SITKA, Alaska -- In 1804, nearly a century before the Klondike gold
rush, Russian fur traders defeated Alaska's Tlingit Indians in the
Battle of Sitka and proceeded to transform the Tlingit's ancestral
home into the czar's capital in North America.
On a prominence overlooking Sitka harbor, Count Alexander
Baranof built his administrative headquarters and from this
wilderness outpost directed Russian activities up and down
America's northwest coast.
Shipyards, sawmills and other industry hummed with activity.
Russian ships loaded ice, lumber and furs for markets in Europe,
Asia and Mexico. Russian nobility attended formal balls and social
All of this ended in 1867, when the U.S. purchased Alaska from
the czar for $7.2 million.
Sitka today has a population of about 8,600. The town's
island-dotted harbor and backdrop of mountain peaks form one of the
loveliest settings of any community in Alaska.
Sitka is not on Alaska's Inside Passage but on the Pacific Ocean
side of Baranof Island, about midway up the Alaskan Panhandle.
Large cruise ships approach from the open ocean. Smaller cruise
ships thread their way through the Peril Strait and an archipelago
of small offshore islands, arriving at Sitka from the Inside
In modern-day Sitka, Russian and Tlingit mementos, relics and
artifacts are carefully preserved. Cannon built in the 18th century
still point out across the harbor from Castle Hill, where Count
St. Michael's Cathedral, built in the 1840s and destroyed by
fire in 1966, has been rebuilt and contains dozens of rescued gold
and silver icons and oil paintings.
The log blockhouse that once separated Russian and Indian
sectors stands as a reminder that the Tlingits did not submit
quietly to Russian dominance.
Russian and Tlingit cultures are both preserved at Sitka
National Historical Park, a half mile outside of town.
From the park's visitor center, a self-guiding trail leads past
totem poles to the site of the 1804 battleground.
The totem collection displays original pieces collected early in
the 1900s as well as copies of originals that were lost to time and
In one wing of the visitor center, Tlingit artists, members of
the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, teach traditional wood
and silver carving.
Another wing houses Russian-American historical and
Also a part of Sitka National Historical Park is the Russian
Bishop's House near St. Michael's Cathedral. Built in 1842, the
house is a National Historic Landmark, one of four original Russian
structures remaining in North America.
Exhibits on its first floor interpret the Russian fur trade in
Alaska and the roles of the Russian American Company and Russian
The second floor was restored to its 1850s appearance with