Posts Tagged ‘Russian America’

Sea otter, 1806

Sea otter, an image published (in black and white) in The World: or, the Present State of the Universe, being A General and Complete collection of Modern Voyages and Travels. Selected, arranged, and digested, from the narratives of the latest and most authentic travellers and navigators. By Cavenshish Pelham, Esq. This book was published in London in 1806. This colored image is from Ancestry Images.com.

by Rebecca Poulson  I wish to acknowledge the Tlingit people as the original owners of this land and whose history must be foregrounded. I take all responsibility for any errors, and will be grateful for any corrections or comments.

I put together the following for a Sitka Maritime Heritage Society boat cruise, as background for a presentation by Jerry Deppa about how sea otters came to be reintroduced to Sitka Sound.

First, picture the northwest of North America 300 years ago: populated by many distinct Indigenous nations, with thousands of years of complex histories, wars, trade, and customs. North American Indigenous societies, and technology, were far from static, and far from passive, far from the stereotype of simple, timeless people living on natural bounty. Native nations managed resources, and social systems and language are as complex and “advanced” – or more so, in this era – as those of Europe. There was an extensive and sophisticated trade system on the coast, connecting far into the interior; this was the economic engine of the North West Coast.

Sea otter were valued by North Americans for their rich fur, probably traded, and were eaten.i Sea otter are a kind of weasel, but spend their lives at sea. Unlike other marine mammals, sea otter do not have a layer of fat under their skin, but are insulated from the cold ocean water with dense, soft fur, with from 250,000 to one million hairs per square inch. This makes it the most luxurious fur in the world.

A robust trade network on the NW Coast flourished in products such as hooligan oil, Copper River copper, large baskets, Haida red cedar canoes, and seal oil.ii Regional trade came together at a huge annual market at The Dalles on the Columbia River.iii

This was also the European Age of Exploration, and, of global trade: In 1778 Captain Cook, on his last voyage, spent time working on his ships in Nootka Sound. While there, they traded for some sea otter garments. In 1779, they made a huge profit on them in trade at Canton, China.iv

Cook’s journals were published in the mid 1780s, and the rush was on.v

Soon American ships dominated, nearly all out of Boston.vi Trade moved from Nootka Sound (on Vancouver Island) as sea otter were hunted out, and, as traders tried to get closer to the sources of the skins (to bypass Indigenous traders): Sitka was popular in the 1790s.vii Trading protocol followed existing practice. Too often the foreign traders tried to get a bargain or “teach a lesson,” resulting in violence, but overall trade was civil as shrewd Yankees met their match in shrewd and experienced Indigenous traders. viii

British traders were handicapped by Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly on NW Coast, and East India Company monopoly in China, which meant they had to pay to play. And wars raged on the European Continent during the peak years of the trade, which further handicapped European traders, who had to risk seizure by enemy ships.ix

Americans alone sold an average of 14,000 sea otter pelts/year at Canton 1805-1812. The peak years for profits were 1790-1810.x

Over the next several years, increasing competition and fewer furs made the trade less profitable. The trade moved to land furs and other products, and ventures like supplying the Russians at Sitka. In the late 1830s the Hudson’s Bay Company, trading out of forts on land, took over the fur trade on the Northwest Coast – other than on Tlingit lands. Tlingit people shut down Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts that infringed on their trade. The Hudon’s Bay Company also began supplying the Russians.xi

Impact on United States: After the Revolutionary War, the sea otter skin trade was an important replacement for lost British markets. Sea otter furs were the only thing Americans had in any quantity that the Chinese wanted.xii The Americans then traded furs for porcelain, silks, tea, and profited in each of the three transactions: trading furs for guns and other goods with the Natives; trading Chinese luxury goods for sea otter furs; and then their biggest profit came in selling Chinese goods on the domestic market.xiii Profits from the North West Trade produced some of the capital for American industrialization.xiv

Every one of these hundreds of thousands of furs was purchased from Northwest Coast Natives – so the trade also brought great wealth into the Northwest Coast economy. There was an explosion of art. The Native clans who owned trading rights at critical junctures – such as Sitka, Chilkat, and the Stikine – profited the most, as guns, ammunition, beads, fabric, iron etc. were traded far into the interior for more furs, which in turn were traded for further profit with Americans and Europeans.xv

International trade also brought disease epidemics: in the early 1770s the smallpox epidemic affecting all of North America was brought by a Spanish explorer; further outbreaks in 1795 and 1811, and a devastating epidemic in 1836-37, plus other diseases such as syphilis, killed more than half the people originally here.xvi By this time smallpox affected all people equally, but Europeans and Americans had access to innoculation. It is hard to overestimate the impact the decimation of the Native population must have had. What could it have been like, to see a third, or a half, of your community sicken and die over a short period of time? It must have been traumatic, to lose children, parents, grandparents.

What was the impact on the North West Coast Natives? Wealth while it lasted, but, then the sea otter were gone; after that the trade was in land furs, which were not as profitable; by the 1830s changing fashions and social disruption in Europe meant there was a smaller market and lower prices; due to hunting pressure, there were fewer fur-bearing mammals of any sort, and the Hudson’s Bay Company was relentless in pushing out the Indigenous traders.

The Russians:

The Siberian fur trade of 1600s and 1700s brought Russian fur traders sweeping across Siberia, hunting and trapping animals but mainly forcibly demanding “tribute” or taxes to the Czar in the form of furs.

In 1742 the survivors of Vitus Bering’s last voyage returned to Siberia with sea otter furs. Like Cook’s men 30 years later, they discovered how valuable sea otter furs were in the Chinese market. (The sea otter had been hunted out in the Western (Asian) Pacific.) Between 1743 and 1800 there were a hundred expeditions for furs to Alaska and the North Pacific islands. Over time, companies had to be bigger and take longer to go farther, as sea otter were exterminated closer to the Siberian mainland.xvii

This was brutal and violent from the start. Then Shelikov, who had the biggest company, forced Native people to hunt as employees.

There were deadly confrontations,xviii and Russians forced Native labor not just for hunting, but providing food and equipment for the hunting expeditions and sustaining the Russians themselves. Devastating disease epidemics; taking people away from providing for their own needs; and violence caused the population of the Aleutians – people who had developed rich and unique technology and culture over thousands of years – to drop to only 20% of what it had been.

Shelikov built the first permanent Russian fort, on Kodiak, in 1784, after brutally conquering the local people. There were only two companies left by that point. These companies consolidated in 1799 as the Russian American Company, with a charter by the Czar to govern Alaska.xix

So, by the 1790s, the Russians were also moving into southeastern Alaska, as they hunted out the sea otters farther west. They brought fleets of hundreds of Native hunters (Unangan, from the Aleutian Islands, Alutiiq or Sugpiaq people from Kodiak and other islands, and Chugach people from the coastal Gulf)   in baidarkas (kayaks).xx

Alexander Baranov – who had been Shelikov’s manager, then became the first Governor of the Russian American colonies – wrote that Southeastern Alaska and the sea otters belonged to Russia, and that the Americans and British, trading with the Tlingit, had no rights to them.xxi

In 1794 the Russian ship Phoenix (built at Seward) with 170 baidarkas took 2000 otter just at Yakutat.xxii The first hunting expedition to the Sitka area was in 1796.xxiii

Over the years 1797-1821 Russians took average of 3000 sea otter a year;xxiv in the 1790s and 1800s, most of those were from southeastern Alaska.

