Trading with the Tlingit in Sitka

No trip to Alaska in 1900 could be complete without visiting Sitka. Located on an island in the Alexander Archipelago, Sitka was originally inhabited by the Tlingit tribe, and means “People on the Outside of Baranof Island” in their language. The area was settled by Russian traders in the 18th century and was Alaska’s colonial capital until 1906 when it was moved to Juneau. In Sitka, Frank and Nell are met by throngs of Tlingit craftsmen and women with a variety of objects for sale. The Tlingit had a long history of trading with visiting Russians merchants¬†and were able to sell over $2,000 ($57,000 today!) in wares to the tourists from Frank’s boat. Tourists like Frank regularly bought (or stole) sacred tribal objects¬†from the Tlingit and in recent years organizations like the Smithsonian have worked hard to return these objects to where they came from.

As I was putting this post together, I learned that an American artist, Theodore Richardson, traveled through Sitka in the 1880s and painted the buildings and places he saw. You can see many of Richardson’s pieces on the American Art Museum’s website, its nice to add some color to the Felter’s Alaska trip!

drying skins
Theodore J. Richardson, Drying Skins, Sitka, ca. 1880-1914, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

It is an exceptional day at Sitka, as it rains there sometimes as much as 120 inches in a year. Glad we are to get off and take a walk, on dry land. We find the whole town has turned out to meet us, the Indian merchants especially, who have formed a line commencing at the wharf and extending three or four blocks up into the town. They are all sitting on the ground with their wares spread out around them for sale. Baskets of the most intricate workmanship, from nothing up to $35.00 each:- bead work of all kinds: a large variety of fur slippers:- war canoes and totem poles in miniature:- bows and arrows:- bone knives and spears:- in fact a thousand different articles offered for sale by Indian men, women and children.

baskets
Native women weaving baskets in Sitka, Alaska, circa 1897, Archives of American Art.

Some of the girls were nice looking, and the women generally looked more intelligent than the men. I was told the women run the business, and carry the purse for the family. The men whittle out the trinkets for sale, and loaf around, or fish and hunt. We took a walk through their part of the village, and found it almost entirely deserted, all having turned out to sell to the Tourists. Some one told us that the passengers of the “Queen” left about $2,000.00 in Sitka that day, in exchange for mementos.

012147_000_001_20080220_ps.tif
Tlingit Bowl/Dish with owl design, c. 1850-1870, National Museum of the American Indian.

We saw hanging on some poles a lot of fish, split up very fine and drying in the sun. A little farther on two deer lay on the ground dead, each having a bruise on his head. The Indian said he killed them in the water, with a club, as they were swimming across to another island. He offered to sell them for $5.00.

We had just returned to the wharf when we saw something unusual was occurring and we hurried as near to the front as possible. They are hoisting a large bull out of the hold, by means of the crate in which he had been encased since taking on at Port Townsend. He nearly killed a man there, and now he is looked upon as [a] dangerous animal.

Lincoln Street Sitka.jpg
Theodore J. Richardson, Lincoln Street, Sitka, 1887, 1887, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Up he goes in the air, looks around, surprised, but never says a word, then down again over the side of the vessel to the water edge, all inside of a minute: and now the parties who are to receive him, row up in a boat, attach a rope to the ring in his nose, and then push off a few yards. The end of the crate is knocked out and Mr. Bull slices into the water and begins to swim as naturally as if he had taken lessons.

The men in the boat keep in advance of him, and finally they all together get across to an island, where we will leave them.

Sitka possesses the oldest Greek church on this continent. The town was settled by Russians over 130 years ago, and has been the Capitol seat of Alaska. This honor has however very recently been transferred to Juneau, as a more convenient place. Sitka as it looks today in the full glory of Alaska sunlight is one of the most beautiful places of the kind, I have ever seen: with its my raids of islands, and the splendid view of Edgecomb volcano, across the harbor.

Rear View of Greek Church.jpg
Theodore J. Richardson, Rear View of Greek Church, Sitka, 1888, 1888, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Alaska has 61 Volcanoes, all of them crowned with snow, and nine or ten of the are still sending out fire and smoke.

Yes, Alaska is a “Great Country”. We all realize this as we sail Southward and again drink in the beauties of this magnificent scenery.

Sitka From the ISlands.jpg
Theodore J. Richardson, Sitka from the Islands, Showing Russian Castle, 1888, 1888, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

This post is part of a longer travelogue written by Frank L. Felter of Los Angeles, a distant relative of mine, as he and his wife Nell journeyed up to and around Alaska in 1900. To read the previous part, click here. To read the next part, click here.

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