Sitka
National Historical Park
Alaska
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When They Tell the Story of Sitka...

. . . they remember a land of plenty and the people drawn to its wealth. The forest shrouding the land, the rivers running through it, and the sea around it provided everything needed to sustain a vigorous human community. Tlingits had thrived on the island they called Shee for countless generations before ambitious traders came from the west in search of new goods. Here Tlingits and Russians met, fought, and then uneasily coexisted for a time. When the Russians departed after six decades, both groups had been changed by the encounter. The Tlingits preserved their traditions as the Americans who replaced the Russians wrought their own changes. In the 1960s, after decades of acculturation and population decline, Tlingits began to reassert their culture. If you pay close attention to the landscape, artifacts, and artisans of Sitka National Historical Park, you will hear the story of the cultures who lived, and still live, on this island.

A Place of Power

From the Aleutian Islands to the Alexander Archipelago off Southeast Alaska, a great arc of ruggedly sculpted shoreline embraces the far reaches of the North Pacific. It is a dynamic land, where the flow of vast glaciers cuts steep-walled fjords, and forested mountains of the coastal range plunge to the sea. For thousands of years before Europeans found it, this was a wild, remote place where the "white thunder" of calving glaciers was heard by Alaska Natives alone, and where the cry of the raven and the call of the wolf echoed through their stories.

The Tlingit People

For the Tlingits, Haida, and other groups. Southeast Alaska was a hospitable land where the warm Japanese Current moderated temperatures—and kept Sitka's natural harbor free of ice year-round. Food resources were so abundant that the Tlingits essentially harvested whatever they needed. A maritime people, they drew much of their food from the sea and the rivers flowing into it. Salmon, the nutritious staple of their diet, was available in staggering quantities during the spawning runs. The Tlingits also fished on the open sea, wrestling 5-foot-long halibut into their canoes; hunted sea mammals; and gathered shellfish and edible seaweed. They hunted land animals and supplemented their diet with berries, grasses, and roots.

Cedar and other conifers in the great rain forest climbing the mountains behind Sitka provided the durable, straight-grained wood from which the Tlingits shaped much of their material world. They cut great beams and split planks to build their multi-family dwellings. Their basic structures were rectangular, pitched-roof buildings with round or oval entrances. From trunks they carved canoes up to 60 feet long, built in various types and sizes for fishing, sea travel, river travel, or war. They fashioned everyday implements from alder, like spoons and bowls, and crafted bentwood boxes to hold their large stocks of food and fish oil. Theirs was a bountiful life.

Coming of the Anooshi

Vitus Bering's 1741 voyage of exploration for Russia brought the first Europeans to Alaska. The sea otter pelts they took home to show the Czar drew them back to stay and the area was soon overrun with Russian promyshlenniki—free-ranging hunters and fur traders. The Russians (called Anooshi by the Tlingits) were likely the first Old World traders to encounter Alaska Natives. Through barter and coercion the promyshlenniki used the skills of the native Aleutians—the Aleuts—to gather the profitable pelts. By 1784 a Russian trading company employing promyshlenniki had established a station on Kodiak Island, and forced Aleuts to hunt sea otter and other sea mammals. Russia remained the dominant power in the North Pacific for 125 years.

Wanting to stabilize Russia's foothold in the New World, Czar Paul I in 1799 granted a monopoly to the Russian-American Company, giving the company's manager Alexander Baranov the powers of a colonial governor. Baranov had already been pushing operations east and south from Kodiak Island to extend Russia's territorial claims and thwart growing competition in the fur trade from England and the United States. He also wanted to stop the British and American practice of trading guns to the Tlingits, a powerful group in Southeast Alaska. To those ends he planned to establish a fortified station on Baranof Island, the one called Shee by its native inhabitants.

Tlingits, Russians, and Americans

Resistance at Indian River

After a Tlingit leader ceded land north of Sitka to the Russian-American Company, Alexander Baranov brought some 1,100 Russians, Aleuts, and other Native Alaskans to the site and established Redoubt St. Michael. Other Tlingits, especially the powerful Kiks.ádi clan of Shee At'iká, chafed at the Russian presence on the island. In 1802 they attacked the settlement and killed most of its Russian and Aleut inhabitants. Baranov returned in 1804 with a party of Russians and Aleuts, this time to Shee At'iká, where he met up with the warship Neva. Preparing for battle, the Kiks.ádi moved to a nearby fortification they had built at the mouth of the Indian River.

