Between Three Empires

Nineteenth-Century Tlingit Interactions with the Russians, British, and Americans

Peter Stanton
32 min readMar 3, 2024

This article is a slightly-edited version of a presentation I gave as part of the Friday Night Insight program hosted by the U.S. Forest Service and sponsored by the Cape Fox Cultural Foundation in Kichx̱áan, the town commonly known as Ketchikan, which is located on the lands of the Taantʼa and Sanyaa ḵwáan (Tongass and Cape Fox people) in Lingít Aaní (Tlingit Country).

If you’d prefer to listen to my arguments rather than reading them, you can watch the Facebook video recording of my presentation at this link.

I’d like to paint a historical picture from the middle of the nineteenth century. It was a time when three of the most powerful countries in the world — the Russian Empire, the British Empire, and the United States of America — all laid competing colonial claims to the Northwest Coast of North America. In the midst of those three great powers and their ambitions lay the Lingít nation, a people organized into fiercely independent clans who — in spite of what these outside empires claimed — steadfastly maintained their sovereignty.

Throughout the mid-nineteenth century, Lingít clans responded to the colonial projects of the Russians, British, and Americans by engaging with them, taking advantage of them, resisting them, and at times, even crushing them. By the time the Russians sold their colonial claims in America to the United States in 1867, the Lingít had proven repeatedly that in spite of the forces arrayed against them, they would not be colonized.

flags of the Russian-American Company, Hudson’s Bay Company, and United States of America (31 stars, 1851–1858)

The central questions I’d like to pose are:

What did it mean for Lingít Aaní (Tlingit Country) that it was a land of competing claims and ambitions from global empires? There were claims made to Lingít lands by the Russians, the Spanish, the French, the British, and finally, the United States and Canada. How did those imperial interests impact this land?

Then, just as importantly, how did the Lingít interact with the representatives of these empires and respond to their colonial projects? When these outsiders attempted to insert themselves into Lingít politics and the Lingít economy, did Lingít leaders and other individuals bring them in or keep them out? How much power did Lingít clans and communities have to maintain their independence and continue their way of life, even when surrounded by unprecedented threats?

Defining Empire

Even if “empire” is a common word that people use all the time, I think it’s valuable to start by giving this term a more explicit historical definition. I think that’s especially true because, as implied by my title, I do consider that the United States of America was an empire in the nineteenth century. That label may make some Americans uncomfortable, but it is a reality widely accepted by historians.

When I use the term empire, I am referring in the most general sense to when a particular government or society establishes dominance over another land or group of people. Almost always, that means some level of political rule and military control, but it usually involves economic intervention and cultural influence as well.

Using this general definition, we can look at the history of Lingít Aaní and say that there have been at least six empires that wanted or attempted to claim, control, and dominate Lingít lands and Lingít people — Russian, Spanish, French, British, American, and Canadian. If you’d like, you can refer to the United States and Canada as settler-colonial states, but for the purposes of this article, I don’t believe it’s necessary to get into defining that term when the more general idea of empire is enough.

Indigenous Empires

It’s also worth asking whether Indigenous nations in North America created empires, too. The short answer is “yes”: To take one famous example, not many people would dispute that the Mexica, commonly known as the Aztecs, conquered and dominated other lands and peoples outside of their homeland.

The question becomes more difficult, however, when we consider nations that did not have centralized governments and did not desire to rule directly over other communities. The historian Pekka Hämäläinen argued in his book Comanche Empire that the Nʉmʉnʉʉ, commonly known as the Comanche, created an empire during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

However, Hämäläinen acknowledges that, unlike European empires, the goal of the Comanche was “not to conquer and colonize, but to coexist, control, and exploit.” If the Comanche effectively raided, exploited, and dominated the Mexican, Texan, and other Indigenous communities that surrounded them for decades, that power is significant. But, if they did not directly claim sovereignty over or control political decisions for those communities, that power is more distant from what we typically think of as “empire.”

