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Sea otter, 1806

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

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

First, picture the northwest of North America 300 years ago: populated by many distinct indigenous nations, with thousands of years of complex histories, wars, trade, and customs. North American indigenous societies, and technology, were far from static, and far from passive, far from the stereotype of simple, timeless people living on natural bounty. In fact, Native people actively managed important resources, and social systems and language are as complex and “advanced” as those of Europe.

Sea otter were valued by North Americans for their rich fur, and were eaten.i Sea otter are a kind of weasel, but spend their lives at sea. Unlike other marine mammals, sea otter do not have a layer of fat under their skin, but are insulated from the cold ocean water with dense, soft fur, with 6,000 hairs per square inch. This makes it the most luxurious fur in the world.

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

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

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

Soon American ships dominated, nearly all out of Boston.vi Trade moved from Nootka Sound (on Vancouver Island) as sea otter were hunted out, and, as traders tried to get closer to the sources of the skins (to bypass Native middlemen): Sitka was the hot spot in the 1790s.vii While sometimes trade was accompanied by violence, it was mostly civil as shrewd Yankees met their match in shrewd and experienced indigenous traders. Elaborate trading protocol developed.viii

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

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

Over the next several years, increasing competition and fewer furs made the trade less profitable. The trade moved to land furs and other products, and ventures like supplying the Russians at Sitka. In the late 1830s the Hudson’s Bay Company, trading out of forts on land, completely took over the fur trade on the Northwest Coast, as well as supplying the Russians.xi

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

Every one of these hundreds of thousands of furs was purchased from Northwest Coast Natives – which brought great wealth into the Northwest Coast indigenous economy. There was an explosion of art. The Native middlemen profited the most, as guns, ammunition, beads, fabric, iron etc. were traded far into the interior for more furs, which in turn were traded for further profit with Americans and Europeans.xv

But – international trade also brought devastating smallpox epidemics: in the early 1770s an epidemic was brought by a Spanish explorer; further outbreaks in 1795 and 1811, and a devastating epidemic in1836-37, plus other diseases such as syphilis and tuberculosis, killed more than half the people originally here.xvi It is hard to overestimate the impact the decimation of the Native population must have had. What could it have been like, to see a third, or a half, of your community sicken and die over a short period of time? It must have been traumatic, to lose children, parents, grandparents.

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

The Russians:

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

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

Native people were much better at hunting than the Russians – so, the Russians forced Natives to hunt for them.

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

Merchant Grigorii Shelikov built the first permanent Russian fort, on Kodiak, in 1784. There were only a few companies left by that point. These companies consolidated in 1799 as the Russian American Company, with a charter by the Czar to govern Alaska.xix

So, by the 1790s, the Russians were also moving into southeastern Alaska, as they ran out of sea otters farther west. They brought fleets of hundreds of Native hunters in baidarkas (kayaks).xx

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Russian-allied hunters taking thousands of sea otters from the Tlingit waters, in addition to insults and abuses, led a multi-clan alliance of Tlingit to destroy the fort in 1802.xxviii They salvaged the stored sea otter pelts, and went to Captain Barber on the ship Unicorn, according to him to demand surrender of the survivors he had on board. Barber instead forced the Tlingit to turn over the pelts and the captives they held, which he then took to Kodiak and gave back to Baranov in exchange for 10,000 rubles (in furs) for his trouble.xxix

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

The Kiksadi clan and their relations made a strategic retreat, but, this was the end of Russian hunting in southeastern Alaska, although Baranov reported 500 furs from 1804-early 1805.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

iiGibson, 8-11

iiiGibson, 10

ivGibson, 22

vGibson, 23

viGibson, 38

viiGibson, 135

viiiGibson, 110-126

ixGibson, 24

xGibson, 315

xiGibson, 79-80

xiiGibson, 36-38

xiiiGibson, 58

xivGibson, 292

xvGibson, 270

xviGibson, 272-277

xviiGibson, 12-13

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

xixTikhmenev, 14

xxGibson, 13

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

xxiiTikhmenev, 35

xxiiiTikhmenev, 45

xxivTikhmenev, 153

xxvTikhmenev, 61

xxviIbid.

xxviiGibson, 14

xxviiiTikhmenev, 65

xxixIbid.

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

xxxiiTikhmenev, 206-206, 235

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

xxxivGolovin, 154

xxxvTikhmenev, 215

xxxviGibson, xi

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Cover 2018

The 2018 Outer Coast calendar is now available! Printed in glorious color on heavy, vellum-surface Natural colored paper by Alaska Litho in Juneau, Alaska U.S.A.

