Sitka, Alaska




Two historic views of Sitka, Alaska (Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries). Repeat photographs not yet available.

Russians and the Tlingit

Complex cultures developed over 10,000 years ago as humans learned to exploit the abundant marine and mountainous coastal ecosystems of the northwest coast. People linked salmon, cedar, eulichan, seaweed, sea otters, halibut, salmonberry and hundreds of other species into intricate webs of resources that provided food, shelter, tools, transportation, music and other trappings of civilization that was often unique to each of these numerous and diverse First Nations. In the early 1700s, several thousand Tlingit people occupied a territory in the area that is now the panhandle of Alaska, stretching from the mouths of the Stikine and Nass rivers  northwards to Juneau.  Through trade, warfare, and intermarriage the Tlingit interacted extensively with neighbouring nations including the Haida to the south and Tahltan to the east.1

In 1741 Russian ships led by Vitus Bering (a Dane) and Alexei Chirikov left Kamchatka to survey the west coast of North America. On July 15, Chirikov likely reached as far south as Prince of Wales Island. His landing was likely the first presence of the European nations on the northwest coast. On returning to Russia, the expedition reported on the abundance of sea otters, starting over a century of vigorous Russian trading activity on the south western shores of Alaska.  Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, manager the Russian-Alaska Fur Company, established the post of New Archangel (now Sitka) in the 1790s. This Russian bastion became a major destination for travelers along the northwest coast, visited routinely by many First Nations and European ships. 2

The Russian fur trade sharply rapidly altered the cultures and ecology of the Alaska coast. Sea otter has the densest fur of any mammal. The species was long an important focus for First Nation’s clothing, food, and trade. Sea otter bones are the most commonly identified mammal in northwest archaeological sites. Further intensification of human exploitation driven by European demand drove the species to near extinction with a series of side effects numerous influences by sea otters such as sea urchins and kelp.3

Significantly for First Nations and all plants and animals influenced by their activities, Russian traders may have carried smallpox to the northwest coast before the 1750s, decimating many west coast Native American populations prior to better documented outbreaks after 1770.4

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Map and Footnotes

Center map
  2.,_Alaska ; Chevigny, Hector (1942). Lord of Alaska: Baranov and the Russian adventure. Cornell University: Viking Press
  3. Szpak, Paul; Orchard, Trevor J.; McKechnie, Iain; Gröcke, Darren R. (2012). “Historical Ecology of Late Holocene Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris) from Northern British Columbia: Isotopic and Zooarchaeological Perspectives”. Journal of Archaeological Science 39 (5): 1553–1571.
  4. Boyd, Robert. The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence, Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 1999