Everything From Afar Drifts Ashore

Friday, October 20, 2017

Exhibit is currently being installed, check back soon for pictures!


Protected by geographic isolation and a fierce reputation, the Chilkoot and Chilkat Tlingits of northern Southeast Alaska governed themselves in a realm of steep fjords and salmon-rich rivers. Last keepers of the Old Ways, the Chilkoot-Chilkat alliance forbade white settlement, maintained a force of a thousand warriors, and supported a powerful shaman who opposed any occupation of their traditional lands. This northern Tlingit stronghold, Jilkaat aani, posed a real or imagined threat to white people, so most left it alone. A century of Russian economic, religious, and military influence had familiarized the Tlingits with European ways and opened up trade with Spanish, French, and British sailing ships, but no outsiders had successfully made their way into the Tlingit territory.

In 1850 Tlingits removed five canons from a grounded Russian ship that had tried to reach Klukwan, the capital of the Chilkat Tlingits. Those canons are still in our community along with stories about those who raided the grounded ship. In 1852 Chilkat Chief Kohklux first warned, and then successfully raided Fort Selkirk and shut down their Hudson Bay Company operation, which was competing in the Chilkat’s traditional trade area in the interior.

In March of 1867 when it became known that the United States was about to purchase Alaska, there was an immediate clamor for information about the newly-ceded territory. George Davidson was chosen to lead the first American scientific expedition to explore Alaska, gathering information for Secretary of State William H. Seward about the land being purchased from Russia for the United States. Davidson’s report was instrumental in convincing Congress to fund what has become one of the greatest real estate deals of all time-the purchase of Alaska from Russia.

Davidson’s expedition traveled on the USRC Lincoln to Alaska. This exhibit covers one aspect of that historic trip. According to his logs, on October 8, 1867 Captain W. A. Howard decided to make a side trip to the mouth of the Chilcate (sic). He reasoned that the delayed arrival of officials who were to be involved in the official transfer ceremonies would provide him with more than enough time to make the 400-mile round trip from Sitka. USRC Lincoln anchored at the mouth of the Chilkat River on God’s Island, probably present day Pyramid Island, near what would become Haines, Alaska.

Howard’s side trip to Chilkat accomplished several historic milestones. They made note and named Davidson Glacier and laid down Survey Point Number 1. But most important, this would be the first time during the cruise that contact would be made with leaders of Indian tribes; first the Chilkoots and then the Chilkats. Diplomatic relations were conducted with both of these powerful Tlingit tribes. They became the first people to receive the American Flag and to pledge loyalty to the United States, a pledge which they never broke. Captain Howard stated in his final report: “The United States flag was hoisted at Chilcate within a few minutes of the time it was hoisted at New Archangel, as it was afterwards ascertained.”

Davidson and Kohklux met in Sitka and established a relationship during this trip that led to Davidson’s return in 1869 to see a total eclipse of the sun in Klukwan. Retired William H. Seward, our first tourist, met Davidson in Sitka to witness the solar event. Chief Kohklux guided the group from Sitka to Klukwan and hosted them for days. During the eclipse and subsequent cultural exchange, Kohklux and his two wives drew a map for Davidson of the route to the Interior. This map was published in 1901. Davidson gave Kohklux drawings of the mechanics of a solar eclipse. These were kept for years in Klukwan, drawn on the back of a pattern board, and may still exist in the village.

Kohklux saw the value in cultural exchange and education. Together with the chiefs of the other four villages in the area, he contacted Dr. Sheldon Jackson requesting a mission be established in each village for the education of the Tlingit children. In 1879 Presbyterian missionary S. Hall Young and his friend John Muir were sent by Jackson to discuss the location of a mission with Chilkat and Chilkoot chiefs. John Muir cemented the destiny of the last, largest group of unassimilated Indians in the nation. Muir approached his hosts without fear and spoke to them from his heart. At the end of his brief sermon, the oldest shaman stood and announced the whole-cloth conversion of his people. After three days of feasting in Yendustucky (near the mouth of the Chilkat River), Muir, Young, Chief Kohklux, Chief Donawok and Shaman Skundoo-oo walked to Deishu (end of the trail) and decided that would be the site of the new mission.

This brief period of time in the Chilkat Valley was the pivotal point for the future of the area that became Haines.

In 1880 George Dickinson opened a Northwest Trading Company post next to the mission site. The U.S. Navy built a school by the trading post and Sarah Dickinson, his wife, became our first school teacher. The Tlingits began building houses on either side of the trading post and school. In 1881 the Willards arrived to open the mission. They brought with them a bell that continues to be located in front of the church. This is the only remaining piece of the original Chilkat Mission. German Anthropologists Aurel and Arthur Krause spent that winter with the Dickinsons. Their studies of the Tlingits are among the best written references to Tlingit culture during the early years of cross-cultural contact.

In 1883 the Mission was named Haines to honor the woman who raised money for it. The region was rapidly growing. Pyramid Harbor Cannery was built and operated by the M.J. Kinney Company of Astoria. Lt. Frederick Schwatka was sent to Pyramid Harbor by the U.S. Army to study the indigenous Alaskans. He provided the first survey of a route to the gold fields. In 1883 and 1884 Eliza Scidmore, a travel writer, visited the area. She detailed the desire for trinkets and souvenirs among early tourists at Pyramid Harbor. By 1885 Haines Sol Ripinsky arrived to teach at the mission school. He was hired by the Navy to map the area and eventually ran the post office and trading post. His entire collection is now in the Sheldon Museum.

Haines is an area where memory is long and history is retained. Early flags and captured Russian canon are still part of of our lives. Although the Russians never made inroads in this area, the Americans swiftly did. What made the difference? Why did the locals decide to allow others into their area? Some suggest gun boat diplomacy and plagues that wiped out half the population were major contributing factors. But what about dialog, discourse, friendship and conversation? The Americans struck a chord with the local Tlingits, allowing settlement and travel through passes that had been jealously guarded for centuries.