Alexander Baranov established a fort at Gajaa Heen, also named Old Sitka, about seven miles north of present-day Sitka, in 1799.xxv It seems remarkable that they could establish a base for hunting sea otter, which would have diverted the profits from those skins from the Tlingit, to the Russians.

In 1799, 115 Native hunters returning to Kodiak died from paralytic shellfish poisoning from mussels at what is now called Poison Cove. In spite of this tragedy, they took 1800 furs that season.xxvi

In 1800 they took 2000 sea otter, and in1801 4000 sea otter, just in the Sitka area. Sitka’a harbor also had various British and American ships trading from the Tlingit at this time.xxvii

The Russian hunters taking thousands of sea otters from the Tlingit waters, in addition to insults and abuses, led a multi-clan alliance of Tlingit to destroy the fort in 1802.xxviii They salvaged the stored sea otter pelts, and went to Captain Barber on the ship Unicorn, according to him to demand surrender of the survivors he had on board. Barber instead forced the Tlingit to turn over the pelts and the captives they held. He then took the survivors to Kodiak and gave back to Baranov in exchange for 10,000 rubles (in furs) for his trouble.xxix  (He didn’t mention the furs he had already gotten.)

Sitka, or New Archangel, was established on the site of Noow Tlein, now downtown Sitka, by the Russians in 1804, following the Battle of Sitka at Kaasdaa Héen, or Indian River. This battle might have gone the other way, but, the defending Kiksadi lost canoe of gunpowder and several young leaders in an accidental explosion. Baranov had also retaliated against other clans who had participated in the 1802 sacking of the Old Sitka fort, burning villages at Kuiu and Kake, which may have discouraged potential reinforcements.xxx

The Kiksadi clan and their relations made a strategic retreat, but, in the peace in 1805, ceded only the site of Sitka and retained control of all their lands, although Baranov reported 500 furs from 1804-early 1805.

At the newly-established fort of New Archangel, the Russians and the 700 Native people working for them suffered scurvy, with several deaths, and near starvation the first winter; in 1805 the Russians bought the American ship Juno and its cargo, then sent the ship to California the winter of 1805-06 for supplies from the Spanish.

Fast forward: sea otter were largely hunted out by 1820, and by the early 1830s Russians saw they were driving sea otter and fur seal (they had discovered the Pribilof Islands,where the animals breed) to extinction, so began conservation in areas they controlled, in western Alaska. Through moratoriums on certain areas, they built sea otter back up but nowhere near what it had been.xxxii

In southeastern Alaska, the Russians purchased sea otter furs from Tlingit traders. The average number of sea otter pelts sold by the Russian American Company 1842-1860 – hunted by Company employees in Western Alaska, and purchased from Tlingit in southeastern Alaska – was 1,347/year.xxxiii

Of that total, the Tlingit sold an average of 150 sea otter a year to Russians, but after 1851, Tlingit took them all to the newly-established port of Victoria to trade, because they got better goods than the Russians had.xxxiv

The Russian American Company was dependent on fur trade, which, after the 1810s, was mainly land furs. After the sea otter were hunted down, the fur trade was not that great. The Russian American Company tried to diversify, but couldn’t. Expenses grew as the Company supported retirees and widows, the church, education and health care, and it was always expensive to supply the colonies. The sad state of the fur trade part of why they sold out.xxxv

In 1867 Russians sold their claims to the United States. Fur hunting and trading was now wide open. Fur seals were very nearly wiped out in the international frenzy for profit.


From 1780s through the 1870s the fur trade was the primary economic activity in Southeastern Alaska. After the 1830s, the fur trade was not that great, with declining takes, changing fashions,xxxvi then the American and European recession of the 1870s.

This is what the incoming Americans saw – the impact of repeated, severe disease epidemics over the previous century and a half, and poverty due to the poor state of the fur trade over the decades before and immediately after the Transfer. The Tlingit economy was probably made worse by the pullout of the Russians, who seem to have bought more food and other items from the Tlingit than the Americans did.

The state of the Tlingit economy in 1867 fed into stereotypes and prejudice against Natives, and justification for denying citizenship, and for excluding Natives from civil and economic opportunities.

In addition to the sources in the end notes, other useful books include Ilya Vinkovetsky, Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804-1867, Oxford University Press, 2011,

and Kenneth N. Owens with Alexander Yu. Petrov, Empire Maker: Aleksandr Baranov and Russian Colonial Expansion into Alaska and Northern California, University of Washington, 2016.

iJames Gibson, Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods: The Maritime Trade of the Northwest Coast, 1785-1841 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992) 7-8

iiGibson, 8-11

iiiGibson, 10

ivGibson, 22

vGibson, 23

viGibson, 38

viiGibson, 135

viiiGibson, 110-126

ixGibson, 24

xGibson, 315

xiGibson, 79-80

xiiGibson, 36-38

xiiiGibson, 58

xivGibson, 292

xvGibson, 270

xviGibson, 272-277

xviiGibson, 12-13

xviii Petr Aleksandrovich Tikhmenev, A History of the Russian American Company, trans. and ed. Richard A. Pierce and Alton S. Donnelly (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978), 10

xixTikhmenev, 14

xxGibson, 13

xxi Dauenhauer, Nora Marks, Richard Dauenhauer, and Lydia T. Black, editors. Anóoshi Lingít Aaní Ká / Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804. Seattle and London: University of Alaska Press and Juneau, Alaska: Sealaska Heritage Institute, 2008, 140

xxiiTikhmenev, 35

xxiiiTikhmenev, 45

xxivTikhmenev, 153

xxvTikhmenev, 61


xxviiGibson, 14

xxviiiTikhmenev, 65


xxxDauenhauer, 219-325 (Baranov burning villages, 249)

xxxiiTikhmenev, 206-206, 235

xxxiiiGolovin, Captain-Lieutenant Pavel Nikolaevich, The End of Russian America: Captain P. N. Golovin’s Last Report, 1862. Basil Dmytrishyn and E. A. P. Crownhart-Vaughan, translators and introduction (Portland, Oregon: Oregon Historical Society, 1979), 164

xxxivGolovin, 154

xxxvTikhmenev, 215

xxxviGibson, xi

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Here are the three parts of my Boatbuilding in Sitka, most of which I did in 1988 and 1993, when I interviewed boatbuilders and the sons and daughters of boatbuilders in Sitka. I also did quite a bit of research in the vessel documentation files at the Coast Guard offices in Juneau, in several volumes of the Merchant Vessels lists, and old newspapers.

This first part includes Russian boatbuilding; since then there has been much more published from the Russian American Company and other archives, so it could be updated.

Boatbuilding in Sitka Part One – to 1900

by Rebecca Poulson

Please do not use without attribution and permission

The first shipbuilding done at Sitka was in 1805, when Sitka was a Russian fort. From 1808 until 1867, Sitka was the center of government of Russia’s American colonies, which extended across Alaska and at one time as far south as California. For many of those years, Sitka was also the center for shipbuilding and repair in the colonies.

