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By Rebecca Poulson

Presented at the Alaska Historical Society Annual Meeting, Cordova, Alaska 2015

I have been working on the history of the Sheldon Jackson School and College, which began as a Presbyterian mission in Sitka in 1878.

I wanted to understand what was behind its rapid establishment and early growth, and why some of the early students had important positions in Tlingit clans.

I had assumptions about why the mission might have been attractive: because of industry taking Native land and resources, and because of alcohol.

But, as I reread sources, it didn’t fit. Industrial takings of land for fishing and mining did not get under way until the later 1880s, after the school was well established, and alcohol abuse, I learned, is a symptom, not a cause of loss.

What was the mechanism of the weakening of Tlingit control of southeastern Alaska? And, what was it about missions that made them attractive at this time? Obviously I can’t answer these questions, but I want to map out the context in a little finer grain. I am relying on the work of many others, and am grateful to them.

The first major impact of European colonization on the North West Coast was through the maritime fur trade, starting in 1785. Hundreds of thousands of sea otter pelts were sold in Canton between 1785 and 1820, nearly all of these purchased directly from North West Coast Natives. Guns, wealth, and epidemics led rapid, often violent, change, but did not affect Native control of the region.1

Meanwhile, beginning in the mid-1700s, Russians came from Siberia and worked their way along the Aleutian Chain and into the Gulf of Alaska, coercing Native labor to hunt sea otter for their furs, with a devastating impact on Native people and sea mammals alike.

But by the time the Russians had wiped out the otters in the Aleutians and central Gulf of Alaska, and came to southeastern Alaska (they established their first fort in Sitka Sound in 1799, it was destroyed in 1802), Sitka Sound was already a regular port of call for American and British ships trading for sea otter pelts with the indigenous Tlingit.

Russians managed to establish a fort at Sitka in 1804, but, by then catches were already going down, and the sea otter were soon depleted. This plus resistance from the Tlingit, but mostly the lack of resources and manpower, meant that Russians never controlled southeastern Alaska, in spite of their occupation of Sitka from 1804 until 1867.2

The Russian settlement depended on southeast Alaska Natives for food, and bought tons of halibut, potatoes, berries and game. But more than that, they had to respect Tlingit law: a wrong by one clan to another had to be compensated. Classically, this was a life for a life, of equivalent importance. In dealings between North West Coast Natives and Europeans, this was modified to material compensation.3

When a Russian governor allowed relations to deteriorate in the mid 1850s, he was removed. But his neglect led to a Tlingit attack on the fort in 1855, when five or six Russians were killed and dozens wounded.4 Russian authorities regularly paid Natives for injury done by Russians.5 Overall, the Russians depended on diplomacy, not force, to stay in southeastern Alaska. In 1847 Russian American Company officials even mediated a dispute between the Hudson’s Bay Company fort at Wrangell and local Tlingit.6

And, in spite of their efforts, the Russian Orthodox missionaries could not interest many Tlingit people in conversion.7

Contrast this with the situation in 1879. Tlingit leaders were asking for Christian missions, in spite of not being treated with anything like regard for their rank.

In 1879 the naturalist John Muir and Presbyterian missionary S. Hall Young traveled in northern southeastern Alaska, to missionize and to explore glaciers.

With “but one or two exceptions” Muir reports that people at villages, including Kake and Hoonah, were interested in missions and schools, having heard of the work of William Duncan, at Metlakatla, in British Columbia.8

Muir and Young were transported by Tlingit men, converts to Christianity, including T’aawyaat, a leader of the Naanyaa.aayi clan of the Stikeen (Wrangell) area.

It is obvious from Young’s writings, in which he calls them their “Indian guides,” and describes T’aawyaat as “noble but simple,” that he does not consider him as an equal, much less with respect. 9

Muir and Young were treated like honored guests, and each visit ended with a request for missions and schools.

First of all, what had happened to undermine Tlingit control of southeastern Alaska?

One factor was probably direct military force. Alaska was a military Department, then a District, until 1884 – full 17 years of military rule.

This military was hardened by the recent Civil War, but more than that by the Indian Wars in the lower 48, then at their height. In the fall of 1868, an Army sentry killed men leaving Sitka by canoe. Mistakes by the military – never punished – led to the deaths.

Relatives of the men, from Kake, went to see General Davis about compensation, but were denied. These relatives then killed two Euro-Americans, at what is now called Murder Cove on Admiralty Island.