After the Kiks.ádi rejected Baranov's demands for surrender, Neva and other gunboats bombarded their wooden structure. When that failed, Baranov led a party ashore and stormed the fort. Behind their war chief K'alyaan, the Kiks.ádi repulsed the attack, wounding Baranov. Undeterred, he laid siege to the Kiks.ádi. After seven days, seeing no activity ashore, Baranov landed again. The Kiks.ádi had run out of gunpowder and quietly left during the night. The battle was one of the last major acts of Tlingit resistance to the Russians.

Fur trader Alexander Baranov (1746-1819) became head of the Russian-American Company. He paved the way for Russian Orthodox missionaries like Ioann Veniaminov (1797-1879), who built schools for the Tlingits and created a Tlingit alphabet. In 1840 Veniaminov was named Bishop Innocent. Both men served the Russian Czar, symbolized by the double-headed eagle.

The Tlingits encountered by the Russians were a vital, complex society. Tlingits were divided into moieties, the Eagle and Raven. Clans, the basic social and economic units, controlled resources and trade routes. So abundant was food that large surpluses were created, allowing Tlingits time to bring decorative design to every area of their lives.

New Archangel and American Sitka

Baranov made Shee At'iká the Russian-American Company's headquarters, renaming it New Archangel—though it was commonly called Sitka. On the rocky promontory now called Castle Hill he located his home and harbor fortifications. The Russians never became self-sufficient, depending on fresh food from Tlingits who had stayed in the area. The company remained wary of them, maintaining a stockade between the communities. The Russian Orthodox mission, though, established a sympathetic relationship with the Tlingits.

By the mid-1800s the Russian government had grown disenchanted with its stake in America. When the United States offered to buy Alaska in 1867, Russia accepted and Sitka became a U.S. territorial capital. The Presbyterian Church established its own mission in Sitka in the 1870s, building a school for Native children. In 1890 the U.S. government created a federal reserve, Indian River Park, at the mouth of the river. The park was designated Sitka National Monument in 1910, then became part of the National Park System when that system was established in 1916. In 1972 it was redesignated Sitka National Historical Park.

Who Lives Here?

The convergence of the Indian River, Pacific Ocean, and coastal rain forest creates a biologically rich habitat. This temperate rain forest ecosystem is dominated by towering Sitka spruce and western hemlock. Brown bears, river otters, mink, and black-tailed deer frequent the area. The park's intertidal zone teems with marine invertebrates like sea stars, limpets, and barnacles. The area hosts 150 bird species, and pink salmon runs sometimes pack the Indian River with over 1.3 million fish.

Salmon are the ultimate recyclers: Aquatic insects, a critical food source for juvenile salmon, feed on organic nutrients in the Indian River. Salmon eventually head to sea to feed on rich ocean resources. Mature salmon return to the river to spawn and die. Their carcasses provide food for bears, gulls, and eagles and add nutrients to the stream ecosystem, jump-starting a new generation of salmon.

Totem Trail

The Totem Walk is a 2-mile loop trail through temperate rain forest, where you will find a remarkable collection of totem poles carved by Tlingit and Haida artists. The poles have been part of the Sitka story since 1906, when a collection of poles donated by villages from southern Southeast Alaska were shown at national expositions in 1904 and 1905, then shipped to Sitka and erected in Indian River Park. Traditionally the poles were allowed to deteriorate naturally, and many of those you see today are replicas.

Woodcarving is a fundamental art form of Northwest American Indian cultures, and the totem pole is among their highest achievements. These are public records, displays of identity and clan pride serving several functions: Crest poles record the ancestry of a family; legend poles depict folklore or historical events; history poles recount a clan's story; and memorial poles commemorate an individual clan member.

The art of carving totem poles lives in Sitka: Three of the park's poles have been raised since 1976. Tribal organizations continue to carve poles that address themes like wellness and healing.

