Old Sitka, Starrigavan Bay

Old Sitka, Starrigavan Bay

by | Jan 13, 2022

Old Sitka is the site of a historical Russian settlement called Redoubt Saint Archangel Michael on the southern shore of Starrigavan Bay in Sitka Sound on the west coast of Baranof Island, about 232 miles (373 km) southeast of Yakutat and 5.5 miles (9 km) north of Sitka, Alaska. The site is now an Alaska State Historical Park and a National Historic Landmark.  The settlement was established in 1799 by Alexander A. Baranov of the Russian-American Company who negotiated with the local Tlingit clan for a site on which the company could establish a trading post. Although he would have preferred what is now called Castle Hill in Sitka, he was granted this site on a point of land that projects slightly into Starrigavan Bay immediately south of the mouth of Starrigavan Creek. Starrigavan Bay faces northwest towards Sitka Sound and the location is protected from the open ocean by several large islands to the southwest. Densely forested mountain slopes to the east reach elevations of 3,000 to 5,300 feet (900-1,600 m). Below an elevation of about 2,000 feet (610 m), temperate coastal rainforests, comprised largely of western hemlock and Sitka spruce, occupy most of the land in the site vicinity. Starrigavan Creek is a major salmon stream entering Starrigavan Bay immediately north of the site. Anadromous fish that spawn in Starrigavan Creek include pink and coho salmon, Dolly Varden char, and steelhead trout. Pacific cod and halibut are present in deeper water offshore. The availability of freshwater, dependable supply of fish, relatively deep sheltered bay, and easy access to timber for construction were major considerations for the selection of this site for the Russian fort. These resources were also important to the Tlingit people who have historically inhabited Southeast Alaska including Sheetʼká Xʼáat’i or Baranof Island. Baranov first visited the island in 1795 while searching for new sea otter hunting grounds, and paid the Tlingit a sum for the rights to the land in order to prevent other nations from engaging in the maritime fur trade.

The first Europeans to visit the Gulf Coast of Alaska were members of an Imperial Russian Navy expedition under the command of the Danish explorer  Vitus Bering. Bering sailed on Saint Peter from Petropavlovsk, Siberia, on June 4, 1741, accompanied by Saint Paul under the command of Captain Aleksei Chirikov. Their goal was to discover and explore the American mainland reported to the eastward, but the two ships became separated on June 19, and Chirikov sailed toward the east, later encountering the Tlingit on Chichagof Island, while Bering wandered to the northeast sighting Mount Saint Elias on July 16. In 1774, the Spanish pilot Juan Josef Perez Hernandez in the Santiago was sent out from San Blas by Don Antonio Maria Bucareli y Ursua, Viceroy of New Spain, to explore and take possession of the coast as far north as latitude 60°, in order to forestall Russian expansion. In 1775, another Bucareli expedition sent the Santiago and Sonora, the latter commanded by Second Lieutenant Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra who sighted the entrance to Sitka Sound. In 1778, Captain James Cook with the Resolution and Discovery, on his third and last voyage, sailed up the coast after a visit in Nootka Sound and saw and named Mount Edgecumbe, Cross Sound, Cape Fairweather, Mount Fairweather, and Mount Saint Elias. When the expedition reached Macao in 1779, the sea otter furs collected from the Pacific Northwest were sold at high prices which stimulated further voyages by the Spanish, French, and British Governments, as well as private trading ventures including the ‘Boston Men’ who were newly independent of British restrictions. In 1786, LaPérouse explored the coast, then Dixon in 1787, and Colnett in 1788, all considered interlopers by the Russians who regarded the coast as their colonial territory. Fear of this competition, coupled with overharvesting of sea otters, prompted the Russians to follow the otter progressively from the shores of Kamchatka to the Aleutians, from the Aleutians to Prince William Sound, from Prince William Sound to Yakutat, and finally from Yakutat to Sitka. On 7 July 1799, Baranov, with 100 fellow Russians, sailed into Sitka Sound aboard the galley Olga, the brig Ekaterina, the packet boat Orel, and a fleet of some 550 baidarkas carrying 700 Aleuts and 300 other natives. They established a fortified trading post that consisted of several log buildings including a large warehouse, blacksmith shop, cattle sheds, barracks, stockade, blockhouse, a bathhouse, quarters for the hunters, and a residence for Baranov all surrounded by a palisade.

The Tlingit initially welcomed the traders but the relationship quickly deteriorated when objections were raised about the Russian custom of taking native women as their wives without payment. The Tlingit also objected to being subjugated and came to realize that the Russians’ continued presence demanded their allegiance to the Tsar and that they were expected to provide free labor. Baranov learned that the Tlingit were being supplied with quantities of firearms and ammunition, particularly by American traders who had been sending ships to the Pacific Northwest for several years. These Boston men paid the natives far more for sea otter furs than the Russians could afford, and also furnished the Tlingit with pistols, muskets, a four-pound cannon, and gunpowder. Once the Sitka Tlingit were armed, their initial friendly attitude towards the Russians underwent a notable change. There are claims that the natives had been further incited by British traders who hoped to profit from the elimination of their Russian competitors. In June 1802, the fort was destroyed by a Tlingit attack when the Russians were dispersed hunting and fishing, leaving most of the women and children and only 15 men at the barracks. The Tlingit women who had been living with the Russians learned about the routine of the garrison and of their means of defense. The careful planning and strategy of the attack were similar to those successfully employed at Yakutat 3 years later, where the Tlingit took advantage of Russian carelessness, slack discipline, and poor morale. At Sitka, the Tlingit may have been assisted by some American or English seamen who had deserted their ship or been marooned in 1799. However, it is known that the English Captain James Barber on the Unicorn and two American or British captains who came into port just after the fort had fallen, rescued the survivors who had escaped into the woods or had been enslaved by the Tlingit. Captain Barber took 3 Russians, 5 Aleuts, 18 women, and 6 children to Kodiak, but released them to Baranov only after obtaining a large ransom in furs. The Russians returned in 1804 to retake control of Sitka Sound from the Tlingit who had built their own defensive fortification at the mouth of the Indian River several miles to the south. The Battle of Sitka ended with a decisive Russian victory over the Tlingit but they never rebuilt at Old Sitka. Instead, a new fort called New Archangel was built on Castle Hill at the present location of Sitka. The old fort became known as Starrigavan meaning ‘old harbor’. Read more here and here. Explore more of Old Sitka and Starrigavan Bay here:

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