George Pomutz – the Romanian who bought Alaska for the Americans

On the 9th of July 1997, the American President Bill Clinton visited Romania and mentioned in his speech the name of George Pomuț (Pomutz) – an American general of Romanian origin, as being one of the people who contributed to the making of today`s America. Many Romanians had wondered who is this Pomuț that the American President spoke so highly of, with pride admiration. Our history school books do not mention of him, nor do the most documented history papers. Many people thought Bill Clinton maybe made a mistake in his speech, but things are completely different.

In 2007, when a statue of the American general of Romanian origin was unveiled in Gyula, Hungary, very few people knew about his remarkable and mysterious destiny. And, after his biography became known, both Romanians and Hungarians have been long debating on his true ethnicity.

His destiny is fabulous because this Romanian ethnic, born in the Hungarian side of the Habsburg Empire, had succeeded during his lifetime to gain the admiration of the American people, who has adopted him as citizen in the year 1855. He was involved in two events that have marked USA’s history: the American Civil War and the purchase of the Alaska province from the Russian Empire. As homage, one of the battle ships belonging to the most powerful fleet in the world was named after him.

The story of George Pomutz began in the Romanian family of a blacksmith living in Gyula, located in the Békés province. He was brn on May 31, 1818. His father was working on the estate of nobleman Wenckheim, but the Pomuț family had only moved there relatively recently. His grandfather was coming from the Săcele village that belonged back then to the province of Brașov, and left towards the West looking for a better life.

The child was baptized by Gyula`s Orthodox priest and got the name Georgie Pomutz. His parents did all they could to ensure his access to school, therefore young Pomutz studied at the Military Academy of Wien and at the Academy of Saint Etienne (France). After graduating his university studies, he became a royal prosecutor, and a year later he opened a law office.

The 1848 Revolution found him on the barricades. He enrolled as a volunteer in the Honved army of Hungary and, thanks to his military background, he received the sub-lieutenant rank. Later on, he was promoted to Captain and for a period of time he worked also as a secretary of the relatively recently Fort`s Governor, Ujhazy, a revolutionary combatant in the movement lead by Lajos Kossuth. The defeat of the Magyar Revolution determined him to flee the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

From immigrant to general in the US Army

At the end of 1849, to escape the sentence given by the Austrian Government, he first sought refuge in Italy and then in Germany. At a later time, together with a group of Magyar revolutionaries, he chose the USA as his destination. From emigrant to USA General The path which George Pomutz followed is documented: he left the port of Hamburg and reached New York on the 24th of February 1850. He did not stay here for a long time and decided to go towards the West, together with a small group of Romanian and Magyar emigrants. The group had set out in the small village of Keokuk, in the state of Iowa.

The small colony was named “New Buda” and was located south of the city of Burlington. Five years later, on the 15th of March 1855, George Pomutz was granted the Ameri-can citizenship. These quiet years allowed him to start a business. Having an entrepreneurial spirit, at the beginning of the Secession War, Pomutz could have been considered a rich man: he owned large land areas, he had a farm and he was making nice income from the concession of some mines; he had even built a road in order to have better transportation in the area.

His estate, according to a census carried out in 1860, included real estate properties worth 1,000 and 200 dollars in cash.

The American Civil War had started in 1861, and Pomutz had enrolled as a volunteer in the Union`s Army. He was accepted of course and moreover he received the lieutenant rank within Iowa`s 15th Infantry Regiment, under the command of Colonel Reid.

His military training and the experience gathered in fighting the 1848 Revolution represented great assets for Pomutz, who proved himself calm and of exemplary courage during some of the major battles of this war, such as the ones that took place at Shilloh, Corinth, Vicksburg, Atlanta, Savannah. For example, in 1862, during the Shiloh battle, he was wounded and taken prisoner. He managed to escape and, moreover, he was present on all the following first action lines. Decorated and promoted for extraordinary merits, at the end of the war George Pomutz was a member of the Former Volunteers Organization, of the Faithful Legion and of the Blue Arrow Order and he had also received the rank of Brigadier-general.

Consul in the Russian Empire and the negotiations for Alaska

During the war he got himself noticed as a good soldier but also as a courteous, polyglot (he spoke fluently eight languages) and a very intelligent man. His leaders and comrades became his supporters after the conflict had ended and promoted him in 1866 as the USA`s Consul at Sankt Petersburg, in the Russian Empire.

The successor of President Ulysses Grant, President Rutherford B. Hayes had promoted Pomutz as General Consul in the year 1874, and he occupied this position until 1878.

Of all his activity in Russia, there is an emblematic episode whose repercussions are felt even today: Alaska Peninsula was sold to the USA. In 1867, when this territory was bought, the USA was a rising power, bouncing back after the Civil War. On the other hand, the tsarist Russia played the role of a great European power, facing financial difficulties. As a curiosity of history – the same year the Austro-Hungarian Empire was born.

The USA has purchased Alaska for the modest amount of 7.2 million dollars and at that time it seemed just a frozen and distressed place, without much importance. Alaska was discovered by the Europeans in 1741, following an expedition lead by Danish Vitus Bering, who was serving Russia. At the maximum expansion of the Russian Empire in this region, there were 700 people living there at most.

During the 20th century, the land of Alaska proved to be full of oil and the Russians regretted selling it. At a later time, the strategic importance of this region grew during the Cold War. Alaska became a USA state with full rights only in 1959. Coming back to our hero, George Pomutz remained in Russia after his mandate expired.

The exact reason is unknown. His end is mysterious, but we certainly know that on the 12th of October 1882, George Pomutz died in mysterious circumstances, in poverty, and was buried in the “Smolensk” Cemetery. The rumors say that he fell in love with a beautiful duchess and she was the reason for which he had remained in Russia. Before the First World War, the American Congress ordered that the remains of George Pomutz to be brought and buried at the National Cemetery of Arlington.

These plans were abandoned afterwards due to the eruption of the First World War and of the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1944, some American citizens of Romanian origins had raised money and built an ironclad battleship which they offered to the Federal Government; the United States Government named it symbolically “General George Pomutz”.

This American ship was used until the year 1970. That is how destiny made out of a Transylvanian Romanian one of the best American militaries and diplomats of the 19th century, a man that the White House still talks about up to this day.