In 1985 Sitka National Historical Park celebrated 75 years as a national monument and national park, an anniversary predating that of the National Park Service itself. Yet its history as a public park goes back even further to its designation by President Benjamin Harrison in 1890. The government's foresight in preserving the historic site is manifest to anyone visiting this gem of green at the mouth of Indian River where a battle was fought and a land lost.
The Tlingit Indians have always called this land home. In a pitched battle in 1804 they withdrew from the Sitka area, leaving it to the Russian fur-traders, who founded their New Archangel on the nearby point, now downtown Sitka. Later, the Tlingit returned to Sitka after agreements tacit and verbal, living somewhat in harmony with the intruders, with occasional outbursts. Americans took over from the Russians in 1867, by which time Indian River had become a destination point for walks and reflection. By the 1880s, park-like developments had been introduced at Indian River park and, after the turn-of-the-century, totem poles were introduced as attractions to visitors.
As this report explains, these resources continue to be management issues: maintenance of a trail, of totem poles, and a memorial site for the Battle of Sitka. The interaction of the community with the park and the Native groups is well detailed in the report; including the 1930s-1950s debate on appropriate site management." An Indian cultural center was established in the park in 1966 to add a new dimension and to show the dynamic, living culture of the Natives of Southeast Alaska.
Shifts in management of the park at Sitka have corresponded with the changing views of historic preservation and park management philosophy. In 1910, the park was a memorial site, but management allowed "development" in the form of hasty reconstructions and displays unacceptable by today's standards. A change in philosophy and a more direct involvement of the National Park Service (which didn't have a ranger on site until 1940) forced the agency to ask questions about the management and even retention of Sitka as a park unit. Archeological evidence relocating the historic fort site and the efforts to involve Natives with the interpretation of their art and culture highlighted the new effort to legitimize the park resources. This thrust as well as international events brought about an expansion of the park and the restoration of the Russian Bishop's House.
In 1972, Sitka National Monument was expanded and redesignated Sitka National Historical Park, which included the Russian Bishop's House. The Russian Bishop's House, the best remaining example of Russian American architecture in the United States and a symbol of the Russian culture's interaction with Native groups, has been restored to its ca. 1854 appearance. The project has been a long, difficult one and is discussed at length in the report.
This office believed that a history of the discussion of these issues and the changing philosophy of 75 years of management would help park managers understand past decisions and help anticipate future concerns. Direct stimulus for this report was the need for information about the establishment of the national monument, which would aid in the adjudication of water rights issues at Indian River. Thus, the Alaska Region contracted with historians William S. Hanable and Joan M. Antonson in 1986 to prepare such a history. They have done an exceptional job. Their history will help other park or historic site managers to see how far preservation in Alaska has come.
Robert L. Spude
Last Updated: 04-Nov-2000