June 15, 2015

Sitka - Southeast Alaska's Most Historic Town

Tim and I have been in Sitka for two weeks now and have been working forty hours per week at Sitka National Historical Park.  Although we are thoroughly enjoying the work, and will be staying on an additional week to complete the project, we have found that this work schedule has really cut into the time we have to get out and explore the town. 

Since it’s been a while since we had forty-hour work weeks, I have to admit that we are tired at the end of the day and are not interested in much more than grabbing a bite to eat and heading back to the RV to relax.  Updating this blog has also taken a backseat.  Until this past Friday, it has rained almost every day, which also provided a good excuse for not getting out.  However, on the weekends Tim and I have slowly been exploring some of the town’s historic sites, many of which are associated with Sitka’s Russian heritage.

Sitka is Southeast Alaska’s most historic town, and its history has lots of layers.  The Tlingits were the first to settle here at least 8,000 years ago.  At the turn of the nineteenth century the Russians arrived.  In 1867 Sitka became a U.S. territorial capital after Russia sold Alaska to the United States. 

Russians first arrived in Alaska in 1741, and by 1799 the Russian imperial government had established colonies throughout Alaska.  Lured by the lucrative fur trade, the Russians first gained a foothold in the Aleutian Islands and virtually enslaved the Native Aleuts, forcing them into hunting the sea otter, which had the most sought-after pelts.  In order to extend their territorial claims and hinder competition in the fur trade, the Russians soon set their sights on places farther to the south.

In 1799 the Russian-American Company, led by its manager Alexander Baranov, established a fortification on Baranof Island, which was called Shee by the Tlingits who were its native inhabitants.  Relationships soon soured, and the Tlingits attacked the Russian settlement and killed most of the inhabitants.  This victory was short-lived, however, as the Tlingits ultimately failed to stop the Russians when Baranov returned in 1804 and attacked the Tlingit fort at Shee At’iká.  Sitka National Historical Park incorporates this site and commemorates the Battle of Sitka. 

Baranov selected Shee At’iká as the headquarters of the Russian-American Company and renamed the town New Archangel, more commonly called Sitka.  The Tlingits eventually moved back to Sitka, and the two nations developed a wary coexistence.

"This Land Belongs to Russia"
Iron Plate Buried to Record the Russian Claim to Alaska

A Reconstructed Blockhouse Offered Protection

It was the Russian Orthodox Church and its missionary work that bridged the gap between the Alaska Natives and the Russian community.  Bishop Innocent arrived in Sitka in 1841, and he embraced the culture of the Tlingits.  Unlike later American missionaries, Bishop Innocent incorporated Native language into worship services and even translated scriptures into the Tlingit and other Native Alaskan languages.

The Russian Orthodox Church is the most enduring legacy of Russian America, which at one time extended as far south as Fort Ross, just north of San Francisco.  Several buildings in Sitka reflect this Russian heritage.  Most prominent is St. Michaels’s Cathedral, which was designed by Bishop Innocent and constructed between 1844 and 1848.  Sadly, a fire in 1966 destroyed the cathedral, although residents managed to save most of the icons and furniture.  The cathedral was subsequently rebuilt and stands today as a most imposing structure in Sitka.

St. Michael's Cathedral

The Domes of St. Michael's Cathedral

The Iconostasis, or Icon Screen
The Altar Behind the Royal Doors 

The Actual Aleut Gospel Translated by Bishop Innocent

Even more interesting to me was the Russian Bishop’s House, which is a part of Sitka National Historical Park.  This two-story building served as the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sitka, as well as the residence of the bishop.  Constructed in 1843 by Finnish shipwrights, the building reflects the traditional timber frame construction that was typical of Russian buildings of that era in Sitka.

The Russian Bishop's House - An Ecclesiastical Palace

I’ve said before that I think National Park Service tours are some of the best, and this one was no exception.  Ranger Anne gave us an excellent tour of the upper floor of the building, including the Bishop’s private quarters and chapel.  She elaborated on things that were of particular interest to us, especially the architecture, and her explanations helped us understand the important role of the church in Russian America.

Details from Bishop Innocent's Private Quarters

Public Reception Area

The Bishop's Chapel

One of the few sites that spans all three layers of Sitka’s history is Castle Hill.  This strategic location was once the site of a Tlingit village until the Russians claimed it for their new seat of government.  Several buildings were constructed here, but the most famous one was known as Baranof’s Castle.  Built in 1837, this structure was visible for miles and dominated the Sitka skyline.  In 1867 Castle Hill was the site of the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States.  Castle Hill also provides great views of Sitka and the surrounding area.

The View from Castle Hill

There is lots more to discover in Sitka, and I will cover more of the Tlingit heritage and the totem poles for which Sitka is famous in the next post.


  1. Loved the tour. First time I've seen an Orthodox church with the Royal Door open to view the altar. I had to chuckle at the plaque that declared the land Russian property! I agree about NPS's ranger-led tours ... I've yet to find one that we weren't pleased with.

    1. Thank you. There are so many places to visit in Sitka. I'll try to include a few more in another post.


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