This calendar features my original art, poetry by Alaskans and other greats, gardening reminders for southeastern Alaska, and wilderness anniversaries. It opens out to 11 x 17 inches (8 1/2 by 11 closed), has a handy hole for hanging, and, has complete year of 2019 on the last page.

You can order on line from www.theoutercoast.com, buy in stores in Sitka, or, soon, buy in your favorite Alaskan or select Northwest bookstore. (If the store doesn’t have it, tell them to order thru distributor Taku Graphics.)

This year’s calendar is built around the theme of courage – having faith in what we know is good, and having a “frenzy for the future”: the faith it takes to work toward making the future even better than today.

Poetry includes a sonnet by Rainer Maria Rilke from his Sonnets to Orpheus, and some great quotes from Walt Whitman.

We have two beautiful poems by Caroline Goodwin from her latest book The Paper Tree, published this year (2017) by Big Yes Press.

And, a lovely haiku by Sitka’s own John Straley, from his recent book 100 Poems of Spring, published by Shorefast Editions in 2016.

Plus a couple of classics from poet Lew Welch (1926-1971). Here are some images of the 2018 calendar:

March 2018 image onlyApril 2018August 2018December 2018February 2018January 2019July 2018June2018May 2018October2018November 2018September 2018

 

 

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By Rebecca Poulson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economic displacement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why missions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Origin of the Sitka Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aftermath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4Arendt and Pierce, 192-194

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

6Grinev, 198

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

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

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

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

11DeArmond and Pierce, 91

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

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

14Gough, entire book

15Utley and Washburn, 179-183

16Gough, 51-147

17 Grinev, 196

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25Kan, 216

26Kan, 245-277

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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.

Introduction

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.

PART II: AFTER 1900

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

Seining

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

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

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)

Endnotes.

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

Simpson).

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).

lv

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).

Read Full Post »

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.

THE EARLY DAYS

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 Natives and rival traders were hostile, 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 from the Tlingit.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 attacked and burnt 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 Tlinget 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 travelled 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)

After Lincoln left, the Company did not build mor

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.

e 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)

THE PEAK OF SHIPBUILDING

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, particulary 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)

THE LAST ONES

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)

AFTER THE AMERICAN PURCHASE – RESOURCEFUL ENTREPRENEURS

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.

Endnotes

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.

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.

Race

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.

Civilization

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.”

Economics

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.

Traditions

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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Live performance of A Fairy Tale

Live performance of A Fairy Tale, November 2015

Here is the script for A Fairy Tale, which I wrote and directed in November, 2015. The longer you’ve lived in Sitka, and the more visioning sessions you have attended, the more it will speak to you. But I imagine there are other arty towns with similar experiences.

And here is a link to a recording, by our own local KCAW Raven Radio.

A Fairy Tale

Characters:

SAM, a resident of an island town in southeastern Alaska

DR. SMITH, a consultant

SAM’s wife or husband (SAM and DR. SMITH characters could be male or female)

(Airport noise of jets landing and taking off, flight announcement, etc.)

SAM: Dr. Smith? Hello! I’m Sam. Glad you could make it. Did you have a nice flight?

DR. SMITH: Oh, yes! great flight. . . Who are all these people on the plane with me? They seem like a happy bunch.

SAM: Oh, consultants. Those are all consultants. In hospital management, community development, city planning, garbage disposal, you know. But yeah, we have a lot of consultants coming in now.

DR. SMITH: Oh right, related to your – problem.

SAM: Well actually, they come here to learn from us, instead of coming to help. – and (in a confidential voice) none of them are experts in fairy magic.

DR. SMITH: Well you can’t blame them. Very few of us have what it takes to become a Fairy Magic Consultant.

SAM: Of course! Well, I’ll fill you in on our pedi-bus ride into town. (They go outside)

Ok just hop in on the seat, you pedal, right, like that. (bike chain noises)

DR. SMITH: Thanks – I think I have it – (They pedal)

(panting) . . . . What’s that palace, on the mountainside? The one that looks like a Disney castle?

SAM: Oh, that would be our public library. (seagull noises)

DR. SMITH: And my gosh, you have some kind of docks here! And the tall ships!

SAM: Uh huh – we can dock nine cruise ships at a time. Although now, we use them for the tall ships and cedar canoes the kids build. (sound of sea chanteys)

DR. SMITH: Ok now maybe you had better fill me in, on the nature of your problem, and why you’ve called me.

SAM: Right. So, you know all the community visioning, and nonprofit planning, strategic planning, and master plans that nonprofits and communities write, that end up gathering dust?

