“The Last Frontier,” emblazoned across every Alaska license plate, evidences a cultural narrative foundational to Alaskan identity. One hundred and fifty years ago, the United States acquired Alaska from Russia. As new settlers from the United States began making their way north, they brought with them deeply-ingrained notions of frontier life, grounded in a well-marketed political philosophy known as Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny was the rationale people used to justify efforts to colonize the North American continent and subjugate all those who stood in the way. For the colonizers, the frontier was synonymous with adventure, excitement and freedom. Over time, the myth, romance and discourse of the American frontier became so normalized, so often repeated and reinforced through films, television, popular literature, and even through our own beliefs and behavior that the validity of the myth ceased to be questioned. The 150th anniversary of the American colonization of Alaska presents a perfect time to reexamine our understanding of Alaska as the “Final Frontier.”
In 1893, historian Dr. Frederick Jackson Turner spearheaded the academic investigation of the phenomenon known as the American Frontier, forming the cornerstone of the “Frontier Thesis.” He claimed that Americans owed their culture and democracy to the frontier experience. The rugged individualism and the strength required to carve civilization out of a vast wilderness gave shape to American values and ideals. In the 124 years that have followed Turner’s essay, scholars have hotly debated his theory. Some note that settlers relied far more on cooperation than self-reliance to forge a new life in unfamiliar lands, and some point to the fact that Turner’s theory of the frontier as a place of freedom and democracy completely ignores the perspectives and experiences of women, minorities, and Native peoples. Many, including the authors of this article, agree that the frontier existed more as an idea than a reality, although undoubtedly, the conceptualization of the frontier has ties to very real places on the American landscape. Regardless, none can argue that the myth of the American West has had an incredibly strong impact on American culture, and Alaska is no exception.
In Sitka, the capital of Alaska, Americans fabricated a frontier society based off of ideals deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Shortly after the ratification of the treaty to purchase Alaska, thirty ships set sail from San Francisco to Sitka. The ships carried merchants seeking to exploit natural resources and army personnel to tame the newly acquired “Indian Country.” These newcomers were mere products of a grand tradition, seeking opportunity in a “free” land. Sitka’s settlers envisioned a thriving community based on commerce, mining, and Sitka’s role as the territory capital. On Sept. 26, 1867, the Daily Alta California reported, “It will not be surprising that…discoveries of resources, which it has not been dreamed the country possessed will be made as our energetic and fearless people penetrate into the interior.” The Army also arrived in Alaska, carrying biases born from conflicts encountered during the Indian Wars fought in the Plains and the American West. Americans were warned to always stay vigilant against Native peoples and to have “guns charged with grape and canister always bearing on their [Sitka Tlingit] village.” The events that followed the arrival of settlers from the United States reads like so many histories of American Western “frontier” towns. Companies purchased land parcels to exploit Sitka’s boom town status, saloons popped up on Sitka’s main street, and social tensions flared between the Native Tlingit and the newly-arrived U.S. Army.
Sitka, Alaska probably felt very far from the Unites States to the many settlers that arrived after the signing of the Treaty of Cession in 1867, but envisioning Sitka as a frontier town required a stretch of the imagination. The Russians built their first fort on Baranof Island in 1799, and by 1808 they had established the capital of Russian America at what is today downtown Sitka. Over time, the colony grew to include churches, schools, warehouses, bathhouses, retail shops, and a hospital, sawmill, foundry, tannery, saltery, shipyard, laundry and seminary. Additional amenities included a library, theater, formal gardens, and even a bowling alley. In the residence of the Chief Manager of the Russian American Company, balls, concerts, dinners, and masquerades were frequently held. Some historians even note that Sitka’s nickname, “The Paris of the Pacific,” may have its roots in the later Russian American period. On a visit to Sitka in the 1830s, chief trader for the Hudson’s Bay Company Peter Skene Ogden even exclaimed “Oh, you really are quite civilized!” While life in Sitka certainly had its challenges in the mid-nineteenth century, the ability of American settlers to envision one of the more well-appointed towns on North America’s west coast as a wild and unsettled frontier town certainly speaks to the power of the frontier mythos.
A major critique of Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” is that the frontier is imaginary. Simply put, it is not possible to pioneer a land that has been inhabited for close to 15,000 years. The purpose of the political movement surrounding the “frontier” was to further diminish Native culture and to promote the belief that Anglo-Americans were destined to conquer the continent in order to forge civilization. The “frontier” is our most popular and longest-lasting American myth. Americans arrived with long-held beliefs that they were going to build Alaskan civilization, but Alaska had been civilized long before the Russians stepped foot on Kayak Island. Archaeological sites such as Swan Point (Big Delta) and Hidden Falls (Baranof Island) date to 14,500 YBP (years before present) and 10,500 YBP respectively. The myth of the American Frontier further disintegrates with the concept of rugged individualism. White settlers boasted self-reliance while receiving government assistance and being fed by Native hunters. Fictitious but solidly-grounded beliefs about the American West endure today and continue to influence Alaskan culture.
With the signing of the Treaty of Cession in 1867, the nationally-held myth of the American Frontier played out on an Alaskan stage. Frontier ideals such as opportunity, self-reliance, and individualism have influenced Alaskan culture, politics, and economy, and the romance of the frontier continues to provide a valuable marketing tool for bringing publicity and tourism to the state. However, the construction of a culture rooted in the myth of the Alaskan frontier has also negatively shaped relationships between European Americans and Alaska Natives. For Alaska Natives, Alaska was neither remote nor unexplored in 1867. To refer to Alaska as the United States’ “Final Frontier” or the first American settlers as “pioneers” marginalizes the many Alaska Native groups with complex social structures that had been successfully living here for thousands of years. That is certainly not to say that we should obliterate all mentions of the frontier and pioneers from Alaska’s history books, but we should go forward with a consciousness of the deep connotations embedded in these words and the knowledge that they do not hold a positive meaning for all Alaskans. As Professor David F. Arnold noted, the American Frontier is “really part of a nationalist self-delusion,” but the “delusions are an important part of the story.”
• At the Sitka History Museum, Kristy Griffin is the Curator of Collections & Exhibits; Caitlin Rogers is a fellow.