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Home  >  Know Alaska  >  Alaska Geography  >  Community Profiles
Sitka: Alaska's First Capital

Nearly 9,000 people call Sitka home today. They look out to the west at Mount Edgecumbe, a snow-covered and long-dormant volcano. This sleeping beauty suggests much about the town -- its pristine setting and its violent past.

The legend is that Tlingit Indians came down from the mountains when they saw the smoke or steam from Mount Edgecumbe. That was some 10,000 years ago. It was the last time the volcano erupted.

The Tlingits had the area all to themselves until 1799. Alexander Baranof, governor of Russian America and head of the Russian-American Company, was building posts all along the Alaska coast. He set up a new trading post at what is called Old Sitka today. Unhappy with the Russians, the Tlingit Indians attacked in 1802. They destroyed the settlement. They killed many of the Russians and drove the rest away. Two years later, the Russians returned with a warship. The Battle of Sitka raged for days. The Russians relentlessly shot their cannons at the Tlingit fort from the safety of the sea. It was clear that this time the Tlingits could not win. They would only die. The made a plan to escape. A few Tlingit men stayed behind to stall the Russian landing. Then at night the rest of the villagers escaped into the mountains.

Today there are many reminders of this time under Russian rule. St. Michael's Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church, sits in the center of Sitka. Castle Hill is where Baranof built his castle. At the Sitka National Historic Park, visitors can walk a path through the forest lined with totem poles. The path leads to a clearing that marks the site of the Battle of Sitka.

On October 18, 1867, the Russians handed over Alaska to the United States at a ceremony in Sitka. It had been the capital of Russian America since 1808. The town remained the capital of the new American territory until 1906. Congress had voted to move the capital to Juneau in 1900, but the offices didn't move until six years later.

The rich mix of Tlingit and Russian history along with Sitka's scenic setting attracts thousands of visitors every year. Sitka was honored for its efforts to preserve its culture and history in 2010. It was named one of 12 Distinctive Destinations by the National Historic Preservation Trust. Sitka was the only town on the West Coast named to the list.

The town continues to live up to its reputation as a Paris of the North. It is home to the Sitka Summer Music Festival, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, Sheldon Jackson Museum, and the Island Institute. It is also home to two former state writer laureates, Richard Nelson and John Straley, and a former state historian, R.N. DeArmond.

Sitka folks have a sense of humor too. One famous example was the fake eruption of Mount Edgecumbe. A group of pranksters hired a helicopter to drop a bundle of old tires to the volcano's crater and then set them on fire. Word is they left a message in the snow near the crater, "April Fools," for the photographers sure to fly over to capture the event.

How did Sitka get its name? Hint: it is a contraction of two Tlingit words.

Gallery of Images

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Aerial Sitka

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Mt. Edgecumbe

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Mt. Edgecumbe up close

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Russian Orthodox Church

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Sitka from Castle Hill

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Sitka map

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Sitka National Historic Park

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