Southeast Alaska

Many Nations Challenge Tlingit Claims

Alaska's Past - Regional Perspectives

In this section you will learn about:

  • Native cultures
  • Native and Euroamerican struggles for control of lands and resources
  • Early American administration

Tlingits and Haidas push north

There are no records to indicate the number of high-prowed cedar eyakh odan, the war canoes of the Tlingit and Haida Indians, that were lost to the riptides and unpredictable currents of the coast. The Tlingits controlled the narrow stretch of coast and offshore islands that lie between the mainland glaciers and the open sea. Their territory extended the length of the Southeast Alaska mainland, but was no wider than 120 miles.

Thousands of years ago, Tlingit Indians came down the Nass and Stikine rivers to occupy Southeast Alaska. A little later, Haida Indians began to push north from the Queen Charlotte Islands and displaced the Tlingits in some areas such, as around Howkan and Klinkwan.

The Nass River was regarded as the homeland of Yehl, the Raven of Tlingit legend. Yehl was the symbol of creation, maker of forests and mountains, rivers and seas. Yehl guided the sun, the moon, and the stars. Yehl controlled the winds and the floods. Yehl gave light to the world.

Both Tlingit and Haida Indians gave the name Raven to one of the two moieties, or social divisions, of their clans. Southern Tlingits called the other moiety the wolf. Haidas, who were fewer in number and lived only on portions of the southernmost islands, and the northern Tlingits called the second moiety the Eagle. Members of one moiety could marry only those who belonged to the opposite moiety.

The Tlingit and Haida Indians of Southeast Alaska's coast prospered and increased. They caught halibut, black cod, smelt, and salmon that inhabited Southeast Alaska waters. They made halibut hooks from bent wood, lines from spruce root or kelp, and nets from nettle fiber. Some early explorers and traders thought Tlingit and Haida fishing gear was better than their own.

Coastal waterways were dangerous, but provided the only possible north-south transportation routes along the forested coast. Three of the 13 Tlingit tribal groups, the Chilkat, Taku, and Stikine, blazed east-west trade trails from the seacoast through the coastal mountains. The Chilkat trail, which went inland through the valley of the Chilkat River, was sometimes called the grease trail. The Chilkats took seal bladders filled with eulachon oil to trade with Athapaskan Indians for moose and caribou hides and for raw copper beaten into sheets.

In midsummer Tlingits traveled down the coast to trade Chilkat blankets for cedar canoes built by the Haidas. Sometimes war pares raided to obtain slaves. Tlingits sailed as far as 900 miles to barter for goods.

Eulachon are also known as candlefish. Oily but edible, they were sometimes dried and used as torches.

Chief Anotklosk was head of the Taku tribe at Juneau when he posed for this portrait. He is wearing an intricately-woven Chilkat blanket. Blankets had come to represent wealth for Tlingit Indians in the nineteenth century.

Euroamericans arrive

NonNative traders began to sail into Southeast Alaska waters late in the eighteenth century, as did Euroamerican explorers. Russian fur trading parties came by sea voyages from Southcentral Alaska while British traders came through passes in the coastal mountains and also by sea. United States traders, known in Alaska as Boston Men" came by sea, too. Traders of all three nations affected life in Southeast Alaska.

The Russians were to have the most impact. One Russian trader negotiated with Yakutat Bay Natives for the land necessary to establish a settlement there. Known as New Russia, the post was occupied in 1796. Three years later, the Russians had also negotiated for and occupied a site near present day Sitka known as Fort St. Archangel Michael. Both locations were soon scenes of clashes between the Russians and Tlingits. Conflicts arose partly because of the Russians' brutal treatment of Natives, but also because the Tlingits faced the beginnings of centuries of struggles with non-Natives over control of Southeast Alaska's lands and resources.

