Sitka National Monument was established in 1910 in order to protect the site of the decisive battle of the Russian conquest which occurred in 1804, the site of the Tlingit village there, and the graves of a Russian midshipman and six sailors. An Indian River preserve, established in 1890 by Presidential Proclamation, was part of the monument. This preserve contained a number of totem poles, collected by early Territorial Governor Brady from south of Sitka and which remain an important focus of the park. In 1952, President Truman, by proclamation, adjusted the boundaries of the monument. President Nixon signed PL 92-501 in 1972 which added the Russian Bishop's House to the park, changed the status to that of Historical Park and stated that its purpose was "in order to preserve in public ownership for the benefit of the present and future generations of Americans an area which illustrates a part of the early history of the United states by commemorating Czarist Russia's exploration and colonization of Alaska ..."
The park is located in the southeast panhandle of Alaska on the west side of Baranof Island. The park is within the boundary of the city of Sitka on the shore of Sitka Sound, exposed to the waters of the Sound and the Gulf of Alaska. The Indian river flows from the mountains north of town through the park into Jamestown Bay. A small peninsula has formed between the river and the sound on which most of the park, and the Fort site, is located. The park is a natural enclave frequently visited by local townspeople of this fishing, lumber processing, and tourist port of Sitka.
The town has a population of 8000, which makes it the largest community on the 1607 square mile Baranof Island and the fifth largest community in Alaska. Sitka is located 95 air miles southwest of Juneau, 590 air miles southeast of Anchorage, and almost 900 air miles north of Seattle. It is a regular stop on the Alaska Marine Highway and receives daily commercial jet service from both the north and south. Sitka has been and continues to thrive as a tourist destination, mostly through the cruise ship industry. Sitka NHP currently has an annual visitation approaching 150,000 visits.
Sitka NHP encompasses approximately 107 acres, of which 57 acres are of fee simple federal ownership and 49.5 acres are of tidelands which are on 55 year lease from the city of Sitka and the state of the Alaska. None of these acres have been placed in designated Wilderness status.
The park lies at the mouth of the Indian River, which drains the previously glaciated valley at the foot of Mt. Verstovia, Arrowhead Peak, the Sisters, and Gavan Hill. Deglaciation occurred sometime before 10,000 years ago. Sitka experiences a marine climate, characterized by relatively heavy precipitation (96.6 inches average annually) and a small temperature range between seasons. Natural wildlife found in the Sitka area include brown bear, deer, mink, otter, bald eagles, migratory waterfowl and numerous other species. Sea mammals, such as harbor seals, sea lions, sea otters, porpoises, and several species of whale live in near shore waters. Anadromous fish species associated with the park area include pink, chum, and coho salmon. Dolly varden char are present, while king salmon and steelhead trout have been introduced. An intense herring spawn occurs in the spring in the Sitka Sound area and was an important subsistence resource. Resources from the intertidal zone were also undoubtedly an important food source.
Vegetation in the park is typical of forest communities in southeast Alaska. Western hemlock and Sitka spruce make up the overstory with alder, dense ferns and bushes making up the understory. The soft alluvium soil is covered with a thick mat of moss and lichens. The forest in the park is somewhat unique in the Sitka locale in that it has been virtually protected from logging since the park was established in 1910. This is of interest because the historic landscape of 1804 and the rest of the nineteenth century period was undoubtedly quite different from the present forested park.
There are no known prehistoric sites in the park. In the general area, the Hidden Falls site, which is located on the opposite side of Baranof Island from Sitka, reveals that there is a long time depth for human occupation of the area. Component I at Hidden Falls reveals a early Holocene prehistoric lithic component characterized by microblades, microcores and unifacial tools and dating to circa 9500 years ago. This component is similar to that of the Ground Hog Bay site which is just outside Glacier Bay National Park. The other two prehistoric components at Hidden Falls, dating from 4600-3200 BP and 3000-1300 years ago, are ground stone/slate assemblages. They show ties to sites on the southern British Columbia coast (St. Mungo, Locarno Beach, and Marpole phases), and Ocean Bay II and Takli Birch phases on Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula to the north.