DR. SMITH: Yes –

SAM: Well – the Visioning Fairy got mad, and made a whole bunch of them – come true. (ominous music) Let’s get off the bus here.

DR. SMITH: So this must be your downtown! (noise of boots and voices) Uh – what is that large group of young people coming toward us, all wearing Xtra Tuff boots?

SAM: Oh shoot – the Interns – we’d better go down this alley – They’re nice and all, but – there’s just so many of them, and they all want to help! We actually have to lock our doors now, or they get in, and alphabetize your books, or clean the litterbox, or – throw away the trans-fat-containing food in your fridge –

DR. SMITH: Ok, so that’s your problem.

SAM: Actually – I guess I leave my door open. It’s actually kind of nice. Some of them do windows.

DR. SMITH: Well ok. . . What an – interesting – lamp post –

SAM: That’s actually an artist. These piles of free cupcakes, and the people talking to themselves, (sound of person talking to him/herself) are also artist installations.

DR. SMITH: (mouth full of cupcake) Hmph good cupcakes . ..

SAM: And the writers! – so many writers – there’s a novel out every month! and books of personal essays every other day. So the bookstore had to expand to take up the whole side of the street. And on the other side, all these cafes (sound of cafe as they enter) because of the writers taking up space. That was why they had to establish the colony. They have a writers’ colony on Mt. Verstovia. They live on tea, hummus and whiskey, all locally produced, of course. Lowers voice: they may be reproducing. (cafe sounds fade as they leave) (sound of banjo playing old timey)

DR. SMITH: That was one fine cupcake. . . Is that coming from that bar?

SAM: Well it’s kind of a bar, but people are mostly getting high on old timey music and rap. (someone is rapping to the banjo music) The one down the street is a little more hard core – they have pool tables and Sacred Harp on Friday nights.

DR. SMITH: Ok now I get it. With all this arts and culture and multiplying writers, your economy must be terrible.

SAM: – Actually, with the tidal-energy-powered kale greenhouses, and of course the sustainable widget factory, oh and the state Legislature, at the other end of the tunnel at Baranof, the economy is great – (sound of kids chatting)

DR. SMITH: So are the schools the problem? I see an awful lot of kids who aren’t in school.

SAM: Well, they are in school. All they have is arts, culture, math and science, and boatbuilding, English, fishing, hunting, computer science, and – well I guess it’s a lot of stuff! (sound of kids talking in Tlingit and Tagalog) And they are all bilingual. Plus Saxon is trending at the moment. (sound of child reciting Beowulf)

oh and they all go to Yale, and major in Music Performance.

DR. SMITH: So, that must be the problem! How do you get a job with that!

SAM: Well – it turns out that’s what’s in demand in high tech. And the kids built us a tram, and a zipline, too, that’s fun. And everybody lives in tiny houses. They’re so cute.

DR. SMITH: So – what’s the problem?

SAM: That’s the problem. There is no problem!

DR. SMITH Uh –

SAM: We’re so hard up for problems, the elementary school has taken on World Peace! And they are close to solving it! Do you know the last time I smelled cigarette smoke? Or had somebody’s dog poop in my yard, Or – made myself sick eating junk food! The stores stopped carrying it because it wasn’t selling. Or, I just get nostalgic for an ill-tempered, ignorant rant, once in a while.

DR. SMITH: Ok, now I think I get it. So when you are dealing with fairies, the first recourse is usually to your state fairies.

SAM: You mean the Marine Highway System? Which now runs on solar, by the way.

DR. SMITH: No, State Fairies. Like in Canada you have the Provincial Fairies. But because of budget cuts, they are in Passive Management now. But – as you may know, with the rise of social media, most of our work in the Fairy field is now in Troll Management.

SAM: Troll Management? You mean fisheries?

DR. SMITH: Very funny. So I think I may be able to call – Donald Trump. But I think we can get you back so you’re comfortable again – get people to stop talking to each other, to stop listening, to forget about all this healthy stuff, arts, culture. Back to stink! Back to greed! To polarized discourse!

SAM: Fantastic! But just for a while, right?

(sound of phone being dialed)

DR. SMITH: Seriously? I’ve already got him on the phone: Donald? Hey, yeah! Smith here! I’ve got a great deal for you! – You’re on your way?

SAM: No – no – wait! Wait! Stop!!! (fades out)

(sound effect – a pop, or harp arpeggio, something like that)

SAM: (wakes up) What a crazy dream!

WIFE/HUSBAND: Oh good honey you’re awake. There’s just time to have a little kale before we go to the community composting and arts festival planning meeting!

SAM: Yeeeeeees!!

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