Originally an Alaskan Indian village, Sitka was the center of the northwest international fur trade, the site of the first recorded contact between Eurasians and Alaskan Indians, and the site of several battles between Indians and Russians; the capital of Russian America, the first capital of Alaska under U.S. rule, and the site of transfer for Alaska’s sale to the United States by Russia in 1867.
Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau
P.O. Box 1226
Sitka, AK 99835
ph.: (907) 747-5940
fax: (907) 747-3739
Web site: www.sitka.org
Sitka, a small fishing and tourist village on the Pacific side of Baranof Island in southeastern Alaska, has had a past that belies its present-day tranquillity. One of the largest in a chain of islands dotting the northwest coast of North America, Baranof Island lies directly in the path of a nutrient-rich current of warm water from the Sea of Japan. The Japanese Current keeps Sitka’s bays, straits, and channels at a near-constant temperature of fifty degrees. The warm water supports an incredibly diverse ecosystem, including wildflowers, giant cedars, plankton, crustaceans, sea otters, seals, eagles, bears, and whales.
In the early 1700’s, European demand for furs sparked interest in southeastern Alaska, and by the middle of the eighteenth century the stage was set for a profitable and sometimes violent fur trade. Protected harbors, close proximity to open sea, and an abundance of wildlife made Sitka the perfect location for a fur trade seaport. Originally a Native American village and hot springs retreat, Sitka was the site of several battles between natives and Russian traders. It became the seat of government for Russia in North America, and, under U.S. rule, the state capital.
Sitka was originally inhabited by the Tlingit (pronounced KLIN-kit), a Native American tribe whose ancestors are presumed to have crossed the Bering Sea to mainland Alaska as early as eight thousand years ago. The Tlingit are known for their dramatic carved and painted totem poles and canoes, and for their rich and complex social structure. Totem poles function as heralds of family histories and popular myths, and are carved and displayed by the Tlingit to this day.
The first documented contact between Tlingits and the Old World took place on July 20, 1741. During an expedition sponsored by the Russian government to prove that Russia and North America were not connected by land, Aleksey Chirikov, captain of the St. Paul, sailed into Sitka Sound and sent ten well-armed men ashore to seek water. When the sailors did not return, Chirikov sent five more men to search for them. They did not return, either. After the boat had set several days in port, a group of Tlingits came to the shore shouting “agai, agai,” which translates as “come here.” Chirikov did not attempt to discover the purpose of the natives’ actions and left Sitka Sound.
According to Tlingit oral history of this first meeting, Chief Annahootz of the Sitka Tlingit disguised himself in bear skins and so artfully imitated the mannerisms of a bear that Chirikov’s men, excited at the prospect of fresh game, followed Annahootz into the forest. Once in the woods, Chirikov’s men were dispatched by several Tlingit warriors.
During the late 1700’s, trade relations with the Tlingits were established by the English, Spanish, and Americans. Russia did not attempt to initiate contact with the Tlingits until the summer of 1796 when the Russian trading vessel Severnyi Orel sailed into Sitka sound.
From 1796 to 1798, a trading company backed by the Russian monarchy sent frequent, very successful hunting parties to Sitka. The general manager of the trading company, and a man who would shape the history of Sitka, was Aleksandr Andreyevich Baranov.
Baranov was impressed by Sitka’s abundance of furs and its natural attributes as a port. It was large enough to contain an entire fleet, and ice-free year-round. He resolved to establish a permanent settlement on Sitka Island. During the winter of 1799-1800, Baranov and twenty men began the construction of the fort. They spent the winter in tents and poorly built shacks, and were frequently under attack by the Tlingits.
Baranov and his men had enjoyed friendly relations with the Aleuts, a northern Alaskan group of Indians, but not so with the Tlingits. In the spring of 1800 the fort was completed, and was christened Archangel Michael. (Baranov was religious and encouraged missionary efforts in Alaska.)
The Tlingits’ attacks abated for a time, but they did not trade extensively with the Russians. The Tlingits preferred to trade with British and U.S. ships, which offered a larger selection of goods in exchange for furs supplied by the Indians.
In 1802, upon hearing a rumor of war between Britain and Russia, Baranov left Sitka to prepare a place of hiding for his store of furs. During his absence, Archangel Michael was attacked and taken by the Tlingits. British traders inspecting the scene afterward reported a smoldering ruin strewn with the mutilated bodies of Russian and Aleut trappers. According to survivors, a large group of Tlingits surrounded the barracks and began shooting into the windows and setting the buildings on fire. The occupants were killed as they fled the burning buildings.
