Alaskans on Oct. 18 celebrated Alaska Day, a state holiday. This year marked the 150th anniversary of raising the Stars and Stripes to replace the Russian Double Eagle ensign at Sitka in 1867.
The formal transfer took place in the square fronting the home of Prince Dimitri Maksoutoff, chief manager and governor of Russian-America. The stately building, generally referred to as “Baranof Castle,” perched atop a hill overlooking the town of Sitka, then known as New Archangel.
Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had agreed that as a territory, Alaska would be treated as a military district. It was to be under control of the Military District of the Pacific, commanded by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck. Brevet Maj. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis was designated as commander of the Alaska district. Brig Gen. Lovell H. Rousseau was appointed by President Andrew Johnson as envoy to accept the transfer of power.
It was a solemn affair as might be expected for such an occasion, even in the remote setting far from the centers of government for both nations. Detailed arrangements had been made for the ceremony. United States troops were ordered to remain aboard ship until time to go ashore and line up for the transfer. The Russian troops also were sheltered in preparation for the march into the square.
The USS Ossipee, bearing the commissioners who were to be part of the ceremony, steamed into the harbor at 11 a.m. Also on board was a 20-member honor guard bearing a special United States Flag sent to be raised in recognition of the new ownership of the northern territory. Already anchored offshore was the Pacific Mail Steamship John L. Stephens which had brought soldiers of Company F, 9th Infantry, and Battery G, 2nd Artillery, with supplies and equipment. Two Navy ships were also anchored offshore.
Precisely at 3 p.m. on that Friday afternoon, 100 Russian soldiers assembled to the right of the flagpole. They were described as “an impressive sight dressed in dark uniforms trimmed in red and wearing flat glazed hats.” The day was said to be “partially cloudy, but pleasant.”
At the same hour, the three 62-man companies of American troops in full dress uniform, unloaded from small launches on the beach, marched to their position at the left of the flagpole. As they passed, the Russian troops saluted. Their salute was returned by Brevet Maj. C.O. Wood leader of the American soldiers.
An Army account of the ceremony said that the spectators consisted of 98 commissioned naval officers, about 80 Marines and sailors, and some 60 civilians, including six American and six Russian ladies.
At the agreed-upon time of 3:30 p.m., Prince Maksoutoff and the commissioners exited the residence and took their place before the flagpole. At a signal from the Russian commander, the three-striped flag topped by the double eagle was lowered. As it was lowered, the Ossipee fired the first round of a 21-gun salute, its shot answered by one from a Russian ship, alternating until the honor was complete.
Russian Capt. Dimitri Pestchouroff, named by the Czar to make the transfer, turned to Gen. Rousseau and said, “By authority of his Majesty the Emperor of all Russians, I transfer to you, the agent of the United States, all the territory and dominion now possessed by his Majesty on the continent of America and in the adjacent islands, according to a treaty made between these two powers.”
Rousseau responded, “I accept from you, as agent of his Majesty the Emperor of all Russians, the territory and dominion which you have transferred to me, as commissioner on the part of the United States to receive the same.”
At that, the honor guard handed the Stars and Stripes to 15-year-old George Rousseau, son of the general, who with the assistance of a midshipman raised it high atop the flagpole. As the symbol of the United States rose, the Russian ship fired a round which was repeated by one from the Ossipee and continued until each had completed a 21-shot salute.
With that, Alaska became an American territory 150 years ago and, after waiting another 92 years, became the 49th state. “Seward’s Folly” costing $7.2 million, or two cents an acre, turned out to be a pretty good investment.
At the time of the transfer, Alaska’s population was estimated to be 500 Russians, 1500 people of mixed heritage, 300 Americans or other nationalities, and 24,000 to 29,000 Alaska Natives. Russian citizens were given the option of remaining in Alaska or returning to their homeland.
Natives were not considered to be citizens of the United States. Officially, they were considered to be members of “uncivilized tribes.”
That continues to be a sore spot with some Alaskans today. Federal Judge James Wickersham declared Alaska Natives to be citizens in 1902 and the Native Lands Claim Settlement Act of 1971 attempted to make restitution for losses. Some argue, however, that the Russians moved in uninvited and sold what was not theirs to sell.
U.S. Army Alaska Pamphlet 360-5, “Building Alaska with the US Army, 1867-1965,” states that “Gen. Davis was to act as (the Native people’s) general superintendent” but had no authority to make treaties, negotiate, make contracts or agreements with them. Furthermore, “Gen. Davis was advised to exercise the most careful vigilance, since they were known to be both warlike and treacherous.”
To keep things in perspective, it must be remembered that at the time the Army was heavily engaged in conflicts with Native Americans in the West. It was only months before the transfer that Geronimo surrendered and the Battle of Little Big Horn was still nine years away. Davis’s role as governor, in fact, would end after just three years when the Army was withdrawn from Alaska and sent to join that fight.
The unfortunate thing is that battles erupted between Natives and the soldiers who were here to both protect and control them. Two instances that resulted in the shelling of the villages of Kake and Angoon in Southeast Alaska drew attention in Congress. In 1869, villagers from Kake were detained in Sitka, then when returning to their homes were said to have killed two white men in a remote site. The village was shelled and one man accused of murder was tried, convicted and hung. In the other case, some years later, a whale gun exploded, killing a villager. When blankets were demanded in compensation for the death, a naval vessel bombarded Angoon, destroying homes and canoes. Official reports and Native recollections varied widely and no apology resulted, although it was acknowledged that a “misunderstanding” had been involved.
Fortunately, the Alaska judicial system has changed considerably, military rule has been replaced and the relationship between citizens of a diverse state are vastly improved over the past century.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.