Posts Tagged ‘Sitka history’

Here is part three of three parts of my boatbuilding in Sitka. Most of the research was done in 1989 and 1993, when I interviewed boatbuilders and their sons and daughters. Please contact me if you would like to use any part, if you have corrections, questions, or additional information.

Boatbuilder Peter Simpson, far right, and the Sheldon Jackson School superintendent Les Yaw to his right, with the crew building the seiner SJS. From left: Joe Ozawa, John James, David Howard, Peter Sing, Yaw and Simpson. Photo from the Sheldon Jackson collection at the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

Boatbuilder Peter Simpson, far right, and the Sheldon Jackson School superintendent Les Yaw to his right, with the crew building the seiner SJS 1936-37. From left: Joe Ozawa, John James, David Howard, Peter Sing, Yaw and Simpson. Photo from the Sheldon Jackson collection at the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

Peter Simpson and Sheldon Jackson School: The 1930s and 1940s

Peter Simpson built two seiners in the 1930s, when he was past 60. In 1934, he built the TWO BROTHERS, named for his grandsons, Henry and Sam Sing. The TWO BROTHERS still fishes out of Sitka. Herman Kitka rebuilt the TWO BROTHERS from the waterline up and opened up the bow somewhat. The boat now also has a larger wheelhouse than when she was first built, when the galley was below decks.i

Peter Simpson’s son, boatbuilder Louis Simpson, died in March of 1936 of pneumonia, at age 40.ii

In 1937 Simpson built the SJS for the Sheldon Jackson School. Les Yaw was superintendent of the school at the time. In his book Sixty Years in Sitka he writes that Simpson first came to him with a sketch of the boat on brown paper. Simpson may not ever have used plans, instead building with half models and sketches.iii

Simpson used yellow cedar for the ribs of the SJS. Simpson and Sheldon Jackson School students got the yellow cedar themselves, and milled it at the school sawmill. Yaw says Simpson preferred oak, but used yellow cedar because they had no money for oak, which has to be purchased from outside Alaska. The planking above the waterline, the deck beams and much of the superstructure were also yellow cedar. He used Sitka spruce for the planking below the waterline, because he said it was tougher.iv

Simpson had to lower the shop floor two feet to build the SJS,v so his earlier boats must have been smaller, or launched before the superstructure was put on, or, built in some other place. A photo of the building of the SJS shows Joe Ozowa, David Howard, John James, and Simpson’s son-in-law Peter Sing working on the boat.vi

The Sheldon Jackson School sawmill had only just been put together from an old mill that school staff and students salvaged from an abandoned mine on Indian River. The school annual says that this sawmill was the only one in town. Simpson helped get it running and ran it for the school. He also encouraged Les Yaw to salvage a donkey from the site of John Brady’s sawmill at the present Thomsen Harbor. The donkey was a portable engine and winch for pulling logs out of the woods or up to a sawmill. Simpson may have used this same engine when working for Brady just after the turn of the century. The salvaged sawmill burned down in 1940 but was rebuilt with different machinery in 1941 and operated into the 1960s, run at various times by Simpson or by Andrew Hope.vii (37) It probably provided wood for many of the Sitka boats built after that time. The donkey winch is still sitting next to the Sheldon Jackson College library.


The SJS was renamed the MISS LINDA, and may still be fishing. The SJS had a few features that put her at the cutting edge of modern boat construction: she is supposed to have been the first boat built locally with the galley (cooking area) on deck, that is, in the wheelhouse, rather than below decks. The older seiners only had a small wheelhouse, with a place to steer the boat, and maybe a bunk, on deck. A large wheelhouse was a later addition to many of the old boats. In addition, the SJS is also supposed to be the first boat built locally with a high-speed diesel, instead of gasoline, engine. This was an innovation of the school engineer, Charles Stuart.viii (38)

Charles Stuart had been an engineer in the British merchant marine, and was the engineer at Sheldon Jackson for over two decades, from 1924 to 1945. He had been involved in the sawmill rehabilitation, and with his students was also involved with the metal and machine work on the PRINCETON HALL.ix (39)

Peter Simpson taught boat building and sawmill engineering at Sheldon Jackson from 1938 until 1945. He and his students built four skiffs and six round-bottomed boats in 1938 39, and built six skiffs and round bottom boats for the local military in 1942. For those boats he used red cedar and yellow cedar.x (40) His granddaughter, Isabella Brady, says he also built a new round-bottomed boat each spring for her grandmother (who died in 1936), which they would use a year, then sell.xi (41)

Older Sitkans remember his boats as well crafted, and a pleasure to row. His round bottom boats were Aon the Davis model.”xii (42) The Davis family of Metlakatla made rowboats in the 1920s and 30s which they would sell all around southeastern Alaska, for handtrolling and general purposes. Their early boats were double-enders, built for rowing, but the majority of their production had squared off sterns, for mounting an outboard motor.xiii

Simpson was a craftsman, who would not let his students use a dull tool. His grand nephew, George Howard Sr. says Simpson would tell him “Do it once and do it right.”xiv (42a) Everyone I have talked to remembers him as a pleasant man.

Peter Simpson was a founder, and more than once Grand Camp President, of the ANB. He is remembered as a calming influence, a persuasive, quiet man who was more important behind the scenes than in the spotlight. Land issues were very important to him. One reason the Gravina sawmill, of which he was a founder and shareholder, was not rebuilt after it burned was that the owners could not get title to the land because they were not considered citizens of the United States.

Peter Simpson was also an active member of the Presbyterian Church, and, in his earlier years, was active in various Cottages groups, including the Cottages band, in which he played trombone. Peter Simpson died in 1947.xv (44)

Andrew Hope Shop in the 1940s

At the beginning of World War II the Navy requisitioned the PRINCETON HALL then the school’s workboat, the seiner SJS, which had been built by Peter Simpson and Rudy James and crew in 1938. Sheldon Jackson School was left without a boat, so in the winter of 1942 43 Andrew Hope built the SJS II. He carved a half model for his boat. He used yellow cedar planking above, and spruce below the waterline. This was the same planking arrangement used by Simpson on the SJS, and later by Richard Peters, who worked with Hope, on the LAVERNE II in 1946. Hope used Douglas fir for the deck.xvi (17)

Boatbuilding Woods

Most of the trees in the thick forests around Sitka are western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis). Hemlock wood is relatively hard and brittle, and doesn’t stand up to rot, so it is rarely if ever used in boat building. Sitka spruce, while also not particularly rot resistant, is light and tough. The largest cut was in World War I, when it was used for light aircraft frames.

Sitka spruce is still renowned by boatbuilders world-wide for spars (masts and booms). Locally, it has been used for planking, especially on small boats, like the sealers, but also on the larger fishing boats, because it is light, tough, and available in the woods around Sitka. Herman Kitka,a fisherman and shipwright who has worked with Andrew Hope, says it outlasts yellow cedar under the waterline.xvii (18) Peter Simpson used it under the water line, with yellow cedar above, on the SJS. Andrew Hope did the same thing on the SJS II and on the LAVERNE II.xviii (19a)

In addition, Sitka spruce can grow to several feet in diameter, and the large logs yield wide clear lumber, which is what is needed for planking stock.

Yellow cedar (Chameacyparus nootkatensis) is much less common in the forests. It often grows very slowly. The wood is yellow, and strongly fragrant when freshly cut; it is pleasant to work, and very resistant to rot. It also has a reputation for checking (splitting) and for not taking paint, but different builders and boat owners have different opinions on this. Yellow cedar is closely related to Port Orford cedar, which is a highly regarded boatbuilding wood. Yellow cedar has been used to build complete boats, including the planking, frames, and deckbeams,xix (20) but it has been used mainly for deckbeams, ribs, and planking above the waterline.

Local woods, Sitka spruce and yellow cedar, are economical to use if the boat owner or builder cuts them himself, but there has not always been a sawmill in Sitka. Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is the usual wood for boat repair and building. It does not grow as far north as Alaska, but since the 19th century has been commonly available here because of the large timber industry in Washington and Oregon. Douglas fir is rot resistant and strong.xx (21)

White oak is actually several species of oak (genus Quercus) which share rot-resisting qualities. This also has to be imported to Alaska, but is desirable for the bent ribs of the boats. It bends extremely well, and is much harder and more durable than any local wood for ribs, which have to hold all the fastenings of the planking. Yellow cedar has sometimes been used for ribs, maybe again because of cost, but some builders may have preferred it.

Hope shop in the 1940s, cont.

The Hope shop was very productive. In addition to the boats listed earlier built in the 1920s and 1930s, Andrew Hope was recorded as the builder of the NEVA and the TAMARA SAN, both documented in 1942. Mark Jacobs Jr. says Hope built a troller LAVERNE, possibly the one built in Sitka in 1942. He is also on record as the builder of the HOPE, MARTHA K (now the NORTH CAPE) and SJS II in 1944; the ALLANAH in 1945; the EMPRESS (renamed the MARTHA K) in 1946; PATRICIA MAE in 1947; the GOTA in 1950; and his last boat, the gillnetter VALI for his daughter and son in law in 1961.xxi(22)

Andrew Hope was prominent in the ANB, and was Grand Camp President, and for decades was head of the Tlinget and Haida Tribes, which was formed to fight for land claims. After 1944 he was elected to seven terms in the territorial then the state legislature, and was on the Sitka Common Council for nine terms from the 1920s through the 1950s.xxii (23)

Hope has a reputation for strong, well built hulls. He preferred building to repair, but his main occupation was as a fisherman: he seined the Sheldon Jackson School boat SJS II,xxiii (23) and when the school got out of fishing seined his own boat, the NEVA. He would also pick up students for Sheldon Jackson School on the last trip of the season.

Mo Johnson worked on building the PRINCETON HALL as a Sheldon Jackson student, and also fished with Hope. He says he was great to work for, and had a good eye. He says the joints in a timbered stern fit with no gaps, and Hope would sight down the length of each plank to check for fairness.xxiv (23a)

Most of Andrew Hope’s boats were built by eye, from half models. The models were made to a scale of one half inch to the foot. The red cedar model of half a boat sliced down the centerline was cut transversely, and the sections enlarged and set up square and plumb. Herman Kitka, another boatbuilder, built with Hope and says that there was seldom any need to fair in the molds once set up.xxv (23b)

Andrew Hope, with Herman Kitka, built the NEVA for Todd cannery. They got some spruce logs, and some yellow cedar from Crawfish Inlet, which they cut at the Sheldon Jackson sawmill. The boat was built to Hope’s design but had some design flaws, not corrected. Kitka says Hope said, let it go, we’ll never see it again, but years later Hope bought the boat, and put on a larger wheelhouse.

Hope built the TAMARA SAN for Hans Peterson, with no cannery financing. The HOPE, a troller, was built for Henry Yrjana.

The MARTHA K, later renamed the NORTH CAPE, was built by Herman Kitka for himself. He bought lumber from Hope, which was mostly fir, except for yellow cedar for the beams.

The ALLANAH was documented in 1945, built for Fred Brandes. Richard Peters, Al Rottluff, and Fred Brandes helped build the boat with Hope. The builders had $12,000 to work with, which was almost enough, as Al Rottluff recalled.

The EMPRESS, now named the MARTHA K, was built in 1946 for the New England Fish Company. The boat was built all of fir, and was designed by Hope.

The Pyramid Packing Company financed the hard-chine Edwin Monk (a Seattle marine architect) design PATRICIA MAE, later renamed the NEKA QUEEN, for John Young.xxvi Hope built the SATCHEM, documented in 1952 for “Cap” Anderson from Chichagof for shrimping. He used all Douglas fir for this boat, which is still in Sitka.

Also working with Andrew Hope were Lawrence Widmark Sr. and Richard Peters, a dockworker, who ran a pile driver. Peters built his LAVERNE II with Hope, documented in 1946. The LAVERNE II is a small hard chine seiner, now used as a troller. Her current owner says that when the breaktimber, which is the large beam at the step in the deck, was replaced, they found the two sides of the hull identical, a mark of careful workmanship.xxvii (25) Mark Jacobs Jr. says that the original LAVERNE, a small trunk cabin troller, was also built by Hope. This might have been the LAVERNE built in Sitka and documented in 1942, owned by Elis Peterson in 1948.xxviii

Herman Kitka

Herman Kitka went to the Sheldon Jackson School, then went to the Wrangell Institute in 1935, where he learned boatbuilding from plans from a Norwegian named Gus Anderson. The program consisted of one year of academic work and a year of part-time apprenticeship.

Herman Kitka has always been a fisherman, but when his small gas troller blew up and he found himself “on the beach” with nothing to do, he built himself the MARTHA K in 1939. He worked on building several boats with Hope, including the PRINCETON HALL, the NEVA, his own MARTHA K (later sold and renamed the NORTH CAPE), the SJS II, and the EMPRESS. He later bought the EMPRESS and renamed her the MARTHA K, the boat he has now. Kitka has also done some major rebuilding projects on the MARTHA K. Herman Kitka is mainly a fisherman, with his own boat since 1937. When the Sitka Marine Railway started at Jamestown Bay in 1946 he also worked there sometimes.

Andrew Hope never liked to do repair, and there were not any facilities in town for hauling boats out of the water, so when the Sitka Marine Railway opened in 1946 boats went there for repair.xxix (24)

The canneries in Southeastern Alaska went into a decline after the war, and most closed by the 1970s. They stopped financing new boats and sold off their fleets. The canneries, and the seasonal migration to the canneries and fishing grounds, were once a way of life for many in Sitka. There is only one remote cannery now operating in southeastern Alaska.

The number of seiners around Sitka also declined    from twenty or thirty boats to only a few that still seine out of Sitka. One reason for this might have been the canneries= system of managing the boat’s finances, if not actually owning the boat, so the fisherman only had to fish and did not have to deal with the business aspects of fishing. This left fishermen unprepared to run their own operation when they had to.xxx (26)

The Howard Brothers Shop in the 1940s


In 1941 Andrew Hope is recorded as the builder of probably the best known of the boats built at Sitka: the Presbyterian mission boat PRINCETON HALL. The 65 foot PRINCETON HALL was built to replace the Presbyterian Board of Home Mission’s boat PRINCETON, wrecked in 1939. These boats were used for transporting mission and Sheldon Jackson School staff and students around southeastern Alaska.

The PRINCETON HALL was designed by Seattle marine architect Harold Lee, and was to have been built in Seattle. Bids came in too high, and the Sitka builders took on the project. xxxi (1)

Andrew Hope had his own shop then, but he may have had a boat in it at the time, and it was smaller than the Howard shop. (The NEVA and TAMARA SAN were also documented in 1942.) The PRINCETON HALL was built in the shop of his brothers in law, George and David Howard, at the north end of Katlian Street.xxxii (2)

The Howard brothers’ shop had been built in 1940, the year before the PRINCETON HALL was built, replacing the smaller one their father, the first George Howard, had built around 1913. The new shop was then extended 25 feet for building the PRINCETON HALL. The extension was later taken off. This shop stood just east of the Seafood Producers Co op, until it was torn down in June of 1990.xxxiii (3)

The Howard brothers, especially George, and Sheldon Jackson School staff and vocational students worked on the boat. The students at Sheldon Jackson worked half days on the boat, and half a day and evenings on their schoolwork. Machine shop and metal working students under Charles Stuart installed the engine and fabricated the bronze railing, bow iron, and rudder.xxxiv (4)

The keel was fir, the ribs oak, and the deck teak. Teak is often used on yachts, and not on workboats. These were all usual materials for boatbuilding in the Northwest, and all brought up to Sitka from south. But the deckbeams were yellow cedar, either for economy, or because the builders preferred it.xxxv(5)

The boat was launched on December 4, 1941, just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. She was soon requisitioned by the Navy for use as a patrol boat. The Navy mounted a gun on the foredeck and painted the boat gray. The Presbyterian Board of Home Missions got her back after the war, and sold her in 1961.xxxvi (5a) The PRINCETON HALL is still in use, after complete renovation, as a charter boat out of Juneau.xxxvii (6) Her current owner, Kathy Ruddy, has compiled a history of the boat’s Sheldon Jackson days.

Still other boats came out of the Howard brothers’ shop on Katlian Street in the 1940s and 1950s. The senior George Howard had died sometime in the 1920s or 1930s. His sons George and David, though they were mainly fishermen like their father, also built boats.