The Russians built at least 24 ships at Sitka, ranging from 38 to over 130 feet, before the colonial effort was abandoned and their claims sold to the United States.

The following information on shipbuilding comes from the History of the Russian American Company by P. A. Tikhmenev, written in 1863, published by the University of Washington Press in 1978; the Biographical Dictionary of Russian America by Richard Pierce, published by Limestone Press; and other books on Russian America, many of which are published by Limestone Press.

The construction and loss of ships reflected the Russian American Company’s successes and difficulties in establishing their presence in North America. Lack of skills, manpower and materials resulted in problems with many of the early ships. Many ships were wrecked on the thousands of miles of coastline they had to travel between outposts and between Alaska and their Siberian supply points.


Before 1799, various Siberian merchant companies and independent hunters were in Alaska, hunting sea otter for their valuable pelts. In 1799 the Russian-American Company was formed from several companies, primarily the company of G. I. Shelekhov. This new company was granted a monopoly from the Russian government to trade in Russian America, and to colonize territory in the name of the Russian government. The chief manager of the company was also the governor of Russian America.

The first Russian ships built in Alaska were built to the west of Sitka, before the formation of the Russian American Company. Alexander Baranov was the Alaskan head of the trading company of G. I. Shelekhov, the forerunner of the Russian American Company. The company wanted him to build ships himself or buy them, because they had found building them in Okhotsk, the eastern Siberian port they used for supplying Alaska, was too expensive. They sent Baranof some iron, sails, rigging, and a shipbuilder, Englishman James Shields, an officer in the Russian Navy.i(2) Shields arrived on a ship he and his men had built at Okhotsk for the company in 1791.ii(3) Their first ship was built near the present town of Seward: the PHOENIX was finished in 1794, and was 73 feet long. The ship was built under very poor conditions. Workers were discontent, even violent, and Native people and rival traders were trying to drive them out, and the builders had inadequate materials.iii(4)

After completing the PHOENIX in 1794, Baranof sent her back to Okhotsk with three years worth of furs. In the same year the company was granted an exclusive charter from the Russian government to trade in and to rule Alaska.iv(5) Also in 1799, the Russians built a fort at Sitka, a few miles from the Tlingit fort and settlement on the present site of Sitka. English and American ships had already been coming into Sitka Sound to trade for furs with Tlingit leaders.v(1)

They then built two more small ships, the DEL’FIN (Dolphin) and the SV. OL’GA (St. Olga). These were smaller ships, about 40 feet long, the size of an average Sitka fishing boat today. Shields did some exploring along the coast in the DEL’FIN, and Baranov took the tiny OL’GA for his traveling among the company outposts. Both of these boats leaked, and the DEL’FIN had to be patched several times during Shields’ trip, because of inadequate nails and splitting wood.vi(6)

Shields later disappeared with the PHOENIX when it went down in 1799 on the way to the colonies from Okhotsk with supplies and 85 men. The loss was a severe blow to the operations in Alaska.vii(7) The OL’GA lasted until 1803, but it was in very poor condition by then. All the useful materials were taken off of her to build two more boats (41 and 51 feet) at Yakutat that winter,viii(8) which must have involved a considerable amount of improvisation.

The Russian outpost at Old Sitka was destroyed in 1802. The two ships built at Yakutat were used by Baranof when he went to try to retake Sitka in 1804. Fortunately for him, he met at Sitka the armed Russian Navy ship NEVA, and after a battle with the Tlingit defenders they established their settlement at the present site of Sitka.ix(8a)

In 1805 the first ships were actually built at Sitka. Nikolai Petrovich Rezanof, a director of the Russian American Company, visited Sitka on an inspection tour in 1805 and began the building of a slipway and the tender AVOS’ (“Maybe”) and another boat, both to his design. The AVOS’ was launched in 1806.

On his way to Sitka from Russia, Rezanof had gone to Japan as an ambassador, but had been rebuffed. The AVOS’ and the newly purchased American ship JUNO were used in an attack and raid on the northern Japanese islands, in 1806 and 1807, which had been ordered by Rezanof, with the idea of forcing the Japanese to trade with Russia.x(9)

The winter of 1805-6 was a difficult one for the Russians at Sitka. There was near-starvation, scurvy, discontent, plots, and drinking.xi(9a) Rezanof mentions the shipwrights, Koriukin and Popov, who had traveled with him from Kamchatka. There was a lot of drinking in Sitka that winter, he writes, but they were good workers, when sober. At one point Koriukin got into a knife fight with the young Russian commander of the JUNO, which had been purchased that winter. Rezanov also reports that the shipwright Koriukin was a very good draughtsman, who drew good sketches, surveys and maps.xii(10)

The AVOS’ was lost in 1808 off Unalaska, carrying Company cargo and dispatches.xiii(11)

Because of Koriukin’s and Popov’s drinking, in the fall of 1806 Baranov instead hired an American shipwright named Lincoln. Lincoln built the SITKHA, a brig, launched in 1807, which was lost that same year. He built the 300-ton brigantine OTKRYTKIE, in 1808, and laid the keel for the CHIRIKOV, a 120-ton schooner. These last two ships would have been about a hundred feet long. Apparently Lincoln’s ships were well built. They lasted into the 1820s, although by that time they were in poor condition.xiv(12)

Sitka in 1805, after having taken over the site of the Tlingit fort Noow Tlein in late 1804

Sitka in 1805, from Captain Yuri Lisianski’s Voyage Around the World. The Russians had taken over the site of the Tlingit fort Noow Tlein in late 1804, with the assistance of Captain Lisianski in the armed Russian ship Neva.

After Lincoln left, the Company did not build more ships until 1817: the schooners PLATOV and BARANOV, which were about 50 feet long.xv(13) Between 1817 and 1825 the company tried to move their shipbuilding operation to their settlement at Fort Ross, California, under a shipwright trained by Lincoln. They built four ships there, but the experiment was a disaster. The ships were all rotten and useless within a few years of being built, either because the wood was used unseasoned, when it was still wet, or because the species of oak they used was prone to rot.xvi(14)


Between 1799 and 1821 the Russian American Company had built a total of 15 ships in Russian American outposts and at Okhotsk, in Siberia, and bought only 13. But the early Russian American Company had a terrible record of sinking ships: over the same period of time, they sank 16. After 1821, a smaller proportion of company vessels were built in the colonies, although they still added up to a good number.xvii(15)

Only a few tree species commonly grow to any size around Sitka, and these include Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophyla) and Alaska yellow cedar (Chamaecyparus nootkatensis). Yellow cedar is very rot resistant and is often used for boats. Spruce and hemlock are not rot-resistant, but Sitka spruce has excellent strength for its weight, making it good for masts. Hemlock is more brittle but slightly denser.

