SITKA BOROUGH, ALASKA

USGENWEB PROJECT

HISTORY
 
For a century the English had been searching for the Northwest Passage to lead them on a more direct route from England to the Orient. America was a nuisance and obstacle to be overcome on this endeavor. The first ship to make it's way through this famed passage was the Gjoa, steered by Roald Amundsen in the early 1900s. Prior to that time, all the major powers were vying for Alaska. The Spanish Quadra had traveled as far up the coast as Sitka, and dubbed the lovely mountain overlooking the town San Jacinto. Three years later in 1778, Capt. James Cook led a fleet up the western coast of the Americas as far north as Anchorage. Capt. Cook rechristened the lovely mountain San Jacinto as Mount Edgecumbe. Not to be outdone, the Frenchman La Perouse visited the region and laid claim for the French flag. Unfortunately this multi-national flag-waving was a moot point because inconveniently the Russians were already in possession and had made Kodiak their headquarters. The Russian fur traders had pushed Eastward, year after year, leapfrogging along the Aleutian island chain. The Russians were not noted for their seafaring ways and found it necessary to conquor and then assume the skills of the native Aleut and Inuit peoples. In 1792 a new type of Russian fur-trading manager arrived at the headquarters in Kodiak of the Russian-American Company. Alexander Andreevich Baranoff was a 42 year old who arrived from Okotsk in the ship Three Saints. Although Baranoff was both loved and derided, depending upon the observer, it is clear that he was the force behind the Russian settlement of coastal Alaska. The natives loved him and called him "Little Father" or "The Bear". His Russian financier, Shelikoff and his successor Khlebnikoff gave him high praise. The priests despised him. Baranoff didn't seem to care as long as he could realize his dream of a new Russian Empire. Baranoff's fleet entered Sitka Sound on May 25, 1799 on the Olga and Konstantin, in search of a new, more central headquarters for his dream. After a skirmish with the local Tlingit natives, he purchased a townsite from Chief Katlian and began building a town to be the capital of Russian-America. He named this town New Archangel Saint Michael, which was later changed to the Tlingit name, Sitka. One day after he landed the Americans arrived, led by Capt. Cleveland of the Boston ship, Caroline. Several years later the Tlingits, Sitkas, Chilkats, Hoonahs, Kakes, Kootznahoos, and Stikines gathered and attacked Old Sitka, killing almost everyone. The few survivors were taken by Capt. Barber of the Unicorn to Kodiak. In 1804, Capt. Lisianski and the ship Neva, arrived with reinforcements retook the town and drove the Tlingits out. Rezenoff, a Russian representative of the Czar was sent to Sitka sometime later to arrest and remove Baranoff. Instead Rezenoff was won over by the charm and humanity of the simple Baranoff. Baranoff was busy in the ensuing years investigating trade and industry possibilities for Sitka. Shipbuilding, expeditions to hunt California sea otters, a sawmill, charcoal-making, four mills, and a foundry. The only dependable industry proved to be fishing. In 1818 Baranoff set sail for Russia in the Kutusof, dying on board at Batavia and buried in the Indian Ocean.

The onion-domed St. Michael's Cathedral was built in 1848 by Bishop Innocent. Baranoff's successors were Russian gentlemen with manners and breeding, but no vision. What Sitka needed was new industry and development as fur-bearing animals were hunted near extinction. Slowly Sitka drifted to decay due to lack of interest, finance, or other support from Mother Russia. In the meantime gold had been discovered and it was clear that Britain and America wanted Alaska. Rumours of an American purchase of Alaska abounded. On October 18, 1867 the U.S.S. Ossipee to join the John L. Stephens. That afternoon the Russian flag was lowered and the American flag was raised. New Archangel became Sitka. The United States neglected Sitka until 1879, when it finally sent a navy gunboat to Alaska to give protection to the local citizens. Prior to that time, it was the Canadians who had to send a gunboat periodically to protect the locals from native uprisings. With no official local government, there was no official law and hence murderers, robbers, and shysters of all kinds went free. By 1912 Sitka acquired legal standing as a civil government and the navy withdrew. It's fishing industry grew although slowly the government removed to Juneau, which became the new capital of territorial Alaska.

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