The NEW ENGLAND was built in the old shop, documented in 1935. The NEW ENGLAND may have been the second George Howard’s first boat. It took a while to finish, and George Howard Sr. (the third George Howard) remembers playing on the unfinished boat as a small child. This boat was built for George Ward, to replace his seiner MARY WARD, built for him in 1919 by Peter Simpson.xxxviii (6a)

In 1940 the Howards tore down the old shop and built a much bigger shop in the same place. The BETTY K, documented in 1940, may have been the first boat built in the new shop. Herman Kitka says this boat had planks half way up when Ted Kirkman purchased it, and that Kitka finished it. George Howard began the DENNY JO, documented in 1945, but in his later years he was increasingly disabled by tuberculosis; he suffered a hemorrhage when lifting something for the DENNY JO, and the boat was finished by Stanley Sutton. The JUNE K, built for Charles Bennett, was documented the same year.xxxix (7)

The JUNE K was built from a half model carved by Stanley Sutton, and then modified by George Howard, according to his son, George Howard Sr. The half model was then cut across its length into sections, from which the full sized molds were made. The molds are made in pairs, so that the half model provides the outline of both sides of the boat. The molds are set up at the proper intervals along the keel, and the boat is then built around these molds. The second George Howard also used plans for some of his boats.xl (8)

For the JUNE K, Howard used Douglas fir and white oak, and fastened the boat with galvanized boat nails. The JUNE K might still be on the beach at Angoon.xli (9)George Howard Sr., who was a child when the shop was built, does not remember ever seeing any machinery which might have been in the old shop.xlii (11)

The GOTA, which is still fishing out of Sitka, was built in the Howard shop, but after George Howard was too sick to work on it. The boat’s builder’s certificate names Andrew Hope. Richard Peters, who worked with Hope, also worked on the GOTA, along with the boat’s owner. This one changed hands before she was finished: George Howard Sr. says she was begun by Pete Anselm, and sold to Oscar Isaacson while still only ribbands and keel. Her current owner says she had a lot of yellow cedar timbers, with many spruce planks, on oak ribs.xliii (12)

When it was in full operation, the Howard brothers’ shop had grids on both sides, for boats needing repair. To haul a boat up into the shop itself, they used the city truck, which had a winch, and ingenuity. They put timbers across the doorway to keep the truck from being pulled into the shop. The boat cradle and slipway were made stoutly of wood; the cradle would be weighted with rocks at low tide, and the boat floated onto it at high tide. The boat was attached to the cradle with temporary shores and cross ties. Then the rocks were knocked off with poles, and the boat in the cradle was hauled up the greased slipway.xliv (13)

The 1940 shop had a bandsaw, a tablesaw, and a planer, which were all bought new when the shop was built. They ran off of belts from a five horsepower electric motor in the loft. The Howards also had a wood fired boiler for steaming planks and ribs, which was young George Howard Sr.’s job to tend.xlv (10)

The second George Howard’s sons say he did mostly repair, and was mainly a fisherman, and did not do boatwork every winter. His sons worked with him sometimes in the shop and also fished with him. His brother David Howard, and George Benson, who also built double-ended boats, also worked with him at times.xlvi (14)

The JENNY was documented in 1947. George Howard signed the builder’s certificate, but the boat was completed by Oscar Isaacson, a Seattle shipwright, or by Andrew Hope. Around 1950 the JENNY was found on the rocks by Sinitsin Island, deck awash, and no sign of her owner, Nestor Laakso, except for a slipper on the foredeck. The boat was towed into town and bought and restored by George Sarvela.xlvii In the summer of 1984, owner Victor Lane was killed by his deckhand, Michael Blackhurst near Kruzof Islandxlviii (14a). This troller has left her sad past behind and is still fishing, documented out of Elfin Cove.xlix(15)

George Howard died in 1956, from complications of tuberculosis.l (16)

The Sitka Marine Railway

The Sitka Marine Railway opened in November of 1945 at Jamestown Bay, at what is now Allen Marine. Wally Sims and Robert Wheeler and crew built several good-sized boats there before first Sims left, then Wheeler divorced his wife and left in 1949. Sims may have been mainly in the financial side of the business, and he was not a builder. Wheeler’s wife’s father Earl MacDonald, who had helped them set up, ran the yard after Wheeler left. This man, Earl MacDonald, had taught boatbuilding during the war, and one man at the Jamestown Bay yard had been a student of his. Wheeler had also once been an employee of MacDonald.li (1) MacDonald’s brother had been a partner in a Puget Sound yard called Prothero MacDonald.

An impressive total of four boats were documented in the year 1946. The MYRTH was the first boat built there, documented in 1946 for Rudy Sarvela. Some of the wood was spruce from a mill at Hidden Falls, but most of the wood was Douglas fir. The boatyard sometimes used yellow cedar, but mainly used fir.lii (2)

The yard mainly did repair, and became the primary repair yard in Sitka; Hope preferred building to repair, and did not have a way to haul boats out of the water. The Howard shop could pull boats out of the water, by using a borrowed truck with a winch, pulling the boat up a wooden ways.

Six or eight men worked at the yard the winter of 1946 47, but later fewer worked there. HER HIGHNES, JUNIOR, and WRJ were also documented in 1946, and the PT CRAVENS and ALRITA in 1947. Some of these were built on the same transom-stern, round-bottom design, drawn by Edwin Monk, a Seattle marine architect, in two sizes: the MYRTH and WRJ have the same register length of 37 feet, and the JUNIOR and PT CRAVEN are about a foot longer. The ALRITA is a little larger, and the hard-chine HER HIGHNES smaller. (Hard-chine means that the hull, rather than being round, has a v-bottom and a hard angle where the bottom meets the sides.) The HER HIGHNES was built by MacDonald at his home. The STEPHANIE, now the CHUCK A NAN, was built at Jamestown Bay in 1955, and is also a hard-chine design.liii(3)

Al Rottluff, a fisherman who worked for the yard in winters, says that the Sitka Marine Railway could not compete with the Puget Sound builders    wages were higher, and materials more expensive here. They also had to wait on all services that had to be done in Seattle. He says Sims and Wheeler had to put things into hock to pay the workers while waiting for the yard to get paid, especially on insurance work. The yard did mostly repair work, he says, and also built seine skiffs.liv (4)

Among other jobs, the yard rebuilt the NORTH CAPE, and the TWO BROTHERS was torn down for repair at the time Wheeler left.lv (4a)

The original buildings were salvaged from military buildings at Old Sitka. They had two railways for hauling boats up, one covered. MacDonald sold the yard in 1955 to machinist Ray Woodruff, who sold the yard to someone else, who sold it to Bob Allen in 1967.lvi (5) Allen put in the fill    the tide used to come right up to Sawmill Creek Road    but one of the old buildings is still standing, with fill coming right up to its pilings. Part of one of the railways is also still visible.

Bob Modrell and Boatbuilding at Mt. Edgecumbe School

After the war, part of the military base at Japonski Island was turned over to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which opened a boarding school for Native youth. Bob Modrell, a boatbuilder originally from Seattle, Washington, taught boatbuilding there from 1948 to 1955.lvii (6)

In 1937, Modrell had been in the first boatbuilding class at Edison Vocational School (later called Gompers, now part of Central Seattle Community College). The Seattle marine architect Edwin Monk was involved with the school, and the first edition of his book Boatbuilding has photos of a young Bob Modrell and his classmates, who included William Garden, who was to become another well known Northwest marine architect.lviii (7) After finishing his schooling, he worked at different yards; work was hard to come by because of the Depression. During the war he worked for the Navy shipyard.

Modrell’s Mt. Edgecumbe students, who included some war veterans in early classes, built a 32 foot troller to a William Garden design, on spec, which was converted to a pleasure boat. They also repaired and built a deckhouse for the shore boat ARROWHEAD. Modrell also built his lovely sailboat PUFFIN, designed for him by William Garden.lix (8)

Modrell taught boatbuilding in Hangar Two. The enormous clear spans available in the hangars were also used for carpentry classes, which built houses they moved to sites around Japonski Island. The hangars are still there – one is the B. J. McGillis fieldhouse, and the other is the Sitka campus of the University of Alaska Southeast. Though a large part of the building is now classrooms, part of the original hangar space remains.

Bob Modrell said that while some of the vets were interested in boatbuilding as a career, none of the high school students were; they were mainly interested in being able to repair their own boats. After the boatbuilding program was cut in 1955, Modrell went over to the Public Health Service, which administered the government installations on Japonski Island. He maintained the shore boat fleet, which ran passengers between Sitka and Mt. Edgecumbe until the O’Connell Bridge was built in 1972.

Bob Modrell painted, maintained and repaired the shore boats at the covered boat ways, which is still there, at the foot of the O’Connell Bridge. He had his shop in one side of the building, and the other side was storage. A large winch pulled the boat, in a cradle, up a railway track. When the boathouse did not have a shore boat in it, federal employees used it to haul out their own boats, through the Service Activities for Federal Employees (SAFE). For a time, after the

During World War II the military also had a second boat house, which they also used for maintaining their fleet of patrol boats and shore boats. The second one was a floating boathouse, located inside the 600 foot long pier, which extended toward the present bridge. Boats could be hauled out of the water with slings and hand cranks. There was a small shop in one end. Bob Modrell used it for painting, and never used the hoists.

Modrell also built harbor floats, and worked on the piers and floats of SAFE Harbor, on the Island side of the channel. He also ran the PHS tug, which they ran back and forth to Sitka with a scow.

After the O’Connell Bridge was built in 1972, Modrell went over to the carpentry shop, although he maintained the boathouse ways, the only covered ways in Sitka after the Sitka Marine Railway burnt, until he retired in 1981.

The World War II boathouse is now part of the Japonski Island National Monument. The boathouse is part of the University of Alaska Sitka campus.

Most of the shore boats had been built during the war, at the Bremerton Navy yard: the TEDDY in 1941, the ARROWHEAD in 1942, and the DONNA in 1943. The others were the DIANE, which had no document, and the DOROTHY, built for government contractors, in Seattle.lx (8a) They were all sold after the bridge was built.

Other boatbuilding

In 1946 Dave Halleck and “Pinky” Bergdahl built the SKEETER near the SeaMart Downtown store. Bergdahl had been in the military in Sitka in World War II. Halleck, his father-in-law, had been working for Pyramid cannery, and was also a carpenter and fisherman. They logged the yellow cedar for the boat, cut at Sheldon Jackson sawmill and at Baranof Warm Springs, and launched the boat in a cradle over the beach wall at the Crescent. They only fished a few years, then sold the boat, which is still fishing around Sitka.lxi (8b)

The SHARON ANN, documented in 1947, was built by some people named Rowley on the turnaround side of the Siginaka Way spit (near Thomsen Harbor), and used for carrying freight. A member of the same family may have built the MINNIE R, a halibut boat documented in 1945.lxii (8c)

Also in the 1940s, a man was building skiffs at Herring Cove.lxiii (8d)

Since the 1950s a few more fishermen have built their own boats. Paul Morgan designed and built the C RAE in 1962, across from where SeaMart is now. Morgan had done carpentry, and worked a winter at the Jamestown Bay yard. He used spruce planking because he got a good deal on some from the Columbia sawmill, but most of the boat is Douglas fir. He hauled the completed hull out Halibut Point Road after a snowfall, and launched her at Old Sitka.lxiv (9) The boat unfortunately burned in 1993, but not before providing years of service and enjoyment to the Morgans.

Harry Jimmy built the 33 foot 8 inch ANNETTE in 1955 on Back Street and in 1967 the PERIL STRAIT to a William Garden design, using mostly local materials.lxv (10) Gary Erb built the CHANCY, which he built using mostly lumber he had cut and milled himself, to his own design.lxvi (11)

Boat building and boat repair is still a living part of Sitka’s economy, and dozens of shops and individual tradesmen repair everything from electronics to planking.

Wooden boatbuilding has become unusual today in Sitka. Few wooden boats have been built anywhere in the Northwest since the 1950s. While the seine and troll fisheries were expanding in the first part of the century, there was a big demand for boats. Fewer small fishing boats are built now, and the ones that are are now built mostly of fiberglass, aluminum, and steel, which can be made into hulls more quickly. Labor is relatively more expensive now, and good boatbuilding wood is harder to come by.

Even though wood is not a common boatbuilding material any more, businesses in Sitka continue to build boats, now in other materials, when the need arises   for example rugged welded aluminum skiffs, custom built by various welding shops; fast custom fiberglass boats by Gerald Gangle; and large aluminum passenger boats, the largest 100 feet long, built by Allen Marine, many of which they still run in their own business, and recently have built some for New York City ferries.

Although the boats are not usually built of wood any more, the basic reasons for building are probably what they have always been. When the boats they could buy are too expensive or unsuitable, or when they just feel like a challenge to their skills and ingenuity, Sitkans still build boats, carrying on an old tradition as valid now as ever.

i Coast Guard Vessel Documentation (Two Brothers), Herman Kitka, Sr., interview by author, tape recording, Sitka, Alaska October and December 1988 and March 3 1992 (rebuild), Carlos Schwantes, phone interview, 16 November 1988 (galley below).

ii City of Sitka Death Records, #1167

iii W. Leslie Yaw Sixty Years in Sitka: With Sheldon Jackson School and College (Sitka, Alaska: Sheldon Jackson College Press, 1985), p. 70 (sketch).

iv Yaw, pp. 60-83 (SJS and sawmill).

v Verstovian, January 1937, p. 2 (lower shop floor).

vi Yaw p. 70 (workers on SJS).

vii Yaw pp. 60-83 (SJS & sawmill); 1936-37 Sheldon Jackson Annual, Sheldon Jackson Archives #814 (mill only one in town); Hinckley, pp. 329-30 (1902 log haul); Verstovian, Sept 1940, p. 1 (Hope runs mill); Yaw, pp. 175-195(Simpson taught sawmill).

viii Yaw pp. 60, 64, 65, 74. 75 (school boats)

ix Yaw, p. 24 (Merchant Marine) Yaw pp. 60, 64, 65, 74. 75 (school boats); Yaw, pp. 175-195 (staff).

x Sheldon Jackson School Verstovian, December 1942, p. 2 (10 boats for Navy); Yaw, pp. 175-195 (staff).

xi Isabella Brady interview (boats for Grandma); Verstovian, March 1936, p. 1 (Mrs. S. dies).

xii B. Sarvela interview (modeled on Davis, y c, easy to row); Bahrt interview (?).

xiii Loken, pp. 11-14 (hand trollers).

xiv G. Howard interview (do it once).

xv Brady interview; Paul interview; Sentinel, 31 December 1947, p. 1 (activities); Verstovian, Thlinget various issues (activities).

xvi Yaw, pp. 91-99 (SJS II); Simon Anderson, phone interview by author, 14 or 15 November 1988 (planking Laverne); Coast Guard Vessel Documentation (Peters).

xvii A. S. Harris, Sitka Spruce. USDA Forest Service American Woods circular series number FS-265 (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Agriculture, 1971) p. 5 (cut in WWI).

xviii Kitka interview (spruce on big boats) Yaw p 99 (materials on SJS II), Simon Anderson interview (Laverne II materials).

xix A. S. Harris, Alaska-cedar. USDA Forest Service American Woods circular series number FS-224. (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Agriculture, 1971) (yellow cedar booklet)

xx U. S. Navy Bureau of Ships, Wood: A Manual For Its Use As a Shipbuilding Material, First Collected Edition (Kingston, Massachusetts: Tea Party Books, 1983) (Douglas Fir).

xxi Coast Guard Vessel Documentation (Hope’s boat); Mark Jacobs Jr., note on draft 1992 (Laverne); Seesz interview (Satchem built by Hope).

xxii Hays interview; Sentinel. 15 April 1968; Andy Hope III, Founders of the Alaska Native Brotherhood ( ) (ANB, legisl, etc.); Verstovian, October 1941; Yaw, p. 77-78 (Hope Fished SJS); Verstovian, October 1949, p. 4 (Reelected to Common Council); Chronology p 217 (Hope’s terms in Legislature and Common Council)


xxiv Johnson interview (Hope’s careful workmanship)

xxv Kitka 1992 interview (work methods of Hope).

xxvi Kitka interview 1992, Coast Guard Documentation Office, and Kitka 1992 (Martha K to North Cape, Empress to Martha K, Patricia Mae to Neka Queen); Kitka 1993 (Neva, Tamara San, Hope); Al Rottluf interview by author, tape recording, Sitka, Alaska November 21 1988 (Allanah, Satchem); Chronology p. 150 (Patricia Mae on Monk Design); Don Seesz phone interview by author (Satchem).

xxvii Coast Guard Vessel Documentation, Anderson interview (Peters), Kitka 1992.

xxviii Jacobs, note on 1992 draft, Coast Guard Documentation Office.

xxix Kitka interviews (his career)

xxx Johnson interview (decline of canneries, seiners).

xxxi Yaw, pp. 79-83 (P-H)

xxxii G. Howard interview, Jacobs interview (Hope had shop then); Coast Guard Vessel Documentation (two doc 1942).

xxxiii G. Howard interview (shop extended).

xxxiv Yaw, pp. 79-83 (P-H); Jacobs interview (kids worked)

xxxv Yaw, pp. 79-83 (who built); Ruddy interview (materials).

xxxvi Yaw, p. 90 (requisition Jan 4, 1942); Coast Guard Documentation Office (Princeton Hall sold 1961)

xxxvii Ruddy interview (restoration).

xxxviii Mark Jacobs, Jr. note on draft, 1993 (Mary Ward).

xxxix G. Howard interview, Coast Guard Vessel Documentation (boats built in shop).

xl G. Howard interview (June K).

xli ibid.

xlii ibid.

xliii G. Howard interview, Ernie Matteson, phone interview, 23 November 1988, Coast Guard Vessel Documentation (Gota).

xliv G.Howard interview.

xlv ibid.

xlvi G. Howard interview.

xlvii Kermit Olsen, interview by author, Sitka Alaska 1994 (Jenny).

xlviii Sitka Sentinel Nov. 19, 1984; Nov. 28, 1984; July 1 1985; July 2, 1985; July 16, July 26, etc. (Blackhurst)

xlix Coast Guard Vessel Documentation (Howard built); Jacobs interview (Hope built).

l Howard interview; Sentinel. 17 January 1956, p. 2 (obit, no mention of boatbuilding).

li Al Rottluff, interview 21 November 1988 (father); Rudy Sarvela, interview, December 1988 (uncle); Robert Modrell, interview 24 October 1988 (uncle); Chronology p. 98 (opened Nov. 23, 1945).

lii R. Sarvela interview, Coast Guard Vessel Documentation (Myrth).

liii Paul Morgan and Al Rottluff, interview December 1988; Rottluff interview; Kitka interview (yard).

liv Rottluff interview


lvi Bob Allen, phone interview by author, November or December 1988; Rottluff interview; Morgan and Rottluff interview (yard after) Chronology p. 120 (sold to Woodruff 1955).

lvii Robert Modrell, interview by author, tape recording, Sitka, Alaska October 24, 1988 (Island)

lviii Modrell interview; Edwin Monk, Modern Boat Building (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939).

lix Modrell interview (activities on Island).

lx Modrell interview

lxi Pauline Bergdahl phone interview by author

lxii Olson interview, Coast Guard Documentation, Chronology p. 98 (Minnie R)

lxiii Olson interview

lxiv Morgan and Rottluff interview (C-Rae); Sentinel, 20 March 1962, p. 1 (C-Rae).

lxv Coast Guard Vessel Documentation, Harry Jimmy, interview by author, tape recording, November 16 1988 (Peril Strait).

lxvi Gary Erb, interview on tape, Cas/Spe/44-19, Kettleson Memorial Library(Chancy); Matteson interview (Amanda Rose).

