A view of downtown Sitka taken from Castle Hill in 1879. Courtesy of the Sitka History Museum

A view of downtown Sitka taken from Castle Hill in 1879. Courtesy of the Sitka History Museum

The Osprey Incident: How three confusing years in Sitka changed Alaska’s future

  • By Caitlin Rogers
  • Tuesday, October 10, 2017 12:22pm
  • News

The first decade of American rule in Alaska spelt confusion and uncertainty, but there was some semblance of order thanks to the United States Army under the guidance of General Jefferson C. Davis. Davis and his soldiers made waves while stationed in Sitka. The American and Russian-American Sitka residents despised the Army — it was unruly, with soldiers robbing residents and St. Michael’s Church on several occasions. There were also accusations of the Army abusing Creoles and Native people, and just generally getting in the way. In spite of that dislike, they were grateful for the Army’s presence, as without it they felt vulnerable to the neighboring Tlingit village. While no major altercations erupted, the military presence provoked resentment from both Americans and Natives alike.

Army duty in Alaska was expensive and inefficient. The men who served suffered more from boredom than anything else. In their annual reports to Washington, D.C. officers recommended that the Army be reassigned down south since they lacked the authority and ability to manage the functions of civil government in the newly developed Department of Alaska. Instead, they recommended that revenue cutter vessels be launched to carry out necessary police services. Much to their delight, when he came into power, the Republican administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes transferred the jurisdiction of Alaska from the war department to the treasury department in 1877. Sitka, however, didn’t have time to delight in being rid of the Army. Instead, many of its residents spent the next two years in a state of panic in fear of a looming attack from neighboring Tlingits.

While the treasury department could patrol Alaskan waters with the revenue cutter service, there was a void of authority in Alaska. Mottrom Dulany Ball, an ex-confederate soldier and customs collector for the department, served as the only member of civil government during the two years Alaska fell under its jurisdiction. He arrived in Sitka in 1878, the second customs collector. (The first resigned after one day on the job). The treasury department and Mottrom Ball were woefully unprepared to administer the vast territory. The lack of a territorial charter, laws, and military made civil administration nearly impossible. The events that unfolded between 1877 and 1879, when civil unrest came to a head and the U.S. Navy dropped anchor in Sitka, are murky at best.

The departure of the army in 1877 signaled to the Tlingit that the United States had abandoned Sitka. Shortly afterwards, the Tlingit began to tear down a portion of the Russian-built palisade, a rightful focal point of anger and resentment, that separated the Native village from the colonial settlement. In spring 1877, the sealing vessel San Diego arrived in Sitka and six Tlingit men joined the crew as deck hands. In July 1878, the San Diego ran aground and the crew abandoned ship. Several crew members drowned, including five of the six Tlingit men from Sitka. News of the disaster did not reach Sitka until the following January, when the lone Tlingit survivor returned. The Kiks.ádi leader, Katlian (sometimes written at the time as Katlaan), and a delegation went to meet with Mottrom Ball to demand compensation for life of each man, which they set as one thousand blankets. Tlingit justice was a system of compensation and was often misunderstood by the Americans. Ball understood their frustration but was unwilling to comply. Instead, he said the United States did not settle manners in such a way, nor was the United States responsible for the deaths. Unable to assuage Katlian and his men, Ball ordered them to leave. According to the New York Herald, as Katlian and his delegation left, they were overheard saying if they were not paid one thousand blankets, then five American men would die in retaliation. (Again, this was part of the Tlingit system of justice, which required a life for a life in lieu of a more diplomatic reconciliation). Ball fought for monetary compensation for the men’s deaths, but the money provided by the San Francisco-based fishing company never made it to Sitka due to fees and expenses. Once again, the Tlingit never received compensation for their loss. They naturally resented the Americans for it.

Katlian hosted a potlatch on Feb. 6, 1879, and many men became drunk, which frightened Sitka’s white residents. They barricaded themselves in their homes, fearing a massacre. Katlian led his men to the stockade gate to sack the town but the attack ultimately failed. Fear was on the rise in the American settlement. Katlian left Sitka for a nearby village to organize a large-scale attack on the American town. Residents banded together to form a militia and petition Washington, D.C. to come to their aid but those pleas fell on deaf ears. They made a final cry for help to British authorities at Esquimalt near Victoria, British Columbia. As a result, the H.M.S Osprey arrived in Sitka Sound on March 1, 1879, and one day later U.S.R.C Walcott dropped anchor nearby. The American militia was elated, and no longer feared for their lives and those of their families. To avoid further national humiliation, the United States dispatched the U.S.S Jamestown commanded by Captain Lester Beardslee to Sitka.

This launched the Navy’s command of the Department of Alaska. It turned out, however, that the events that prompted the arrival of the H.M.S Osprey and the U.S.S Jamestown were greatly exaggerated. Beardslee’s 1882 report “Affairs in Alaska,” found that the cries for help and stories of impending attack were acts of deception. During the February 1879 uprising, he found, Katlian and the Kaagwaantaan leader Annaxóots kept the situation under control. In fact, Katlian sent his family members to protect Creole families (at the time, people born of immigrants to North America were sometimes called Creoles regardless of race) and he himself defended an American family from any possible violence. Many American officials thought of what had happened as non-events. The press, on the other hand, did not. Newspapers chronicled Americans’ fears, going so far as to publish (The Morning Astorian, Feb. 18, 1879) the plea made by prominent Sitkans, calling their plight a disgrace to the country. However, after the U.S. Navy took charge, reporters changed their tune completely. The New York Times reported on May 8, 1879 that Sitkans made malicious claims against the Tlingits “for selfish purposes.” Another piece by The Sun (April 28, 1879) said the petitioners were “unprincipled falsifiers” who only intended to deceive the government by conning them into sending a war sloop to Sitka so merchants could profit by selling to sailors.

In 1880, Katlian and Annaxóots were installed as members of a police force by the Navy to keep order. Thanks to these appointments, the Tlingit gained a greater footing in Sitka’s socio-political hierarchy. The 1877 departure of the Army signaled a time of uncertainty for Sitka, which led to chaos and hysteria amongst its residents. The Tlingits got caught in the crosshairs, struggling to find a place in the new American town while the Americans tried to establish themselves in an unfamiliar environment. What happened in those three years had a big effect on Alaska’s future, leading to a greater push for the First Organic Act (which brought judges, marshals and other government officials to the territory). It also led to a greater push for statehood.



• Caitlin Rogers is a fellow at the Sitka History Museum.



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