This resulted in the so-called “Kake War” in 1869, when the USS Saginaw shelled the three villages and burned all the houses but one to the ground, a total of 28 clan houses, many of them 30 or 40 feet square, and destroyed canoes, as well.10

Back in 1857, Tlingit from Kake had killed a white settler on Whidbey Island, after an incident in Washington Territory in which a Kake clan leader had been killed, and American authorities had refused compensation.11

So this prior act was in the background of the military’s brutal response. They often did not hold their own people to account for instigating violence. They sought to punish Native individuals, then, if they could not, to punish the entire group, to teach them “that we do not fear them.” This was the unfortunate pattern of the Indian Wars in the lower 48 states, and of the British Navy, as well. In short, the American military, unlike the Russians, did not rely on diplomacy, did not respect Tlingit law, but relied on force.12

The Kake incident was repeated at Wrangell, later in 1869, when soldiers killed two Tlingit men. When the victims’ father retaliated by killing a white merchant, the Army shelled the village of Ḵaachx̱ an.áakʼw, then when he gave himself up, summarily “tried” and hanged him.13

Awareness of impact of colonization in B.C. and Washington State

People from southeastern Alaska regularly traveled to Victoria and Puget Sound and would have been abundantly aware of the onslaught of settlement and gold miners, backed up by military force, in British Columbia and in Washington Territory.

In the maritime fur trade days, maritime merchants left traditional networks intact. But with the trade turning to land furs, the Hudson’s Bay Company worked relentlessly to displace Native middlemen, building forts from the early 1830s, to deal directly with fur suppliers.

Then in southern coastal British Columbia, from the early 1850s the government worked to settle colonists and develop industry, with military backing, that included destruction of villages and canoes.14

In Washington Territory in the mid-1850s, all Natives were forced onto reservations.15 While the Euro-American population was not large, they were aggressive in seizing land for settlement, mining and potential commercial development. The mid 1850s through the 1860s saw multiple violent interactions between Natives and the military, both British and American, in coastal British Columbia and North West Washington. In 1856 the USS Massachusetts fired on a camp of Natives at Port Gamble, killing dozens, including people from southeastern Alaska.16

In a way, southeastern Alaska under the Russians looks almost like a haven of indigenous control, in the 1850s and 1860s.

Economic displacement

A third factor – in addition to direct military action, and knowing what was coming – may have been displacement from trade.

During the maritime fur trade years and under the Russians, Tlingit were not only providers and consumers of goods, but were middlemen in trade with other Natives. Key were the trade routes to the interior at the Stikine River and the Chilkat and Chilkoot, which were tightly held monopolies.

But also, throughout southeastern Alaska, the clans who controlled trade with the Russians at Sitka (and Russian trading vessels) and the British at Fort Simpson and Fort Victoria, could profit by controlling trade to other Natives.

With American entrepreneurs coming in, they may have lost that niche: American traders were everywhere, buying and selling direct to the consumer.

It could be that it was not alcohol itself, so much as the fact that the market was “flooded,” so to speak, by white traders, that had such an impact on Tlingit economy.

This had probably already started before the transfer. Tlingit control of the Stikine River, which they had defended in 1838 by burning down a Hudson’s Bay Company fort inland17, was weakened by an 1862 gold strike in the interior, then destroyed in the 1872 Cassiar gold rush.

British and American smugglers evaded the Russians to trade in southeast. But the Transfer opened the floodgates for American traders.

In an 1870 report to Congress, Frank Mahoney, a Sitka businessman, writes that on Kuiu and Kupreanof, the Natives “catch some furs, . . . , besides trading with some of their neighbors. Their trade has fallen off considerably since the occupation of the Territory by the Americans. They formerly were in the habit of getting their trading goods from small crafts from Victoria, but at present the Indians north, south, east, for two hundred miles, either come to Sitka or get their wants supplied by the small crafts that load or are owned by Sitka merchants.”18

In fact, American commercial interests were behind the acquisition of Alaska in the first place. Unlike the Oregon Territory, it was not desirable for settlement, farming and industry. Instead it was seen, and could be argued still is seen, as a place to be exploited for its resources, and – perhaps – as a market. American merchants knew of its whaling, maritime furs, and fishing potential, and probably its potential as a market, because they were already exploiting these fields when it was still Russian.

Why missions?

And finally, Tlingit people had strong trading and cultural ties with the Tsimshian people, and were well acquainted with the Tsimshian experience with missionaries.

Anglican missionary William Duncan came to Fort Simpson, now Lax-Kw’alaams, on the Skeena River, just south of the border with the United States, in 1856. At that time, the Hudson’s Bay Company fort was flanked by a Tsimshian village and trading site.

Duncan gained a following that included clan leaders. Why were these people interested in what he offered? Canadian scholar Susan Neylan has researched how converts in the early days were able to keep their traditional status, and that literacy was seen as a valuable asset for leaders.19

Native interaction with missionaries changed over time, and the things that drove the first generation of converts were different for later people. The rapidly changing dynamics is what I would like to emphasize.

Then, Duncan and converts built a town at Metlakatla, previously a summer village and trading site, near Prince Rupert.