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This is part 2 of three parts of my history of boatbuilding in Sitka. Most of the research was done in 1989 and 1993, when I interviewed boatbuilders and their sons and daughters. Enjoy, and please  contact me with requests for use, with corrections and any other information or questions.

Andrew Hope at the bandsaw, fisherman Andrew Soinio in foreground. This may be Scotty Jennings' boat shop, in the 1920s. Photo from a glass slide in the collection of the Sitka Historical Society.

Andrew Hope at the bandsaw, fisherman Andrew Soinio in foreground. This may be Scotty Jennings’ boat shop, in the 1920s. Photo from a glass slide in the collection of the Sitka Historical Society.


Sitka has always been a maritime community, dependent on the ocean for transportation and livelihood. For hundreds of years, Tlingit people of Sitka built and used canoes, carved and steamed from single trees. When the Russians and later Americans moved in to Sitka, they introduced European-style planked wooden boats and ships. This history is about these boats. Hundreds have been built here, a large number of them by Tlingit and other Alaska Native builders.

Boats were built in Sitka because people needed them, and could not afford to buy them, and was not an industry producing boats for selling outside the immediate area. In the 200 years since the first permanent Russian settlement here in 1799, Sitka has been a Tlingit stronghold, Russian fort, Russian American colonial capital, American frontier town, fishing village, site of a WW II military installation, pulp mill town and now the small city we know today. Boat and shipbuilding in Sitka, and the builders and their backgrounds and activities, reflect Sitka’s varied history and economy and our location on the eastern edge of the North Pacific.

The Russians of the Russian American Company built ships and boats for their own colonial operations, for hunting, supplying outposts, exploration, and taking furs and correspondence back to Siberia. They built the first ship in Sitka in1805. In the beginning at least, these ships were not very good, and reflected the difficulty of maintaining a colony which was halfway around the world from support, and in a climate and geography alien to them. Shipbuilding was an important part of their endeavor to become a self-sufficient colony. They built at least 27 ships, most of them about the size of large fishing boats today. A few of the ships were fairly large, and included the first steamer built on the west coast of North America.

After the purchase of the territory of Alaska by the United States in 1867, some American entrepreneurs built sailing ships and boats for fishing, mining, or trading enterprises, but this boatbuilding activity was sporadic, reflecting the varied and unstable economy of that time, mainly trade and prospecting.

But once fisheries became a mainstay of Sitka’s economy after the turn of the century, hundreds of boats were built, not only fishing boats but pleasure boats and others. Through the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s there were at least eight boat shops in Sitka at various times. All of the builders did other things as well, like fishing, carpentry, or mining. The owner of the boat was often involved with the construction, and some fishermen built their own boats by themselves.

When the fishing tapered off, boatbuilding declined too. In the peak years of Sitka boatbuilding, there was demand for boats, materials were available, and time was cheap, which is not the case today. The decline of wooden boatbuilding in Sitka followed the pattern in the United States generally. Both labor and high-quality old-growth wood have become relatively expensive. Wooden boats are being replaced by fiberglass, aluminum and steel ones.

The following narrative includes most of the boats built here which were large enough to be officially documented, which is five net tons, or about 32 feet in length for a power boat.

Information comes from the federal lists of documented vessels; Sitka newspapers; and many interviews, most carried out in 1988. Thank you to all the people I interviewed and talked with and to those who helped me in the libraries and museums. There will certainly be mistakes, and I would appreciate corrections and additions.


Sitka’s first cannery started up in 1878,i (16a) and fishing gradually became an important industry here. But it was not until decades later, after the turn of the century, that fishing boats of any size were built here. Records are still available of decked boats over five net tons, which is about 32 feet. Very few boats were recorded as built in Sitka before 1915, but between 1915 and 1930, at least 43 were built here, almost all fishing boats.ii (1) (There seems to often be a delay between the boat’s completion and its documentation.) A total of 20 of these larger boats were documented in the three years between 1917 and 1919.. It was around this time that gasoline engines revolutionized the process of seining (pulling a net round a school of fish). Gas trollers (hook and line fishing boats) were also built locally. Many boats too small to require documentation, including small trollers, sealers and rowboats, were built as well.

Much of the fishing boatbuilding in Sitka up through the 1950s had its roots in the Cottages settlement, a group of houses adjacent to Sheldon Jackson School (now college). Here, in 1907, a Tsimpshian graduate of the school named Peter Simpson started a commercial boat shop. Later, his brother-in-law George Howard, who had been working with him, built his own shop in the Sitka Village, on Katlian Street, which was later used by his sons. Then, in the 1920s and 30s, Simpson’s nephew by marriage, Andrew Hope, started building boats, and eventually had his own shop. Among them, these men and those who worked with them built the majority of the boats built here.

Another builder, Frank Kitka, built several seiners, his last one documented in 1920. He built at least six large boats, first at the Brady sawmill then at a shop on Charcoal Island. He built his last boat on Katlian Street.

In addition, John Bahrt was building smaller boats on Seward Street. Kristian Norholm, a Norwegian immigrant, built his own shop in 1924. Arthur `Scotty’ Jennings had a shop on Katlian Street in the 1930s; he was an immigrant from the north of England. Still others built rowboats, and some fishermen built their own boats.

The Cottages

The Presbyterian mission school, which is now Sheldon Jackson College, began as a day school for Native children in 1878. It soon became a boarding school, where the children learned reading and the Bible, and received training in sawmill engineering, metal work, furniture making, carpentry, and other skills which they used in work on the school. The Presbyterians acquired a portable sawmill in 1882 and staff and students built several buildings by the end of the decade.

In 1886 they had built a boat shop, on the bottom floor of the carpenter shop, where the Sage building is now. This shop was probably for building and repairing the school’s own boats.iii (1)

None of the school’s early carpentry instructors seems to have been a boatbuilder. Students did, however, build a 14-foot rowboat for the Alaska Pavilion at the St. Louis World’s Fair, in 1904.iv (2) In 1910 some instructors built a launch, but it was out of the water again in less than a year, where it stayed for another year.v (3) By 1912 boatbuilding did become a regular part of the school’s program and continued to be so most years until the school became a junior college in 1944. The boat shop had electricity, and a bandsaw, lathe and circular saw by 1915, which they used to repair the school’s boats and to build rowboats.vi (4)

By 1906 or 1907 some graduates of the school had set up a commercial boatbuilding shop at the Cottages settlement, adjacent to the school, but the path from the school to the new shop was not direct.

Peter Simpson – grandfather of Sitka boatbuilding

Peter Simpson came to the Sitka Training School in 1888 when he was about 17 years old and stayed here a couple of years before returning south to Gravina (near Ketchikan) to be the engineer at a sawmill he co-founded. Years later, some time between 1895 and 1899, he came back to Sitka, and was a steam engineer here. When he finally started building boats at Sitka he was in his mid-thirties, about 17 years after he had graduated, and after a career as steam engineer in the intervening years. It is hard to tell at what point or from whom he might have learned boatbuilding. At the time boats were being built all over southeastern Alaska, probably often by people with no formal training at all, and Simpson may himself have been self-taught.

Peter Simpson came to the United States with missionary William Duncan. In 1887 Duncan, who had gone to Canada from his native England as an Anglican missionary, fell out with church and government authorities, and led over 800 Tsimpsean Natives from their village of Metlakatla, British Columbia, to New Metlakatla, at the site of an abandoned Tlingit village near Ketchikan in southeastern Alaska. Peter Simpson was about 16 years old at the time of the exodus. Besides an elementary education from Duncan, Metlakatlans had plenty of opportunities for practicing practical skills. At both towns the people built all their houses and other buildings. At old Metlakatla they built and ran a water powered sawmill and a cannery, and by 1890 New Metlakatla also had a sawmill and cannery.vii (5)

Peter Simpson’s contemporary Edward Marsden, also a teenager at the time, built his mother’s house in the new village, and ran the mission steamer during the move.viii (6) Simpson’s practical education probably began fairly early.

In addition, traditional craftsmen, Tsimpshean and Tlingit, had a strong tradition of working in wood and canoe building, and knew the properties of the different local woods. Although boatbuilders working with planked boats used different techniques, they used the knowledge of wood and woodworking tools of traditional craftsmen.

The spring after the move to Alaska, in 1888, Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson brought Peter Simpson and 31 other boys from Metlakatla to his Sitka training school.ix (7) Peter Simpson was about 17, and he stayed here a couple of years.

Peter Simpson was still at the school in 1890, and was in Sitka in 1891, when he married Mary Sloan, a Sitka Tlinget woman of the Kiksadi clan.x (8)

Then, in the fall of 1892, when he was about 21, he and some other Metlakatlan graduates of the Sitka school returned south and started Hamilton, Simpson and Company, a sawmill, at Port Gravina, across Tongass Narrows from Ketchikan. The all-Native company eventually had a fishing operation, ran a tug, owned a large store, a carpenter shop, and rental cottages. They milled wood for building Ketchikan, but had some problems getting paid; in 1900 Peter Simpson filed a lien against a sawmill in Ketchikan, which got lumber from Gravina and never paid. But the operation lasted until everything burned down in 1904. They could not get title to their business site, because as Natives they were not considered citizens of the United States.

Peter Simpson was the engineer at Gravina and later was their steamboat engineer, and he was the vice president of the company. In a letter to the head of the Sitka school published in the North Star, the Sitka school’s newspaper, he credited the school with all the training for running the mill. “To say that Sitka Industrial Training School train me to do this.” Later in the same letter he writes, “we put all the machinery all in order and runs just as easy as the tide comes up.”xi (9)

He was still working at Gravina in 1895, but by 1899, although he was still an investor in the Gravina mill, he was living in Sitka.xii (10) He was in Sitka with his family in 1897, but that may have been only a visit. His granddaughter Isabella Brady says she has heard he ran a ferry between Douglas and Juneau, sometime between his time at Gravina and his return to Sitka.xiii (11)

In 1900 Simpson was the foreman of a sawmill in Sitka, either at the school, at the mill of John Brady (a supporter of the school) or at the other sawmill in town, owned by W. P. Mills.xiv (12) Even after he started building boats, Simpson seems to have been primarily an engineer. In 1910 and 1912 he spent the summer as foreman of the W. P. Mills sawmill, and spent the winter of 1911-1912 running the school’s steam heating plant and electric plant. In 1909 he remodeled the Native Public School.xv (13)

But by 1907 or so he was also building boats at the Cottages. In the fall of 1908 he had five men working there, and enlarged his shop to 22 by 60 feet. The school paper says that they had orders enough ahead to keep them busy until spring.xvi (14) In 1909 they launched a 34-foot boat for Rudolph Walton, another graduate of the school, a jeweler and later fisherman, and the school paper said they had been building many boats in the past few years.xvii (15) In 1910, when he was nearly 40, Simpson employed his brother-in-law George Howard, who was about the same age, and John James at his shop.xviii (16)

George Howard had married Lottie Sloan, the sister of Peter Simpson’s wife Mary Sloan, in about 1890. (George Howard later married again, around 1907.) George Howard was Tlingit, from Klawock, and also a graduate of the Sitka school. He was living at the Cottages in 1900, but at that time he had been foreman of the school shoe shop. By 1910 he was a boatbuilder, working with Peter Simpson.xix (17)

The Cottages settlement was adjacent to the school, on Kelly and Metlakatla Streets, just west of the Sitka National Historical Park. More cottages were on the present Visitor Center parking lot. It was on mission property, where married former students of the school built their own single family houses, as an alternative to returning to their home villages and living in traditional clan houses. Simpson’s shop was, eventually, on the point of land where the Merrill monument is now.

In the 1910 census, there was a fourth boatbuilder, John Bahrt, son of ship carpenter H. L. Bahrt. He was 28 in 1910. In the previous census, in 1900, he had been a laborer. His father still called himself a ship carpenter on the census, but he was involved in mining and other ventures.xx (18) Between the 1900 census and the 1910 census, Peter Simpson, George Howard, John James, and John Bahrt had all switched to boatbuilding from other jobs. This was probably in response to the need for fishing boats.

The Fisheries


The sudden increase in boatbuilding — from no boatbuilders at all in 1900, to four in 1910 — was probably due to an increase in demand for fishing boats.

By 1889 there were already 13 canneries in southeastern Alaska, including one at Sitka, at Redoubt.xxi (19) But the early seining (catching fish with a net, towed around a school of fish) was done with large rowboats, which apparently were supplied by the canneries, and the fish were carried on steamers to the cannery.

After the turn of the century, however, gas engines were rapidly adopted in the salmon seine fishery.xxii Many of the gas seiners used out of Sitka were built here.

The earliest seine boats were large flat-bottomed open boats, propelled by oars, and nets were pulled by hand. Engines were introduced on seiners on Puget Sound soon after the turn of the century. According to Herman Kitka, in 1914 Tom Sanders Jr. fished a motorized seiner, the COMET, that had been brought up from Puget Sound, for Deep Sea Salmon Company. He outfished everybody, and soon all the seiners had engines.

Herman Kitka says that the earliest motorized seiners had loose decks of 2 x 12’s which were picked up to empty the hold. This was not the case for more than a couple of years, because of the problem with rain water and snow in the boat in the winter.xxiii (1a)

Many of the seiners built in Sitka over the years were financed by the canneries. Sometimes they were built for the cannery, and sometimes they were built for an individual fisherman, who would help build the boat. The canneries had boats built for good producers, obligating the fisherman to fish for that cannery to repay the debt. Some fishermen would eventually buy their boats, but others fished on cannery boats indefinitely.


Trolling peaked in the 1920s or 1930s. Trolling is catching fish with a hook and line, pulled slowly through the water. The early gas powered trollers were much smaller than the boats today, maybe from 20 to 25 feet long. Until the Second World War there were also the hand trollers, who fished by hand from rowboats. Some hand trollers used rowboats, and others used the carved canoes. A typical hand troller rowboat, at least in the 20s and ’30s, was around fourteen or sixteen feet long.


Sealing boats, another special kind of boat, eventually evolved into a specific type, built at Sitka.The fur seals pass offshore of Sitka every spring on their way to their breeding grounds on the Pribilof Islands. At a few places in southeastern Alaska and in British Columbia, Native hunters would head out in boats or canoes and hunt them. Up until the turn of the century American and Canadian sealing ships would also take boats and hunters, skilled Native hunters if they could get them, and take the seals on the ocean on the seals’ migration route. Between the almost unregulated slaughter at sea and the official slaughter by the Alaskan Commercial Company on the Pribilof Island breeding grounds fur seals were very nearly wiped out. The sealing fleet shrank with the numbers of fur seals, and 1897 was the last year by law any American ships participated. High seas sealing by all nationalities was outlawed in an international treaty in 1911.xxiv (20)

Natives were always allowed to go out from shore, however, even when sealing from ships was banned. In an 1894 law, the Natives were restricted to open rowing or sailing boats, with five or fewer aboard.xxv (21)

In 1902 sealers were going out from camps at Biorka Island in all kinds of boats, including canoes.xxvi (22) But at some point a type of boat called a sealer came into common use. The Davis family, boatbuilders in Metlakatla, claim to have built the first sealer in 1905.xxvii (25) The sealing boats were around 20 to 25 feet long, graceful rowing boats built for speed. Bob DeArmond, who grew up in Sitka in the 1920s, remembers them having five rowing stations, with a steering oar in the stern, and a harpooner in the bow. He says they were similar to the whaling boats used by the Navy as launches, but much more lightly built, and thus faster.xxviii (24) The boats were sometimes built of spruce for lightness. Sealing boats were built and used for sealing at least into the 1920s. There was a Fourth of July sealing boat race into the 1930s, and the boats were well taken care of. In 1934, the champion was the SKOOKUM, over the “8”.xxix (25)

Other purposes

Boats were built for other purposes too, like pleasure, or for carrying freight, prospecting and mining. Motor boats smaller than about 32 feet are not documented, but there were probably many smaller boats, from skiffs on up, built for trolling, general duty and subsistence food gathering. Besides planked rowboats and launches, carved canoes were also being produced; in the 1900 census, three men listed their occupation as canoe builder. Their ages were from 35 to 56.

John Sarvela

Machine and metal work for Sitka boats was done at Sarvela’s machine shop, where the city grid is now, on Katlian Street. John Sarvela came to Sitka by way of northern California from Finland. He worked first at the Ready Bullion mine at Douglas. There was a strike by all the miners in 1908, and he took the opportunity to move to Chichigoff. While waiting for his family to join him there, he built a small boat, called the BEAVER, named after its engine. In 1916 or so he had the LULU built at Sitka by one of the Sitka builders, from a model he had carved. In 1918 the family moved to Sitka, and he started the machine shop, later taken over by his son Bill Sarvela.xxx (25a)

Frank Kitka

Herman Kitka says that his father, Frank Kitka, built the NECKERBAY, documented 1915, for John Young; OLYMPIC, 1918, for himself; ZINGO, 1918, for John Joseph, financed by the Deep Sea Salmon Company; BUSY BEE, 1919, for George T. Myers; and the ATLAS, his last boat, for himself in 1920, documented 1922. He also built the PTARMIGAN and the DIXIE, which may have been too small to document. He first built in a shop at the old Brady sawmill, near the present Thomsen Harbor. When that building collapsed, he built boats in a shop on Charcoal Island, which had machinery powered by a gas engine. That shop was on the beach below the site of the kindergarten, and burned down before the military took over the island.

This same shop was used by Hoonah boatbuilder Johnny Lawson, to build the PERSEVEARANCE, documented in 1927, and the O.K., documented in 1929.xxxi (1c)

Kitka built his last boat, the ATLAS, in 1920, on Katlian Street. Both the ATLAS and the earlier boat OLYMPIC were built for himself, because his main occupation was as a fisherman.xxxii (1b)

The ATLAS was out of the water at Allen Marine Ways for several years until the fall of 1993.

