SITKA, ALASKA TERRITORY, Saturday, November 21, 1891
REMINISCENCES OF SITKA A QUARTER OF A CENTURY AGO
In the summer of 1867 I found myself like some of our friends "out of a job" and
ready for almost any adventure. The purchase of Alaska had been completed, and all San Francisco
was agog with the possibilities of this new addition to Uncle Sam's farm. The country had thus
far remained a "sealed book" the all the world outside the Czar's subjects. This fact and the
very vague notions that anybody had of the country, gave it a kind of romantic fascination.
Being a frontiersman and pioneer from "way back," the boom naturally caught me, and I determined
to go and have a look at the new "Promised Land." Soon after having so concluded Mr. Conness, the
U. S. Senator from California, telegraphed a mutual friend, the late Wm. C. Ralston, then manager
of the Bank of California, that he (Conness) was very anxious to nominate the first Federal
Officer for the new Territory, and there being none but "Postmaster" at that time to appoint, he
asked Mr. Ralston to name someone for the position. "Billy," (our familiar name for Mr. R.) came
to me and asked if I would accept, as he knew of no other person even going up to see. I had
then no idea of anything more than the trip, but to oblige Senator Conness I accepted the honor.
These communications were carried on by telegrams, and just before the expeditionary ship sailed
I received an immense document with my commission as Postmaster at Sitka with the magnificent
salary attached of $12 per annum! This was my first appearance in public life as an office-holder.
Time will have its revenge, for this magnificent honor of the first Federal
Officer of Alaska I was made to pay twenty years later by being compelled to serve as the first
Federal Officer, again, when the Civil Government was established. "Verily our sins will find us
I will not elaborate on the distinguished honor (?) with which I was received
by the Russian authorities as United States Postmaster, nor the sensation with which my leather
mailbag was carried to the office of Prince Maxsoutoff, nor of its contents. This is "Sacred
History," which I hardly feel at liberty to tell. I believe, however, I may venture to say that
under the circumstances and the mail, the Postmaster felt a little as though Prince Maxsoutoff
had some reason to think himself and his government quite small potatoes.
Alaska, as before remarked, was an unknown proposition; the general public mind
was full of romance and exaggerated ideas of what it could, should or might be. The journals of
the day were replete, as you will doubtless remember, with criticisms of the motives and wisdom
of Secretary Seward in making the purchase for his government of this frozen region. The consensus
of opinion of the majority was that the "Old Man" had made a mistake and that his ambition for
doing something had led to paying $7,000,000 of the people's money for nothing. I need not say
now how greatly our people misunderstood this far-seeing statesman and patriot.
Major-General Halleck was then in command of the Division of the Pacific. Having
possibly some ambition to create for himself a military reputation, he had the newly acquired
country (Alaska) created a separate Department with Brig. Gen. Jeff. C. Davis in command with
headquarters at Sitka, establishing military posts at four other points: (1st) Fort Tongass, just
above the boundary line with British Columbia in sight of Fort Simpson, the northerly point of the
Hudson's Bay Co. on the coast. Next, Fort Wrangell on the island of the same name and near the
mouth of the Stickeen River, the highway to the gold mines of Northern British Columbia. Next
going northward and westward Sitka (of which more anon); then Fort Kodiak on an island of the
same name; thence lastly and finally a post somewhere in Cook's Inlet; (the name and place has
just now escaped my memory, but easily found from the military records). Each of these posts was
garrisoned by one Company or Battery of the Second Artillery, except at Sitka where in addition
to Battery H, second Artillery, was stationed Company F., Ninth Artillery and of course a full
Headquarters and staff. This was the military occupation of Sitka.
The steamer John L. Stephens was chartered by the government to carry to Sitka
the troops destined for that post with the General and staff, a number of artisans, and a full
load of supplies. The owners of the ship and their coast line of steamers, at the last moment
asked me to act as purser for the trip, being short of this kind of officer, and being friends of
mine I accepted as they assured me that I would have "nothing to do." This last, I may say, was,
or proved to be, something of a fiction. However, I accepted the position and may add by way of
parenthesis that I returned to the office a net profit of $65,000 for the voyage without a dollar
to my personal credit.
The ship left San Francisco somewhere about the 20th of September, 1867,
touched at Victoria and Nanaimo, and with some slight, not serious, accident reached Sitka, I
think, about the 10th or 12th of October; the precise dates I have not just now at hand. The
U. S. Ships Ossipee and Resaca arrived a few days later with the American and Russian
Commissioners on board. General Davis, his staff and troops remained on board our ship in the
harbor until the details of the transfer were arranged on shore by the Commissioners. All was
ready by the 18th. On the morning of that day the troops disembarked and at high noon the flag
of Russia was hauled down from the flagstaff in the Castle yard, and the stars and stripes flung
aloft in its place. The scene has been so often described by the pens of "ready writers" that I
will not attempt it. To the Russians, of course, it was a sad ceremony, and to the credit of our
people I wish to say that their feelings were in the main regarded with respect. Some over
zealous adherents of the "American Eagle" were disposed to make a Fourth of July demonstration,
but it was quickly suppressed by the good sense of our officials.
After the 18th Sitka was probably a busier place than ever before or ever
likely to be again. The Russian resident population was entirely upset and uncertain what fate
awaited them. They had heard rumors of the sale of their country to the United States, but even
the officials knew little of the matter until the arrival of the Commissioners. There was
hurrying to and fro. Russian troops "turned in"; quarters for men and officers had to be hastily
provided and there was a brief reign of chaos. General Davis immediately assumed command of the
Post and soon established order.