I think that the key features of his work were that at this new village, within a few years, thanks to mission funds, they had a sawmill and new frame houses; and, in the year after their moving, in 1862, a smallpox epidemic struck the coast. While hundreds died back at Fort Simpson (and thousands, up and down the coast), through inoculation and the isolation of infected individuals, only a few lives were lost at Metlakatla.20

In 1874 Methodist missionary Thomas Crosby arrived at Port Simpson. Like Duncan, he fought (unsuccessfully) against the taking of Native land; but more than that, established churches and schools in the villages, at the request of the residents. His mission at Port Simpson was itself at the urging of Tsimshian people who had converted to Methodism at Victoria a few years before. 21

These mission efforts included sawmills and eventually a cannery at Metlakatla. In this way, Duncan’s and Crosby’s missions promised to bring Tsimshian people some measure of economic empowerment, that they had enjoyed prior to British colonization. So the desire for missions by the Tlingit, since it was based on the model of William Duncan, could have been driven in part by an effort to get sawmills and other commercial operations of their own, and new, prestigious, frame-style houses.

Anthropologist Aurel Krause visited the Tlingit at Chilkat in 1882, and reported that “after they had gone to church for half a year and sent their children to school, went to the missionary and complained that they had not been rewarded for their virtue and had not received boards to build their houses as the Tsimshian had.” 22

Origin of the Sitka Mission

Among the earliest missionaries in Alaska were a group of Methodist Tsimshian Natives at Wrangell, during the Cassiar gold rush in the mid-1870s. A letter written by a soldier in 1877, pleading for missionaries, to continue the work, came into Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson’s hands.

Sheldon Jackson parleyed that letter, by getting it published in the Chicago Tribune, and in his newspaper the Rocky Mountain Presbyterian – later called the Home Missions Monthly – into funds for his project.

He brought missionary Amanda McFarland to Wrangell, where she started a girls’ home. Then in 1878 he sent young missionary John Brady and teacher Fannie Kellogg to Sitka, where they started a day school, although Brady left that same year, and Kellogg went to Wrangell to marry S. Hall Young.

By this time, 1879, Tlingit people seem to have been desirous of missions, and especially schools, illustrated not only by the experience of Muir and Young and Mrs. McFarland, but by the success of the Sitka school, restarted in 1880, and the enthusiasm of the earliest group of students – who included young men of standing in Tlingit society.23

In 1879, Sheldon Jackson was passenger in a trading canoe to Port Simpson, where he wanted to visit the missions. This canoe came from Chilkat, and the clan leader it belonged to asked Jackson to send his people a missionary and schools. The man’s son, who would become Kawootk’, or Rudolph Walton, became one of the first students at the Sitka School. His family made the move to Sitka, and the entire family was baptized in the church.24

In 1879 Presbyterian missionary Alonzo Austin came to Sitka, and his daughter restarted the day school for Natives in 1880. She said later that she found such enthusiasm for English, that she started the school day with it, so students would come on time.

Soon some of the boys asked for permission to live at the school. They suffered hardships when their school building – the old Russian hospital – burnt down in January 1882 and they had to live in a drafty shed.

Then, after the Presbyterians acquired the current land for the mission, these young men, and Austin and others built their own large school building, dismantling an abandoned cannery, boating it 7 miles and hauling it up the beach.

Walton was to become a leader in the Kiks.adi clan, and another early student, Kaads’aatí, William Wells, was L’ooknax adi Clan heir. (A similar image, published in the memoir of a missionary school superintendent, is captioned – “As I might have lived – a chief among my people.”)25

All in all, Sheldon Jackson found a much more conducive environment for missions than he had found in the southwest United States. Native leaders were coming to him asking for missions and schools; important clans were sending their young leaders.

Success begets success; the early success of the school at Sitka begat more funds, and probably helped Sheldon Jackson in his quest for political influence in Washington, D. C.

Aftermath

While part of the attractiveness of the missions for Tlingit people could have been the possibility of economic empowerment, that was not part of the Presbyterian agenda. In fact, the Presbyterian mission at this time was explicitly the destruction of Native power, the clan system, society and culture. They wanted sober, Christian workers, but they saw them as occupying the lower levels in the economy.

Now this is pure speculation, but I wonder if the Cottages settlement, the model community on mission property founded in 1888, may have been instigated by Natives, hoping for industry they would control, on the model of Metlakatla. If so, they were disappointed.

Even by the mid 1880s, there seems to have been some disillusionment, leading to a lawsuit in 1885. Many families pulled their children from the school. By the late 1880s, the Russian Orthodox Church grew exponentially with Native converts, likely because this church allowed Native control.26

In southeastern Alaska, just as in Washington and in Canada, Native people faced gross discrimination and dispossession. They were discriminated against in law – in disputes with non-Natives, they were rarely backed up by authorities. They were not citizens, and could not get property for industry. They were paid less than non-Native workers. In this climate, any opportunity for gaining a foothold in the economy would have been attractive.

