Wrangell, Wrangell Island

Wrangell, Wrangell Island

by | Oct 27, 2021

Wrangell is a community situated at the mouth of the Stikine River on the north coast of Wrangell Island in the Alexander Archipelago of Southeast Alaska, about 83 miles (134 km) north-northwest of Ketchikan and 33 miles (53 km) southeast of Petersburg, Alaska. The town and island are named after Ferdinand von Wrangel, a Baltic-German explorer in Russian service who was the chief manager or ‘governor’ of the Russian-American Company from 1829 to 1834. The Stikine River drains a watershed of 20,000 square miles (52,000 sq km) and flows for about 380 miles (610 km) through northwestern British Columbia and the last 40 miles (64 km) flows through Alaska forming a delta opposite Wrangell and Mitkof Islands, about 6.2 miles (10 km) north of Wrangell. The Stikine’s north arm flows into Frederick Sound about 16 miles (26 km) southeast of Petersburg, and the main channel and southern distributaries flow into Sumner Strait, Stikine Strait, Zimovia Strait, and Eastern Passage which separates Wrangell Island from the mainland. Steamboats historically traveled upstream from Wrangell for 130 miles (210 km) to the head of navigation at Glenora, near Telegraph Creek. The name ‘Stikine’ is derived from the Tsimshian ‘Stikʼiin’, which refers to the Tahltan people who lived along the river in the interior plateau. The Tlingit people were in the Wrangell area for centuries before Europeans arrived. They call themselves the Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan after the Stikine River. The Tlingit trace the origin of nearly all of their clans to the Tsimshian coast. Oral tradition and evidence from anthropological studies suggest that the Tlingit people descended rivers from the interior including the Skeena, Nass, and Stikine in a series of migrations. Some stories claim that nearly all of the present Tlingit clans immigrated in this manner and that most of the ‘old Alaskans’, the ancient people whom the Tlingit found in possession when they arrived, had died out. The Tlingit people expanded northward for centuries, and over time inhabited the coast from Yakutat to Stikine (now Wrangell). Their neighbors to the south were the Tsimshian, to the west were the Haida, and to the east were Athabaskans of the interior. The Tlingit relied on the ocean for most of their food, supplemented by a variety of berries and game animals. In canoes up to 60 feet (18 m) long carved from cedar trunks, they fished for cod, halibut, and herring. In summer they stretched fish traps across shallow rocky rivers for salmon that were dried and stored for use in winter. Each Tlingit clan had exclusive fishing areas, and infringement by others was grounds for war or retribution. Each group followed its own trade routes along the coast and to the interior where skillful bargainers met with other tribes to trade. The Tlingit exchanged dried fish, otter furs, and highly valued Chilkat robes for caribou skins, fox furs, jade, copper, and other items not found on the coast.

In 1793, the Stikine River mouth and Wrangell Island were charted by James Johnstone, one of Captain George Vancouver’s officers during his 1791-1795 expedition, however, Johnstone only charted the east coast, not realizing it was an island. In 1799, by decree of Emperor Paul I, the Russian Empire asserted ownership of the Pacific coast and adjoining lands of North America as far south as the 55 degrees north latitude. In 1811, Russian fur traders arrived at the Stikine River mouth and started acquiring furs from Tlingit hunters at a site on the north end of the island. In 1821, Emperor Alexander issued another decree which extended the Russian claim south to 51 degrees north latitude. In 1825, the Russo-British Treaty gave the British rights to the interior along with the right of navigation of the Taku and Stikine Rivers. In 1829, the Hudson’s Bay Company sent instructions for a company detachment to occupy the Nass River with a new trade post called Fort Simpson. In 1833, The Russian-American Company chief manager Baron Wrangel sent Arvid Etholén on the Chichagof to the Stikine and learned of the British incursion at the Nass River. To prevent the Hudson’s Bay Company traders from accessing the Stikine River, Wrangel ordered a stockade built near the clan house of Chief Shakes on a small island in what is today Wrangell Harbor. In the autumn of 1833, a party of promyshlenniki on the Chichagof under the command of Lieutenant Dionysius Zarembo was dispatched south and began constructing a fort named Redoubt Saint Dionysius. In 1834, the Hudson’s Bay Company reached Redoubt Saint Dionysius, and described the trading post as having a barricade 6 feet (1.8 m) tall, a half-completed house for the officer in charge, and a few huts. During the ensuing confrontation, the Hudson’s Bay Company employees were driven off by the Russians and their property seized. In 1839, a new treaty was signed that allowed the Hudson’s Bay Company to build and maintain posts at the mouths of the Taku and Stikine Rivers in return for an annual supply of furs and supplies of equipment, agricultural, and pastoral products for the Russian American settlements. The Hudson’s Bay Company created the Puget Sound Agricultural Company to meet these needs. In 1839, James Douglas was sent north to establish Fort Stikine at the old Russian stockade for the Hudson’s Bay Company, but the local group of Tlingit who had used the Stikine River as a trade route to the interior since ancient times objected to the British control of the fur trade of the Stikine Country. The British soon learned that the Stikine Tlingit had long-standing trade agreements with other tribes including the Haida, Nisga’a, and Tsimshian and in some cases were bound to the slave trade. This caused an escalation of the slave trade and a rise in warfare among the Haida and Tlingits and other tribes to the south to provide furs to re-sell to Hudson’s Bay Company. The process of increased slave raids by Tlingit and Haida, as well as depleted stocks of sea otter and beaver, was seen as a large problem and grounds for closing the post, and in 1849, Fort Stikine was abandoned.