In all, twenty Russians and one hundred thirty Aleut trappers were killed. The Tlingits stole three thousand otter pelts, burned a Russian ship, and took several prisoners. After the battle, the British captain Henry Barber intervened, harboring survivors of the attack. When a Tlingit chief boarded Barber’s ship and demanded the survivors, he was put in irons and held for ransom against all those whom the Tlingits had captured. The Tlingits protested, but after a volley of English cannon fire, they conceded and released three Russian and five Aleut men, eighteen women, and six children.
When he returned to Sitka in 1804, Baranov tried to negotiate peace with the Tlingits, but the conditions of surrender he tried to impose infuriated them and they attacked. The battle lasted for seven days. Eventually the Tlingits surrendered and abandoned the fort, resettling about one hundred fifty miles from Sitka.
Baranov devoted his energy to building a new fort on Sitka Island, and chose a hilltop in the middle of an abandoned Tlingit village as the new location. He had initially wanted to build his first fort there but had decided against doing so, for fear of offending the Tlingits.
The second fort was named New Archangel, and was considered sufficient protection against any Indian attack. The structure was three stories high with a palisade extending to the shore, and was armed with 147 cannon. Most Tlingits avoided the fort, but parties going to and from it were often attacked, and required an escort of armed guards.
In 1818 Baranov, aging and in poor health, left his post as general manager. After twenty-seven years in Alaska, Baranov had earned a net profit of nearly thirty million rubles for the company. He was suspected of embezzling company funds, and was ordered to turn over his records as well as his post to his successor, Leonty Andreyevich Hagemeister.
An investigation revealed no discrepancies in the handling of funds, but even so Hagemeister recommended that Baranov’s pension be denied. On November 27, 1818, Baranov boarded a ship for Russia. He died en route, on April 12, 1819, and was buried at sea in the Indian Ocean.
Twelve managers followed Baranov. Many of them shared his missionary zeal, and on November 20, 1848, Russian Bishop Ivan Veniaminov dedicated Sitka’s first cathedral, Cathedral St. Michael. Relations between the Russians and Tlingits grew more peaceful, and by the mid-1800’s many natives were living about the walls of the fort.
In 1867 the United States bought Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million, against strong opposition in both countries. On October 18, 1867, in the presence of President Andrew Johnson, some 250 U.S. soldiers, the Russian Prince and Princess Maksontoff, and many Russians, Indians, and U.S. citizens, Sitka became the capital of the U.S. Territory of Alaska. Sitka remained the capital of Alaska for thirty-two years. In 1900, because of Sitka’s weakening economic position, the capital of Alaska was moved to Juneau.
Today, the Castle Hill State Historic Site marks the spot where the transfer of Alaska to the United States occurred. The hillside site is dotted with interpretive plaques and Russian cannon. The Sitka National Historical Park is the site of the 1804 battle between the Tlingits and Russians. The 106-acre park contains several Tlingit totem poles. Also within the park is the Russian Bishop’s House, built in 1842-1843. It is the only original Russian building remaining in Sitka. It served as the bishop’s residence for 127 years and was in extremely poor condition when it closed, but it underwent extensive restoration beginning in 1973. Nearby is a faithful replica of Cathedral St. Michael; the original burned down in 1966, but the replica contains religious icons and other articles that were rescued from the fire. Just north of Sitka is the Old Sitka State Historic Site, at the location of the Russians’ first fort, Archangel Michael.
Gunther, Erna, ed. Indian Life on the Northwest Coast of North America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972. For information on Native Americans of Southeast Alaska, this book is a revealing collection of notes, paintings, and diaries of explorers and fur traders in the late eighteenth century. Well balanced with Gunther’s objective text, these records reveal as much about European attitudes toward Native Alaskans as about the Alaskans themselves. Rennick, Penny. Sitka. Anchorage: Alaska Geographic Society, 1995. This travel guidebook for the Sitka region includes illustrations and maps. Tikhmenev, Petr. A History of the Russian-American Company. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978. A helpful work on Sitka, originally published in Russian in 1888, that covers Russia’s involvement in North America from 1741 to 1867.