George Howard and Sons

George Howard might have had his own shop at the Cottages by 1912, but in 1912 or 1914 he built his own shop and house on Katlian Street, on the town side of what is now the Seafood Producers Cooperative plant.xxxiii (2) The earlier shop was much smaller than the one which replaced it in 1940, and was only big enough to build the hull of the boat and not the superstructure.xxxiv (2a) The house and shop were torn down in the summer of 1990.

George Howard probably built the ACTIVE, documented in 1917, for himself and his sons, and he built the U & I, documented 1919. The year of documentation is not necessarily the year the boat was launched, and is often a little later. The U & I was completely rebuilt in 1947 by troller Oscar Johnson, near Lindenburgh Head, and is still fishing.xxxv (3)

In the 1920 census, taken in January of 1920, George Howard and his son George Howard Jr. were on Katlian Street and listed their occupations as boatbuilders.xxxvi (3a) George Howard and his sons, David and George Jr., advertised in most issues of the Sitka Tribune, from 1922 through 1924. In their ads they used a photo of a seine type boat. Some ads read, “GEORGE HOWARD BoatbuildING PLANT Now Ready to Take Orders for Boats from 14 ft. up to 40 ft. Lumber on Hand.” The newspaper, in June of 1922, reported that they were turning out sealing boats, and that they had laid a keel for a 48-foot boat.xxxvii (4)

In March of 1923 they were building two boats, one for James Ryan, launched that month, and one for someone from Kake.xxxviii (5)

Every summer the Howards closed up shop and went fishing. George Howard built the large seiner PROGRESS, documented in 1923, for himself, his sons, and son-in-law Andrew Hope.xxxix (6)

The Cottages Through the 1920s

Herman Kitka says that Peter Simpson built the DREADNAUGHT, 1915, for Myers Cannery, for Jimmy Keunz; the ALBATROSS, 1917, for John Cameron, another resident of the Cottages; the BARANOFF, 1918, for Ralph Young, of the Cottages; the EAGLE, 1919 for Pyramid Packing Company; the MARY WARD, 1919, for Deep Sea Packing Company for George Ward; and the KATHARINE, 1919, for Deep Sea.xl (7)

Simpson is said to have built the MOONLIGHT, 1918, although the documentation lists her owner, Edward Grant, as the builder. Grant fished the boat into the 1940s, when he was killed aboard the boat when his neck scarf caught in the exposed engine. It was beached on Graveyard Island at Hoonah, until bought by a troller, Pete Moe.xli (19)

The MOONLIGHT is still fishing; the boat was completely rebuilt in 1979. By that time she was in rough shape from lack of maintenance from a series of owners. Her present owner says that before the rebuild the boat was unusually lightly built, with widely spaced frames, and no floors, the pieces which join the pairs of ribs.xlii (20) This might indicate the speed with which these boats were built, although it may be a characteristic only of this particular boat.

Peter Simpson built the troller SMILES, documented in 1920.xliii (8) According to the 1920 census, Cottages residents Raymond James and Simpson’s son Louis Simpson were building boats with Simpson.xliv (8a) He also advertised in 1925: “NOTICE Order your trolling boats from the Simpson Shop, Peter Simpson.”xlv (9) But in 1922, 1923, and 1924, he is only mentioned as a sealer (one of the most successful), and fisherman in the newspaper, and he also advertised his boat, the ALCO, for hire.xlvi (10) He could have been building trollers, which at that time were too small to require federal documentation.

Boatbuilder Louis Simpson, Peter Simpson’s son, died at the age of 40 in 1936 in a flu epidemic of pneumonia.xlvii (10c)

In 1922, John Willard advertised “boat work a specialty” at the Cottages, perhaps at Simpson’s shop.xlviii (10a)

Early day wood for boatbuilding

Herman Kitka says that even in the early days, most builders used Douglas fir, shipped on the steamers from Seattle air-dried, and not too many builders cut their own wood.xlix (10aa) This was apparently most often the case with the cannery financed boats.

For political and economic reasons the sawmill industry has never thrived here. For a long time after the purchase of Alaska cutting wood commercially on government land was not legal, and then when it was legal, the law was hazy and export from the state was still illegal.l (10b) In some years there was no operating sawmill in Sitka. By contrast, the logging industry in Washington and Oregon was large, competitive, and organized. Even today Douglas fir, from Washington and Oregon, is readily available, while lumber from local trees is very difficult to obtain.

Andrew Hope in the 1920s and 1930s

Andrew Hope, a well-known Sitka builder, was very active by the end of the 1920s. Andrew Hope was born in Sitka in 1896. His father was English, and his mother was Tlinget, from the Kogwanton clan. At Sitka his father was a store clerk for the Sitka Trading Company and was also involved in mining, and eventually left for the Yukon gold rush. Andrew went to the Sheldon Jackson school, and also attended the Cushman school, in Tacoma.li (21)

In 1912, he married Tillie Howard, when both were about 16. Tillie was the daughter of boatbuilder George Howard, and niece of Peter Simpson, and so young Andrew probably started his boatbuilding career working with these men.

Apparently Hope did not have his own shop until about 1940, when he built his shop on the town side of what is now Murray Pacific.lii (22) The shop still stands, although part of it was taken off to widen the street a few years ago, and it is now the shop of Harry Jimmy. Before he had his own shop, he may have built in the Howard family boatshop or Peter Simpson’s.

In the 1920s and 1930s, documents name him as builder of the BIORKA and STARLIGHT, documented in 1927; the PYRAMID, 1929; the NEPTUNE, 1930; BUDDY, 1931; and the ADMIRALTY, 1938.liii (23)

He probably had a hand in building others for which there are no records.

The NEPTUNE was built for and to some extent by “Cap” Pavloff, behind where the Wells Fargo bank is now. Pavlof used the boat for fishing and for running to his homeplace of Kodiak or beyond. Pavlof had been a captain of trading vessels in Alaska.liv (24) The NEPTUNE was documented in 1930, and is another survivor of that era, still fishing out of Sitka.

Andrew Hope built many of his boats from half models, hand carved scale models (½ inch to a foot) of half a boat, cut lengthways.lv (24a) Molds for the full sized boats were then scaled up from the model, and very seldom did the full size molds have to be faired in at all.lvi (25)

Hope built the ADMIRALTY for George James of Angoon. This boat was a copy of another Angoon boat, the seiner U & I, maybe the boat George Howard built in 1919, although there were two boats with that name.lvii (25aa)

John Bahrt.

Builder John Bahrt was also working in the 1920s, according to his nephew and namesake, who remembered helping his uncle build at least one small boat, for John Peterson. He said his uncle used copper fastenings, and preferred Douglas fir.lviii (11)

The shop was at the family home, where the Seward Square Mall is now, so boats had to be launched on rollers to put in by the old sawmill. lix(12) That waterfront has all been filled in now, and is the parking lot and tourist dock at Crescent Harbor.

John Bahrt was later the first gardener at the new Pioneer Home. He died in 1962, at the age of 82. lx (12a)

Kristian Norholm

By the early 1920s, Sitka’s builders were joined by Kristian Norholm, a Norwegian immigrant. In 1922 he was planning to put up a boatbuilding operation at Sawmill Cove. He had somewhere launched the ROSARIO, which might have been a repair job to a Norwegian-owned Seattle boat of that name, and repaired another boat. In the spring of 1923 he had built a covered ways at “Norholm Cove,” probably where older Sitkans remember his shop being, near the Forest Service building and the old airplane turnaround. He also had an engine for hauling boats up. At the time there was only a trail to his shop, and he landed materials by boat.lxi (13)

The shop was not very big. The ways were wooden. Most local boats then were not very big — 30 feet was a large boat.

Norholm did repair to the larger boats, like the halibut boats up from Puget Sound, which were almost all Norwegian-owned. He built some boats as well: he built the 32-foot CARRIE for George Rice, a local plumber, in 1922.lxii (14) Bill Sarvela helped him once when he was a teenager, in the mid-20s, on a repair to the MORNING STAR, owned by Sergius Williams. Norholm also used clenched nails, iron nails driven through the plank and frame and bent over on the inside. Bill Sarvela helped by bending them over inside, while Norholm drove them from outside the boat.lxiii (15)

At Aleutkina Bay Norholm had a cabin with a log floor adzed smooth, and a mine he worked on, drilling and blasting a tunnel. He also fished, on halibut boats and at least once herring seining. He was also something of a character.

Norholm had come to Sitka around 1915, probably to do something other than build boats. He died of exposure after being hurt in a fight at his mining claim in 1933, when he was about 48.lxiv (15a)

Other Boatbuilders

Johnny Lawsson, a fisherman and builder originally from Hoonah, built the PERSEVEARANCE in Sitka, documented 1927, and the O.K., 1929, in the Charcoal Island shop used by George Howard. The shop burned down shortly before the military took over Charcoal Island before World War II.lxv (15b)

The Tribune also mentions T. F. Demidoff repairing Booth Fisheries’ boat ELSIE, and building a 20-foot yellow cedar boat, that took him two years to finish.lxvi (16) He is also reported in 1928 building a 32-foot troller at the sawmill, with plans to install a 12-15 horsepower Sterling gas engine.lxvii

Another boatbuilder in the 1920s or 1930s was Gustav Karvonen, who built small rowboats, and a 34-foot troller for a Juneau man.lxviii (17) He also repaired the LULU for the Sarvelas. Bill Sarvela remembers him as a “meticulous, little bit of a fellow” who would sand the inside of his boats so that the slime would not stick.lxix (17b)He built skiffs on Aleutski Island, or possibly the same shop Frank Kitka and Johnny Lawsson used, on Charcoal Island. He had an engine to run a bandsaw.

His skiffs were superior to the Davis model, according to Bill Sarvela. The Davis model rowboat was a type of boat, first double-ended and later with a square stern for an outboard engine, built by the Davis family in Metlakatla and distributed all around southeastern Alaska. They were relatively narrow. Bill Sarvela says the fishermen preferred Karvonen’s, because they were more beamy (wider) and easy to row.

Karvonen got oak for ribs from barrels. The planking was spruce or yellow cedar. They had a transom (square) stern, and were wide all the way up to the transom.

He built a few on Aleutski, then a few more on Middle Island, after he moved there to a former fox farm. Eventually he had to come in to live at the Pioneers Home, but died soon after.lxx (16a)

Scotty Jennings

In the 1930s Hope worked with Arthur “Scotty” Jennings, an Englishman from Newcastle (a city near the Scottish border). Scotty’s shop was on pilings just beyond the ANB hall.lxxi (26) The spot is now filled, and is a parking lot beside ANB Harbor.

Jennings served in the English army in the First World War, when he would already have been in his late thirties. He may have originally come to Sitka to fox farm. He was a small, quick man, a “feisty little Englishman,” also somewhat deaf and “cantankerous” in his later years.lxxii (27)

He had a large shop, a former handpack cannery. Bill Sarvela remembers him as excitable, and says he would curse people always stealing his hammers, which he found again when he cleaned up the piles of shavings in his shop.

Jennings built prams, flat-bottomed boats with flat ends, about eight feet long, used as tenders on the fishing boats. Jennings could build the prams quite quickly. He and Andrew Hope once built a dory for Bob DeArmond, which DeArmond rowed to Tacoma, where he went to high school. Apparently they did not usually build dories, because they had to find a model, a dory from a halibut boat.lxxiii (27a)

He did boat repair, although he didn’t build large boats. He also worked for Sitka Light and Power Company on their generator on Sawmill Creek Road, and did dock work.lxxiv (27b)

He advertised in the newspaper in 1934 and 1935: “Boatbuilder and General Boat Repairs. Sitka Alaska.” The newspaper also reported his renovation of the Midget Bar, and his putting in a files system at the commissioner’s office. He died in June of 1949, at 68, at Juneau. He had gone there to go to the hospital, because Sitka did not have a hospital then. He was buried there, not having any relatives here. The shop eventually collapsed, and was torn down.lxxv (29)

Adolph Thomsen

Adolph Thomsen, for whom Thomsen Harbor is named, was a Sitka businessman and fisherman who built two boats for himself in the 1930s: the SOPHIA and the EROS. Both boats were around 40 feet long. Before settling in Sitka he had been a deep water sailor, originally from Denmark. At Sitka he and his family fox-farmed on Biorka Island. His wife Sophia raised chickens, goats, sheep, cows, and horses, and carded, spun and knitted wool into clothes for the family. She also caulked the SOPHIA, which did not leak a drop, according to their daughter, Anna Baggen.lxxvi (30)

In 1923 he owned three fishing boats, the MAINE, the GEDNEY, and the HECLA.lxxvii (31) He still had the HECLA in 1935 when he launched the SOPHIA. The Arrrowhead reported, when the boat was built, that it was intended for halibut fishing.lxxviii (32) The SOPHIA is probably still in use, registered out of Wrangell in 1989.

Thomsen built the EROS in 1937, after the family moved to town, near the present Baranof School playground. She had to be launched on rollers down Baranof Street.lxxix (33)


i. R. N. DeArmond, A Sitka Chronology (Sitka, Alaska: Sitka Historical Society, 1993)

ii Merchant Vessels 1921, 1928, 1941.

iii Ted C. Hinckley, Alaskan John G. Brady: Missionary, Businessman, Judge, and Governor, 1878-1918 (Miami, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1982), p. 123 (1882 sawmill); North Star, April 1889, p. 68 (six cottages); North Star, March 1888, p. 14 (carpentry shop, others); North Star, 25 December, 1886, p. 3 (boat shop in carp. shop). The North Star was the Sheldon Jackson School newspaper.

iv. Hinckley, p. 338 (rowboat 1904 expo)

v. Thlinget, March 1910, p. 4; idem, February 1912, p. 2 (instructors launch). The Thlinget was the successor to the North Star, the newspaper of the Sheldon Jackson School.

vi. Sheldon Jackson Annuals, No. 814 in Sheldon Jackson College Archives, Sitka, Alaska (1915 annual: boys keep small fleet in repair, build rowboats, hope to build launch; have bandsaw, lathes, circ. saw in shop, elec. lights — also in program 1912, 1924, 1930, 31, 32, 33; 38-39 boys built 4 skiffs, 6 round bottom boats).

vii. Peter Murray, The Devil and Mr. Duncan (Victoria, British Columbia: Sono Nis Press, 1985), p. 42 (industries by 1890)

viii. Murray, p. 17 (Marsden ran steamer)

ix. Murray, p. 207 (boys to S.J.); William Gilbert Beattie, Marsden of Alaska (New York: Vantage Press, 1955), p. 19 (boys to S.J., incl Simpson); North Star, September 1888 (Simpson in school here).

x. Sitka Sentinel (Sitka), 31 December 1947 (married in 1891, Sept. 17); Isabella Brady, interview by author, tape recording, Sitka Alaska 18 November, 1988 (Mrs. Simpson was Kiksadi); North Star, May 1890, p. 118 (Simpson still here).

xi. North Star, November 1892, p. 238 (Gravina letter); Patricia Roppel, “Gravina,” Alaska Journal, vol. 2 no. 3 (1972): 13-15; Alaskan, 21 January, 1893, p. 3 (started); idem, 11 March 1893, p. 3 (report); idem, 1 April 1893, p. 3 (in operation).

xii. North Star, April 1895 (still down there); Alaskan 13 May 1899, p. 3 (Simpson back in Sitka).

xiii. Alaskan late fall 1897 (arrives with family on steamer); Isabella Brady interview (ran ferry).

xiv. 1900 U. S. Census (was sawmill engineer)

xv. Thlinget, September 1909, p. 2 (rem. pub. school); Thlinget, August 1911, p. 1 (steam heating plant); Thlinget, May 1911, p. 3 (to install water wheel); Thlinget, April 1910, p. 3 (Mills’ sawmill); Thlinget, February 1912, p. 2 (sawmill up); Thlinget, May 1912, p. 4 (lights all winter, next summer at Mills’ sawmill).

xvi. North Star, October 1908, p. 3 (starting 1906 or 1907, orders to spring).

xvii. North Star, March 1909, p. 2 (boat for Walton, many boats past few years), Chronology p. 38 (Walton’s boat the William)

xviii 1910 Census (Simpson, Howard, James building).

xix 1900 Census, 1910 Census (Howard marriage, jobs).

xx. 1900 Census, 1910 Census (John and H. L. Bahrt), Alaskan, passim (activities of H. L. Bahrt).

xxi. Alaskan, 13 April 1889, p. 1 (number of canneries 1889).

xxii. Homer E. Gregory and Kathleen Barnes, North Pacific Fisheries, with Special Reference to Alaska Salmon (San Francisco: American Council Institute of Pacific Relations, 1939), p 24 (gas engines spread)

xxiii Herman Kitka, interviews by the author, tape recordings, Sitka, Alaska, October and December 1988 and March 3 1992 (early seiners, financing, the first seiner) The Comet was later rebuilt by Frank Kitka’s brother Peter Kitka in 1926 – Kitka interview 3/92

xxiv. Gerald O. Williams, The Bering Sea Fur Seal Dispute: A Monograph on the Maritime History of Alaska (Juneau, Alaska: Alaska Maritime Publications, 1984) (sealing late 19th century).

xxv. Alaskan, 28 April 1884, p. 1 (sealing law).

xxvi. Alaskan, 17 May 1902, p. 3 (all types of boats)

xxvii. Marty Loken, Davis Boats, Traditional Small Boats of the Northwest Volume Two (Seattle: Center for Wooden Boats, 1981), p. 11 (first sealing boat).

xxviii. R. N. DeArmond, pers. com. winter 1991 (what sealing boats were like).

xxix. Sitka Arrowhead, 14 July 1934, pp. 1, 6 (Skookum beats 8).

xxx Rudy Sarvela, interview by author, tape recording, Sitka Alaska December 1 1988 (History of John Sarvela).

xxxi Herman Kitka Sr., interviews October, December 1988 and March 1992

xxxii Herman Kitka, interviews October, December 1988 (Atlas) and March 1992.

