Sitka’s History

Sitka has a long and complex history that spans further than 150 years. The Tlingit have called Sitka and the surrounding area home for more than 10,000 years, believing that they were created in this land, always remaining. The name Sitka is derived from Sheet’ká, a contraction of the Tlingit Shee At’iká, meaning “People on the Outside of Baranof Island”, whose traditional Tlingit name is Sheet’-ká X’áat’l.

Beginning in 1743, small groups of fur traders set sail from the Russian Pacific Coast for Alaska, in order to establish hunting and trading posts. By the 1790s, many of these posts became permanent. As competition increased, Промышленник (Russian fur traders) began to enslave Aleut hunters – overhunting led to decreased animal populations – smaller companies merged with larger ones, and eventually the situation became catastrophic.

Alexandr Andreyevich Baranov arrived in Kodiak on the auspices of the Russian American Company as governor to manage Grigory Shelekhov’s Alaska fur enterprises. Baranov became concerned by non-Russian Europeans trading with Native peoples, so in 1799, he and crew established форт Архангела Михаила, or Fort Saint Archangel Michael. In June 1802, Tlingit warriors attacked and destroyed the fort.

Baranov returned in 1804, with a large force including the Russian frigate NEVA. The gathered in Shís’gi Noow – the Kiks.ádi, a powerful Sitka Clan house, were certain that allies from Angoon and Kake would arrive to assist them in defeating the Russians just as they did in 1802, but help never came. After a two day battle, the Tlingit abandoned their fort and over the course of a few days Tlingit leaders met with the Russians to buy themselves time. The clans began what is now known as the Survival March, and so by the time the Russians came to shore the Tlingits re-established their settlements on the east side of Chichagof Island. The Russians laid claim to Noow Tlein, fortified it and renamed it Ново-Архангельск (New Archangel). In 1808, New Archangel was established as the capital of Russian America.

Bishop Innocent (St. Innocent of Alaska) began construction of St. Michael’s Cathedral in 1840 (dedicated in 1848). The Russian Bishop’s House was also used as a schoolhouse. The Russian American Company also employed Finns and Swedes, as they those countries were autonomous parts of Russia. Nordic peoples were excellent sailors and craftsmen. This craftsmanship left a distinct mark on Sitka. Two chief managers of the Russian-American Company were Finnish: Arvid Adolf Etholén and Johan Hampus Furuhjelm. Sitka is the location of the first Protestant church on the Pacific Coast, a Lutheran Church was established in 1843 to serve the Scandinavian employees of the Russian American Company.

After Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, the Tsar decided to sell Alaska before losing it to Britain. Secretary of State William Seward set his sights on acquiring Alaska for the United States, as he saw it as an integral part of Manifest Destiny and securing America’s control of the Pacific Ocean. Reactions to the impending purchase were mixed, as it was deemed ‘Seward’s Folly’. The Treaty of Cession was signed on March 30, 1867 after an all-night session, Alaska would be purchased for $7.2 million ($123 million today). New Archangel was the location for the official transfer ceremony. On October 18, 1867, Russian and American soldiers and dignitaries stood in front of Baranov’s Castle. The Russian Imperial flag was lowered, however, it became tangled on the spar. After several tugs, someone was sent up the pole to retrieve the flag. It was cut loose, only to became ensnared on Russian bayonets below. The American flag was raised amid the sounds of cannon fire and Alaska officially became a possession of the United States.

Sitka served as the territory’s capital until 1906, when it was relocated to Juneau.

Below is just a number of the Sitka History Minutes produced by Hal Spackman, Executive Director of the Sitka Historical Society and KCAW. All episodes can be found at Sitkahistory.com and at KCAW

Alaskans and their Dogs

Dorothy Brownie Thompson

Fred Bahovec

Ice of Swan Lake

Sitka’s Pulp Mill

Sitka and the Potato

Pyramid Packing Co.

Russian Food

The Russian Seamstress

Captain Mike Healy

National Cemetery

Governor John Brady

Jail and Baseball

Drugstore Brewey

China Mary

The First Dentist

Christmas

Sitka’s Bands

Redoubt

The First Bike

April Fools Day

Goddard Hot Springs

Alaska for Sale 1 of 2

Alaska for Sale 2 of 2

Sitka’s Only Hanging

Sawmill Creek

Princess Maksutova

Finns

Cannery 1

Cannery 2

Cannery 3

Cannery 4

First Mining Engineer

Sitka’s First Movie

Lady Franklin

Sitka Health Summit

Lady in Blue

Walter Sobeleff

Sergei Kostrometinoff ‘Colonel George’