Above photo: Sitka harbor and city, 1900-23. Frank and Frances Carpenter collection courtesy Library of Congress. Right: Indian River Estuary. Courtesy National Park Service.
Sitka National Historical Park
On Baranof Island in the early 1800's, the Russians had constructed a settlement, controlling the area of Sitka on that newly named island, much to the native discontent. In 1802, the natives struck back, destroying the Russian trading post known today as Old Sitka. Two years hence, the Russians had enough of the Kiks.adi portion of the Tlingit tribe and their action. A battle would ensue, the last major battle between the Alaskan natives and the Russians. Today, the sites of Sitka associated and not associated with the national park tell of that history and more. From a vibrant Visitor Center and ranger tours, you'll get a sense of what Alaska was like in that era of natives versus Russians, before the Alaska Purchase sixty years later on March 30, 1867 ensued and changed that dynamic to the Americans versus the natives.
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Alexandr Baranov, a Russian trader, had paid the Tlingit clan a sum for trading rights to Baranof Island (yes, a difference in the spelling) after arriving in 1795. He was the chief manager of the Russian-American Company, and would return four years later with a larger force of one hundred Russians, seven hundred Aleuts, and three hundred additional natives. They located seven miles from the Tlingit and built a settlement, Old Sitka, north of the present town, constructing the Redoubt of St. Michael. Old Sitka is now the site of a state park.
By 1800, the Tlingit tribe were not pleased with the Russian settlement, disagreed with their tactics of taking native women for wives, and had attacked it unsuccessfully several times. By 1802, with Baranov off to Kodiak and a smaller staff, slightly over two hundred total, left in the fort, the Tlingit attacked and destroyed it. They had begun a trading relationship with the British the year before, muskets for furs.
The Tlingit knew that the survivors of the attack had returned to Kodiak and relayed the news to Baranov. They constructed the Fort of Young Saplings near the mouth of the Indian River to withstand a Russian fleet. Baranov returned with over five hundred men, including Indian allies, on four sailing ships and two hundred and fifty Indian baidarkas. The Russians arrived on September 29, 1804, attempted to make peace, but were rebuffed. A ground fight began with the Tlingit warriors repulsing the first day advance. On Day Two and Three, the Russian fleet engaged in a strong bombardment, but the fort withstood the barrage. A variety of offers for surrender, for peace, for a truce ensued. By the end of Day Four, the Tlingit decided that it best to evacuate the area. They left under the cover of darkness. The Russians dismantled the Sapling Fort.
Photo above: Russian blockhouse replica, date unknown. Historic American Buildings Survey courtesy Library of Congress. The blockhouse is located in the town of Sitka and not within Sitka NHP. Photo below: Russian Bishop's House, 1989, Jet Lowe. Historic American Buildings Survey courtesy Library of Congress.
Today, the site of the fort is honored by the K'alyaan Totem Pole. The land of the Battle of Sitka has been preserved, in some form, since June 21, 1890. Totem poles from various locations have been gathered and displayed at the park ever since, including Haida village and the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904. On March 23, 1910, the park was made a national monument by President William H. Taft. When you walk the paths of the park, reproductions of the original Totem Poles can be seen at many turns.
The park also includes the Russian Bishop's house in town, which tells the story of Russian occupation of the land. It was built in 1841-3. It was constructed by Tlingit builders and is one of only four structures in the Western Hemisphere of the Russian Colonial style architecture. Other structures from the Russian era of Sitka still remain or are reproduced, including the Russian blockhouse, Log Chase, Sitka Lutheran Church, St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Cathedral, and others. There is also Baranof Hill State Historic Site, Harrigan Centennial Hall, Sitka's Historical Museum, and the Sheldon Jackson Museum.
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Things You Should Not Miss
1. Stop in first at the Sitka National Historical Park Visitor Center. There are exhibits in Totem Hall and Exhibits Hall, a film, ranger orientation, and restrooms. It sits on a beautiful stretch of beach property right on the water. Great place to spend a couple minutes or more. It is open year round.
2. Take in a Ranger Guided hike or talk. These mostly start from the Visitor Center during the summer season or at the Russian Bishop's House. At the Russian Bishop's House, you'll get to visit the Bishop's quarters and the Chapel of the Annunciation.
3. Take a walk past a Totem Pole. Whether unguided or with a ranger, stroll past the eighteen poles along the Totem Trail and the Russian Memorial Loop. It's 1.6 miles long among towering spruce and hemlocks.
Photo above: Sitka harbor with Russian blockhouse in the background, date unknown. Historic American Buildings Survey courtesy Library of Congress.