In the case of the Lingít, I believe there is very little evidence to support describing them as having created an “empire” at any point in their history. As far as hundreds and perhaps thousands of years of oral history tell, the Lingít nation has always consisted of distinct, politically independent clans. At many times in history, these clans moved into new areas, gained ownership over new lands, and even held some measure of influence over other groups of people. In the nineteenth century, some Lingít clans expanded their influence quite dramatically to the north and east into interior areas inhabited by the Tahltan, Tagish, and Southern Tutchone nations, as well as to the northwest along the Gulf Coast, into the land of the Eyak.

However, expanding Lingít influence often came through intermarriage and adoption: Clan leaders only made decisions for the people within their clan, so expanding a clan’s political power meant expanding that clan’s family connections, not controlling decisions for other groups. When Lingít did seem to take over new lands from other nations, it was often a consequence of migration, intermarriage, or wars that began over legal disputes. The famous Lingít leader and scholar Shgúndi William Paul stated that “there were no wars of conquest as such,” and if there was one, he had never heard of it.

And, while Lingít did establish monopolies over trade routes and goods, allowing them to profit handsomely off of other Indigenous groups, they did not systematically exploit these people as part of some sort of imperial relationship. If some Lingít clans built empires, it was only in the sense of building business empires.

Northwest Coast Indigenous nations and their territories, c. 1800

Early Imperial Claims

Now that I’ve addressed what it means to be an empire, I’ll provide a brief summary of how the first European empires to visit the Northwest Coast of North America attempted to lay claim to Lingít Aaní. Telling the full stories of how the Lingít received strange new ships and visitors in their waters during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries would require its own presentation, so I won’t share any details right now. But, given that this presentation is about empire, I would be remiss not to mention how these imperial projects began in northwestern North America.

In 1741, a Russian ship commanded by Alexei Chirikov crossed the Gulf of Alaska and sighted land in Lingít Aaní. Fifteen of Chirikov’s sailors were sent ashore near the territory of the Xunaa Ḵáawu — Hoonah people — and mysteriously disappeared, which is its own interesting story to tell another time. In any case, this Russian voyage was considered by Europeans to be a “discovery” of a land previously unknown to them. According to the European Doctrine of Discovery, this voyage became the initial basis for the Russian claim to ownership over the land they would call Russian America, later called Alaska.

At that time, no Spaniard had ever laid eyes on the Northwest Coast of North America. Nonetheless, the Spanish Empire had already made a theoretical claim to sovereignty over all the lands of western North America based on edicts from the Catholic Church, and the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. According to those pronouncements, the non-Christian lands of the western hemisphere were supposed to be Spain’s to colonize. The security of the western coast of North America was also essential to the Spanish Empire for the shipping they carried out between Asia and the Americas on their Manila galleons.

Spanish officials were alarmed, then, to hear about the Russian voyages in the North Pacific, and they began to send their own ships north from San Blas, New Spain, in what is now the state of Nayarit on the Pacific coast of Mexico. There were only four Spanish voyages that entered Lingít waters, and they spanned a relatively short period of 17 years from 1775 to 1792. While these voyages did make a significant impact on Lingít Aaní, especially because the Spanish may have brought smallpox or other diseases with them, the Spanish proved unable to sustain their colonial efforts so far north of Mexico.

the naval ensign of the Spanish Empire at the time of their first voyages to the Northwest Coast

The last would-be imperial power that was shut out early on in the European exploration of the Northwest Coast was France. For a few years in the 1780s, the French navy had the ability to freely pursue oceanic exploration, so in 1785, two ships left France under the command of Jean François de Galaup de Lapérouse. Publicly, the voyage had a stated mission of scientific discovery, but it also had secret political missions to spy on other European powers and make a colonial claim for France. In 1786, Lapérouse’s ships reached the shores of Lingít Aaní and entered Ltu.áa (Lituya Bay) where they met Lingít who were likely from the Tʼaḵdeintaan of the Xunaa Ḵáawu. These Lingít sold a small island in the bay to the French, which allowed them to profit off of foreigners who would never return. Once the French Revolution began in 1789, the French made no further efforts to lay claim to land in northwestern North America.