xxxiii George Howard Sr., interview by author, tape recording, Sitka, Alaska, November, 1988; George Howard Sr. and Louie Howard, interview by author, tape recording, Sitka, Alaska, December 1988; and George Howard Sr., interview by author, tape recording, Sitka, Alaska, July 1990 (shop, house built 1912); City Deeds #542 Book 2, granted 2 May 1914 (to

build); Thlinget, March 1912, p. 2 (many new boats from H and S shops, latest 35-footer with red & y c tender); Thlinget, May 1912, p. 4 (H busy all the time).

xxxiv Kitka interview (first Howard shop small)

xxxv Howard interviews (grandfather owned Active at one point); United States Coast Guard, Marine Safety Office, Vessel Documentation, Vessel Files and Abstracts of Titles, Juneau, Alaska (U & I built Howard).

xxxvi 1920 Census (Howards boat builders).

xxxvii Tribune, 1922-1924, passim (ads); Tribune 9 June 1922, p. ?

xxxviii Tribune, 2 March 1923, p. 1; Tribune 16 March 1923, p. 3 (boats for Kake,

James Ryan).

xxxix Tribune, 23 June, 1922 (going fishing); 24 September 1923 (back from

fishing); Coast Guard Vessel Documentation (Progress).

xl. Tribune 23 June 1922 (Willard), Kitka 1992 (boats built by Simpson).

xli. Pat Wood, phone interview by author, 16 November 1988; Merchant Vessels 1921,

1928, 1941, 1948

xlii. ibid.

xliii. Mark Jacobs Jr., interviews by author, tape recordings, Sitka Alaska, November, December 1988 (Smiles built by


xliv. 1920 Census (Simpson, others boatbuilders, Cottages).

xlv. Tribune, 29 February 1925, p. 4, and passim (Simpson ad).

xlvi. Tribune 27 October 1922 (fishing Alco); 16 March 1922, p. 4 (Alco for hire). Tribune, 26 May 1922 (sealing); Tribune, 9 June 1922 (high boat seals).

xlvii City of Sitka Death Certificates (Louis Simpson).

xlix Kitka interview 3/92 (early builders used fir).

l Hinckley, pp 126-28, 133, 144-46 (legality of wood cutting in late 1880s, 1890 Brady shut down) p 145 (1891 Lands Act still not clear on timber use).

li Kathy Ruddy, phone interview by author 9 December 1988; Ellen Hope Hays, interview by author, Sitka, Alaska, 27 October 1988, Sitka Sentinel 15 April 1968, p. 1 (birth date, father English, mother Kogwanton, schools), Alaskan, passim (Percy Hope mining).

lii Hays interview; Sentinel, 15 April 1968, p. 1 (marriage to Tillie); Kitka interview; Hays interview (shop in 1940’s); Howard interview; Jacobs interview (had shop at time of P-H).

liii.Coast Guard Vessels Documentation (boats built by Hope)

liv Sentinel 5 Dec 1947 (obit); John Bahrt, interviews by author, tape recording, Sitka, Alaska, November and December 1988 (to go to Kodiak); Greg Cushing, phone interview by author 16 November 1988 (built at NBA); Coast Guard Vessels Documentation (built by Hope).


lvi Herman Kitka, Sr. interview by author, tape recording, Sitka Alaska March 3, 1992 (Andrew Hope’s building methods).

lvii Mo Johnson interview by author, tape recording, Sitka, Alaska January 17 1988 (Admiralty copy of U&I)

lviii. Bahrt interview (methods of Bahrt)

lix. Ibid.

lx. Bahrt interview (gardener at Pioneer Home), Chronology p 137 (died Oct. 9 1963).

lxi. Tribune. May 1922 (shop to build at sawmill cove); Tribune. 6 April

1923, p 1 (Norholm Cove); Bahrt interview (trail to shop, halibut boats).

lxii. Tribune, 9 June 1922, p. 1 (Carrie); Merchant Vessels 1928

lxiii Bill Sarvela, interview by author, Sitka, Alaska 17 November 1988 (copper fast., helped).

lxiv Sitka Court System, Death Certificate (when he came, how he died).

lxv Kitka 3-92 (Lawsson built Persevearance).

lxvi Tribune, 23 February 1923 (Elsie repaired by Demidoff); Tribune. 24 August 1923 (20′ boat)

lxvii Chronology p. 57 (Demidoff troller)

lxviii B. Sarvela, 1992 note on draft (34′ troller) and Bahrt (Karvonen built boats).

68 R. Sarvela (repaired Lulu).

lxix B. Sarvela interview

lxx Sarvela interview, Bahrt interview (Gus Karvonen) (died – ?)

lxxi Hays interview, Kitka interview (worked with Scotty); Sentinel 29 June

1949, p. 1; Sentinel 1 July 1949, p.1 (obit).

lxxii. Kitka interview (came to fox farm); Tribune, 17 November 1922 (A. Jennings leases for fox farm); Sentinel, 29 June 1949, p. 1; Sentinel 1 July 1949, p. I (obit).

lxxiii Bob DeArmond, personal communication (model for dory).

lxxiv Arrowhead 8 September 1934, 3 November 1934 (carpentry); B. Sarvela interview; Kitka interview (did repair, no large boats).

lxxv. Sitka Arrowhead 5 May 1934 through 1935 (ad); Sentinel 29 June 1949, p 1; 1 July 1949, p. 1 (obit).

lxxvi Anna Baggen, phone interview by author, November or December 1988 (fox farm, activity of Sophia).

lxxvii Sitka Tribune, 20 April 1923, p. 1 (owned three boats).

lxxviii Arrowhead 11 May 1935 (launch), Coast Guard Vessel Documentation (in use).

lxxix. Baggen interview (Eros) Chronology p. 75 (Eros launched 1937).

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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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E. W. Merrill's photograph of the 1899 "Potlatch," entered as evidence in Davis v. Sitka School Board.

E. W. Merrill’s photograph of the 1899 “Potlatch,” entered as evidence in Davis v. Sitka School Board.

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.

In May, 1906, eighteen residents of Sitka, Alaska testified in a federal school integration case called Davis et al. v. Sitka School Board.

In 1905, Congress had passed the Nelson Act, authorizing funds for public schools in Alaska for white children and children of “mixed blood who lead a civilized life.” Before the Nelson Act, federal funds went to educate Alaskan children “without regard to race,” though in segregated schools. Alaska at the time was not even a Territory, but a federally-managed District.

Cassia Patton, a 45-year-old teacher, was the secretary to her brother-in-law, Alaska Governor John G. Brady. She instigated the confrontation by encouraging certain Native families living in the Village – the Native part of town – to send their children to the “white” school, after the Native school closed at the beginning of 1906.

When some of those children actually attended the public school that January, it struck a nerve. School board members W. P. Mills and Mrs. Stowell told the teacher to turn those children away. Mrs. Stowell sent letters to the parents telling them to stop sending their children to school.

Rudolph Walton was Tlingit, the tribe whose ancestral lands include Sitka. He was the step-father of two of the children, Dora and Tillie Davis, and requested a writ of mandamus from the court in Juneau to compel the school board to admit the children. He was represented by the third member of the school board, William Kelly, who had quit the school board in disgust. Kelly also happened to be a member of the Alaska bar.

The testimony was sent to Juneau, and the case filed later that month. Federal District Judge Royal Arch Gunnison, a young appointee of President Roosevelt, did not decide the case until almost two years later, in January, 1908. This was probably because the Native school had reopened, but also because the testimony was overwhelmingly against allowing the school to be integrated. His smug racism is expressed everywhere in his decision:

The Indian in his native state has everywhere been found to be savage, an uncivilized being, when measured by the white man’s standard. The government has always regarded him as of a benighted race, in a state of pupilage, a ward of the nation, needing care, control, protection, and education.“ Education, of course, in separate schools.

Judge Gunnison decided that any association with other Natives, with any Native custom or food, or residence in the Native part of town, means that a child “of mixed blood” is not “leading a civilized life,” and thus not entitled to education in the public school. Separating Native people from whites by law means they can never be “civilized,” which seems, unfortunately, to be the point of the entire exercise.

So far it looks pretty typical for this era, when eugenics and other ideas of racial ranking were widespread. But in Sitka, nearly the entire town was “mixed race.” The fault lines and the effort it took in order to define certain people as “Natives,” in order to deny them rights, reveal the motivations behind racism in this turn-of-the-century Alaska town.


Defendants in the case were school board members W. P. Mills, who was Sitka’s leading merchant and businesman, and Mrs. Stowell, wife of the chief clerk of the Sitka Surveyor office. They both come across as unpleasant people. It was probably not a coincidence that Mills’ mother and wife were both members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, as was Mrs. Stowell’s daughter (Mrs. Stowell herself had been born in Scotland). H. A. Robinson, publisher of the Sitka Cablegram newspaper, who was also a former employee of Mills, represents the defense on the second day.

William A. Kelly, representing plaintiff Rudolph Walton, was the superintendent of the Presbyterian Sitka Industrial and Training School, a boarding school for Natives. Other supporters were Governor John Brady’s wife Elizabeth, as well as her sister, Cassia Patton. All these people on the plaintiff side were linked through their association with the Presbyterian mission school, which John Brady had helped start in 1878, before leaving mission work and becoming a merchant (and eventually Governor). Rudolph Walton and his first wife, Daisy, had been educated at the mission school. Walton was one of the first students, and helped construct the first buildings, as a teen, in 1882.

In the testimony, the defendants are not on trial – the children’s parents are. The “white” fathers are attacked for their association with Natives, but also for the kind of work they did, its frequency, and the appearance of their homes, even though their work and habits were far from unusual.

One of the fathers “was usually called a ‘Squaw Man,’ he is married to a Native,” demands W. P. Mills, of one witness, who answers, “Yes sir.” Bernard Hirst, a storekeeper, handled remittances from another of the children’s fathers, and is questioned about the man’s “indulging in strong drink” in the past, as well as the amount of support he pays for his child.

The third of the “white” fathers is said by a witness to be living a civilized life, but his wife and children were not. “His wife is a halfbreed Indian squaw and he cannot make her anything else.”

(Another unsettling thing in reading this testimony is that everyone, whether or not they are sympathetic to school integration, uses terms like “halfbreed” or “mixed breed” in referring to their fellow Sitkans.)

And here is the twist: all three of these witnesses were themselves “of mixed blood” or married to women who were. Even more striking, it turns out that all but one of the 29 children enrolled at the public “white” school are “of mixed blood.” They include Native orphans living at the Russian orphanage, and the child of a Chinese father and Native mother. Most of these children, though, are part Native because a parent is “Russian.” All the children at the “white” school are just as Native as the children the school board wishes to exclude.

The “Russians” were the descendants of Russian fathers and Alaska Native women, and were called “Creoles” by the Russian authorities. In the American era, they called themselves Russians, but had to defend their status between the incoming “whites,” and the “Indians,” or “natives.” In the 1900 Census, their race is even listed as Russian, a category distinct from White or Indian.

Everyone acknowledges that Russians and their children are “of mixed blood,” but at one point Robinson, for the defense, asks Kelly, representing the plaintiffs, “Do you consider Russians white people.” Kelly replied: “I consider Russians white.”

In Sitka in 1906, race can’t be defined simply by one’s ethnic heritage, which makes this case interesting. How to define “Natives” in such a way that they can be excluded from the “white” school, where the “white” students are as “Native” as the “Natives?” Which begs the question: why bother? Why was this so important?

In 1906 Sitka’s population of about 1200 included around 800 residents classed as “Indian,” most of them living in the Village or “ranche” part of town, to the northwest of the old Russian stockade line. Other Native people, graduates of the Presbyterian mission school, lived at the Cottages, a model Native community on the mission grounds, east of town. Nearly half of the 400 or so remaining residents were Russian. Other residents were from Europe, and several were from China. U.S.-born European-Americans were a small minority, with a handful of those – primarily white federal employees – comprising Sitka’s elite.

H. A. Robinson, representing the defense on the second day, was married to a Russian woman, and his children were among those “of mixed blood” attending the public school.

Another example of the complexity of race is the family of English-born storekeeper Bernard Hirst, a witness in the case. He had married a Tlingit woman, whose sisters lived at the Cottages, the Presbyterian Native community. His family lived downtown, and his sons attended the public or white schools, while their first cousins went to Native schools.

Adding to the complexity is that the Russians in white Sitka and the Natives or “Indians” living in the Village worshiped together, and married one another, in the Russian Orthodox Church; many of the “Indians” were as European as the Russians. It was not easy to make distinctions, especially without offending church officials.

In 1906, Americans like Mills and Judge Gunnison certainly believed in the superiority of the white race, but racial purity was less than useful in defining who was or was not Native in Sitka in 1906. So, the testimony revolves around proving the “civilization” of the families.


W. P. Mills tries to define eating Native foods as a sign of a lack of civilization. He demands of Cassia Patton, in regard to the deceased father of the Davis girls, “did he eat seal oil?”

She says she doesn’t know but that “I suppose he ate fish eggs, I have done that myself, in fact I think a great many people would be benefited by eating them.” I must admit, I love Cassia Patton.

Her sister, Mrs. Brady, also has a sympathetic attitude toward the plaintiffs. She says that she finds Mrs. Walton (the former Mrs. Davis) “to be of very nice appearance and manner and very much of a lady.” Mrs. Brady offers many “signs of civilization” by Walton and his family.

The father of Rudolph Walton’s step-children, Fred Davis, who was also Tlingit, was dead, but that does not prevent both prosecution and defense from making him a central figure in the testimony. William Kelly, representing the plaintiff side, tries to establish the “civilization” of the parents by showing that they are educated, and live in their own separate homes, and not in clan houses, with their clan relatives. He elicits from one witness that the Davis family had a carpet on the floor and nice things, and that Fred and Mary Davis had been educated. But other witnesses testify that Davis took part in traditional Tlingit “potlatches” in 1899 and in 1904.

The Tlingit potlatch, or koo.eek, is at the center of Tlingit culture and society. Clans invite their opposite clans (all Tlingit clans are one of two moieties), honor and feast them and distribute property, as a way of establishing and reinforcing social and political relationships, as well as ancient traditions of reciporcity. Highly symbolic objects, regalia, dance, and elevated speech are key. American and British authorities understood the importance of the potlatch and worked tirelessly to eradicate the practice.

Photographer E. W. Merrill was called as a witness, because his photograph, of Fred Davis taking part in an 1899 potlatch, is an exhibit for the defense.

Merrill is known today for his great skill and artistry, and for his respectful and realistic portraits of Native people and art. We would expect him to be sympathetic to the Native culture. We would be wrong.

Perhaps Merrill had some personal reason to keep Village children from school, or maybe he had some reason to fear for his own social status, due to his “association” with the Natives; but, he is probably just displaying the prejudices shared by most people at the time.

Merrill distances himself from the Village, saying that he goes there “because my business leads me there.” He says that Fred Davis took part in the 1899 as well as the 1904 potlatch.

When Kelly questions him as to the nature of the dances, and whether they involved “immorality,” Merrill responds that “I should judge there must have been from the arrests made at the time.”

Then, Kelly asks him if he’s familiar with the “masquerades” or holiday balls by the “Russians and whites,” and Merrill says he has never attended one, and knows nothing of them. This is hard to believe, judging from the later testimony by the marshal, that makes it sound like they were hard to miss. He refuses to acknowledge that dressing up in a “masquerade” might be just as much a sign of uncivilization as dressing up for a Native dance.

Rudolph Walton, the stepfather of the Davis girls, had attended the Sitka mission school, and was a jeweler and carver and businessman, built and owned his own business and home, and was an elder in the Presbyterian church.

Merrill is asked, “do you consider him a peaceful and industrious man.” Merrill’s response: “As far as Indians are concerned yes.”

Don’t you consider that Walton’s being educated at the Training School would entitle him to be classed with civilized people.”

Merrill responds, “It depends upon one’s view regarding a civilized person.”


Sitka in 1906 had lost the seat of government to Juneau, where the gold mines were booming. Commercial fishing had not yet become an economic force. Most of the buildings along the dirt main street, including the federal offices where the testimony was taken, were old Russian log buildings a half century or more old, picturesque but decaying. Mills and the other white merchants, such as witness Bernard Hirst and U. S. Commissioner Edward deGroff, made their living supplying the small local mines and other local ventures, by buying furs, and by dealing in Native handicrafts for the steamship tourist trade.

Walton’s small store would have been a direct competitor of Mills, if he purchased furs, and Walton was a seal hunter himself. Walton also produced and sold artwork directly to the tourists, which might have had something to do with W. P. Mills’ hostility in the case. It could be that Walton’s actual “civilization” – which surpassed that of a majority of “white” Sitkans – may have been a reason Mills and the others felt the need to put him down, by refusing to let his children attend school with theirs.

William Kelly, representing Walton, questions him about his education, business and taxes, and how his step children attended the public school before he was notified they would not be allowed to attend any more.

Then Mills takes his turn at Walton, and demands, “somebody suggested that you take them to the white school,” to which Walton replies “No sir, I thought of it myself, I try to do something without advising me.”

Mills asks Walton whether the children’s mother speaks English. He says she does, but Mills repeatedly contradicts him, insisting that she does not, even after Walton says that of course she would not speak to Mills.

Mills questions Walton about the amount of business he does at his store, then mocks him for having an expensive cash register when he has no clerk.

Mills: “How much did you pay for your cash register.”

Walton: “$385.00 laid down here. I have fine things. I don’t see what that has to do with the school.” Which provokes laughter in the room.

Mills: “Perhaps not, I do; you will let me judge.”

When Walton is called again, H. A. Robinson, representing the defense, insinuates that Walton could not have written his complaint that went to Juneau. “Who dictated the letter, who told you what to say.”

Walton: “Nobody told me what to say, I know, I have words.”

Sitka’s Commissioner, merchant Edward deGroff, who is the referee for the testimony, never raises any objection to this treatment of Walton, and we’ll never know whether it is because he is sympathetic to the defense, or because he does not know better.