Non-Natives also competed with each other for those lands and resources. During the early 1800s, ships from many nations visited the Southeast Alaska coast to trade for furs. Among them was the Caroline, whose Yankee skipper ventured into Stephens Passage in 1799 to trade cloth, blankets, beads, and coins with Tlingits whose war canoes were as long as his sailing vessel. Some trading vessels like the Caroline traded guns and liquor to the Tlingits and, the Russians believed, secretly encouraged the Tlingits to attack the Russians. One such attack occurred at Fort St. Archangel Michael in 1802 when Tlingits killed most of the Russians there and burned the post. Another, similar, incident occurred at Yakutat in 1804. Before that, however, the Russians had used the Yakutat post as a staging base for an assault that enabled them to reestablish their Sitka fort. This time it was on the site of the Tlingit village, seven miles from their original fort.

From their Sitka settlement, now called New Archangel, the Russians increased their fur trading with the Tlingits. Competing with the Russians were the British, who were trading European goods for furs both at posts on the other side of the coastal mountains and from ships plying Southeast Alaska waters, and the Yankees who also traded from ships. The Tlingits themselves traded products of the sea to Interior Athapaskans for furs and copper.

The Russians claimed all of Alaska, including Southeast Alaska, as Russian America. Finally, in 1821, the trade competition and disruptions caused by use of liquor and firearms as trade goods, led them to issue a decree that prohibited non-Russian ships from coming within 100 miles of the coast they claimed. The British and United States governments quickly filed diplomatic protests. Negotiations followed.

Alaska's southern boundary set

The Hudson's Bay Company was firmly established as the major fur trader in Canada and parts of what is now the northwestern United States. The 1824 treaty gave the British the right to use navigable streams in Southeast Alaska to reach their posts in Canadian territory. When the Hudson's Bay Company began to build new posts nearer and nearer to the border, the Russians feared they would lose their Alaska fur trade monopoly. Rumors grew that the British planned to establish a post at the headwaters of the Stikine River, and that they would pay better prices for furs than the Russians. Although the post would be in Canada, access would be through Russian waters. Alarmed at, the rumors, the Russian-American Company manager, Baron F.P. Wrangell, ordered workers to build a fort to guard the mouth of the Stikine River.

In two summers, they completed the construction of Fort St. Dionysius (near today's Wrangell) . The outpost was located near the Indian village of Kotzlitazan. The fort was built on a sand bar which became an island at high tide. A foot bridge connected it with the shore. Fresh water was carried to the fort in a wooden aqueduct from a stream 200 yards away.

British lease Southeast Alaska mainland

Hardly had the Russians occupied Fort St. Dionysius when Peter Skeene Ogden arrived in a Hudson's Bay Company brig, the Dryad. With him were people and supplies to establish a: trading post upriver. Such a post would cut off Russian access to the land furs of the Interior. The Russians ordered the Dryad to stop. The British argued that they had the right by treaty to proceed. The Russians got unexpected support from the Stikine Indians, who said the British plan interfered with their long-established trade rights with the Athapaskans. Ogden retreated, but the British government came to his aid.

Negotiations led to an agreement by which the Russian-American Company leased the mainland from Portland Canal to Cape Spencer to the British for a ten-year period. In exchange, the British provided 2,000 land otter skins annually and food from Pacific Northwest farms. In 1840, a British sidewheel steamer sailed into the harbor to raise the British flag over Fort St. Dionysius, which was renamed Fort Stikine. The Beaver was the first steamboat on the Northwest Coast.

Fort Stikine became a major trading center for the Tlingits. They came in canoes to exchange furs for Hudson's Bay Company blankets, guns, gunpowder, or liquor. They were shrewd traders. They might exchange a pile of furs for a gun, then trade the same gun to the Athapaskans for twice as large a pile.

The Tlingits were well aware of the value of the goods. Often it was an experienced older woman who kept track of the prices, which changed with supply and demand. Eulachon oil, for example, was a trade item much desired by Athapaskans to the east. The value of the oil would drop to nothing when unusually large runs of the small fish visited the coast.

