Alaska: Sitka National Historical Park

sitka sunset
Sitka National Historical Park at sunset

Courtesy of The National Park Service

Known for its great natural beauty and moderate climate, Sitka or Shee Atika—as the aboriginal people called the territory—is one of the most beautiful seaside towns in Southeast Alaska and the home of the State’s oldest federally designated park. Established as a National Monument in 1910, Sitka National Historical Park commemorates the Russian settlement in Alaska and interprets the last battle between Native Alaskans and Europeans where the Russians defeated the Tlingit Indians. The park also protects Native totems and offers visitors the opportunity to watch Native artists as they work.

The Russians came to Alaska primarily to exploit the fur-bearing animals along the coast. Missionaries from the Russian Orthodox Church also built nearly 90 churches throughout Alaska to convert the Native Alaskans to Christianity. By the early 1800s, they had converted nearly 20,000 natives to the Christian faith. The Russians allowed the people to maintain their native cultures and helped them develop alphabets for written literature, including an Aleut dictionary for hundreds of languages and dialects, based on the Russian alphabet. Today, the park stands as a reminder of the conflict between Europeans and Native Alaskans and tells the greater story of a blending of cultures that shaped and continues to influence Alaska’s history and heritage.

Among the earliest inhabitants to thrive from Sitka’s wealth of resources were the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska. The Tlingit survived on what they harvested from Sitka’s waters and forests and prospered in the snow and ice free weather the warm waters of the Japanese current helped maintain throughout the year. Because of Sitka’s prime location near the Pacific Ocean, the Tlingit were primarily a maritime people whose diet consisted mostly of salmon, shellfish, halibut, sea mammals, and other fish from the rivers and the open sea. Sitka also provided raw materials they used to create 60 foot long canoes, multi-family dwellings, bowls, and boxes to store food for the winter.

A sociable group with a rich cultural life, the Tlingit clan of Sitka gathered with their kinfolk from neighboring communities to observe weddings, births, and other special occasions, which they celebrated by dancing, eating, and exchanging gifts. Before setting out on fishing and trading expeditions, they performed ritual dances to bring good fortune in their search for food and other valuable resources. Outside of dancing, the most important ceremony was the potlatch, which the Tlingit observed in the winter and that lasted for several days. Customarily, a member of the tribe would host the ritual in his home and would give away his possessions to his guests to elevate his social rank within the Tlingit community. At the potlatch, invited guests brought food for the host, a custom that evolved into the present day potluck, a well-known tradition in American culture.

The gregarious Tlingit traded goods and gathered with surrounding native communities, but when Russian traders reached Sitka in 1799, they were reluctant to extend their hospitality to them. From the beginning, the Russians and the Tlingit uneasily coexisted in Alaska, and over time, the Tlingit in Sitka grew more aggravated with the immigrants, which they named Anooshi. Although they would have benefited from trading goods with the Anooshi, the Tlingit of Shee Atika, otherwise known as the Kiks.ádi clan, were suspicious of the newcomers’ true intentions and feared their people would have to provide free labor to the Russian Trading Company and pledge their allegiance to the tsar. These fears and the hostility intensified as the Russians expanded their territorial claims in Alaska. When Czar Paul I gave the title of colonial governor to Alexander Baranov—the Russian Trading Company’s manager—the Tlingits’ suspicions of the Anooshi immediately turned into violence.

In 1802, the Tlingit attacked the Russian outpost, Redoubt Saint Michael, and killed most of its inhabitants, including the Aleut Indians who had become Anooshi allies. By 1804, the hostility between the Russians and the Tlingit climaxed when Baranov and a party of Russians and Aleut Indians traveled to Shee Atika with the warship Neva to force the Tlingit to surrender. Refusing to give up their land, the Tlingit of Sitka moved to the fortification they built on the mouth of the Indian River and prepared for battle. The Neva warship began firing at the fortress, and as the Tlingit continued to resist, Baranov and his men marched ashore and stormed the fort. The Kiks.ádi chief, K’alyaan, led the Tlingit warriors in the defense against the Russian attack and managed to wound Baranov. After a week of recovery, and seeing no activity at the mouth of the Indian River, Baranov headed ashore again to find that the Tlingit had run out of gunpowder and abandoned Sitka. The Battle of Sitka was over.

When the battle ended, Baranov established the headquarters of the Russian-American Trading Company in Sitka and renamed the territory New Archangel. By 1808, New Archangel developed into one of the busiest ports. Sitka grew as the Russian-American Company continued to lead in the fur trade. By the 1830s, Sitka’s population was at 1,300 and the community had numerous buildings, including schools, Orthodox chapels the Russian clergy built, and living quarters such as Baranov’s home--Baranov Castle. Although most of the inhabitants of New Archangel were of Russian descent, a small population of Tlingits—who had a relationship with the Russian missionaries—continued to live in Sitka, providing the Russians who were not self-sufficient with fresh food and other resources.

The Russians lived in Sitka until 1867, when the United States bought Alaska. Sitka became the capital for the newly acquired U.S. territory, and soon the Americans began building their own Presbyterian missions and schools for Native children. Sitka became a valuable territory for the United States, and in 1890, the government acknowledged its importance by designating the area as a federal reserve. In 1910, the area at the mouth of the Indian River became a National Monument, and in 1972, the National Park Service renamed the site Sitka National Historical Park. In 2010, Sitka National Historical Park marked its 100th anniversary.

In the park today, visitors can see the Russian Bishop’s House, Saint Michaels Cathedral, Baranov Castle, the Kiks.ádi Fort Site, the battle site, the Russian memorial, and a collection of Native totems. Constructed in 1843, the Russian Bishop's House is one of the few buildings left from the Russian colonial period in North America. At the visitor center and Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, onlookers can watch modern Native artists work.

Last updated: August 23, 2017