Rudolph Walton, whose Tlingit name was Kawootk’, Fred Davis, and Fred Bean (likely Augustus Bean), who was called as a witness, were all important in Sitka Tlingit society, as well as members of the Presbyterian church. It could be that their stature in Tlingit society was another thorn in Mills’ side, because he was dependent on Native handicraft and furs for his business.

Rudolph Walton was one of the first students at the mission school, one of several boys from prominent lineages. It could be that at the time a mission education looked like an advantage to a young leader; Tlingit people were soon to learn that affiliating with the Presbyterians came at the cost of giving up Native culture and tradition and status. Walton built a home at the Cottages, the model Native community on the mission grounds. His English name was given by the family who sponsored him at the school, after a prominent Presbyterian educator in Philadelphia. This epitomizes the dramatic drop in status, from a master of property and leader-in-training, to a person with so little status he is renamed by his missionary sponsors. And these are the “pro-Native” people.

But not long before this 1906 trial, Walton left his home at the Cottages and built his store and home to the edge of the Village. His wife had died, and he married his second wife, the former Mrs. Davis, in 1905 in a traditional way that the Presbyterians did not approve. Like his first wife, she was of the Kaagwaantaan clan, of an appropriate lineage for a person of Walton’s lineage, and 14 years younger than he was.

Rudolph Walton probably had to give up some of the perogatives of his birth, when he joined the Presbyterian church, but he was still an important member of his Kik.sadi clan. In 1901, Walton had taken part in a traditional Tlingit peace ceremony, to resolve a serious dispute between two clans, one of them his own. This act helped quell conflict, which you would think the Presbyterians would appreciate, but instead he was nearly kicked out of the church for it.

The 1904 “Last Potlatch” had been sanctioned by Governor Brady, as the “last” potlatch, because he recognized that Tlingit clans in Sitka had incurred obligations they had to to discharge. Instead, the “last” potlatch was a reminder of the strength the Tlingit clan system retained, even after decades of repression. It would have been obvious to the entire town, white and Native alike, in the richly dressed guests in their large canoes, the elaborate welcoming ceremony, the strong and finely crafted symbolic regalia and precious objects, the large commissioned carvings, the days of feasting and dancing and oratory, that this was something more impressive and bigger than any ceremony the white town could put on. Merrill’s photos of the event preserve the visual display of wealth. The merchants would have been well aware of the expenditures for food and drink and gifts for the guests. I’m guessing that this display of power and wealth contributed to the urge to restrain Native people into a lower social category. It was probably frightening, as well as fascinating, to many whites.

Walton had not publicly participated, but did create two carvings, commissioned by one of the hosts.

Walton says that the poles are for ornament; that yes he has a totem pole of his own – for sale in his store. Kelly breaks in to ask whether he had an order for a totem from a man in San Francisco, in an attempt to frame Walton’s participation as purely commercial. But it’s likely they all knew it was more than that, and that Walton, Davis, and witness Fred Bean were key participants in Tlingit society.

Witness Fred Bean says that he was allowed to remain a member of the Presbyterian church in spite of taking part in the 1904 potlatch, though the church “did not like it.”

At this time, the Russian Orthodox church and the Presbyterian were in competition with each other for Native members. Both were also engaged in the struggle against traditional spirituality and the clan system, which created a dilemma for both churches, in that being too strict about traditions put them at a disadvantage. Thus the Presbyterians allowed participation in both church, and in tradition, but “did not like it.” This balance was the source of conflict and dispute within both churches.

Old Quarrels

The most striking thing, to me, is how long-standing grudges by merchant W. P. Mills against Governor Brady and the mission crowd, and “old quarrels” regarding the school played such a large part in this case. Petty disagreements play more of a part than the fact that they are deciding the future lives of innocent children.

Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson had originally sent John Brady to Sitka in 1878, and raised funds for the mission school. The site for the school, a large, prime piece of property with waterfront and river access, was claimed by John Brady and donated for the school, in spite of there not being a strictly legal way to do this. Sheldon Jackson helped steer Alaska’s Organic Act through Congress in 1884, which included a provision giving “established missions” up to 640 acres, which legitimized the claim. That land grab was extremely unpopular in Sitka; one of the Russian families had loaned money for a brewery to be built there, with the property as collateral. Sheldon Jackson was appointed Alaska’s General Agent for Education, a post he held from 1885 to 1908, and continued to lobby from his office in Washington, D. C.

Probably helped by Sheldon Jackson’s influence, Brady was appointed Governor in 1897, and reappointed twice more, but he was not popular in Alaska. Most of the white population believed that Natives and their interests were a hindrance to exploitation of Alaska’s resources. He was not popular with many Native people, either, because of the Presbyterian attitude toward Native culture and society, and because he had “homesteaded” a second large tract, of Tlingit land behind the Village. Then, just a few weeks before this testimony was taken, barely into his third term as Governor, he was forced to resign because of his naive promotion of a development scam.

His quarrel with W. P. Mills, who came to Sitka in 1887, was partly political, because of his advocacy of Native education, but also as a competitor as a merchant and sawmill owner, and the two had a legal dispute in 1901 over water rights. W. P. Mills was a much better businessman, but couldn’t do anything about the missionaries’ political influence. Maybe this was his opportunity to settle an old grudge, at a moment when his opponent was down. It could be, too, that Mills, who did not get the chance to finish college, had a chip on his shoulder when it came to the more-educated mission crowd and the various government employees, who comprised the rest of Sitka’s elite.

Brady’s sister-in-law Cassia Patton, who had encouraged the Native children to attend the public school, first came to Sitka in 1889. She taught school, then owned the Alaskan newspaper (funded by Brady), and worked as Governor Brady’s secretary.

Kelly had also been a Sitkan for decades – he had first arrived in 1885, when he ran the mission school as a federal employee.

In 1906 Sitka’s economy was contracting, with government offices, steamship stops, population and business migrating to Juneau. And yet, Mills funded his former employee H. A. Robinson in starting an anti-Brady (anti-mission) newspaper, the Sitka Cablegram, in early 1905: each side in the conflict had their own newspaper.

Most of the defense and plaintiffs, including Mills, Mrs. Stowell, the Bradys, Kelly, and the Native men Walton and Davis were members of the Presbyterian church. In 1906 there were two Presbyterian churches: the white church was next to the parade grounds (now the Sitka Pioneer Home) and the Native church was at the mission.

W. P. Mills and Governor Brady both had school-age children, who for some reason are not on the list of students attending the public school.

Most of the petty quarrels behind the school board decision come out when Kelly questions the school teacher and Mrs. Stowell, the school board member who had sent notice to the parents that they could not send their children to school any more. She claims she does not know Rudolph Walton and that she does not know that he was educated at the mission school, and refuses to state her objection to the Davis children going to school.

Kelly, who had been a member of the school board before resigning over this case, asks: “Was there any enmity back of ruling these children out of school.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I beg pardon.”

Kelly: “I asked whether there was any enmity in deciding that these children could not attend the public school.
Mrs. Stowell: “No sir.”

She then says that she does not know whether there are any “half or mixed breeds” attending the school.

Kelly: Did you not tell us on the School Board that some of the halfbreeds were attending from (the Russian Orphanage).

Mrs. Stowell: “I think not, I don’t know that they are.”

Kelly: “You consider Rudolph Walton and William Allard civilized men.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I don’t know enough about that.”

Kelly: “You don’t, you don’t know much about that.”

Mrs. Stowell: “No.”

Kelly asks, ”Do you know these Walton children.”

Mrs. Stowell: “No.”

Kelly: “Then you were hardly acting as a school director in these matters.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I was acting entirely on my own judgment.”

Kelly: “Then you do not know why you ruled these children out.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I refuse to answer.”

Kelly: “Was the bans put upon children of any other families besides those in the native village.”

Mrs. Stowell: “Not that I know of.”

Kelly: “Some little trouble about Mr. George’s family.”

Mrs. Stowell: “Not that I know of.”

Kelly: “Some little trouble about the Governor’s family.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I don’t know.”

Kelly: “Oh! You don’t.”
Mrs. Stowell: “No.”

Again you would think that Commissioner deGroff would have intervened, to remind Mrs. Stowell that she should answer truthfully, but again, he does not.

Kelly then asks how children were promoted; it seems that Kelly had wanted students to take a test to move up in school, but he was outvoted by the other two on the school board, who let the teacher decide who should advance. We are left to wonder whether someone – perhaps W. P. Mills, or his former employee, H. A. Robinson – might have preferred to have his chidren promoted at the teacher’s judgment, rather than on the basis of an exam.

Kelly: “Do you consider any of the natives civilized.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I decline to answer.”

Kelly: “We will excuse the witness as being utterly useless for our purpose. We rest our side of the case.”

Miss McCaleb, the school’s teacher, affirms that the Davis girls were well-behaved and nicely dressed, and that Peter Allard and Lizzie Allard were “fairly good scholars.” She also affirms that the School Board told her that no children from the Village were allowed to attend the school, but says, “Not that I know of” as to whether there was any “feeling or enmity back of the native children coming.”

Kelly: “Was there not some feeling about Miss Patton. You went to Mrs. Stowell and talked this matter over with her.”

Miss McCaleb: “No sir.”

Kelly: “You felt some little resentment in this matter, you thought Miss Patton was sending these children. You need not answer this question if you do not wish to.”

No answer.

In spite of this court case, all of the non-Native principals socialized and did business together. A photograph from around this time shows Mrs. W. P. Mills, the wife of the defendant, seated next to Cassia Patton, at a picnic. Next to Mrs. Mills is R. W. DeArmond, the father of Alaska historian Robert DeArmond, who had come to Sitka to work for the Department of Agriculture in 1903. At the time of this testimony, he shared a house with Merrill, and was elected to the School Board himself in 1907. His position on the case can be inferred from Bob DeArmond’s column on Rudolph Walton:

Walton attempted to enter his two step-children as well as several others he claimed to have adopted, in the white school where the teachers refused to accept them.

(The) three-member school board . . . split on the question. The loser was William A. Kelly, superintendent of the Sitka Industrial Training School, and he resigned from the school board. Walton’s effort was supported by the Presbyterian Church, . . . Kelly, a member of the bar, took the matter to court and lost. That ended Walton’s effort but did not erase a great deal of bitterness.” The implication I get here is that the bitterness was caused by Walton’s effort, not by the injustice of barring his children from going to school.

The majority of Sitkans believe it is wrong for Native children to go to school with “white” children.

There was no practical reason to exclude Village children from the school. Only four of the six children had even attended the public school before being told not to come any more. The teacher and others testify that the three girls who did are well-behaved. In 1906, there does not seem to be any threat of hordes of Native children overwhelming the schools, as most parents do not seem to have been eager for their children to go to school. The grandmother of one of the girls was opposed to her attending. And it turns out that these children were even included in the enumeration made to get the school, and, the school board had received funding for them, so it was not a money issue.

The arbitrary definition of “civilization,” which came down to living in the Village and “consorting” with other Natives, creates, rather than follows, any real differences amongst Sitkans.

Judge Gunnison wrote:“Civilization, though of course the term must be considered relative, includes, I apprehend, more than a prosperous business, a trade, a house, white man’s clothes and membership in a church. The burden of establishing that the plaintiffs live the civilized life is upon them, and I fail to find in the testimony evidence of a condition that inclines me to the opinion that the Davis children have that requisite.”

Thus Judge Gunnison weasels out of even bothering to define “civilization.” The only hard criteria they can come up with are living among and “consorting with” other Natives, which, of course, is a result of, and reinforced by, the racial bias on display in this testimony. By preventing Native children from “consorting with” white children at school, they are making it even less possible for them to meet their arbitrary criteria.

Bob DeArmond tells in his column on Rudolph Walton that he operated his store in two locations downtown, and owned property and put up buildings, on Lincoln Street, before building his shop in the Village. Was there pressure from Mills or others to give those up? From the effort Mills and others make to exclude Walton’s children from school, it seems very likely he would have exerted his influence to exclude him from Sitka’s main street commercial life, as well.

At the start of the testimony, W. P. Mills asks Walton: “You did not care whether they went to white school or not.”

Walton replies: “As long as they have good schooling, that is all I want.”

The following year federal funding was restored, and Sitka’s Native school reopened. The two schools were not integrated until 1949.

Dora and Tillie Walton went to Sheldon Jackson School, and were members of the first high school class, graduating in 1921. Tillie died in 1922.

Cassia Patton had been Governor Brady’s secretary, and went back to teaching after his resignation. In 1912 she and missionary Douglas Craig McTavish married in Calgary, Alberta, when she was 51 and he was 50, and went on to found the first school in Fort McMurray, Alberta. They successfully used the Canadian legal system to conduct a tax sale of property owned by speculators, who would not pay their taxes to support the school. In 2011 the Ecole McTavish opened in Fort McMurray, named in their honor. (The school fortunately survived the wildfires in the spring of 2016).

Like today, on the surface Sitka appeared integrated and race relations seem to be good, but in pursuing this cause, W. P. Mills exposed strong anti-Native feeling. What is surprising is not the vehement racism of Mills, but that this seems to be the view of most of the people of the town.

From this testimony, we begin to understand that society was permeated with the conviction that Native culture was not only inferior, but had to be suppressed, ranging from the explicit statements of Mills and Judge Gunnison, to the more passive acceptance by Merrill and so many others in this record, that Native children and “whites” must be separated.

From the time of U.S. Occupation of Alaska in 1867, Americans systematically excluded Native people from economic, political, or social integration. This case is an example of defining Native people just to deny them rights enjoyed by others.

There was also a horrific death rate among Native people in this period: Rudolph Walton lost his first wife, and eleven of his children as infants or young children, and thiswas not at all unusual for Native families at the time. The European-American death rate had been this high, but had come down dramatically since the 1870s. The trauma of losing so many family members, on top of being treated as naturally inferior despite one’s personal qualities and achievements, has had an impact on Native society to this day.

We are not so distant from those Sitkans from a century ago, which after all is only a few generations – these are our great-grandparents. Could the way we define Natives today be a continuation of these arbitrary criteria – and how much of what we accept as intrincally “Native” has actually been created by that artificial definition, and over a century of discrimination based on it?

Can we learn from this case and the way we see race was defined explicitly to create differences, and to justify discrimination? What would happen – if we don’t assume that Native culture is inferior to European-American culture? What if we consider the possibility that Native culture and language are compatible with, and even beneficial to, public education?

Selected sources:

Davis et al. v. Sitka School Board, 3 Alaska 481 (District Court, District of Alaska, First Division, 1908). Case file photographed by author at Alaska State Archives, Juneau Alaska, October 28, 2015.

Twelfth Census of the United States, Census of Alaska, Southern District, Sitka, Alaska 1900, accessed at family search.org.

Thirteenth Census of the United States, Population – Alaska, 1st District, Sitka, Alaska 1910, accessed at findmypast.com.

Bob DeArmond, “From Sitka’s Past” series of newspaper columns in the Daily Stka Sentinel, 1985-1992, and “Around and About Alaska,” 1992-2002.

Ted C. Hinckley, Alaskan John G. Brady, Missionary, Businessman, Judge, and Governor, 1878-1918 (Miami, Ohio: Miami University, 1982)

Virtual Museums Canada, Community Memories, Heritage Park, Fort McMurray, Alberta: Fort McMurray’s School Stories, “Cassia McTavish (nee Patton) – McMurray’s First Teacher” http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/histoires_de_chez_nous-community_memories/pm_v2.php?id=story_line&lg=English&fl=0&ex=773&sl=7836&pos=1 Accessed July 1, 2016.

Joyce 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)

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

Willis Osbakken, interview, Raven Radio, Sitka Alaska, November 2012, available at http://www.kcaw.org/2013/06/17/historic-sitka-in-stories/

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Sheldon Jackson School in the teens, Sitka Alaska

Sheldon Jackson School in the teens, Sitka Alaska

This is a work in progress, and I’d appreciate any comments, additions, or corrections.

This project is supported in part by a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum and the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendationas expressed in this work do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Founded in 1878, Sitka’s Sheldon Jackson College was the oldest institution of higher learning in Alaska when it closed, abruptly, in 2007. The windows were boarded up, and the already neglected buildings remained unheated and empty as the college board of trustees struggled to address a massive debt. Then, in 2011, the core campus was turned over to Alaska Arts Southeast and its Fine Arts Camp, who are restoring the physical campus, and filling it with arts and cultural education programs.

Along with the physical campus, the Fine Arts Camp soon found they had inherited a deep and complicated history. In addition to the strife surrounding its closure, Sheldon Jackson has a legacy as a Presbyterian mission school of repressing Native language and culture. And yet, many staff and graduates of the high school and the college have strong affection for this place.

The following brief chronology is a start at shedding light on some of the contrasts and contradictions in the school’s history. The early history of the school is especially relevant because Alaska today is the product of the clashes of this crucial era, and the legacy of Sheldon Jackson and his mission.

I’ve tried to footnote information that’s not widely documented. Just about everything about the school from the mid-1920s to the early 1980s comes from Les Yaw’s memoir 60 Years in Sitka.

The Kiks.ádi clan of the Lingit people are the traditional owners of the land that became the Sheldon Jackson campus.1 The Lingit people held all of what is now Southeastern Alaska and parts of British Columbia and Yukon Territory since time immemorial.

At the time the first Europeans came to the North West Coast in the 1770s, there was a major winter village at the foot of Castle Hill (Noow Tlein) (roughly the Sitka Hotel area), with some clan houses atop the hill. There was also a village from the mouth of Indian River to Jamestown Bay.2 There were probably structures here on the campus.

There is an ancient Kiks.ádi story about the unusual, flat-topped rock at one corner of the campus. This story is where Dog Creek (Keitlyátx’i Héeni, Puppies Creek, in Tlingit) gets its name.3

Russians worked their way into Alaska east from Siberia beginning in the 1740s, using forced labor by Indigenous people to kill sea otter for their valuable skins, devastating societies and decimating villages, and wiping out sea otters, as they came east.They established forts in Prince William Sound and on Kodiak Island.

