Paulina Cohen (1859-1941). Leaves. Watercolor. Museum purchase, 86.252.29.

Paulina Cohen (1859-1941). Leaves. Watercolor. Museum purchase, 86.252.29.

Sitka’s first postmistress forged her own path

The westward expansion of the United States did not just open new lands to eager settlers; it opened new doors of opportunity for women. Nineteenth century social ideals limited a woman’s sphere to home and family, but the demands of the western experience pushed women to venture beyond accepted standards of feminine behavior and find independence as homesteaders and entrepreneurs. A child of westward expansion, Sitka’s former postmistress Paulina Cohen challenged prescribed notions of womanhood as a businesswoman, artist, and avid traveler.

Born in 1859, Paulina Cohen grew up in the gold camps of California. Just nine years before her birth, Paulina’s parents, Bertha and Abraham, had emigrated from Prussia, where Abraham had trained as a brewer. Seldom in one place for very long, the Cohen family followed the gold discoveries north, operating breweries as they went in San Francisco, Portland, and British Columbia.

In 1867, Russia transferred its claims on Alaska to the United States. Enticed by new opportunity, Paulina’s father quickly secured passage to Sitka, established partnerships, and opened the Sitka Brewery in 1868. He became one of the first Jewish merchants in the town. Paulina, her siblings, and mother Bertha joined Abraham a few years later. From the beginning, Paulina was an instant favorite among Sitkans.

“The best masked ball this year was given by the Kohens (sic) who caused everyone to get inebriated with beer of his own manufacture. Many of the visitors were interested not so much in the reception by the hospitable hosts as in their newly arrived daughter, Pauline, good looking young girl who likes to dance.” –Stephen Ushin, 1874.

Influenced by her family’s hard-working, industrious nature, as an adult Paulina proved a strong businesswoman and an active member of the community. In 1878, Paulina began teaching. By 1887, she also held a job at the post office. When the postmaster retired in 1890, Paulina received the appointment. She held the position for a decade and became the first to offer a money order service in Sitka. She only stepped down in 1900 in order to run the Baranof Hotel. Paulina also remained involved in her family’s brewery. When the Organic Act of 1884 prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol, Paulina worked to keep her family’s business afloat by applying to the Department of the Interior for a license to produce beer for “medicinal” purposes.

In her spare time, Paulina organized picnics, volunteered to teach English at the Russian school, taught Sunday school, and participated in amateur theatricals. Paulina also pursued her love of painting. She took lessons from visiting and local professional artists, such as Edward Chamberlain. She captured the local flora in watercolor studies, and her landscapes recorded early post-transfer Sitka scenes seldom seen in photographs.

In no apparent rush to “settle down,” Paulina did not marry until she was thirty-six years old — a mature age for a woman’s first marriage near the turn of the 19th century. When she did marry, it was to Alexander Archangelsky, a man more than ten years her junior. She continued to work after her marriage and even supported her husband by renting furnished rooms in California when the couple moved there in 1903 so that Alexander could go back to school to further his mining education. Upon his graduation, the couple returned to Alaska, where Alexander worked in Treadwell’s Red Bullion mine and mill, and helped to discover claims that would develop into the Hirst-Chichagof Mining Company on Chichagof Island.

In 1910, Paulina and Alexander left Sitka for Seattle and Honolulu, but soon continued on to Tahiti where the tropical environment and natural beauty of the islands won a place in their hearts. Paulina made numerous trips back to Sitka and the United States through the years but she always returned to Tahiti. In 1941, Paulina passed away in Vairao, a small port town on the southwest coast of Tahiti.

Westward expansion played an important role in fueling the women’s rights movement, and it is easy to understand why when one considers stories like Paulina Cohen’s. Paulina’s life choices challenged many of the traditional social norms of the period. As an entrepreneur, she helped to pave the way for independent businesswomen to follow. As an artist, Paulina left an invaluable visual record of life in Sitka at the turn of a new century.

• Kristy K. Griffin is the curator at the Sitka History Museum.

Paulina Cohen (1859-1941). Salmon Berries, Sitka, June. Watercolor. Museum purchase, 86.252.33.

Paulina Cohen (1859-1941). Salmon Berries, Sitka, June. Watercolor. Museum purchase, 86.252.33.

Paulina Cohen (1859-1941). St. Michael’s Cathedral. Watercolor. Gift of Jack Howard, 99.25.01.

Paulina Cohen (1859-1941). St. Michael’s Cathedral. Watercolor. Gift of Jack Howard, 99.25.01.

Paulina and Augusta Cohen, 1883. Pauline Cohen standing. Photograph by Reuben Albertstone. PH271.

Paulina and Augusta Cohen, 1883. Pauline Cohen standing. Photograph by Reuben Albertstone. PH271.

More in Neighbors

A change in season is marked by tree leaves turning color at Evergreen Cemetery in late September of 2019. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Gimme a Smile: P.S. Autumn is here.

Ready or not, here it comes. The days are getting shorter, new… Continue reading

A double rainbow appears in Juneau last Friday. (Photo by Ally Karpel)
Living and Growing: Embracing Tohu V’vohu — Creation Amidst Chaos

Over the course of the past year, during which I have served… Continue reading

Birch and aspen glow orange in September in the Chena River State Recreation Area east of Fairbanks. (Photo by Ned Rozell)
Alaska Science Forum: The varying colors of fall equinox

We are at fall equinox, a day of great equality: All the… Continue reading

A male pink salmon attacks another male with a full-body bite, driving the victim to the bottom of the stream.(Photo by Bob Armstrong)
On the Trails: Eagle Beach strawberries and salmon

A walk at Eagle Beach Rec Area often yields something to think… Continue reading

Adam Bauer of the Local Spiritual Assembly of Bahá’ís of Juneau.
Living and Growing: Rúhíyyih Khánum, Hand of the Cause of God

Living in Juneau I would like to take a moment to acknowledge… Continue reading

A calm porcupine eating lunch and not displaying its quills. (Photo by Jos Bakker)
On the Trails: Prickly critters here and afar

Prickles, thorns, and spines of some sort are a common type of… Continue reading

The Rev. Karen Perkins.
Living and Growing: Coping with anger, shock and despair after a loss

The last several Living and Growing columns have included reflections about death,… Continue reading

A female humpback whale Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve biologists know as #219 breaches in the waters near the park. When a whale breaches, it often leaves behind flakes of skin on the surface of the ocean. Scientists can collect sloughed skin and send it to a laboratory to learn about the genetics or diet of the whale. (National Park Service photo by Christine Gabriele, taken under the authority of scientific research permit #21059 issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service)
Alaska Science Forum: The welcome return of an old friend to Icy Strait

There was a time when Christine Gabriele wondered if she’d ever see… Continue reading

Sandhill cranes fly over the Mendenhall wetlands. (Photo by Gina Vose)
On the Trails: An uncommon encounter with Sandhill cranes

One sunny day near the end of August, a friend and I… Continue reading

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Living and Growing: Giving space for grief is healthy and grounded

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter… Continue reading

A rainbow spans North Douglas on Aug. 16. (Photo by Kelsey Riederer)
Wild Shots

To showcase our readers’ work to the widest possible audience, Wild Shots… Continue reading

The little blue stars of felwort flowers appear late in the season. (Photo by David Bergstrom)
On the trails: Out and about, here and there

On a foggy morning toward the middle of August, a friend and… Continue reading