Frederic Litke, who led a Russian round-the-world voyage which stopped in Sitka in the late 1820s, wrote that the ships built in Sitka did not last long, because of the type of wood used, or from not leaving it to dry. He says they used cypress for the frame, fir for the decks and bridge, and larch for the sheathing, and sometimes for the bridge.xviii(16)

The trees we would call fir, larch and cypress do not grow here, but in the expedition report naturalist Friedrich Heinrich Baron von Kittlitz, who was with Litke, identifies a picture of a hemlock tree with what the Russians called fir and a spruce tree with what they called larch, in an engraving from a sketch he did of the forest on Mount Verstovia. He writes that both are very well suited for masts and the construction of ships, particularly the larch. He says the fir is less esteemed, being more subject to rot. He also identifies the Russians’ “perfumed wood” with a description of Alaska yellow cedar.xix(17)

Litke also reported that at Sitka they had all the workshops and stores necessary for ship building and repair. In fact, ten more sailing ships were built at Sitka before 1842. Most of these were small schooners, for use within the colonies for local trading, replacing the baidarkas and rowboats they had been using.xx(18)

Ferdinand Wrangell, during his administration of Alaska from 1830 to 1835, closed all the colonial shipyards except the one at Sitka. The yard at Sitka was then the only place on the entire northwest coast of America for Russians, or United States vessels, to get ship repair done and to get ship supplies.xxi(19)

Wrangell writes that the shipbuilding was under the direction of a creole – what they called a person of mixed Russian and Native ancestry – named Osip Netsvetov, from St. Paul, Alaska, who had been sent to St. Petersburg (the capital of Russia) to learn his trade.xxii(20) From the beginning of the Russian American Company the directors wanted to train the the children of the Russian employees and local Natives in various trades they could perform for the company in the colonies. In exchange for their training and education they were obliged to work for the company for a number of years.xxiii(20a)

Chief Manager Wrangell also had a sawmill built at the Ozerskoi Redoubt at Redoubt Bay south of Sitka in 1833, which was only the second on the entire west coast. The first had been set up by the Hudson’s Bay Company.xxiv(21) Before the sawmill they must have sawn out their lumber by hand.

They also built a cover for shipbuilding by spring of 1834; before that they worked out in the open.xxv

Wrangell says they used yellow cedar for the ribs of their ships, and for row boats, which they did not use at Sitka, but sold to foreigners. He says they used larch for planking and pine for decks;xxvi(22) these were probably Sitka spruce and western hemlock, respectively. This was the same pattern reported by Litke in the 1820s.

In 1835 the yard retimbered an American ship, renamed the LADY WRANGELL. The shipyard workshops included an instrument shop, a foundry, and a sail loft in 1842.xxvii(23)

In 1838 machinist Edward Moore arrived in Sitka from Boston with an American-built steam engine. The shipwright Netsvetov built the paddle wheel steamship NIKOLAI, launched in the spring of 1839, and Moore helped install the engine. This may have been the first steamer built on the west coast. Unfortunately, the 130-foot NIKOLAI, as early as the summer of the launch, was recalled to Sitka because of leaks and other problems. That same fall they decided the new boat was unsuitable for use on the open ocean. In addition, the governor wrote that the building of the NIKOLAI had strained all the resources of Sitka, and besides, the larger ships built in the colonies and at Otkhosk were generally short-lived. He did believe it would still be practical to build smaller ships and boats.xxviii

They built a sailing ship in the winter 1839-40, and in 1841, they built the MUR, whose major engine parts, except for the boilers, were fabricated at Sitka by Moore.xxix(23b) The 8-horsepower MUR was used as a harbor tug. In 1846, in addition to repairs to company ships, two whalers, one German and one American, were repaired. The MUR was sold in California in 1847, and another steamer, the BARANOV, and a small schooner, the KLINKIT were built in 1848. The KLINKIT was also sold in California, in 1849.xxx(23c)

By the time they built their last ships at Sitka, the Russians were using mainly yellow cedar, which is one of the most rot-resistant American woods, but much less common than spruce or hemlock in the woods around Sitka.

In 1845 the sawmill at Ozerskoi Redoubt was getting run down, and most of the timber near there had been cut, so a new water-powered sawmill and flour mill was built at Sawmill Creek.xxxi(23d)

Between 1842 and 1863 the shipyard at Sitka built one more small sailing ship, rebuilt the NIKOLAI after it wrecked, and built two more side paddle wheel steamers out of yellow cedar: the 129-foot POLITKOFSKY, in 1863, and the smaller tug BARANOF, in 1860.xxxii(25)


Shipbuilding by the Russians came to an end permanently with the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867. But two of the last ships built in Sitka, the side paddle wheel steamers POLITKOFSKY and BARANOF, were sold at the time of the purchase, and lasted long into the American era.

The British consul at Victoria bought the BARANOF, which was about 70 feet long, changed her name to ROSE, and took off the side paddle wheel and put in a propeller. He used her to trade for furs right after the transfer. Later she carried mail on Puget Sound, then traded again in Alaska for the Alaska Oil and Guano Company until 1877.xxxiii(26)

This ROSE was perhaps the same steamer run by Amos Whitford, partner of future governor John Brady in the Sitka Trading Company in the 1880s. Before the partnership with ex-missionary Brady, Whitford used the ROSE for trading liquor, among other things. During the Sitka Trading Company days he used her for general trading for their Sitka store (operated out of the building called the Old Russian Trading Post in old photos) around southeast Alaska until they replaced her with the schooner LEO. The Russian-built ROSE lasted at least until 1897.xxxiv(27)

The 129-foot POLITKOFSKY attracted more attention than the little ROSE. She looked funny even to contemporary Americans, and she was in use for some 40 years, presumably just looking more unusual as the years went by.

The Victoria Colonist, on the POLITKOFSKY’s arrival there in 1868, called her (tongue in cheek) “a magnificent example of homemade architecture.”xxxv(28) Twenty years later, in 1887, Sitka’s newspaper, the Alaskan, quoted an article from the Tacoma Ledger: “The funniest looking old side wheel steamboat of these waters was at the wharf yesterday. It was the steamer POLITKOFSKY with a boom of piles….” They also said, however, that she looked like a “strong staunch craft.”xxxvi(29)

The Alaska Commercial Company had bought the POLITKOFSKY at Sitka right after the transfer, taken her to San Francisco and sold her boilers (for more than they had paid for the ship), then sold the ship. For decades the POLITKOFSKY towed logs and sometimes carried the mail on Puget Sound.xxxvii(30)

By 1901, however, she had been stripped down to a barge. On her last trip, she was towed to Nome during the gold rush there, loaded with coal. She was left there on the Nome sands, and finally broke up in a storm in 1915.xxxviii(31)


Most of the following information on ships built after the American purchase comes from early Sitka newspapers and from government records of documented vessels.

In 1867 the United States bought the territory of Alaska from Russia. At Sitka the purchase included the Russian shipbuilding ways (tracks for pulling ships out of the water) where Totem Square is now, which became part of the military reservation. The shipyard was equipped with several related workshops, including a shed for boiling pitch, a sawing shed, a smithy, and a steam kiln.

But only two years later, the ways were dismantled and destroyed.xxxix How ever active ship building or repair had been in the years before the sale, afterwards it came almost to a halt. Shipbuilding was to be sporadic, and generally done by the prospective ship owners themselves. Many of the boats did not last long or were sold right away, reflecting the instability of Sitka’s economic life before the turn of the century.

