The Court Cases

by Brock Pate

In June 1856, Benjamin Perkins filed a suit in the Supreme Court of New York. It must also be noted that by this time Perkins had invested quite a lot of money on broken promises. His lack of funds put a severe damper on the rest of his life. Through the 1856 complaint to New York courts, Perkins received only a pitiful two hundred dollars for his investment from Lilienfeldt. By that point he had invested over three hundred thousand dollars.[18] Both the lawsuit and his wife’s future petition suggests that Perkins died an unwealthy man. Anna Perkins’ petition goes as far as saying she was destitute at the time of her husband’s death.[19]

     In exchange for taking the two hundred dollars from Lilienfeldt, Perkins agreed to stop pressing his case. He did not hold his agreement with the court. Instead, Perkins concluded that even though he accepted two hundred from Lilienfeldt, it did not exonerate Russia from guilt. He then decided to take up a case against the Russian government. In the claim, he wanted not just his investment back, but also profit and interest. The total came out to three hundred eighty-five thousand dollars.[20] Once the case opened up, ample testimonies came to light. His associate Dr. Walter Kidder corroborated everything Perkins had claimed. Perkins’s suppliers, such as the Oriental Powder Company and those from whom he bought the Sea Breeze, also corroborated Perkins’ claim. Everything seemed to be lined up for Perkins, until Russia seemingly found their way out of blame.[21]

     As stated earlier, Perkins had no written contract for the first agreement, which Russia argued absolved them from responsibility. However, the Secretary of State at the time William Seward wrote to Cassius Clay[22], the Minister of the United States to Russia, that “It was not necessary for such a contract to be in writing, in order to make it valid and binding on the parties in this country.”[23] As the case was bound to United States law, Seward argued, it did not technically matter what the Russians considered legitimate. This did not mean much though, as for reasons already discussed and the belief that Stoeckl would not have conducted business in such fashion, the case was dropped for the time being. [24]

     Benjamin Perkins’ attorney William Evarts seemed for all intents and purposes, to have fought the case to the best of his ability. The argument by Evarts in the following trial of 1861 later proved that de Stoeckl knew he was wasting Perkins’ time and money, and failed to ever tell him so.[25] Perkins passed away in 1862, however, at the age of 37. He left behind his wife Anna and their kids. Benjamin Perkins died without any reparations for his poor business decisions.

     The second half of the story takes place during the Alaskan Purchase. The American Civil War broke out in 1861 and shortly after the war President Andrew Johnson underwent an Impeachment trial by congress. Because no resolution could be made in court past the two hundred dollars Benjamin Perkins had accepted, both Benjamin and Anna knew they must take their claim to congress, where it would be slowed by the previously mentioned factors. Anna Perkins tried her best but failed to get the money rightfully due to her husband. The closest she came was during the Alaskan Purchase when many congressmen supported a bid to hold out five hundred thousand dollars from the 7,200,000 asking price of Alaska. This did not happen, and Anna Perkins would not receive any money for her family’s financial troubles.

     Many questions remain. For example, what exactly the Perkins family do with one hundred fifty-four tons of black powder or the rifles they procured? With the Civil War looming, one can speculate that they recouped their losses by simply selling the munitions to either the Confederacy or the Union government, and paid the debts of those who manufactured the munitions. Unfortunately, not much is known about his dealings outside what the lawsuits have to offer.


[1] David Hunter Miller, The Alaska Treaty (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1985), 168.

[2] William Maxwell Evarts, In the Matter of Benjamin W. Perkins Against the Russian Government (Washington, DC, 1860), 2.

[3] Baron Eduard de Stoeckl (1804-1892), Russian Minister to the United States who negotiated the sale of Alaska.

[4] Ibid, 2-3.

[5] Ibid, 38-39.

[6] Ibid, 2.

[7] Ibid, 39.

[8] Gilbert Grafton Newhall (1801-1863), gunpowder merchant based in Salem, Massachusetts.

[9] David Hunter Miller, The Alaska Treaty, 167- 169.

[10] Benjamin W. Perkins, Claim of Captain Benjamin W. Perkins Against the Government of Russia, in the Matter of Two Contracts Entered into the Years 1855 and 1856 (G.S. Gideon, printer, 1858), 6-7.

[11] Ibid, 7.

[12] Ibid, 8-9.

[13] Norman E. Saul, Distant Friends: The United States and Russia: 1763-1867 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1991), 254-255.

[14] David Hunter Miller, The Alaska Treaty, 169.

[15] [15] Benjamin W. Perkins, Claim of Captain Benjamin W. Perkins Against the Government of Russia, 15.

[16] Lee Farrow, “A Reexamination of the Perkins Claim,” in New Perspectives on Russian-American Relations, vol. 1 (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), pp. 74-87.

[17] Benjamin W. Perkins, Claim of Captain Benjamin W. Perkins Against the Government of Russia, 16

[18] Saul, Distant Friends, 255-256

[19] Anna B. Perkins, The Claim of Anna B. Perkins Against the Russian Governmnet (Intelligencer Printing House, 1867).

[20] Benjamin W. Perkins, Claim of Captain Benjamin W. Perkins Against the Government of Russia, 22

[21] Lee Farrow, “A Reexamination of the Perkins Claim”

[22] ED: Cassius Clay (1810-1903), former slave-owner from Kentucky turned abolitionist, Clay served as ambassador to Russia during the 1860s.

[23] William H. Seward (Washington, DC, n.d.).

[24] Lee Farrow, “A Reexamination of the Perkins Claim”

[25] Ibid

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