Sitka National Historical Park has the distinction of being the first federal park in Alaska, designated by President Benjamin Harrison on June 21, 1890. It is also Alaska's smallest national park unit. With boundary adjustments over the years the main park unit, the Fort Site, covers just over 100 acres of forest, river margin and shore and about half of that is tidelands. This area surrounds the mouth of the Indian River, a clear running stream known to the Tlingit people as Kasdaaheen. A second park unit, the restored 1840s Russian Bishop's House (a National Historic Landmark) occupies a small urban parcel located approximately one mile north of the visitor center.
The park's historical significance revolves around two main themes. One is the history of southeast Alaska Native art and culture, evident in the totem poles and artifacts exhibited at the park and the work of the contemporary Native artists in the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center. The other revolves around the complex interactions that occurred as Russian colonialists expanded into the traditional territory of the Tlingit people in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This includes the park as the site of the Battle of 1804, the last major armed resistance of Alaska's Native people to Russian colonization.
The focus of this study lies outside these major themes, as late nineteenth and early twentieth century values began to shape this complicated historical landscape into the park we know today.
The park followed a somewhat unusual path to its designation as a national park unit. By the late 1800s, the mouth of the Indian River already had a long history as a cherished but informally maintained community park. The importance of the park to the community was not overlooked by a panel of three local commissioners appointed to identify lands that should be set aside for public use before public land laws were extended to Alaska.  In 1890, along with more utilitarian lands reserved for military, transportation, school and government use, the commissioners recommended that Sitka's favorite recreation spot, the lower Indian River, be set aside as a federal public park, the only such reservation in Alaska.
President Benjamin Harrison approved the recommendation by proclamation later that year. In spite of this designation, responsibility for protection. maintenance and improvements continued to fall to community members and organizations. Up until the 1930s, the Alaska Road Commission was the most visible organization spending funds on maintaining the bridges, roads and trails in the park. 
Shortly after 1900, a group of influential Sitkans concerned about vandalism and the overall lack of care for the park started a movement to have it declared a national monument. The campaign, led by Sitka's chapter of the Arctic Brotherhood (an Alaskan social organization for non-Native men) was successful and the designation was approved on March 23, 1910. Along with its new status, the monument acquired a formal statement recognizing the park's historical past. The proclamation cited the need to commemorate and preserve the site of the Russian-Tlingit Battle of 1804 along with a newly installed collection of historic totem poles. With the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, the monument was brought under the new agency's care but no significant appropriation was made until 1921. 
The 1930s brought an increase in planning efforts, but the park was still managed from a distance and functioned more like a community park than a unit of the National Park Service.
Through the 1960s administration of the monument was either combined with Glacier Bay National Monument or was under the purview of the Superintendent of Mt. McKinley National Park.
The 1940s began with the arrival of Ben Miller, the park's first full time resident custodian. The park, like the rest of Sitka, felt the effects of the World War II buildup. Evacuation of non-military personnel and disruptions to civilian travel greatly limited visitation. The park was transferred into military hands during 1942 and briefly occupied for defense purposes. It was formally returned to the Department of the Interior in 1947. More significantly, a series of massive military construction projects, including the first naval air station built in Alaska, triggered the removal of massive amounts of gravel from the park's river, shoreline and estuary. Environmental impacts from the gravel removal proved to be a major resource issue for decades to come.
In 1965 a new visitor center, the park's first real visitor facility, was completed. It provided room for exhibits and demonstrations of Alaska Native arts and crafts. In 1969, in an agreement that was groundbreaking at the time, the Alaska Native Brotherhood assumed control of the demonstration program and established its focus on Southeast Alaska Native cultural arts. Known today as the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, this successful program celebrated its 30th anniversary in January 2000. Another aspect of the park facility that was clearly ahead of its time was its display of remarkable Tlingit artifacts. Many of the objects in the collection were loaned or donated by local clans under agreements designed to insure ongoing traditional use.
In 1972, the monument's name was changed to Sitka National Historical Park and its boundaries expanded to include the Russian Bishop's House, a National Historic Landmark in serious disrepair. Acquisition of the house brought more emphasis to the Russian-American focus of the park and involved the park in a lengthy restoration project.
Efforts to strengthen consultation and cooperation between the National Park Service and Sitka's federally recognized tribal government resulted in the development of a Memorandum of Agreement between the National Park Service and Sitka Tribe of Alaska. Signed in 1997, the agreement is designed to establish a framework for cooperative relationships and communication regarding park planning and operations. 
Over the years there have been five individuals in the custodian/acting custodian role and fifteen who served as either superintendent or acting superintendent. Although the majority of these were National Park Service managers brought into the community from other posts, the first three custodians, actually part-time caretakers, were local residents. E.W. Merrill, Sitka's best known artist/photographer, was the first official custodian (1919-1922). Although sources indicate that Merrill had difficulty with the bureaucracy, these difficulties did not interfere with his devotion to the park. Merrill was followed by carpenter Peter Trierschield (1922-1937), and Trierschield's son John assumed the duty after his father (1937-1940). The first full-time, on site non-local manager was Ben C. Miller who arrived in 1940, bringing more official National Park Service involvement in the day to day management of the park. Another local Sitkan to supervise the park was Ellen Lang (Ellen Hope Hays; 1974-1978) who also holds the distinction of being the first Native woman Superintendent in the National Park Service. 
The park has been known officially by several different names, including Sitka Park, Government Park, Indian River Park, Sitka National Monument, and Sitka National Historical Park. Depending on the context, it is just as often referred to by its unofficial names, Lovers Lane or Totem Park, indicating that it is much easier to change a name than community custom.
For clarity and consistency within this publication, it will simply be referred to as "the park."
Last Updated: 20-Feb-2012