In 1880 and 1890, according to the census in those years, Sitka’s population of around 1200 was over two thirds Tlingit. Of the rest, excluding the Army, in 1870 over half were born in Alaska, and probably mixed Russian, Siberian and Native Alaskan descent. The remaining population was mostly foreign-born, the majority from Europe. Of the over one thousand residents in Sitka in 1870, besides Army personnel only fifty residents were from the United States. In 1880, only half of the white population spoke English.

Economic activity in the first few decades after the transfer seems to have been just as diverse as the population. It consisted mainly of speculation in land and property immediately after the transfer, fur hunting, fishing, and mineral prospecting, as well as dealing in liquor, supplies, and services for the other ventures.

In 1870 eight men listed shipbuilding trades in the Army census. One was Irish, and one was a New York caulker who had come to Sitka with the Army and married a local woman. The other six were born in Alaska. Three of these Alaskan shipbuilders lived in a building with over 100 residents, so if they were working at all, it was probably only casually. xl(2)

Ten years later, in 1880, two different Alaska-born men on the census cited shipbuilding trades, one a boatbuilder. There were also the New Yorker, and H. L. Bahrt, a ship’s carpenter from Germany. He, too, married a local woman, and his descendants are still in Sitka.

While these men might have done boat repair, and possibly small boat building, there does not seem to have been an organized boatbuilding shop for some 40 years. Instead, boat and ship building in the decades after the transfer seems to have almost all been done by the boat owners themselves, for their own schemes and enterprises.

Probably the first ship built at Sitka after the transfer was the SITKA, documented in 1871. The SITKA was a 10-ton schooner, which would have been about 35 or 40 feet, the length of a medium sized fishing boat. In fall of that year her managing owner was A. T. Whitford.xliUnfortunately she was wrecked in 1875, only a few years after being built, while carrying a load of cod.xlii(3)

In early January 1872, the year after the SITKA was built, the EDWIN H. FRANCIS was built; her managing owner was also A. T. Whitford.xliii The same year the NELLIE EDES was built by her owners, John Cook and William Phillipson, at Sitka. This enterprise may have been typical of the boats built in the ’70s and 80s. Both men had captained trading vessels out of Sitka by 1869, when Phillipson was only 25. Neither was born in the United States.

Phillipson was born in Spain, but also interpreted for the 1870 census, so he probably spoke Russian. He was Sitka’s postmaster from 1871, at one time ran the Navy coal depot, and also had his own store, dealing in everything from medicine to furs, by 1876. In addition he ran the NELLIE EDES himself in 1874, 1875, and part of 1877 around southeastern Alaska. He seems to have been a man for his time: he had come to Alaska from somewhere else, he was young and entrepreneurial, and he did a little of everything, from government work to running a trading boat.xliv(4)

Unfortunately for him, Phillipson died fairly young. After his death the NELLIE was in Kodiak, and was sold at least six times between 1880 and 1883, and was used for trading and hunting out of Kodiak until she disappeared from the record in 1887.xlv(5)

More than ten years passed after the NELLIE EDES before the next ship on record was built. The L AND H, a 48-foot sloop, was completed in 1884. This boat was registered out of San Francisco by the following year.xlvi(6)

Then in 1888 the Sitka Trading Company, which included merchant and future Alaska governor John Brady, built a 52-foot lighter for carrying freight to and from ships in the harbor, for a fee of one dollar per ton. This same Sitka Trading Company had owned the ROSE, probably the boat built by the Russians in 1860, but in 1888 they were running the American-built schooner LEO with their trade goods around southeastern Alaska. The store owners often ran the ship themselves, like Phillipson had done with his small ship.xlvii(7)

The following spring, 1889, Captain G. W. Fleming launched the 50-foot schooner SITKA. Fleming had launched a steamer at Kodiak shortly before, for the Alaska Commercial Company. When the SITKA was built it was intended for use in hunting and fishing, and possibly to service two canneries to be built at Sitka, according to the Sitka newspaper the Alaskan. Fleming sold out his interest a few weeks after the launch, to W. P. Mills and J. W. Johnson, competitors of the Sitka Trading Company. They used the boat for seal hunting and for carrying goods to Mills’ Yakutat store.xlviii(8)

In 1898, only nine years after her building, the SITKA, under other owners, was wrecked at Cape Ommaney. A petition to the Collector of Customs in May of that year said that the crew of three had set out for Wrangell inexperienced and ill-provisioned, and that the canvas was rotten.xlix(9)

In 1892, according to the Alaskan, four ambitious builders set out to build a 60-ton schooner, which is about 70 feet. They were still cutting wood but planned to have the boat built in only four months. The boat is not mentioned again and was probably never built.l(10)

Besides the merchants building boats for seal hunting and carrying trade goods around Alaska, other individuals were probably building boats for themselves, which were overlooked or too small to have been documented (boats under five net tons, generally between 25 and 30 feet for sailing vessels, are not documented) for hunting, prospecting, and other activities.

In April of 1894 the Alaskan reported two men building a 20-foot yellow cedar boat, as an experiment, with the intention of building two more for other Sitkans.

Two former Coast Survey employees, Carl Jansen and A. B. Sandstrom, built a sloop on Apple Island in 1894 to use for prospecting. Jansen died from a gunshot, apparently while cleaning a gun, which might be the only reason the boat was recorded in the newspaper.li(12) Perhaps there were other hopeful Alaskans, with more time and materials than cash, building boats to take advantage of economic opportunities they saw, in mining, hunting, logging, and so on.

Andrew Anderson, Charles Homberg, and L. P. Johnson built their 38-foot schooner NORTH STAR near John Brady’s sawmill (behind the present Thomsen Harbor) in 1895. They used spruce planking and yellow cedar timbers. Like the 1889 SITKA, she was for sale right after her launch, which was in late December. She lasted at least until 1911, working out of Sitka.lii(13)

A few more boats were built before the end of the century: The 45-foot sloop HIGO was built in 1895, and the 48-foot schooner ROVER in 1896; neither was in documentation by 1911.liii(14)

The 52-foot propeller steamer CAPELLA was built in 1899 for prospecting. The CAPELLA was, like the NORTH STAR, built at John Brady’s sawmill. Her builders had the help of a Juneau boatwright named John Nelson. The CAPELLA was still carrying freight in 1920, registered out of Wrangell.liv(15)

The last boat mentioned by the Alaskan before the paper stopped publishing in 1907 is the PIONEER, built by the carpenter of the U.S. Revenue Cutter RUSH in 1901, for carrying water to the ship. Her launch was accompanied by a luncheon and three speeches, one by Governor Brady, to the assembled officials and officers and Sitka society. The governor’s daughter smashed a bottle of Indian River water over the bow. The Alaskan notes that boatbuilding had lately been neglected.lv(16)

Boatbuilding was to increase within the next few decades, however, with the exponential growth of the fishing industry.


i Richard A. Pierce, Russian America: A Biographical Dictionary, Alaska History Series, no. 33 (Kingston, Ontario and Fairbanks, Alaska: The Limestone Press, 1990), p. 21 (Shields begins 1793); Petr Aleksandrovich Tikhmenev, A History of the Russian American Company, trans. and ed. Richard A. Pierce and Alton S. Donnelly (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978) p. 33 (building of); Pierce, Dictionary, p. 462 (difficulties); Petr Aleksandrovich Tikhmenev, A History of the Russian American Company, Volume II: Documents, ed. Richard A. Pierce and Alton S. Donelly, trans. Dmitri Krenov, Alaska History Series no. 13 (Kingston, Ontario: Limestone Press, 1979), pp. 63, 65, 71, 76 (difficulties and fighting).