The American Commissioner, General Rousseau, left Sitka on the 20th to return
by the U. S. Ship Ossipee, the Russian Commissioners Count Pestchouroff and Baron Koskul remaining
at Sitka to arrange matters, I presume, for their people. On the night of the 21st-22nd a terrific
gale swept through the harbor, the inner one being then filled with vessels - the American
men-of-war the Resaca and Jamestown, two Revenue Cutters, the large steamer Jno. L. Stephens,
three Russian steamers and a large fleet of transports, ships, barks, etc., of both nationalities.
Nearly all got adrift during the night, doing considerable damage. The morning disclosed two of
the steamers sunk and the whole fleet badly demoralized. Slight damage was done in town, the heavy
log structures caring little for wind. The Ossipee returned to port the same evening having caught the gale off
Cape Ommaney and being nearly lost; her boats, tackle, &c. all gone. General
Rousseau and staff were utterly demoralized and sought shelter on the Stephens. Later, however,
they were all induced to return to the Ossipee and finally reached the white settlements all
right. The General was evidently a better soldier than a sailor.
The Stephens sailed on her return to San Francisco, I think, the 24th or 25th.
Meanwhile the "Council of Administration" of the Post had elected me "Post trader" and I concluded
to return to Sitka for business purposes. The ship reached San Francisco after several minor
accidents, - none serious - about the middle of November. I purchased a stock of goods for the
Alaska market and sailed from San Francisco on my return the 30th of December, 1867. At Victoria
we had chartered the steamer Fideleter to transport us and our belongings to Sitka which we reached
some time in January, 1868. We continued in the mercantile business until 1871 when I gave it up
returning to my "native heath," Nevada.
During my absence in San Francisco, or very soon after my return (I forget which)
a "City Provincial Government" was formed by and with the consent and approval of General Davis,
the Military Commandant. The City Government included a Mayor, Common Council, Fire Department,
etc. All local disturbances and matters affecting citizens alone were adjudicated and settled
finally by the Mayor's Court; the General commanding gladly delegating this authority to the
Judge Samuel Storer, a merchant of the town, was made (elected) the first Mayor.
He closed up his business and departed, and left me, at the people's request, his successor. This
"accumulation of honors" was distressing. Postmaster, Post-trader, Mayor, - everything connected
with the duties of those several offices culminated when any vessel happened to be in port. No
controversies or troubles were apparent until the steamer arrived. To save time in not hearing
these differences I generally paid from my pocket the difference between litigants; (of course,
mostly of small proportions). Hence I got the reputation of being a very fair judge, when they
knew that their claims would seriously interfere with my own personal business.
I think it was about two years before we had any regular "mail" service. The
first year we depended entirely upon transient coast sailing vessels. The Postmaster at San
Francisco would send, if he heard of any vessel sailing for Sitka, any mail he might have on
hand. We used to watch with great solicitude the appearance of the ravens upon the top of the
Greek Church cross, - popularly supposed to indicate the arrival of some vessel in the offing.
When they did appear, generally having to "beat in," the Postmaster - salary $12 per annum -
would hire a boat's crew at a cost of $25 to go out to the craft in the outer harbor, with the
result mainly of not even a newspaper to tell us of the world's doings. At one time, I remember,
four months elapsed without a word or a line from anybody or anything. The next year, the
Government sent to the Quartermaster the steamer Newburn, a large and unwieldy ship entirely
unsuited to the wants of the department. However she was much better than nothing, making trips
now and then to San Francisco and over to the westward as far as the Seal Islands. On one
occasion, she was very nearly lost in a mighty storm on her return. Next year we had a monthly
mail from Port Townsend; - then we were happy.
Meantime we got along very comfortably and I may say happily in our isolation.
The Headquarters officers and some of the Line had their families, and we had a very excellent
society, as good as anybody's as far as it went. Social entertainments, parties, balls, etc.,
to which everybody, He or She, contributed their hearty proportion, made life not only tolerable
but happy and cheerful, the young Naval and Revenue officers in the Post adding quite a feature
in all these matters.
From after experience and knowledge of these gentlemen of the Army and Navy I
am warranted in saying that all agreed that the few years spent at Sitka were the happiest of
their lives. We - citizens and soldiers - bought the little Lutheran Church just opposite the
Greek Church, then a very pretty little chapel. Services were held regularly every Sunday by the
Post Chaplain, Rev. J. A. Raynor; a Sunday School was established free to all, Russian, Indian,
and white. My wife was one of the "chiefs" in this enterprise. Myself, in addition to my many
other offices, "boss of the quier." We had early established a day school, the sister-in-law of
the first Collector of the port, W. Sumner Dodge, being engaged as teacher - her name Addie
Mercer. To this school were also admitted any children that chose to attend. Officers' children,
those of laundresses, Russians and Indians, all being equal. The pay of the teacher was made up
by the voluntary contributions of citizens and officers. A year or more elapsed under these
conditions. The Collector and family departed. Chaplain Raynor was succeeded by Chaplain Ira Horn,
compiler of the History of General Geo. H. T. Lomas. His son, Mr. Ira Horn, succeeded as teacher
of the public school, continuing as such until I left in 1871. Can you wonder that I have felt a
little annoyed that ____ _____ ____ brazenly tells the people of the United States that he first
established any kind of school in Alaska in 1878, ten years after we - some of us - had opened
To biography of John Henry Kinkead, first Governor of the District of Alaska, 1884.
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