After the 1780s, other nations joined in the maritime fur rush, sending ships to trade with the Indigenous traders on the North West coast for sea otter fur. In the 1790s, Sitka became the central battleground in the fur trade, with British and American ships trading with the Tlingit traders, while the Russians, having destroyed sea otter populations in the Gulf of Alaska, considered Southeastern Alaska to be theirs.

In 1799 Alexander Baranov, the chief of the Russian American Company, negotiated with the Kiks.ádi leaders to allow him to build a fort at Old Sitka. In 1802, a multi-clan alliance of Tlingit destroyed the fort. Kiks.ádi tradition tells that it was an accumulation of insults that led to the fort’s destruction. Economic conflict – that the Russians were taking sea otter from Tlingit waters – was likely also a factor.

It took the Russians two years to return to Sitka from their base at Kodiak. In 1804 the Kiks.ádi had built a new fort at Indian River designed to resist naval bombardment. Due in part to the Kiks.ádi loss of a canoe of gunpowder and the fortuitous presence of the Russian frigate Neva, the Kiks.ádi retreated, and the Russians with the Alutiik, Unangan and other western Alaskan Native people who were working for them, took over the site of Sitka, renaming it New Archangel. The Kiks.ádi (and their spouses and children, who belong to opposite clans) suffered heavy losses in this “survival march,” which was in late October. They lost canoes, houses, and their winter food supply.

While the Russians hung on to Sitka for the next six decades, they relied on constant diplomacy with the Tlingit clans in order to sustain what was essentially an outpost, although they used Sitka as their center of administration for their claims in Alaska. In 1827 Tlingit clans resettled on the north west edge of the Russian fort, still the site of Sitka Indian Village. Both sides benefited from trade, which is probably why Tlingit leaders tolerated and supported the Russians.

Although European diseases, especially smallpox, had a terrible impact, the Tlingit clans did relatively well. The Tlingit controlled all their traditional territory in southeastern Alaska, and trade grew exponentially in the global trade for sea otter and other furs and art works. The Russians depended on Tlingit and Haida traders for food like halibut, venison, potatoes and berries.

In 1867 Russia’s Alaskan claims were transferred to the United States. With U.S. occupation, Sitka went from a somewhat decayed but quiet company town to the American frontier. Alaska became a military district, without law and order, much less any system of civil government. In addition, the fur economy collapsed, and there was a world-wide depression. American traders pushed Tlingit traders out of what activity there was. Alcohol, speculators, merchants, and rough characters poured into the District, but most soon left.

In the first decade Alaska was under the authority of the Army, Civil War veterans who may have contributed to the disorder.4

The Americans brought with them virulent racism, and overwhelming military power. This was the era of the Indian Wars and aggressive westward expansion, the height of Manifest Destiny. In the rest of the United States Native Americans were brutally forced off their lands and onto reservations in the essentially genocidal policies of the U.S. government. In the 1850s the state of California had even been paying a bounty on Indian scalps. In 1869 the U.S.S. Saginaw shelled and destroyed the villages of Kake.

After an initial rush of speculators and entrepreneurs, Sitka, and Alaska, quieted down again. Then in 1874 Wrangell became the frontier, with the Cassiar gold rush. An influx of miners and those hoping to benefit from the gold rush (traders, liquor sellers) flooded to Wrangell, with devastating impact on the Stikine Tlingit clans, who had controlled this important trade route, with a monopoly on much of the interior trade.

In 1877 the Reverend Dr. Sheldon Jackson founded a mission school for girls in Wrangell, recruiting teacher Amanda McFarland, a widow from Oregon. Sheldon Jackson was an ambitious, dynamic Presbyterian minister, founder of scores of churches in the west. He wanted to pioneer Alaska.

In 1877 Alaska still had no government – it was a Military District – then the Army pulled out. Sitka by this time had no industry other than alcohol and some other trade, mineral prospecting, provisioning fishing and seal hunting boats, and a few federal officials, like the Collector of Customs. Alaska was officially under the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department until 1880, when the Navy took over.

In 1878 Sheldon Jackson recruited Reverend John Green Brady and teacher Fannie Kellogg to start a mission school for Native children in Sitka, and they opened the school in April in a former barracks. The school closed in December. Brady quit (but traveled to Washington D.C. to lobby for education for Natives), and Kellog married missionary S. Hall Young, and moved to Wrangell.

In 1879 missionary Alonzo Austin came to Sitka and taught the day school for white and Russian children. In April 1880 Alonzo Austin and his daughter Olinda reopened the mission day school, for Natives.

From 1879 Navy Commander Beardslee, and his successor Captain Glass, of the USS Jamestown, forced Sitka’s Tlingit residents to whitewash and number their houses, and encouraged the rebuilding of the village in new frame style houses. In 1881 Captain Glass forced Native children to go to the Presbyterian school, by giving all the families and children numbers, and fining those whose children do not go to school.

The Presbyterian Native school was in various locations – initially, when it was a day school, it was on the top floor of the Guard House, a large former barracks next to Noow Tlein (Castle Hill). Then, when boys asked to live at the school, they moved to the old Russian hospital building (a similar building to the Russian Bishop’s House, it was located on the site of Pacific High School). It burned down in January of 1882, probably due to the building settling and dislodging the chimney. They moved the school into an old, leaky, drafty shed on the waterfront across the street.5

In 1881 missionary-turned-businessman John Green Brady claimed 160 acres of the present campus, in spite of there being no land laws in effect to make this possible, and donated it for the mission. He may have got it by using Civil War veteran land script he had accumulated.6 Sheldon Jackson was a very good fund raiser. The only sawmill in town was out of order, so Sheldon Jackson bought a cannery building at Old Sitka (from a short-lived cannery operation, one of the first in Alaska, built in 1878). Missionary Alonzo Austin and a willing crew of his students dismantled, hauled, barged, and built the two-story boys dormitory, 50 by 100 feet, in the fall of 1882.7

In 1884 they added a second building, for girls, of 50 by 130 feet, after McFarland’s school in Wrangell burned down. Later they built two hospitals, and the Cottages settlement, with three houses built by 1888.8

The Cottages was a model Christian Native community for former students, located on mission property at the edge of the Sitka Historical Park, on Kelly and Metlakatla Streets. Houses once stood on the east side of Metlakatla Street, where the parking lot is now. While the missonaries’ ideal is to have the families separate from their Native culture, and to live as European-Americans might live in the states, traditions and language continued. Marriages were correct matches in Tlingit protocol. Matriarchs of many of the Cottages families were the Sloan sisters, Kiks.ádi Point House women who became Mrs. Don Cameron, Mrs. Peter Simpson, and Mrs. George Howard (her daughter married Andrew Hope).

In 1884 the President signed Alaska’s Organic Act – finally some civil government (though not much) – and Sheldon Jackson became Alaska’s General Agent for Education, a position created for him. The Act entitled established missions to 640 acres of public land, thus expanding and legitimizing the mission’s land claim,9

In 1884 Sitka’s First Presbyterian Church was founded with 44 Native and 5 White members. In 1889 a white church was formed.

In 1889 the school had the two large dormitory buildings, an Industrial Arts building, a blacksmith shop, a steam laundry, bakery, hospital, and six Model Cottages. They had 186 pupils, but also functioned over the years as an orphanage and hospital, depending on the need.10

Throughout this period, until 1893,11 federal funds were given to missionary schools. Most people in the United States at the time did not see any problem with this. It makes government funds go farther when they can be combined with church funds. American leadership at the time, in government, society and industry, was heavily Protestant. Euro-American settlement and economic development of the west was a national priority. While some were genuinely concerned about the plight of American Indians, all likely understood the benefits of “civilizing” Natives so that they would not be in the way of what most Americans saw as the natural and best use of land and natural resources for settlement, farming and industry – by Euro-Americans.

The 1880s were a period of growth for the school but also political discord in Sitka. With the Organic Act, Alaska had a court system for the first time; many of the early lawsuits were brought against the mission. Some are over the mission’s land claim, and others are over the practice of compelling parents to indenture their children to the school for five years in order to attend. They are brought by the federal employees on behalf of Tlingit parents, and by Russian-American residents.  In 1885 anti-Sheldon Jackson government officials – the “Court House Gang” as Bob DeArmond called them – together with a faction of the white population, Russians, and Tlingit, pushed back against the growing power of the Presbyterians. They brought suit to take the mission site for a court house, and to nullify the student contracts parents were forced to sign. In order to attend the school, parents had to sign over their children for a period of five years. It culminated in the arrest of Sheldon Jackson, then in relatives taking their children out of the school, so that only half remained. The events led Sheldon Jackson to publish A Statement of Facts Concerning the Difficulties at Sitka, Alaska in 1885.

President Grover Cleveland, son of a Presbyterian minister, came into office in March, and in late 1885 the officials were replaced and the mission allowed to continue.

The 1880s were a time of large-scale taking of Native land and resources, as canneries, mines, and other industries, supported by the US government, exploited streams and land that had been controlled by Native clans. Native persons could only be citizens if they were “civilized” as attested to by whites. They could not own property or vote. They had no right to education or civil rights of any kind. They were viewed, and treated in law, as inferior to whites.

Disease took a heavy toll on southeastern Alaskan Natives, exacerbated by the lack of resources brought on by dispossession and disenfranchisement.

Presbyterian missionaries fought in Washington D.C. for government for Alaska and for education for Natives. Education for the missionaries meant stripping Native children of all vestiges of their culture. So even as Jackson and former missionary John Green Brady were labeled “pro-Native” in their time, today they would be seen as racist for their insistence on total assimilation, and low regard for everything Native (other than art and handicraft).

Anglican missionary William Duncan led a Tsimshian community from the model Christian Native village of Metlakatla in Canada to settle in Alaska in 1887. The new settlement was called New Metlakatla, or just Metlakatla. Metlakatla was self-sufficient, with its own industry. While he stood up for his Tsimshian followers against the Canadian government and from exploitation by white businessmen in Alaska, Duncan was autocratic and controlling. In the spring of 1888 several young men from the new settlement went to Sheldon Jackson’s school in Sitka, including Peter Simpson and Edward Marsden, who became leaders in the Presbyterian church.

In 1887 Tillie Paul, a Tlingit missionary, arrived at Sitka with her three young sons, after her husband, also a Tlingit missionary, drowned. (Her oldest son, Samuel, was adopted by the widow of the other missionary who drowned with her husband Louis Paul.) She worked for the school, and, with other missionaries, held Christian meetings in the Village.12

In 1888 the first museum, made of wood to emulate a clan house, was built to house Sheldon Jackson’s vast collection of Native artifacts.

The first decades of the school were filled with incredible physical labor – Alonzo Austin, D. C. McTavish, George Beck, and other missionaries of the first half century were hands-on. They builtd a flume for electricity, and to power a pelton wheel for the carpentry shop. The school was largely self-sufficient as far as food and power. From the very beginning students were the main workforce of the school, doing everything from cooking to cutting wood; but they were led by missionaries who are no shirkers. For a time the school was called the Sitka Industrial and Training School, and part of its mission was to give young men a trade and pride in his work.  This continued into the 1930s, when the students, led by staff, hauled a cast-iron sawmill out of the woods from a mine up Indian River, built a sawmill, and got it running; then it burned down, and they started over.

Missionaries wanted to help Native people, but they saw no value in Native language or culture. Education, hygiene, and Christianity were meant to replace Native culture – which they saw as debased, outdated and inadequate – with Presbyterian culture. Having one’s language and culture demeaned and lost is extremely damaging to a sense of oneself, but this was never recognized by the missionaries; into the 1960s most educators in Alaska saw acculturation as a necessary step for Natives to succeed in higher education.13

Disease, especially tuberculosis and its complications, took a heavy toll on Native people in Alaska, whether or not they are associated with the school, into the 1950s.

Even from the early days, many students and their parents actively chose to go to the school. At the time, the only path to citizenship was to adopt the dominant culture. Speaking and writing English, and learning the protocol of Protestant American culture, was the only route (however limited) to economic opportunity. Native property was taken in a land grab by canneries and other industries. Without citizenship and civil rights, Native people were not allowed to compete on an equal footing. At some point the goal of individual advancement evolved into the goal of advancement for all Native people, leading to the birth of the Alaska Native Brotherhood in 1912.

In 1892 the Native Presbyterian church was built on campus (across from the Sage Building, on the current site of Stratton Library). In 1895 the current Sheldon Jackson museum was built, the first concrete building in Alaska.

In 1897 John Green Brady, who first arrived in Sitka as a missionary, then went into business, became Governor.

By 1899 graduate Peter Simpson returned to Sitka, after founding a sawmill with other young Natives at Gravina. The sawmill burned down in 1904; as Natives, they could not get title to the land to rebuild. Simpson’s family tradition is that this is the source of his lifelong fight for land claims.14

In 1901-02 the school had 131 students.15

In 1904, the “Last Potlatch” was held. Rudolph Walton, one of the first graduates of the school, had by this time also inherited an important position as Kiks.ádi clan leader. While he did not officially participate, he carved important artworks for a host clan. He also intervened as a mediator in a conflict over use of the frog emblem by two clans.

In 1906 a boatbuilding operation began at the Cottages under Peter Simpson. Men who worked with Simpson went on to build dozens of boats in various parts of town. Simpson built a boat for Rudolph Walton, the William. Rudolph Walton, one of the earliest graduates of the school, was a jeweler and carver, who also had a store in the Village.

In 1906 the Davis case is brought. Rudolph Walton’s stepchildren and several other children living in the Village were refused permission to attend the public school (the public school for Natives had been closed) by school board members W. P. Mills and Mrs. George Stowell.16 Rudolph Walton brought suit, with support of former school board member and director of the Presbyterian mission William Kelly. Former missionary Governor John Brady’s wife and others testify on behalf of the children, but the court decided that any Native associations or lifestyle means a person is not “civilized.” They lose the case.

In 1910 the Shepherd Building (industrial arts) is constructed on the spit where the Sage building is now. Then, in 1910- 1911, the current campus is built, and the original large campus buildings are dismantled. School was suspended for the year while the new campus was constructed.

In 1912 the Alaska Native Brotherhood was formed – most founders were graduates of the school. This group is founded to fight for citizenship for Alaska Natives. Their original charter calls for Natives to leave behind the old customs. This was later modified. The ANB was instrumental in Natives acquiring civil rights, and ultimately land claims.

Sheldon Jackson was a grade school only, then in 1917 became a High School, which lasted until 1967.

After the 1920s the younger grades move to Haines House, an orphanage at Haines, Alaska. Students came to Sitka for 5th grade and up.7th and 8th grades were phased out in the 1940s.

In 1926 Tillie Paul Manor (infirmary) was built. In 1928 Houk House was built, to replace the Lottie Hapsgood Practice House, which had burned down. These were purpose built for training girls in domestic skills, which remained part of the program into the 1950s. Older girls would spend a term living in the house and practicing house keeping. From 1913 they had used North Cottage as a practice cottage.17

In 1928 Les Yaw became Superintendent; in 1929 the Sage Building was constructed, to replace the Shepherd Building for vocational training. In 1934 a gymnasium was built, north of Allen Hall. In 1936 the Native and White Presbyterian churches reunited (the white church had split off from the original, integrated, church in 1889). The white church was near the blockhouse and the Pioneer Home, down town. It was later called the Tower Apartments because of its steeple.

In 1934-35 the high school had 71 students, and the grade school had 55.18

In 1936-37 the seiner SJS was built by Peter Simpson and crew at his shop at the Cottages; a commercial fishing boat owned by school, it  was used to generate income, for fishing and hunting for the school, as a mission boat, and to take students to and from their homes in SE Alaska.

In 1941 Princeton Hall was built, by students, school staff, and professional boatbuilders including George Howard and Andrew Hope. She was built at the shop of George and David Howard, the brothers of Hope’s wife Tillie (Howard) Hope. David Howard and Andrew Hope were both graduates of the school. The shop was located next to the current Seafood Producers Coop plant at the north end of the Village. The shop, which was new at the time, had to be extended several feet to accommodate the 63-foot Princeton Hall.

Launched just days before Pearl Harbor, the Princeton Hall and the seiner SJS were requisitioned by the U.S. Navy. The Navy painted the Princeton Hall gray, and mounted a machine gun on the deck. The skipper of the SJS, Dick Nelson, enlisted in the Navy.

The Princeton Hall, a beautiful and seaworthy yacht, was a mission boat. She transported students, and missionaries, to villages, camps, canneries, mines and other settlements.

With the loss of the SJS, Andrew Hope builts the seiner SJS II for the school, launching her in 1943.

Music and musicals were a big part of campus life. In 1947 the Sheldon Jackson High School choir, under the direction of Geraldine Beam, was invited to perform at the Presbyterian General Assembly in Seattle. The choir made the trip on the school boats Princeton Hall and SJS II.

In 1942, the first students stayed on for junior college work; the Junior College officially began in 1944.

In 1946 Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) boarding school, opened in the former Naval Air Station buildings on Japonski Island.

In the early 1950s Tillie Paul Manor (Sheldon Jackson infirmary) was used by the community of Sitka as its hospital until Sitka’s community hospital was completed; many Baby Boomer Sitkans were born there: from 1949-51, a total of 116 babies.

In January of 1952 the college’s first president, Les Yaw, was dismissed. At that time, the Sheldon Jackson School and all of the Alaska churches and missions were controlled by the Board of National Missions in New York City, and their Board of Christian Education, in Philadelphia; the Alaska missionaries had little say. Dismissal of Yaw may have been because the Board of Education wanted a more academic focus. It could also have been a case of personality conflict. The person who made the decision, the head of the Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, Katherine Gladfelter, held that position from 1949 to 1960. The dismissal was divisive for the campus community. Alumni and leaders, including Governor Gruening, wrote letters to the board of Home Missions urging his retention.

In the late 1940s through the 60s Sitka schools fielded some great basketball teams, and games were a big part of Sitka life, with intense rivalries among the three high schools, as well as city league and regional teams. In 1949 Sitka’s ANB team (starring SJ alumni) won the regional Juneau Lions Club Gold Medal Tournament.