ii Pierce, Dictionary, p. 462 (building ship Okhotsk).

iii Tikhmenev, History, p. 59-60 (no more Okhotsk).

iv Tikhmenev, History, p. 53 (arrival of Phoenix, monopoly).

v Tikhmenev, History p. 44 (Sitka harbor trading place).

vi Pierce, Dictionary, pp. 22, 463 (Olga built); Tikhmenev, History, pp. 33 (Olga built), 42, 43 (Olga B’s boat, bad shape); Tikhmenev, History, Vol. II, pp. 96, 102, 105, 108 (Olga B’s boat); Tikhmenev, History, pp. 69 (Del’fin gone), 41 (Del’fin surveying S. E.); Tikhmenev, History, Vol. II, p. 65 (Del’fin surveying); Pierce, Dictionary, pp. 22 (Del’fin built), 463 (Del’fin built, survey, leaks).

vii Tikhmenev, History, p. 59 (great loss); Pierce, Dictionary, p. 463 (Shields sank).

viii Tikhmenev, History, pp. 74 (ships built from Olga), 69 (Olga decrepit 1804). Barratt p 147 (Between 1801 and 1804 no ships made it to the Alaska mainland from Okhotsk – frequent shipwrecks); Tikhmenev, History, p 63 (next ship overwintered, wrecked; next one took two winters, used up supplies they were carrying).

ix Tikhmenev, History, p. 74 (retaking Sitka), Glynn Barratt, Russia in Pacific Waters, 1715-1825 (Vancouver and London: University of British Columbia Press, 1981), pp 126-129

x Ferdinand Petrovich Wrangell, Russian America: Statistical and Ethnographic Information, With Additional Material by Karl Ernst Baer, trans. from German edition of 1839 by Mary Sadouski, ed. Richard A. Pierce, Alaska History Series no. 15 (Kingston, Ontario: Limestone Press, 1980), p. 9 (launched 1806); Tikhmenev, History, pp. 95 (built, attack), 101 (attack); Pierce, Dictionary, p. 235 (attack); Barratt pp 144-146 (raid on Kurile Islands).

xi Barratt pp 130-132, 156-149 (winter of 1805-6).

xii Pierce, Dictionary, p. 310 (replaced by Lincoln); Tikhmenev, History, Vol. II, pp. 192 (good when not drunk), 196 (knife fight).

xiii Tikhmenev, History, p. 147 (lost).

xiv Pierce, Dictionary, p. 310 (Lincoln hired, ships built); Wrangell, Russian America, p. 9 (ships built); Tikhmenev, History, pp. 147 (Sitka built, lost), 148 (Otk, Chir built), 150 (Otkrytkie, Chirikov in 1820).

xv Tikhmenev, History, p. 150 (Plat, Bar built).

xvi Pierce, Dictionary, p. 181 (Ross ships lasted less than 5 years).

xvii Tikhmenev, History, pp. 151 (built 15 by 1821) 208-210 (ships by 1842), 360-364 (ships to 1862).

xviii Frederic Litke, A Voyage Around the World, 1826-1829: Volume I, To Russian America and Siberia, trans. from French edition by Renee Marshall, with a parallel account by E. H. Baron von Kittlitz, trans. from the German and with an introduction by Joan Moessner, ed. Richard Pierce, Alaska History Series no. 29 (Kingston, Ontario: Limestone Press, 1987), pp. 46-47 (woods, shipyard).

xix Litke p. 210, 211 (i.d. of spruce & hemlock).

xx. Litke, pp. 46-47 (workshops); Tikhmenev, History, pp. 208-210 (boats built by 1842); Tikhmenev, History, pp 208-209 (built 5 1827-28 to replace baidarkas and rowboats).

xxi Tikhmenev, History, pp. 208-310 (shipbuilding by 1842), 472 (note 25, on shipbuilding); Pierce, Dictionary, p. 545 (closed yards, Sitka yard).

xxii Wrangell, pp. 9-10 (Creole building).

xxiii Tikhmenev, History, p. 33 (Shelikof: teach Natives), Svetlana G. Fedorova, The Russian Population in Alaska and California, Late 18th Century To 1867, Alaska History Series no. 4, trans. and ed. Richard A. Pierce and Alton S. Donnelly (Kingston, Ontario: Limestone Press, 1973), p 245 (indenture)

xxiv Pierce, Dictionary, p. 545 (sawmill).

xxvKatherine L. Arndt and Richard A. Pierce, A Construction History of Sitka, Alaska, as Documented in the Records of the Russian-American Company, Sitka National Historical Park Historic Context Study under Cooperative Agreement with the Department of Anthropology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Second Edition (Sitka, Alaska: Sitka National Historical Park, 2003), p 77

xxvi Wrangell, pp. 9-10 (woods).

xxvii Tikhmenev, History, p. 472 (note 25 — Lady Wrangell); Fedorova, p. 223 (workshops at Sitka, 1842), from Bob DeArmond (source??) (Date of repair of Lady Wrangell).

xxviii Tikhmenev, History, pp. 208-210 (building by 1842).

xxix ??? (all of tug’s engine except boilers)

xxx Richard A. Pierce, Builders of Alaska, The Russian Governors, 1818-1867, Alaska History Series No. 28 (Kingston, Ontario: Limestone Press, 1986), p 30 (Whalers repaired, Mur sold, Baranov built, Klinkit built, Klinkit sold).

xxxi Ibid. (sawmill at Sawmill Creek 1839)

xxxii Tikhmenev, History, pp. 360-364 (ships to 1862); E. W. Wright, ed., Lewis and Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest (Lewis & Dryden Printing Company, 1895; reprint ed., New York: Antiquarian Press, 1961), p. 156; United States Treasury Department, Bureau of Navigation, Twenty-ninth Annual List of Merchant Vessels of the United States, with the Official Numbers, etc., For the Year Ended June 30th, 1897 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1897). The List of Merchant Vessels is an annual list of all the commercial vessels over five net tons. It gives for each vessel the official number, the rig or engine type, name, tonnage, register length, breadth and depth, the year and place built, and the home port. These lists are used often for the material which follows. Future references to the list will be abbreviated to Merchant Vessels and the year. The name of the Bureau and Department publishing the list, and the exact title of the list, vary through the years. The List of Merchant Vessels has not been published for several years.

xxxiii E. W. Wright, ed., Lewis and Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest (Lewis & Dryden Printing Company, 1895; reprint ed., New York: Antiquarian Press, 1961), p. 161 (Rose after purchase).

xxxiv Hinckley, Ted C., Alaskan John G. Brady: Missionary, Businessman, Judge, and Governor, 1878 – 1918 (Miami, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1982), pp. 54 (liquor), 61 (trading), 66 (replace by Leo); Merchant Vessels 1897; Merchant Vessels 1887 (only one Rose in documentation in 1887).

xxxv Lewis and Dryden, p. 156 (Homemade, quote).