The park contains a variety of significant cultural resource elements in two separate units. These units are termed the Fort Site unit and the Russian Bishop's House unit. The Fort Site also possesses significant natural resources. The key cultural resource elements contained in this unit are the fort site and battleground of the Battle of Sitka, the park's totem pole collection, the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, and the Visitor Center exhibits and the park's museum collection.
The fort site is the location where the Kiksadi Tlingit Indians built their log-stockaded fort called "Sish-kee-nu", from which they resisted the Russian attack in October 1804. Sitka had long been the location of a permanent Tlingit village. Today, all that remains aboveground of the fort is its location, a cleared, grassy meadow approximately 150 by 210 feet. Archeological investigations conducted in 1958 appear to have located the subsurface remains of some of the fort's walls. The fort location has been disturbed in the past by US Navy activity in World War II and NPS maintenance activity after that. Adjacent to the fort site is what is believed to be the actual battleground of 1804. The battle's only face-to-face encounter between the Tlingit and the fur-hunters and Aleuts of the Russian-American Company occurred along the park's gravelly beach. The skirmish resulted in the rout of the Russian force, and a withdrawal to their ships, which were anchored offshore. The subsequent Russian siege of the fort forced the withdrawal of the Tlingit from the fort and from the Sitka area. The significance of these locations lies in the crucial impact the battle had on the course of Alaskan history. After the withdrawal from the area by the Tlingit, the Russians went on to build New Archangel (Sitka) as their capitol, and their expansion in Russian America was virtually unchecked.
The Russian Bishop's House unit comprises 1.15 acres of fee simple, easement and private land. It includes the House itself, the historic Old School (circ 1897), and the Priest's Residence/Building 105 (circa 1887), and the surrounding yard and garden area. The Russian Bishop's House was added to the park in 1972. The House was built in 1842 by the Russian-American company to house the Russian Orthodox Bishop of Alaska, Kamchatka and the Kurile Islands. It is the only period structure in the NPS relating to Russia-America, and it is the most intact Russian-era building remaining in North America. The National Park Service has spent 15 years in restoration of the structure. The compliance archeology done as part of that restoration proved significant and at least one dissertation resulted. The potential for historical archeological resources remains fairly high.
With the exception of the Russian Bishop's House unit, the other significant cultural resources within the park are poorly documented or understood. The archeological excavation conducted at the fort site has been poorly documented and never fully analyzed. Past ground disturbances within the fort site area, including removal of tree stumps, digging pits to treat totem poles, and the placement of historic fill at the site will make future examinations of the locale difficult. The battleground is believed to be adjacent to the fort site, but the exact location is unknown. Past gravel extractions from the beach area within the park may have affected the battleground integrity. No systematic archeological surveys have been conducted within the park. Local and oral histories indicate that the park area was used extensively in the past by native peoples. Although historic records provide evidence for earlier Russian or European structures within the park, they have never been located.Additionally, as the earliest National park Service unit in Alaska, little is known regarding the location and types of earlier park structures such as bridges or trails. The earliest use of the area as a park, by the Russians is little understood.
Local ethnographic information is quickly disappearing as local Native elders pass away. Many Tlingit in the local community remember experiences or use areas within the park, or have been told stories and legends from their elders that involve the park. The chronology and traditional use of the park by Native Americans is little known or understood.
When the Russians came to the Sitka area in 1799, they found a favorable anchorage and abundant resources. These resources were also important to the local inhabitants, the Sitka Tlingit, who had long before established a permanent village here. The Sitka Tlingit are members of a culture group that stretches along the coast of southeast Alaska from north of the Queen Charlotte islands on the south to east of Prince William Sound on the north. A few inland groups in the Yukon Territory were aboriginally connected by means of trails over the Chilkat, Chilkoot, and White passes. Besides a common language, the Tlingit shared a distinctive economic and social structure typical of Northwest Coast peoples.
Although archeological work in the park dates back many years, no systematic archeological survey of the park has ever been done. Even the primary resources, such as the 1804 Fort Site and battleground, are not necessarily well understood. This is supported by current research, which suggests that the locations of these areas may be speculative. In addition, Tlingit and early Russian use of the area is not well understood. Thus an Archeological Overview and assessment, as well as other archeological and historical studies need to be prepared in order to evaluate past efforts and to assist in future management plans. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska, the U.S. Forest Service, and other local groups, organizations and institutions have all interacted with the park in the past and can be expected do so in the future.
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