The coastal Indian groups fiercely competed for trade. Each group wanted a trade monopoly in its own territory. Hudson's Bay Company built another trading post on the mainland at Taku Harbor, northwest of Fort Stikine. It abandoned the post after three years, partly for lack of customers. The Taku Indians had kept other tribes from trading in the waters they controlled.

An uneasy truce existed between the British and the Indians at Fort Stikine. Like the Russians, the British were few in number and fearful of the Tlingits' power beyond the safety of the fort. The murder of post commander John McLaughlin, Jr., by an employee encouraged the Natives to think they could successfully attack the fort. Only the appearance of an armed Russian vessel accompanying the Hudson's Bay Company governor on a tour of Southeast Alaska prevented an attack.

Much of the trouble was blamed on liquor. In 1843 the British and the Russians agreed to stop trading liquor to the Natives. The trading companies recognized that the ruling did not prevent smuggling. But they felt the ban would make liquor harder for Natives to obtain and would reduce the possibilities of violence.

New Archangel grows

New Archangel (today's Sitka) continued to be the center of commerce for the Russian-American Company. Shipyards had been established there in 1806. Two decades later, blacksmiths, locksmiths, coopers, turners, rope spinners, chandlers, and masons all practiced their skills. Plow blades and spades for Spanish farmers in California were forged in company shops. At nearby Redoubt Lake, a flour mill and tannery operated. A fish trap provided salmon which were salted, along with herring, for winter use by the employees and their families.

Company outposts sent furs and other raw materials to New Archangel. In return they received needed supplies--not only food, but such items as seal skins and whale bones for making kayaks, or sea lion intestines for hunters' clothing.

Russians living in New Archangel planted gardens arid raised pigs and chickens, although ravens reportedly limited the success of their projects. Nicknamed the "New Archangel Police," the ravens were blamed for carrying off baby chicks and even for biting the tails off pigs. Gardens could not meet the year-round need for fresh food, however. In winter the Russians depended on the Sitka Indians to bring wild game and halibut to their marketplace.

As American trading ships withdrew from the coastal trade, Tlingits became more dependent on the Russians for trade goods. Gradually the Russian-American Company began to employ the Indians as woodcutters, fishermen, sailors, and dockworkers. The Tlingits were paid half the amount that Russian workers received.

Relations between the Russians and the Tlingits at New Archangel were tense. In retaliation for the 1802 attack, the Russians drove the Kiksadi Tlingits near New Archangel from their village site in 1804. The Tlingits did not return for nearly 20 years.

During those years, the Sitka Tlingits lived at Sitkoh Bay on Chichagof Island. On occasion, they interfered with hunting and woodcutting parties. The Russians were not happy with the situation because of the continuing trouble. The Kiksadi were not happy to be away from their traditional site.

Finally, the Russians invited the Kiksadi to return to Sitka. The Tlingits agreed, on the promise that they would do all hunting necessary to supply the Sitka community. Misunderstandings and incidents continued, however. The two cultures lived in an atmosphere of mutual distrust.

By 1845, the Indian settlement along the edge of the Russian fort had grown to 1,820 Tlingits. The Russians numbered only 400 to 500. The Russian-American Company officers and employees lived in constant fear of an uprising. All Indians were evicted from the Russian section of New Archangel at curfew.

A trader finds gold on Stikine River

In 1861, Hudson's Bay Company trader "Buck" Coquette found gold about 160 miles above the mouth. He located his claim at a spot he called "Buck's Bar." News of Choquette's strike spread rapidly among the prospectors who had been drawn north following the discovery of gold in California in 1848. By 1862 many of them arrived at the mouth of the Stikine River. Many took passage aboard the Flying Dutchman, the first steamboat to travel up the Stikine River. Owned and piloted by Captain William Moore, the Flying Dutchman pushed a barge loaded with freight for the new mines.