xxxvi Alaskan (Sitka), 12 February 1887, p. 3 (Tacoma quote).

xxxvii Lewis and Dryden, p. 156 (Polly in WA).

xxxviii Gordon R. Newell, ed., The H. W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1966), p. 258 (end of Polly).

xxxix R. N. DeArmond, ed., Lady Franklin Visits Sitka, Alaska 1870: The Journal of Sophia Cracroft, Sir John Franklin’s Niece (Anchorage, Alaska: Alaska Historical Society, 1981), pp. 72-92 (transfer map), Alaska Times 2 October 1869, p. 2 (destruction of ways).

xl Army Census, October 24, 1870, and 1867 building inventory, included in DeArmond, Lady Franklin, pp. 72-125.

xli DeArmond, Chronology p. 6 (Whitford managing owner, Sept. 27 1871)

xlii Andrews — Marine Disasters — Washington Historical Quarterly (Driven ashore, total loss); letter, I. D. Dennis, dep. to Collector, 24 September 1875, Customs Letters volume 13, recd #70 (where?) (cod, wreck).

xliii DeArmond, Chronology p.6 (Edwin H Francis built)

xliv Customs Letters 24 February 1874, #275 (built by Cook and Phillipson); Secy. Treasurer 22 April 1874, Customs Letters Vol. 10 No. 62 (both aliens); Richard A. Pierce, Alaskan Shipping, 1867-1878: Arrivals and Departures at the Port of Sitka (Kingston, Ontario: Limestone Press, 1972), passim (Sitka boats & masters); DeArmond, Lady Franklin, p. 116 (Phillipson bio).

xlv Customs Letters, 11 July 1878, # 374; Customs Letters 1880; Customs Letters 1883, from deputy Collector at Kodiak (being sold); ????? (disappears in 1887).

xlvi Merchant Vessels 1885 (L and H).

xlvii Alaskan, 10 November 1888, p. 3 (lighter).

xlviii Alaskan, 15 December 1888; idem, 6 April 1889, p. 3; idem, 23 March 1889, p. 3; idem, 27 April 1889, p. 3 (building the Sitka).

xlix Alaskan, 30 July 1898, p. 3; idem, 4 June 1898, p. 3; idem, 28 May 1898, p. 2; idem, 21 May 1898, p. 3 (wreck).

l Alaskan, 22 January 1892, p. 2 (unbuilt boat).

li Alaskan, 10 February 1894 p. 3 (Apple Island sloop).

lii Alaskan, 1 December 1894, p. 3; idem, 5 January 1894, p. 3 (North Star), Merchant Vessels 1911 (still there).

liii Merchant Vessels 1897 (Higo, Rover).

liv Alaskan, 20 May 1899, p. 3; idem, 24 June 1899, p. 3 (Capella), Merchant Vessels 1921

lv Alaskan, 23 November 1901, p. 2 (launch for USRC Rush)

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Recently a local man self-published a book about Sitka in Russian days: The Raven and the Double Eagle. It is a completely fanciful pseudo-history, and yet it is accepted by many as fact (the historical society even sponsored a talk by him, and sells the book in their bookshop).

I spent an hour talking to a local historical society employee, trying to get him to see the red flags, all the signs that it is made up. His response (and that of the author) is that this is the history of the common people, and so it was not written down by the authorities: therefore, the more it varies from other accounts, the more it must be true. That it’s oral history – as if anything anybody says or writes has as much value as a first-hand account, or of traditional stories by Native tradition bearer, or – actual research.

Paradoxically, I think it is convincing to people because it’s a book, and the author is so sure of his stories (he believes them himself), and it’s easy to read, and the author was a history teacher. (Though he was fired from his job at Skagway, and was notorious at Sitka High for making things up; my uncle was in his class, which he says they called Uncle Jim’s Story Hour. My uncle told me that his mother once went in to confront Mr. Davis after he told the class that the KKK  really wanted to help blacks.) He uses many proper names, place names and details, and, finally, they are good stories – with villains, humor, and drama. They just happen to be made up.

This goes to the heart of what we consider history – how we gauge authenticity and reliability. Younger students need reliable information, but at some point, perhaps in middle school, it is important for students to learn how to do research and judge reliability of sources to come to a picture of the past (or the present, for that matter). I think there is awareness in the schools of how important this is now, in the age of the internet.
In the case of this book, the author claims in his foreword to have got his hard-to-believe stories from more than one first-hand account, from individuals who were here in Sitka, who did not know each other. Very well (forgetting for the moment that Sitka was a small community) – but it all takes place before 1867. The author came to Sitka in 1952, and he did meet a man who had been a child at the time of the transfer (of Alaska from Russia to the U.S., in 1867), but he says he was quite senile by then.

So if his stated sources weren’t enough of a clue, he says things that are completely false and are contradicted by the information we do have from many sources (reports, letters and narratives from contemporary visitors, as well as official records) like the Aleut did not like rifles; the Russians would shoot a cannon down the street of the Native settlement if children or dogs were too noisy (in fact, the Russians had to be extremely cautious in their relationships with the Tlingit); Sitka exported beer to Boston; Sitka led fashion; Sitka exported charcoal to China, from a dock at Jamestown Bay; the Russians liked to work in the rope making shed because they’d smoke the hemp and get high; Baranof’s wife was a bad cook so he ate at a Chinese restaurant; this Chinese couple stayed in Sitka after the transfer, and their young son was Sam Sing who drowned at what’s now Sam Sing Cove (in actual fact, Sam Sing was a Sitka businessman from the American era; a grandson drowned in Neva Strait in the 1930s); and crazier stuff than that. It’s hard to find anything that is factual.

It would be great if we were all more skeptical of what we read, even if it is a good story, and in a published book (or website). This kind of skepticism should be part of what kids learn in our schools.

But what this really points to is the need for accessible, accurate history of Sitka, so that fabrications, myths and cliches don’t find a void to fill.

Sitka’s history is well documented, but you would have to read a dozen books, and be familiar with unpublished stories and research to get anything like a full picture. For all this guy’s crazy stories, the actual facts, relationships and incidents of Russian times are even more amazing.

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If These Walls Could Talk: The Survival of Building 43

In 1998, demolition of the Sitka American Legion Post 13 revealed a Russian house, hidden within the walls of the moderrn building around it. This house was the one labeled Building 43 on the 1867 transfer map.

This post is the narrative for the Building 43 presentation in the gallery. This was presented at the 2010 Russian American Conference at Sitka Alaska in August, 2010 by Rebecca Poulson.

Here is the site now, with the new American Legion hall, with a shop in the front part.

The old American Legion building was set back from Lincoln Street, with a large yard in front of it.

The log building inside is likely from the 1850s.

Here is the transfer map of 1867.

A photo from 1886 showing the two buildings.

Building 43 was adjacent to and was attached to the larger Building 28, which fronted on Lincoln Street. Building 28 burned in 1942, and the remaining parts became the American Legion post, with an empty yard in front.

Transfer map over a photo of Sitka.

A detail.

A 1914 map showing the Millmore Hotel (on the right)

The 1914 map, transfer map, and the modern photo.

A more detailed aerial photo with the transfer map.