Early Resistance to the Anóoshi (Russians)

As most people would know already, it was not the Spanish or French who made the longest-lasting efforts to colonize Lingít Aaní in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, but instead it was the people the Lingít called Anóoshi, the Russians. The Anóoshi would struggle for over seventy years, from 1795 to 1867, to maintain a presence in Lingít Aaní. Through all of those decades, Lingít clans skillfully and forcefully resisted Russian attempts to threaten their independence and control their communities.

After the first recorded encounter in 1741, the Lingít and Anóoshi met again in 1788. Four years later in 1792, they had their first battle, when Lingít from the Yaakwdáat Ḵwáan (Yakutat people) attacked a war party of Russians and Kodiak Sugpiaq. In 1796, following the populations of sea otters the Russians were slaughtering for their fur, Aleksandr Baranov and the Shelikhov-Golikov Company established the first Russian outpost in Lingít Aaní, at the heart of Yaakwdáat Ḵwáan territory on Laax̱aayík (Yakutat Bay). The Russians soon realized they should move further south, and in 1799, Baranov negotiated with three leaders of the Kiks.ádi clan of the Sheetʼká Ḵwáan (Sitka people) to allow the Anóoshi to build a fort and settlement in their territory on Sitka Sound.

Now, yet again, it would require its own presentation to tell the full story of the Battles of Sitka in 1802 and 1804, but suffice it to say, after a series of crimes committed by the Russians and their Unangan and Sugpiaq employees, the Kiks.ádi organized an alliance of multiple clans to attack the Russian fort, kill all the men who were present, and burn down every building. Baranov, who had been away at the time of the first battle, arrived two years later in 1804 with an expedition to defeat the Kiks.ádi and reestablish the Russian presence in Sheetʼká Ḵwáan territory. The second battle lasted seven days, but after a series of unfortunate events for the Lingít defenders, they were forced to abandon their fort and escape the Russians on an arduous trek known as the Kiks.ádi Survival March.

Then, just when the Anóoshi felt they had achieved victory solidifying their presence in the region, they received yet another setback. The clans of the Yaakwdáat Ḵwáan had built up numerous grievances against the Anóoshi living at Laax̱aayík (Yakutat Bay), and in 1805, they utterly destroyed the Russian settlement there. This time, the Anóoshi never organized a counterattack, and the Russians never again settled on the Lingít Gulf Coast.

During their first few decades in Lingít Aaní, from the 1780s to the early 1820s, the Russians did not conduct a great deal of trade with the Lingít. Instead, the Lingít used British and American merchant ships to access the benefits of the trans-Pacific fur trade. Meanwhile, the Anóoshi sent out huge parties of ships and kayaks with Unangan and Sugpiaq hunters in order to poach sea otters from Lingít waters. In response to this trespass through their waters and theft of a valuable resource, Lingít occasionally attacked or disrupted unwary hunting parties. In 1818, for example, Hinyaa Ḵwáan men from Tàan (Prince of Wales Island) killed twenty-three Unangan hunters and wounded twelve others with volleys of gunfire from shore. One large Russian hunting party in 1821 gathered only a paltry number of pelts because the company hunters were constantly followed by Lingít who fired their guns in the air to frighten away the sea otters. The lead hunter reported to the company, “though they will not touch our people, they will not permit us to hunt.”

Through these types of actions that asserted their continued ownership of the land, water, and its resources, the Lingít kept the Russian presence in their territory isolated and unprofitable. It was the Anóoshi, not the Lingít, who would have to change their strategies.

Lingít-Anóoshi Rapprochement

By the early 1820s, the Russian-American Company effectively stopped its hunting activities in most of Lingít territory, due to the high costs and low numbers of pelts collected. The Company’s leaders even discussed withdrawing from Lingít Aaní, because of how costly it was to operate there.