Chief Shakes regained control of the post and of the Stikine River trade in the absence of colonial authority. The discovery of gold in the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1850, and then in the Thompson Country and Fraser Canyon in the later 1850s, led to wider encroachments and exploration by Euro-Americans. Alexander “Buck” Choquette, who had been in the California goldfields, was at Fort Victoria when he met some of Chief Shakes’ people and persuaded them to guide him to the Stikine River and what was left of Fort Stikine, which had by then become known as Shakesville. In the spring of 1861, Choquette set out on a canoe trip up the Stikine with ten Stikine warriors and discovered gold at Buck’s Bar, and the Stikine Gold Rush was launched. Hordes of fortune seekers descended on the Stikine River, and Fort Stikine became an important port-of-call for steamboats now bound for the river’s many gold-bearing sandbars. Choquette knew more money was to be made in provisioning goods and supplies to the miners and he obtained rights to sell Hudson’s Bay Company wares. By 1867, when the Alaska Purchase transferred the territory from Russia to the United States, the gold rush was over. Despite the profitability of American trade and a wider range of goods, Choquette relocated to British territory and opened a store near the confluence of what became known as the Choquette River near the Stikine Hot Springs. In 1868, the U.S. Army built Fort Wrangell at the site of Fort Stikine, and it remained active until 1877. The Wrangell Bombardment occurred on 25 December 1869 when a Stikine named Lowan bit off Mrs. Jaboc Muller’s third right finger and was killed in an ensuing fight by soldiers who mortally wounded an additional Stikine native. The following morning, a Tlingit named Scutd-doo, who was the father of the deceased, entered the fort and shot the post trader’s partner Leon Smith fourteen times. Smith died some 13 hours later. The U.S. Army made an ultimatum demanding Scutd-doo’s surrender, and following the bombardment of the Stikine village, the villagers handed Scutd-doo over to the military in the fort, where he was court-martialed and publicly hanged. The community around the post continued to grow through commerce with prospectors in the gold rushes of 1861, 1874–77, and 1897. As in Skagway, businessmen looking to make money off the miners built many gambling halls, dance halls, and bars. Thousands of miners traveled up the Stikine River into the Cassiar District of British Columbia in 1874, and again to the Klondike in 1897. Fort Wrangel remained as one of the main U.S. military installations in the region and played a strategic and commercial role during the mounting tensions of the Alaska Boundary dispute, which was resolved by arbitration in 1903. The Wrangell economy today is dominated by logging, fishing, and tourism. A commercial fishing fleet is harbored in Wrangell and several sports fishing services take tourists and wilderness adventurers to remote locations on the Stikine River. One of the last two major sawmills in Southeast Alaska is operated by the Silver Bay Logging Company just south of the city. Read more here and here. Explore more of Wrangell here:

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