I was saddened to read recently that the Presbyterian Church of Sitka was planning to close its doors after more than a hundred year presence in that community. The news article didn’t give many details, but I imagine attendance was dropping and expenses were climbing and there was no longer enough support to keep going. With it ends a remarkable chapter in the history of American Southeast Alaska. It’s hard to overstate the impact of the Presbyterian presence in Sitka, beginning in the late 1800s. The beautiful Sheldon Jackson campus just above the harbor in the middle of town, and the Presbyterian undertones that permeate the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood are two obvious examples.
Today it is also clear that the Presbyterian mission in Alaska was far from perfect. Many missionaries were flawed with a sense of racial superiority, and some Presbyterian policies did immense harm to the Alaska Native languages and cultures. Nevertheless it remains a fascinating history with certain aspects that we can both appreciate and learn a great deal from.
Now a writer can stay out of a lot of trouble by avoiding politics and religion. I’m definitely not looking for trouble, but I can’t help but feel that something as significant as the Sitka Presbyterian Church closing — significant at least to the Presbyterians of Southeast Alaska and to many residents of Craig — should not go by without some reflection.
The Presbyterian missionaries were among the first white Americans to settle in Southeast. When the great naturalist John Muir landed in Wrangell in 1879 and was unable to find lodging, it was Sheldon Jackson who gave him permission to sleep in the Presbyterian carpenter shop. Jackson, one of the first Presbyterian missionaries to arrive, was eventually appointed General Agent of Education in the Alaska Territory in 1885.
Sheldon Jackson is most famous for his work with Captain Michael Healy, importing reindeer from Siberia to bolster the livelihood of the Iñupiaq people, and for the boarding school and college in Sitka that bears his name. He is also well known for his missionary and education work in the Haida villages on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island, including the village of Howkan, which bore Jackson’s name for a time.
The village that eventually became Craig in 1911 had its roots in the Tlingit and Haida people who lived on Fish Egg Island, Cannery Point and at the Craig ballpark before the turn of the century, many of whom had accepted the Presbyterian faith introduced by Jackson and other missionaries. The 1900 U.S. Census of Fish Egg lists 28 Tlingit and 19 Haida residents. Although he did not live to see it come to fruition, Jackson worked for years to convince the Haida people, who lived in numerous small and medium sized villages on southern Prince of Wales, to consolidate into one location where the government would provide a school and other services. Eventually the Haidas agreed, and in the fall of 1911, most of the people either relocated to begin building the new village of Hydaburg, or went north to Craig.
Among the Haidas choosing to settle in Craig were George Haldane, James George, George Edenso and George Charles. George Hamilton came to Craig as well, accompanying the McCloud family, the Presbyterian missionaries who had raised him. When the men of the village, known then as Fish Egg, came together to choose a new name for the town, everyone agreed it should be called Craig, in honor of the town’s principal fish buyer and employer Craig Millar. Everyone, that is, except Millar, who reportedly smiled and proposed the name Georgetown.
It was my good fortune to know well two of the Haida Presbyterians who chose to make their home in Craig. One was George Hamilton, affectionately known as Papa George to the people of Craig, and the other was Hannah Cogo, my great grandmother.
Papa George lived to a very ripe old age. I think it was his 100th birthday we celebrated at the Cannery dining hall in the summer of 1982. My mom had a grocery store under the Hill Bar, and George used to walk down to visit and buy King Oscar Sardines. It was a long ways from his house, though, so he kept a piece of cardboard hidden under the porch by the school kitchen door, where the daycare center is now, and there he would stop and rest. Today there’s a great picture on display at First Bank’s POW Branch of Papa George sitting and resting on that very spot.
I used to visit George once in a while in his little house that overlooked the pass between Craig and Fish Egg Island. He told me that he got his start working for Millar. Every day, sometimes twice a day, he would row from Craig out to Kelly Cove to buy fish and then row the load back in for processing. He must have really had some arms.