History of the building: on the 1867 transfer map Building 43 is labeled as a dwelling, as was Building 28, immediately in front of it, fronting Lincoln Street. According to Bob DeArmond, in his appendix to Lady Franklin Visits Sitka and from his property records research, Building 43 was sold in 1867 by the Russian American Company to Matrona Nedonalvin for $1.

Here is a diagram of the buildings, the Millmore Hotel outline, and current structures shaded in.

The building in front, Building 28, was certified by Prince Maksoutoff to be the property of William Ivanoff, a Russian subject. Ivanoff and his wife Catherine sold it the following year to Ilarian J. Archimandritoff for $1000. The Ivanoffs were probably among the 300 Russians who returned to their homeland.

Lady Jane Franklin, Sophia Cracroft and their two servants lived in Building 28 during their Sitka visit in May and June, 1870, when the occupant was out of town. Later it was owned by Lazar and Mary Caplan who sold Building 28 to Patrick Corcoran in 1875, who used it for a store and dwelling. Corcoran sold it to William Millmore in 1885.

Meanwhile, Olga and Philip Kashevarof had acquired our Building 43, and sold it as well to William Millmore in 1886, and at some point the two buildings were connected. In 1911 Millmore sold both 28 and 43 to Oscar Holm and Sam Sing. Later Sam Sing sold the narrow strip of land that is now Del Sol store to the Rands family, who built that narrow, deep building.

The combined 28 and 43 was operated as the Millmore Hotel, first by William Millmore and last by Sam Sing. In 1942 the Millmore Hotel burned, but the back section of the building, Building 43, survived. Sometime later it was acquired by the American Legion post.

Salvage: The logs walls were destined to be smashed and taken to the dump, but Thad Poulson got permission from the Legion post to salvage what he could, including one intact corner, for the purpose of historical research and public display. That building corner has been sitting outside, under tarps, since then, and other parts are in a sea van. I believe it would have great value and interest for an exhibit on everyday life in Sitka in Russian times. You could paint the inside how it would have been, put a picture on the wall, have furniture in front.

In late April and May 1998 Legion members and volunteers removed interior walls to expose the Russian construction, and two Park Service archeologists, Richard Bland and Karlene Leeper, made observations and measurements, and compiled a site report, and I’ll be using some of their drawings. I also drew and made notes of the parts that were salvaged.

Here are myself, state of Alaska archaeologist Dan Thompson, my father Thad Poulson, and state of Alaska archaeologist Margan Grover.

The building: Here is a sketch of what we found, and salvaged. Sections had been sawn out over the years, and the entire back (north) wall was gone. There were many layers of walls and wall coverings.

Park Service archeologists Richard Bland and Karlene Leeper figured out that the original log west wall had been removed, and the original porch walled in, to enlarge the building.

They also noted that there was no sign of any interior walls. It would be interesting to know if this was usual for a Russian American dwelling.

The south, Lincoln Street side, wall, and the southeast corner that was saved.

Looking south toward Lincoln Street.There is a central doorway in the south (Lincoln Street) side, that was originally a window – part of the jamb remains. The original west wall had been cut out.

The log corner joints from the outside look like simple lap joints. But when taken apart, or where one wall was sawed away as it was here, there is a hidden stopped dovetail, which I have tried to draw here. Vladimir Tikhonov?, director of the Taltsi? Log building museum in Irkutsk, says this joint is a German type. Was it usual in Sitka?

The east wall (toward Fairweather Prints/Homeport Eatery): A large part of the east wall had been sawn out, but in the beam above, were indents for the tops of three evenly-spaced windows, or of course one could have been a door. Most of the top log beam is saved.

There were three windows in the west wall as well, but the center one was originally a door, perhaps the main door.

The west wall, toward the bookstore, which seems to have been built to fill in the porch, is built with sawn lumber below two log beams. But it is entirely unlike the kind of frame carpentry seen in later buildings, even in my house, built in 1886. Each piece was joined, so that even the siding is rabetted into the upright framing members. Here are some drawings, by myself, and from the Park Service report by Richard Bland and Karlene Leeper.

The door jamb.

There were deep cut outs for joists in the upper beams.

The nails in the oldest parts of the wall are hand-made, then there are square cut nails, then finally wire nails. The thick Russian siding has two sets of nail holes, as if it had been recycled. All of the walls had layers and layers of wall coverings.

Here are photos of some of the building parts now.

When the building was cleared away, there was a Russian refuse dump beneath, quite deep. In it were the imprints of the perimeter logs, and flat rocks. Here is a diagram of the site. There were some bones lying on top, including cow bones, and a man’s thigh bone, that was turned over to the authorities. The area of brick and ash could be from a chimney.

Archeologist Dan Thompson looking for clues.

State of Alaska archeologists Margan Grover and Dan Thompson, here to start their 1998 field season on Castle Hill (excavating old bath houses and workshops), got permission to do what they could to recover artifacts from the site, and later other state archeologists went up to the dump to work there, this was after a full day in the open at Castle Hill site. I and others had several truckloads delivered for our yards, and salvaged a few artifacts.

The dirt was heavy organic muck, contaminated with sewage and diesel, but this muck was wonderful for preserving organics. The property owner (Sitka American Legion Post 13) later went through the artifacts recovered from the dump, and chose what they wanted to keep, though I am sure that if these were wanted for an exhibit or study, they would be glad to help.

Most of the organics (leather, basketry) are still in the freezer at the Alaska state archeology lab. Other artifacts (ceramic pieces, glass) are in the keeping of the American Legion. Still others are at my home, but I am getting those to the state as well if they can learn anything from them. These and the Castle Hill artifacts could eventually be used to create a Russian American life exhibit here in Sitka.

In the muck were a lot of wood chips, perhaps from construction, and pieces of cedar bark, perhaps from a roof. There was a lot of old glass from the building windows. From the site I took a barrel, and some of the things in it. Here is the barrel staves, and what looks like split roots for hoops, with the metal for the bottom hoop. There was a latex thing I gave to the state.

From the dirt I had delivered to my yard, were metal spikes and nails, lots of ceramic pieces, and many many shoe parts. There was also a piece of cedar bark rope, and part of the bottom of a large basket. Many of the artifacts I found are on display in the main room.

In the artifacts at the state archeology lab are a wooden bucket, fragments of spruce root baskets, and cedar mat fragments.

Most of the information that could have been gained from a site like this is lost forever. This site is private property, and I don’t believe it is likely Sitka will ever enact laws to force property owners to conserve historic features.

We in this room know that the study of history is enriching, empowering, and essential for understanding our own times. Especially in this place, where we have so much continuity in families and traditions. These artifacts are genuine, and fascinating, and so can draw the public into learning about our history, and appreciating the value of these clues to our past.

This 150-year-old building and the even older trove beneath it were to be thrown away. This points to the need for the public to understand the value and importance of archeology to understand our history, so that next time, property owners and the historic community can work together and document, conserve, and if necessary remove historical material in a controlled manner.

To that end, these logs, which are truly interesting to look at, could be part of an exhibit on daily life in Sitka in Russian times, together with artifacts from Castle Hill and artifacts such as dishes in the Sitka museum collection.

Such an exhibit could go far to interest Sitka people in our history, and perhaps save the next archeological treasure that comes to light.

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