Moore transported the miners upstream to a site he called Shakesville. It was named after Chief Shakes of the Stikines, whose impressive lodge with corner totems was built on the site of Fort Stikine, which had been abandoned in 1849. Only small amounts of gold were recovered that summer and the next, but many of the miners stayed on. They continued to prospect. Occasionally a miner would marry a Native woman and settle along the river.

New industries begin

As the Stikine River gold strike was ending, a new industry started in California that would be even more important to Alaska's future than gold. In 1864 the first salmon cannery was built on the Sacramento River. Within a few years, canneries were established on the Columbia River and in Washington's Puget Sound as well. For many years, salmon had been preserved by salting them in wooden barrels. Canned salmon quickly became more popular with American housewives and the number of canneries multiplied.

Lumbering was a third industry to play a role in Southeast Alaska's growth. Logging had begun at Sitka in the early nineteenth century. The Russians cut yellow cedar trees for ships and buildings. They also clear-cut and burned hemlock and spruce for charcoal to be used in the Russian-American Company's iron foundry. By mid-century, sawmills at Sitka were producing 3,000 board feet of lumber daily. Most of the lumber was used locally, but some was exported to Chile and China.Gold, mining, fishing and lumbering industries never really developed in Southeast Alaska during the Russian era. As it did in other regions of Alaska, the Russian-American Company actively discouraged a search for gold in Southeast Alaska because of a fear that mineral exploitation might interfere with its fur trade monopoly. Fishing and lumbering were initiated and continued principally to support the fur trade. Further exploitation of these resources lay beyond the October 1867 day when ceremonies at Sitka marked the transfer of Alaska from Russian to United States administration.

Americans take over

The stars and stripes replaced the Russian flag at New Archangel on October 18, 1867. The capital was renamed Sitka from the Tlingit word Sheetkah, meaning "the best place." The United States Army was given jurisdiction over all Alaska, since there was no civil government. The following May, the army built a new fort near the site of the old Fort Stikine, and named it Wrangell.

A visiting general said in 1869 that the fort "guarded nothing, observed nothing, commanded nothing." Morale was low, soldiers drank too much, and their actions were a demoralizing influence on Indians in nearby villages.

General Jefferson C. Davis of the Twenty-third Infantry was selected as commander of the military district. He had jurisdiction over the speculators, would-be homesteaders, and merchants who had already arrived in Sitka. General Davis encouraged the new Alaskans to establish a local municipal government. In November of 1867 they met to draw up a city charter. They elected a mayor and a city council who set about meeting the needs of the residents.

At their first meetings, city officials named streets, established business license fees, and appointed a committee to investigate the condition of the poor and needy. A teacher was hired at a salary of $75 a month.

Even with the trappings of civilization, hopes for a profitable future in Sitka were dashed. There were no homestead rights in Alaska and no way to buy land. It all belonged to the federal government. There was no economic base on which to build a community. On February 18, 1873, the Sitka City Council held its last meeting.

The Tlingit village was off to one side. The Indians were not allowed inside the garrison until after nine o'clock in the morning and had to be out the gate by three. "They come to your back door every day with things to sell: venison, birds, fish, berries."

There were food shortages. Supply ships were undependable, especially during the winter. Like the Russians, army households depended upon the Indians to supply them with venison, paying 50 cents for a hind quarter. Reef was issued once a week.

Summary questions

  1. Into what kinds of groups was Tlingit society divided?
  2. Who competed against the Russians for the Southeast Alaska fur trade?
  3. Why did the Russian-American Company discourage a search for gold in Southeast Alaska?
  4. What dashed hopes for a profitable future in Sitka after the transfer of Alaska to American administration in 1867?

Inquiry question

  1. Find out about the 1804 Battle of Sitka and report on it.

Many Nations Challenge Tlingit Claims
1873-1900 Developing Southeast Alaska
1900-1922 Some Needs Are Met
1922-1942 Between Two Wars
1945-1980 The "Old Alaska"' Vanishes
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