George went on to own and operate his own seine boat, the Commodore, where he trained his six sons to be commercial fishermen. Fred Sr., one of the younger boys, fished his first season when he was 11 years old and made $90. It was enough to buy school clothes, pay the $30 tuition charge for his first year at Sheldon Jackson Elementary in Sitka, where two of his brothers attended, and have spending money for the rest of the school year.
I used to go to Sunday school at the Presbyterian Church with George’s grandson Jimmy. It was a big white wooden church with a tall bell tower and a long flight of steps up to the front door, on the same property where the current church stands. Inside was a striking picture of Jesus that remains there today, and the wooden altar inset with the words, “In Remembrance of Me.”
One morning after Sunday school I followed Jimmy into the main hall for the church service. We sat right in front of his grandpa George, and when the service began, the first song was “Blessed Assurance.” The Presbyterian songbook is written in four-part harmony, and George belted out the tenor part perfectly. You could tell he had been trained in a choir, and that he meant every word he was singing.
Years later I would think about that. What was it that kept men like George so firm in their faith? True, he had been raised by missionaries, but once he was of age to decide for himself, he was free to keep it or set it aside. Why did he keep it? Wasn’t this the white man’s religion, the same white men who sometimes had signs in their store windows saying, “No dogs or Indians allowed”?
I never did ask George that question, but I once asked my great-grandmother why so many Haidas had willingly become and remained Presbyterians. She shrugged, and replied that before the missionaries came, the People already knew that there was a powerful Spirit in the air. If you were good your life would be blessed. If you were bad, there would be consequences. So the Gospel simply confirmed what they already believed. I guess they had the sense to know that while some people who claim to speak for God are messed up, there’s no problem with God himself. No sense throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Hannah Cogo, her husband Eddie, and their four young children were part of the Haida migration to Craig in 1911. My grandmother Jessie was a year old at the time, and Hannah was pregnant with her fifth child Florence, named for Millar’s sister Florence, mother of Alaskan author Margaret Bell. Hannah established and operated the Cogo Hotel, in the building next to JT Brown that Jimmy Sele recently renovated, and initiated a line of Craig businesswomen including daughters Libby Wahl, Jessie Thompson and Florence Mielke, granddaughters Marge Young and Betty Isaacs, and great granddaughter Tina Steffan.
Hannah was a businesswoman at trade and a Presbyterian at heart. I lived with her for a year between my freshman and sophomore years in college. At night from her bedroom I would hear her praying passionately in Haida, loudly pouring out her heart in a language I didn’t understand. From time to time I would recognize the names of my great-aunts and uncles, and eventually I would hear my own.
Her daughter Jessie, my grandmother, owned the Hill Bar and Liquor Store. She was tough enough to keep order on a Saturday night, and she loved to throw house parties and drink Tom and Jerry’s during the holidays. Some might have said she didn’t look like much of a Christian, but I saw her Presbyterian heart firsthand.
The Christmas that I was 7 years old, Jessie and I were washing dishes in the kitchen near the front door. A knock came, and Jessie opened the door to a man I didn’t know, who told her that his Christmas presents had arrived C.O.D. on the mail boat, and that he didn’t have enough money to pick them up. Jessie told him she was sorry, but that business was slow and she just didn’t have it. We went back to washing dishes. A few minutes later Jessie hollered in to my Grandpa Tom and asked him to go down to the bar and get 50 bucks out of the safe and give it to the man.
My mom tells about another Christmas during her childhood, back in the early ‘40s when the whole town would come to the school on Christmas Eve, and everyone would bring a gift marked “boy” or “girl” to exchange. Once Jessie noticed a little girl who had come without a gift. She told my mom to run down the hill to their house and grab a certain gift from under their tree, and hurry back. Jessie quickly marked the gift “girl” and made sure it got into the right hands.
I’m not a Presbyterian, though I might well have been if my mom hadn’t married a Catholic. But after seeing these and so many other Presbyterians in action throughout the years, I would certainly be proud to be one.
• Ralph Mackie operates the Hill Bar in Craig, and gill nets out of Coffman Cove.