Peter Simpson, an early student from Metlakatla, had a boatbuilding shop at the Cottages. The boat in the center, the William, may be the boat of that name he built for Rudolph Walton.

Eventually, and indirectly, association with Sheldon Jackson school may have helped graduates to occupy an important place in the economy, through their domination of commercial salmon seining – running, owning and building boats, what Mark Jacobs, Jr. called the “historic ANB fleet.” But that’s another story.

1James Gibson, “The Maritime Trade of the North Pacific Coast” in William C. Sturtevant, ed. Handbook of North American Indians (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1988) vol. 4, History of Indian-White Relations, ed. Wilcomb E. Washburn, 375-390

2Kenneth N. Owens with Alexander Yu. Petrich, Empire Maker: Aleksandr Baranov and Russian Colonial Expansion into Alaska and Northern California (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2015),Andrei Val’terovich Grinev, The Tlingit Indians in Russian America, 1741-1867 trans. Richard L. Bland and Keterina G. Solovjova (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2005),Katherine L. Arndt and Richard A. Pierce, A Construction History of Sitka, Alaska, as Documented in the Records of the Russian-American Company, 2nd Edition (Sitka, Alaska: Sitka National Historical Park, National Park Service under Cooperative Agreement with the Department of Anthropology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2003)Ilya Vinkovestsky, Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1801-1867 (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2014)

3George Thornton Emmons, The Tlingit Indians, edited with additions by Frederica de Laguna, Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 70 (Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre, 1991) 46-53

4Arendt and Pierce, 192-194

5Arendt and Pierce, 137 (one example, taking Tlingit testimony, and compensating for the life of a slave in 1847)

6Grinev, 198

7Sergei Kan, Memory Eternal: Tlingit Culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through Two Centuries (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1999), 25-89

8John Muir, Travels in Alaska (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 105

9Samuel Hall Young, Alaska Days with John Muir (New York, Chicago, London and Edinburgh: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1915; reprint, Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1990), 129 and throughout

10Zachary R. Jones, “’Search For and Destroy’: The US Army’s Relations with Alaska’s Tlingit Indians and the Kake War of 1869,” Ethnohistory 60, no. 1 (Winter 2013), 1-26Robert N. DeArmond and Richard A. Pierce, The USS Saginaw in Alaska Waters, 1867-68 (Kingston, Ontario and Fairbanks, Alaska: Limestone Press, 1997), 63-97

11DeArmond and Pierce, 91

12Robert M. Utley and Wilcomb E. Washburn, Indian Wars (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977)Barry M. Gough, Gunboat Frontier: British Maritime Authority and Northwest Coast Indians, 1846-1890 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1984)

13Zachary R. Jones, “The 1869 Bombardment of Ḵaachx̱ an.áakʼw from Fort Wrangell: The U.S. Army Response to Tlingit Law, Wrangell, Alaska” Sealaska Heritage Institute and National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program, in collaboration with Wrangell Cooperative Association, City and Borough of Wrangell, 2015

14Gough, entire book

15Utley and Washburn, 179-183

16Gough, 51-147

17 Grinev, 196

18Frank Mahoney, “Letter from Frank Mahoney on the Indians and their trade in Eastern Alaska” Appendix F in Vincent Colyer, Bombardment of Wrangel, Alaska, Report of the Secretary of War, Secretary of the Interior, and Letter to the President (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1870), 20

19Susan Neylan, “Longhouses, Schoolroom, and Workers’ Cottages: Nineteenth Century Protestant Missions to the Tsimshian and the Transformation of Class Through Religion” Journal of the CHA 2000 New Series 11, 51-86

20Peter Murray, The Devil and Mr. Duncan (Victoria, British Columbia: Sono Nis Press, 1985)

21Clarence R. Bolt, “Crosby, Thomas,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 7, 2015, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/crosby_thomas_14E.html.

22Aurel Krause, The Tlingit Indians, Results of a Trip to the Northwest Coast of America and the Bering Straits trans. Erna Gunther (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1956), 230

23Ted C. Hinckley, Alaskan John G. Brady, Missionary, Businessman, Judge, and Governor, 1878-1918 (Miami, Ohio: Miami University, 1982) 25-73Don Craig Mitchell, Sold American, The Story of Alaska Natives and Their Land, 1867-1959 (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2003), 65-110A. E. Austin, “History of the Mission” The North Star 5 no. 12 December 1892 1-4

24Joyce Walton Shales, “Rudolph Walton: One Tlingit Man’s Journey Through Stormy Seas, Sitka, Alaska, 1867-1951” (Ph. D. diss., The University of British Columbia, 1998)

25Kan, 216

26Kan, 245-277

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