About Your Visit

park map
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The park Visitor Center houses a collection of Tlingit artifacts, many of them loaned to the National Park Service by Tlingit clans. "The Voices of Sitka" video connects the stories of Sitkans present and past. The visitor center also houses the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, which grew from a collaboration between the park and the Alaska Native Brotherhood to promote demonstrations of traditional arts of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people. Native artists work in studios devoted to textile arts, carving, and metal work. Completed in 1843, the Russian Bishop's House was Bishop Innocent's home and the diocese administrative center.

Hours The park Visitor Center is open daily, 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. It is open year-round except on Thanksgiving and December 25.

The park trails are open daily mid-May through September, 6:00 am to 10:00 pm, and October to mid-May, 7:00 am to 8:00 pm. The Russian Bishop's House is open daily mid-May to September, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Ranger-led tours are offered every 30 minutes. From October to mid-May the house is open by appointment only.

Accessibility Most structures and trails in the park are wheelchair-accessible. The Russian Bishop's House upstairs is not accessible.

Source: NPS Brochure (2016)


Establishment

Sitka National Historical Park — 1972
Sitka National Monument — March 23, 1910


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Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards expand section

Documents

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

A History of Totem Preservation, Sitka National Historical Park (Alan Levitan, 2012)

Archeological Investigations at Sitka Russian Bishop's House, 1981, Sitka National Historical Park, Sitka, Alaska (Catherine Holder Blee and Diane Lee Rhodes, April 1985)

An Administrative History of Sitka National Historical Park (HTML edition) (Joan M. Antonson and William S. Hanable, 1987)

Climate Change Scenario Planning for Southeast Alaska Parks: Glacier Bay, Klondike, Sitka, and Wrangell-St. Elias NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/AKSO/NRR—2014/831 (Robert Winfree, Bud Rice, John Morris, Don Callaway, Don Weeks, Jeff Mow, Nancy Fresco and Lena Krutikov, July 2014)

Coastal Hazards & Sea-Level Rise Asset Vulnerability Assessment & Tsunami Vulnerability Case Study, Sitka National Historical Park (Western Carolina University, December 2017)

Early Views: Historical Vignettes of Sitka National Historical Park (Kristen Griffin, 2000)

Foundation Document, Sitka National Historical Park, Alaska (June 2012)

Foundation Document Overview, Sitka National Historical Park, Alaska (August 2013)

General Management Plan: Sitka National Historic Park (November 1998)

Historical Context Study Supplemental Report: The Bishop's House as Documented in the Alaska Russian Church Archives and the Published Correspondence of Innokentii (Veniaminov) (Katherine L. Arndt, 2nd ed., 2004)

Historic Resource Study, Historic Structure Report (Historical Data Section), Historic Furnishing Report: The Russian Bishop's House, Sitka National Historical Park, Alaska (James D. Mote, August 1981)

Historic Structure Report: Sitka National Historical Park Visitor Center (FFA Architecture+Interiors, January 2020)

Historic Structure Reports: House 105 and the Old School — Administrative, Physical History and Analysis Sections, Sitka National Historical Park, Sitka, Alaska (Paul C. Cloyd, May 1984)

Indian River Streamflow Statistics for Water Years 2008-2010, Sitka National Historical Park NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/SEAN/NRDS—2012/269 (Christopher J. Sergeant and Craig S. Smith, March 2012)

Invasive and Exotic Plant Management in Sitka National Historical Park: 2011 Summary Report NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/SITK/NRDS—2011/225 (Amanda M. Wolfe, December 2011)

Invasive and Exotic Plant Species Management in Sitka National Historical Park: 2012 Summary Report NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/SITK/NRDS—2013/432 (Gina L. Bono, January 2013)

Invasive and Exotic Species Management for Sitka National Historical Park: 2010 Summary Report NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/SITK/NRDS—2010/104 (Kathryn M. Auer and Kristi L. Link, November 2010)

Junior Ranger Activity Book, Sitka National Historical Park (Date Unknown)

Landcover Classes: Sitka National Historical Park NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SITK/NRTR—2013/773 (Lindsey Flagstad and Tina Boucher, July 2013)

