Updated: Aug 7, 2019
By Jasmine Willis
AUBURN — The Seward House is perhaps one of the most famous homes in all of Central New York.
It was built on four-acres of land as a ten-room townhouse for Judge Elijah Miller and his family in 1816. Miller intended for this home to be a life of luxury for he and his two young daughters. Frances would meet William Henry Seward while attending classes in school. The two would later marry with the condition of living in her father’s home. Seward moved into the elegant home in October 1824 as a new husband. Miller remained in ownership of the home until his death in 1851. In the time Seward lived there he built additions to the home, entertained political guests, and accomplished making his mark in history.Seward raised his four children, Augustus, Frederick, William Jr., and Fanny in the home.
Although, Frances never felt the pull towards politics she was an avid Women’s Rights supporter and hid runaway slaves in her basement.
William Henry Seward would play an important part in history by purchasing Alaska, and before that being the Secretary of State to Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson. Seward was also a New York State Governor and U.S. Senator.
On July 24 Intern Ada Wightman gave us a tour of this massive part of American History. She explained that 99 percent of the items found within the home belonged to the Seward Family.
“This was the first brick home ever built in Auburn. It was built in Federal-Style. There was some restoration done in the early 2000s, and it became an historic landmark in 1964. The only room guests would’ve seen when they walked into this home was the front parlor. They would’ve left a calling card, and if it was accepted you would get a cup of tea and talk with Seward for about 15 minutes,” Wightman said. “Elijah Miller was the one who had this home built in 1816 for his family. His father had fought in the American Revolutionary War. He was the man about town. He brought a prison and mill here as well. Both of his daughters are very-well educated and intelligent.”
Wightman tells the story of William Henry Seward and Frances Miller courting in school before the marriage ceremony.
“Elijah didn’t want to be alone in this big house, so he makes William a junior partner at the law firm. Since Frances is five years younger than William, he needs to wait a bit to marry her. Once he marries her, they raise their family in this home,” she said. “The judge would go on to live 27 years with them in the house. William had to deal with his father-in-law being the head of the house. This was fine for him since he loved to travel. He leaves the wife and kids at home with Elijah as he travels.”
The Seward House had been passed down the family line until the last remaining, William Seward III, grandson to William Seward Sr. passed away in 1951. The Seward House Museum opened to the public in 1955. Visitors are able to tour rooms filled with original furnishings, artwork and personal belongings owned by the Seward family. The Museum has welcomed thousands of visitors including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Bill Clinton. The Museum offers many educational and seasonal programs in addition to guided house tours.
Wightman took us to the famous library of the Seward Family. William H. Seward was very well read and had more than 5,000 books. His library is considered by historians to be unique and highly regarded as a one of a kind.
Perhaps the best part of the Seward Family library is what makes it the most unique. The books seen behind a glass door in the wall. This is a sad story. Fanny Seward only lived to be 22 years old. In her short life she was the apple of her father’s eye. She documented everything in several diaries that have been poured over by historians for generations. Her point-of-view of the Civil War, eye witness accounts, documented conversations between President Abraham Lincoln and her father are among the important words written.
“Fanny wants to be an author, but that is an unrealistic dream for a girl in the 1850s. She never wanted to marry or have any children. William agrees to give her journals to write in to make her happy. She writes in them every day until the day she dies,” Wightman said. “We have a first-hand account of conversations with Lincoln and her father. She travels a lot with her father, and we get an adolescent’s point-of-view on the Civil War. Fanny’s journals are the only ones of their kind. After her death William was filled with unspeakable sorrow and walled Fanny’s entire library of books behind glass. He never wanted anyone to touch her books ever again.”
Seward brought on the form of dining room diplomacy. He would entertain large numbers of political guests and throw on huge debates at the table.
Seward spends a lot of time collecting important people in his life. The evidence of this can be seen upstairs on the “Wall of Tormentors” in which Seward playfully called the many famous people he had signed portraits of on his walls. These people now hang there in the house as a reminder of the many hearts and minds he touched over his lifetime.
Of course, you can‘t go to the Seward House Museum without seeing the actual room where William Seward himself almost died in the great conspiracy.
“During the great conspiracy John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices work on a plan to kidnap the president. Loomis Powell, age 21, and the others didn’t know until four hours before the attack that they were going to kill them all instead. Seward had already been in a terrible carriage accident with several broken bones and is kept up in bed,” Wightman said. “Fanny is reading to her dad and hears someone at the door. Fred goes to answer it and is pistol whipped by Loomis. Loomis stabs the nurse many times and runs towards Seward. He jumps on him and slashes the skin off his face. Fanny was terrified and thought her father and brother were dead.”
Seward loses his wife, Frances to stress from the night she almost lost her entire family. Fanny passes away shortly after that as well. It was the darkest time in his life. Two years after that he won the deal on Alaska.
Seward missed his friend’s funeral during this time, as President Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth. Since he couldn’t be there to say goodbye a special artifact was made and given to him.
The house became haunted with memories of his wife and children. Seward decided he needed to travel again.
Seward traveled the world on a grand tour which spanned 15 months and several continents. He returned home an old but satisfied elder statesman. Surrounded by his family he passed away in October of 1872 in his office.
The Seward House Museum is located at 33 South St. in Auburn. It is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5p.m. and Sunday (July and August only) 1 to 5 p.m. It can be reached at 315-252-1283. The cost is $12 for adults and children six and under are free. For more information visit http://www.sewardhouse.org/about