y., in 1823 where he married Frances Miller, the daughter of a judge, in 1824 in an Episcopal Church.

For the next several years, Seward was active in local, state and national politics, attending the first national political convention in American history in Philadelphia in 1830. While there, he was nominated for New York State Senate, which he won, and left Auburn for Albany, not yet age 30. In 1834, Seward lost a bid for governor of New York State, and so also lost his state senate position.

Fact Box

The office of the Westfield Historian is located at 117 Union St., in the small green building on the north side of driveway. Office hours are by appointment; call or email a request. The Westfield Historian phone number is 326-2457 and email address is

Seward was also quite a traveler, going to Europe in 1833 with his father, which was to change Seward's perspective on politics in the U.S. Again, after losing the 1834 election, Seward and his family did some more traveling to Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, D.C., after which he returned to his law practice, politics and real estate ventures.

In early 1836, Seward was offered a larger real estate venture in Chautauqua County where Seward's friends, Trumbull Cary and George Lay, had acquired the remaining lands of the former Holland Land Company in 1835. When they had proposed new terms to the tenants of the land holdings, the tenants had revolted, destroying the land office in Mayville and threatening the life of the land agent, Judge William Peacock. Cary and Lay needed not only more investors, but a new land agent to negotiate and collect rents. Seward accepted the challenge and spent the summer and fall commuting back and forth between his home in Auburn and the land office in Westfield.

A July 27, 1836, notice in all the county newspapers reads, "Chautauque Land Office - The subscriber has established his office at Gale's hotel usually called the Westfield House in the village of Westfield (signed) W.H. Seward." Asa Farnsworth was the Westfield House hotel operator and had also built a modest farmhouse at 82 N. Portage.

In September 1836, Seward rented and relocated to his new residence, the McClurg Mansion, where he had an office for his agent business. He lived at the McClurg for the rest of his time in Westfield. As the land office business grew, "a commodious building for a land office was erected [c. 1837] on [85] North Portage Street and was occupied for the purpose until the business of the company was brought to a close." Quote is from Andrew Young's "History of Chautauqua County."

In his personal life, in January 1837, Frances and Henry Seward's infant daughter, Cornelia, was ill in Auburn with smallpox and died soon after Seward rushed home from Westfield. Seward had attended the Episcopal Church in Auburn for many years, being a member of the vestry there, but had never been baptized or confirmed. Grieving for his late daughter and pondering such things led him to seek out St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Westfield, and on Easter Sunday of 1837 he was baptized and confirmed. In addition to his pew rental there, he made a substantial donation toward the purchase of St. Peter's first organ.

To be continued next week - Seward's Westfield Legacy



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