National Register of Historic Places Nomination Forms

Russian Bishop's House (Russian Mission Orphanage) (Joaqlin Estus, February 11, 1983)

Sitka National Historical Park (Kathleen Lidfors, December 9, 1986)

Natural Resource Condition Assessment, Sitka National Historical Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SITK/NRR-2012/525 (Kevin J. Stark, Courtney Lee, Jonathan M. Sopcak, Kathy Kilkus, Andy Nadeau and Shannon Amberg, May 2012)

Physical and Cultural Landscapes of Sitka National Historic Park, Sitka, Alaska (Gregory P. Chaney, Robert C. Betts and Dee Longenbaugh, June 1, 1995)

Report on Sullys Hill Park, Casa Grande Ruin; the Muir Woods, Petrified Forest, and Other National Monuments, Including List of Bird Reserves: 1915 (HTML edition) (Secretary of the Interior, 1914)

Report on Wind Cave National Park, Sullys Hill Park, Casa Grande Ruin, Muir Woods, Petrified Forest, and Other National Monuments, Including List of Bird Reserves: 1913 (HTML edition) (Secretary of the Interior, 1914)

Sitka's National Historic Landmarks: A Window into Alaska's Past (Chris Allan and Janet Clemens, et al., 2013)

Southeast Alaska Network Freshwater Water Quality Monitoring Program

Southeast Alaska Network Freshwater Water Quality Monitoring Program: 2010 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SEAN/NRTR—2012/547 (Christopher J. Sergeant, William F. Johnson and Brendan J. Moynahan, February 2012)

Southeast Alaska Network Freshwater Water Quality Monitoring Program: 2011 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SEAN/NRTR—2012/561 (Christopher J. Sergeant, William F. Johnson and Brendan J. Moynahan, March 2012)

Southeast Alaska Network Freshwater Water Quality Monitoring Program: 2012 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SEAN/NRTR—2013/706 (Christopher J. Sergeant and William F. Johnson, March 2013)

Southeast Alaska Network Freshwater Water Quality Monitoring Program: 2013 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SEAN/NRTR—2014/840 (Christopher J. Sergeant and William F. Johnson, January 2014)

Southeast Alaska Network Freshwater Water Quality Monitoring Program: 2014 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SEAN/NRR—2015/927 (Christopher J. Sergeant and William F. Johnson, February 2015)

Southeast Alaska Network Freshwater Water Quality Monitoring Program: 2015 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SEAN/NRR—2016/1131 (Christopher J. Sergeant and William F. Johnson, February 2016)

Southeast Alaska Network Freshwater Water Quality Monitoring Program: 2016 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SEAN/NRR—2017/1383 (Christopher J. Sergeant, William F. Johnson, February 2017)

Southeast Alaska Network Freshwater Water Quality Monitoring Program: 2017 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/SEAN/NRDS—2018/1144 (Christopher J. Sergeant, William F. Johnson, January 2018)

State of the Park Report, Sitka National Historical Park, Alaska State of the Park Series No. 36 (2016)

Summary of Indian River Streamflow Data Collected by the Southeast Alaska Network: Sitka National Historical Park, 2007-2016 NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SEAN/NRR—2017/1399 (Christopher J. Sergeant and Terence C. Schwarz, March 2017)

The Archeology of the Fort Unit, Sitka National Historical Park — Volume 1: Results of the 2005-2008 Inventory (William J. Hunt, Jr., 2010)

The Most Striking of Objects: Totem Poles of Sitka National Historic Park (Andrew Patrick, 2002)

Traditional Tlingit Use of Sitka National Historic Park (Thomas F. Thornton and Fred Hope, July 31, 1998)

Wallpaper and Wallcoverings: The Russian Bishop's House, Sitka National Historical Park (Barbar A. Yocum, September 2003)

Wine, Yaman and Stone, The Archeology of a Russian Hospital Trash Pit, Sitka National Historical Park, Alaska (Catherine Holder Blee, Marianne Musitelli, Linda J. Scott, D. Kate Aasen and Stephen A. Chomko, November 1986)



Handbooks ◆ Books expand section

Videos

An Introduction to Totem Poles at Sitka National Historical Park



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Last Updated: 11-Jun-2022