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Sitka National Historical Park
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 those who voyaged to this area throughout its history, including the native Tlingit, and Spanish, Russian, and American settlers. It represents the long history of European rivalry for desired land, as well as European rivalry with natives. The park protects native totems and offers visitors the opportunity to watch Native artists as they work. Spanish claims to the Pacific Northwest date to the Papal Bull “Inter Caetera” of 1493 and the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494. These decrees gave Spain the right to colonize the west coast of North America. King Charles III of Spain and his successors sent Spanish explorers to the coasts of present-day Washington State, Alaska, and Canada between 1774 and 1793 to investigate Russian and British activities in the region and to strengthen Spain’s claim to the land.
Europeans first encountered present day Alaska on July 15, 1741, when Alexei Chirikov, Russian commander of the ship St. Paul of the second Bering expedition, saw what the sailors assumed to be Lisianski Inlet on the northwest coast of Chichagof Island. He sent 15 men in two boats ashore to explore the harbor and land, but these men were never seen again. On July 27, Chirikov and his officers returned to Kamchatka. After the existence of land in the North Pacific became known, navigators from several other European countries set sail to explore the Northwest Coast. The next to explore this area was Don Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, a Spanish navigator, who was under orders to explore north to 65 degrees of latitude. In his 36-foot boat Sonora, he sighted Sitka Sound on August 15, 1775 and named it “Bay of Terror.” Sixteen miles west of Sitka, Quadra saw a 3,201 foot snowcaped volcano that dominated the coastline and described that mountain as "the most regular and beautiful form I have ever seen." He named the mountain San Jacinto. Between 1775 and 1784, only four Spanish and two British ships visited the northwest coast of Alaska, and the natives had minimal access to European trade items or contact with Europeans. After 1784, the number of ships reaching the Northwest Coast of Alaska began to increase dramatically and European trade goods, including firearms and ammunition, became increasingly available to the natives.
In the 1790s, the Russians returned to Alaska, now a favored trading spot for Euro American traders, 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 continue 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.