In January of 1952 Roland B. Wurster becomes president; in 1955 the Yaw Building (library and classrooms) was completed. In July of 1956 R. Rolland “Army” Armstrong became Sheldon Jackson’s 3rd president.

In 1958 Condit Hall was built as women’s college dorm (Condit was later torn down to make way for the Sweetland Hall.)

In 1959 Sheldon Jackson Junior College is 2/3 Native, 1/3 white; the High School was ¾ Native, ¼ white. In 1961 the school had 37 full time college students.

The next major transition occured in 1966, when Sheldon Jackson Junior College was accredited. In July, Dr. Orin Stratton became president. His model for Sheldon Jackson was Whitworth College, a Presbyterian school in Washington.

In 1966 the Rasmuson Building was built, as the Student Union and cafeteria, also known as the A-frame. In 1965 Kellogg Hall opened as a dorm for women. Later it became Volunteers In Mission apartments.

In 1967 the last high school class graduated.

In the late 1960s Sheldon Jackson added housing for staff with families; in earlier days, most staff were unmarried missionaries. When it became a college, instructors needed advanced degrees, and so there was almost complete turnover. Families who came in the late 1960s and early 1970s include the Roths, the Bovees, the Bonners, the Wilsons, the Schultzes, and the Goffs. The Brauns came to work at the high school, so when it closed Rus Braun went to work at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, but they remained members of the Presbyterian church community. At one point there were 34 children on campus.

In the late 1960s enormous cultural changes roiled the United States, including the Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian church was actually ahead of the national movement, starting in 1959, when the national church turned to the left, but with different attitudes and disagreements between more traditional church workers and more liberal ones.19

Alaska Methodist University opened in 1960. In the late 1950s and 1960s church and government leaders had a lot of discussion about how to best meet the needs of Alaskans for higher education. The University of Alaska expanded a network of community colleges, including Sitka Community College in 1962. A continuing challenge is the quality and even existence of village schools, with many high school graduates unprepared for college. Students who are prepared for college are heavily recruited by Lower 48 colleges.

Beginning in the late 1950s, by the late 1960s, the Washington Synod took control of Sheldon Jackson and other Alaska missions, from Presbyterian Board of National Missions (BNM), as the church eventually divested themselves of ownership and control of Alaska’s missions and churches. (The Presbyterian church is democratically organized, with churches in an area organized as a Presbytery; three or more Presbyteries are organized as a Synod.) In 1968 the Synod committee decided to close Sheldon Jackson; testimony from staff persuaded them to keep it open.

In 1972 the Presbyterian Church divested itself of ownership of the school. Sheldon Jackson is now independent, though still affiliated with the church. Major financial support only continued for a time, but the college still benefited from national fund raising efforts. The board of advisors became the board of trustees.

From the 1971-72 school year, Sheldon Jackson enjoyed state tuition grants for students, which made tuition costs competitive with the UA system, and saw expanded enrollment. In 1975 300 students, with 205 of those full time, enrolled. Then in 1979 tuition grants were found unconstitutional, which was a severe blow to the school. Enrollment dropped again by the late 1970s. (Also hurt by the loss of tuition grants, Alaska Methodist University closed in 1976, and reopened in 1978 as Alaska Pacific University.)

In the 1970s the Sitka Summer Music Festival, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp and Sitka Little Theater Guild were born on campus and with staff as founders. The aquaculture program, Native studies program, and an AA teachers education program for villages all began. There was also a pilot training program, and school-owned planes, but that ended with a plane crash and fatality in 1975. Elder Hostels used the campus in the summers.

In 1973 Dr. Orin Stratton resigned, due to health; Robert Uddenberg becomes the 5th president into 1974. Then in December 1974 Dr. Merton D. Munn became the interim 6th president until 1977.

In 1974 Stratton Library and the Armstrong administration building were built. In July of 1977 Dr. Hugh Holloway became the 7th president, to 1982. In 1977 and 1986 the college built apartments for married students, at the top of Metlakatla Street. In 1979 Yaw Chapel was built, designed by Taylor Potter, the son-in-law of Les and Caroline Yaw.

In 1980, due to the loss of state tuition grants, the school nearly closed. It only stayed open with a fundraising effort, and a major gift from Jane Newhall.

VIMS or Volunteers In Mission were vital to the operation of the school. Summer work groups took on maintenance and remodeling projects, often contributing materials and supplies. VIMS also filled many staff positions year round. They were also important in mentoring and tutoring students.

In 1982 Dr. Michael Kaelke became the 8th president. He stayed until 1993, the longest-serving president in the history of the college. The school added to its four-year programs and added faculty with advanced degrees.

In 1987 the Hames PE Center was built, named after trustee and donor Lloyd Hames. President Kaelke tried to put Sheldon Jackson on the map with competitive basketball teams, recruiting players from the Lower 48, but it didn’t work.

In 1987 an all-class high school reunion was held, and the Basketball Hall of Fame was inaugurated.

The college’s 9th president, Lawrence Rocheleau, inaugurated in July 1993, died in January 1994, after only six months as president. Rocheleau was an Alaska education star, promoting the Total Quality Management system at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, the former BIA school reopened by the State of Alaska.

In 1994 Dr. Kenneth Cameron became the 10th president, but maintained his dental practice; he shared administrative duties with Provost and Co-president Mary Lou Madden; he is president to 1997.

In 1995 a campaign to save Allen Auditorium was launched, led by the Allen Memorial Preservation Project. They won a major federal grant through Senator Ted Stevens, and won a further economic development grant; they turned the project over to the college. When the college closed, the exterior had been completed but the interior, electrical and mechanical systems were not.

In 1997 Reverend David Meekhof became the 11th president. He serveds to 2000.

At the board of trustees’ annual meeting in January 2000, the president of the board of trustees, Michael Sweetland, proposed closing the college in an orderly way. He was outvoted by a majority of the trustees, and left the board. This lead to a crisis, with closure contemplated. A task force was created with business and other community leaders, to define a vision for the school.

In 2000 to 2002 Sheldon Jackson College had to fight for accreditation, due to financial and administrative issues.20

In 2000 C. Carlyle Haaland was hired as consultant, and became interim president, then president to 2004.

In the 2000s much effort was expended to attract more students; marine studies program, and outdoor leadership program were developed; the Alaska Native Studies Program was revived, but had a rough start, until Dennis Demmert was hired in 2002. Also in the 2000s federal and private grants rebuilt the Rasmuson building, built a child care facility, and rebuilt the campus water, sewage and electric systems.

In 2001 the City of Sitka proposed excavating the front lawn in order to create 40 parking spaces for harbor parking. The school was behind on payments to the city and to many businesses.

In 2001 the college told the Sentinel that the enrollment of 132 was “nearly double year before.”21 Also in 2001, the campus is designated the Sheldon Jackson School National Historic Landmark.

In 2004 Arthur Cleveland became the new president to 2006. Once again, the school nearly closed; it was saved by a loan from a trustee. An ambitious cruise ship dock was proposed for Sage building area, and was dropped after much opposition.

In 2006 the school took out a $4.7 million consolidation loan from Alaska Growth Capital (AGC), after taking out five short term loans totaling $2.5 million22; they subdivided waterfront land for collateral and sold Tillie Paul Manor to pay back the emergency loan from the trustee. In 2006 board of trustees president Dr. David Dobler was named acting president of the college, replacing Arthur Cleveland.

The City and Borough Assembly had approved a $1 million line of credit to Sheldon Jackson, but, on Tuesday, June 26, 2007, they vote not to disburse SJ’s request for $730,000 ofn it.23 The school sought the loan to tide the school over until an expected large class enrolled in the fall. At 3:30 pm on Friday, June 29 Dr. Dobler announced the closing of school to staff that their employment would end in 30 days, and that staff would have to start paying market rates for their housing.

By the end of 2007, Sheldon Jackson lost accreditation, and was sued by AGC over errors in its collateral description;24 Sitka lost a $6 million payroll, and over 100 jobs.

In 2008 Sheldon Jackson College trustees subdivided land, the Assembly voted to assess property tax, and Pacific Towers Properties was hired by the bank to manage the campus. In March, the school received money from AGC to pay employee severance, federal taxes, and debt to the city.

In 2009 Dubuque University, also a Presbyterian Church-affiliated private college, began talks with City and trustees about a relationship with the campus.

In the summer of 2010 Dubuque pulled out, with a critical letter;25 Dr. Dobler resigned and John Holst, former superintendent of Sitka’s public schools, was hired as manager. Property was sold to pay off the debt, which totaled about $10 million.

In February of 2011 the core campus was handed over to Alaska Arts Southeast, the parent of Sitka Fine Arts Camp. The camp had been held at Mt. Edgecumbe High School facilities for several years; in June of 2011, they came home.

2012 was the 100th anniversary of the ANB; Isabella Brady, granddaughter of Peter Simpson, founder of the Sitka Native Education Program, prominent Presbyterian and Kiks.ádi Clan Mother, died at 89.

2012-2014 Fine Arts Camp, Sitka Sound Science Center, the Island Institute, the Sitka Summer Music Festival collaborated on new cultural and science programs centering on education. In 2012 the Sheldon Jackson School and College Oral History Project began, in an effort to preserve and share the history and experiences of staff and students. In 2013 the Alaska Travel Industry Association conference was held on campus, the largest convention ever held in Sitka. The Fine Arts Camp harnessed phenomenal amounts of volunteer skill and labor to do major work on buildings, including historic preservation work on the National Historic Landmark buildings.

1 Goldschmidt and Haas, 198-99.
2 Goldschmidt and Haas, 64.
3 Kaawóotk Ghuwakaan (Harold Jacobs), FaceBook February 8 2013, and Thornton, 100.
4Hinckley, 34
5A. E. Austin, “History of the Mission,” The North Star, Vol. 5, No. 12, Sitka, Alaska; December 1892, in Armstrong, 25-34.
6Hinckley, 59
7 Austin in Armstrong, 25-34
8 Sheldon Jackson, Report on Education in Alaska (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1888), 22, accessed at https://archive.org.
9Sheldon Jackson, A Statement of Facts Concerning the Recent Difficulties at Sitka, Alaska, in 1885 (New York: T. McGill, 1886), accessed at https://archive.org.
10William Kelley, “Sitka Industrial School,” Home Mission Monthly, Vol. 2, No. 3, February 1889, in Armstrong 35-37.
11Beck, 31.
12 Nancy J. Ricketts, ed. R. Dauenhauer, “Matilda Kinnon Paul Tamaree / Kahtahah; Kah-tli-yudt” in Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer, eds., Haa Kusteeyi, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories, Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature, Volume 3 (Seattle: University of Washington Press; Juneau, Alaska: Sealaska Heritage Foundation, 1994) 485.
13Armstrong 91/
14 Isabella Brady (grand daughter of Peter Simpson), personal communication
15Beck, 43.
16Hinckley, 354.
17Armstrong, 98.
18Lottie E. Stevenson, “History of Sheldon Jackson High School” The Verstovian Vol. 21, No. 7, April-May 1935, in Armstrong, 66 .
19 Neil Munro, “A Personal Evaluation of Mission in Alaska and Yukon Presbyteries” at http://www.yukonpresbytery.com/history/Interviews/munromemories.htm, 1994. Retrieved March 2013.
20 Sitka Sentinel January 20, 2002 p 1 (referring to vote to close in 2000, and accreditation)
21Sitka Sentinel 9/17/2001, page 1
22 Sitka Sentinel November 8 2007 p 1
23 Sitka Sentinel June 27 2007 p 1
24 Sitka Sentinel November 8 2007 p 1
25 Sitka Sentinel June 10 2010 p 1

Selected Sources

Armstrong, Neal A. “Sheldon Jackson Scenes: A Documentary History of Sheldon Jackson Junior College, 1878-1967.” MS Thesis, George Peabody College for Teachers, 1967.

Beck, Mary Giraudo. Ka.Gun.Da: George James Beck, Alaskan Pioneer Teacher, Missionary, Leader. Ketchikan, Alaska: Rocky Point Publishing, 1999.

Bovee, Dr. Charles. “SJ Historical Summary,” Draft. Unpublished manuscript, author’s collection, 2012.

Brady, Carol Feller. Through the Storm Towards the Sun. Bloomington, Indiana: Author House, 2006.

Crittenden, Edwin B. The Architecture of the Sheldon Jackson College Campus 1887-1990. Sitka, Alaska: Sheldon Jackson College Press, 1991.

Clemens, Janet, Chris Allan, Linda Cook, Heidi Siegel, and Amanda Zeman, edited by Patty Henry. Nomination for Sheldon Jackson School National Historic Landmark, Sitka, Alaska. National Register Number 72000193, designated August 7 2001.

The Daily Sitka Sentinel newspaper, Sitka, Alaska

Dauenhauer, Nora Marks and Richard Dauenhauer, eds. Haa Kusteeyi, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories, Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature, Volume 3. Seattle: University of Washington Press; Juneau, Alaska: Sealaska Heritage Foundation, 1994.

Goldschmidt, Walter R. and Theodore H. Haas. Haa Aani, Our Land. Edited and Introduction by Thomas F. Thornton. Seattle: University of Washington Press and Sealaska Heritage Foundation, 1998.

Hinckley, Ted C. Hinckley. Alaskan John G. Brady: Missionary, Businessman, Judge and Governor, 1878-1918. Miami, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1982.

Kan, Sergei. Memory Eternal: Tlingit Culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through Two Centuries. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1999.

Mayberry, Genevieve. Sheldon Jackson Junior College: An Intimate History. New York: Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1953.

Mitchell, Donald Craig. Sold American: The Story of Alaska Natives and Their Land, 1867-1959. Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Press, 2003.

Munro, Neil. “A Personal Evaluation of Mission in Alaska and Yukon Presbyteries” at http://www.yukonpresbytery.com/history/Interviews/munromemories.htm, 1994. Retrieved March 2013.

Raibmon, Paige. Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2005.

Yaw, W. Leslie. Sixty Years in Sitka. Sitka, Alaska: Sheldon Jackson College Press, 1985.

Before the Transfer to the United States history:

Arndt, Katherine L. and Richard A. Pierce. A Construction History of Sitka, Alaska, as Documented in the Records of the Russian-American Company. Sitka, Alaska: Sitka National Historical Park, National Park Service, 2003.

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.

Grinev, Andrei Val’terovich. The Tlingit Indians in Russian America, 1741-1867. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Thornton, Thomas F., ed. Haa Léelk’w Hás Aaní Saax’ú: Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012.

Vinkovetski, Ilya. Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1801-1867. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Video interviews conducted by the Sheldon Jackson School and College Oral History Project:

Date Era
Frank and Ruth Roth 05/03/12 video college
Herb Didrickson 05/17/12 video high school
Charles and Edie Bovee 08/02/12 video college
Gil Truitt 08/16/12 video high school
Marie Laws, Chuck Bovee, Arliss Sturgelewski, Cayrn Coleman, Henrietta Van Maanen, Roger Schmidt 10/13/12 video high school and college
Charles Daniels 12/13/12 video high school
Fred Hope 12/29/12 video high school
Nancy Ricketts 01/01/13 video college
Robert Hoffman 01/24/13 video college
Pat Fager and Kathy Newman 02/02/13 video college
Scott McAdams and Dionne Brady Howard 02/09/13 video college
Henrietta Van Maanen and Elaine Strelow 07/12/13 video college
Chris Bryner 07/23/13 video college
Jack and Judy Ozment 07/31/13 video college
Rus and Marty Braun 08/17/13 video high school
Zoltan Barabas, Tom Climo, Jim DiGennaro, Dan Evans, Suha Tokman 09/13/13 video college
Fel Estrada and Molly Kitka 10/17/13 video high school
Dick and Mary Goff 12/28/13 video college
Bill and Nancy Yaw Davis 01/13/14 video high school and college
Marie Laws, Irene Shuler, Helen Mercado, and Maggie Verney 02/20/14 video high school

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Allen Auditorium, Sheldon Jackson School campus, 1954

Allen Auditorium, Sheldon Jackson School campus, 1954

Here is a video, that I just made in January,  Surprises and Contradictions in the Oral History of Sheldon Jackson School and College.

Over the past two years or so Alice Smith and I have been interviewing people associated with Sheldon Jackson School and College, in an effort to learn more about the institution, and to capture first hand experiences of it. We’ve now conducted nearly two dozen interviews on video, with more than thirty individuals. Most of these have been broadcast on local television.

A copy of all the videos will be archived with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program, and one copy will eventually be available in Sitka at the Stratton building, now part of the Alaska State Museums, when it is restored.

This work began with the urge to understand what happened, when the college failed (in 2007) in such a painful manner that years after it shut down, many people were still hostile towards it. For both Alice and myself, knowing that many good people had literally devoted their lives to the college, it was important to acknowledge their work.

The story is remarkable. Besides the complicated story of how and why so many people gave so much to this place, and why it failed, there is the story of the mission school. Sheldon Jackson was founded as a Presbyterian mission by its namesake, back in 1878. The events surrounding the first decades of the school shaped Alaska as we know it today. Which is kind of interesting.

But the most complicated part of the story is the days as a boarding high school, from 1917 to 1967. It was all Native up until the 1940s, and mostly Native after that. In recent decades there has been a growing awareness of the abuses of boarding schools for Natives, including forcibly removing children from their homes, punishing children for speaking their language and in other ways separating them from their culture, and including physical and even sexual abuse.

Most people, including myself, assumed that Sheldon Jackson was a place of repression and harsh discipline. While the school did not respect, or even see, Native culture, it was a small school, that students had to pay to attend, and it happened to have overall a positive culture. Interviews with students upend the stereotypes. It’s not so much that the school wasn’t racist, but that racism was pervasive in society at the time. We’ve learned that even though this generation who went to high school in the 1940s and 1950s are not complainers, life was not easy for Alaska Natives. Poverty, racism, and premature deaths of family members, in particular from tuberculosis, touched every member of this generation.

I made a short documentary, setting out some of this, which is at Surprises and Contradictions in the Oral History of Sheldon Jackson School and College.




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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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