Ultimately, the Anóoshi chose not to withdraw. In large part, they maintained their presence in Lingít Aaní in order to keep their claim to the land in the view of other imperial powers — particularly as the British further infiltrated the region. There even seemed to be a rapprochement — a warming of relations — between Lingít and Russians in the 1820s.

The Sheetʼká Ḵwáan reestablished a community at Sheetʼká in 1821, building homes in the immediate vicinity of the Russian fort. And for their part, the Anóoshi effectively decided to give up gathering their own supply of furs from the Lingít Archipelago using their Unangan and Sugpiaq hunting parties. They accepted that Lingít would control the supply, and that they would do business only as middlemen with the Chinese, or even with British and American merchants who would then take the furs to the Chinese. The Anóoshi raised the prices they offered the Lingít for furs to several times higher than what they paid the Unangan and Sugpiaq to the west. The Chief Manager of the Russian-American Company at the time stated the intent was to use this trade to “acquire friendship and favor” from the Lingít. Lingít fur sales to the Anóoshi increased many times over through the late 1820s.

While the Russians tried to buy Lingít favor and the Lingít profited handsomely, most of those profits were concentrated among the Sheetʼká Ḵwáan who lived closest to the Anóoshi and traded with them most directly. The Ḵéex̱ʼ and Xutsnoowú ḵwáan — the groups of Lingít now centered in Kake and Angoon — requested in 1832 that the Russian-American Company send a steamship to visit their communities to buy their furs and sell them goods. The Anóoshi then moved to establish a post in Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan territory, and constructed Dionisievskii Redoubt in 1833 at the site that would later become the town of Wrangell.

The Russian-American Company ordered that all of the Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan leaders in the area should be engaged with diplomatically in order to gain acceptance for the establishment of the post. Over the following few years, the two parties came to an understanding based on mutual interest in excluding the British from entering their trading sphere. It seemed at this point in time that the Lingít and Russians had achieved some sort of balance, with the Lingít using the Russians for access to valuable trade goods, and the Russians using the Lingít as suppliers for their company’s fur trade. All the while, the Russians continued to claim that most of Lingít Aaní was their territory, by right of the Doctrine of Discovery. But for the Lingít, a Russian claim to own their land was laughable, and Lingít maintained their own laws and sovereignty with no serious threat to their independence from the Anóoshi.

Anóoshi-Ginjichwáan Rapprochement

Conditions soon changed, however, when the Russians backed out of their mutually-beneficial arrangement with the Lingít in order to reconcile with their imperial rival, the British. The Lingít referred to the British as Ginjichwáan, based on the Chinuk wawa or Chinook Jargon term that came from the words “King George Men.”

After its merger with the North West Company in 1821, the British Hudson’s Bay Company became increasingly involved with the trade networks the Lingít used and valued most. The company established Fort Simpson in 1831 as the center of its northern operations on the Northwest Coast, and the site proved particularly important to Lingít. Although the fort was located at Lax-Kwʼalaams in Tsm’syen territory near the Nass River — on land that would become part of British Columbia — the lands of the Sanyaa and Taant’a ḵwáan lay just to the north. Those Lingít had long participated in and benefitted from trade on the Nass, and now the Ginjichwáan became more consistent participants in that commerce.

After a period of intense competition over determining the boundaries of their colonial claims, Anóoshi and Ginjichwáan in North America grew friendlier and more cooperative in the 1830s. The result was that in 1839, the Russian-American Company negotiated a unique deal with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Russian company agreed to lease some of its claimed lands in Russian America to the British — the mainland area adjacent to the Lingít Archipelago. In return for the use of this territory — land that, in reality, continued to be controlled and governed by Lingít — the British would make an annual payment of two thousand pelts to the Russians. The Russian-American Company also handed over Dionisievskii Redoubt to the British, which the Hudson’s Bay Company then converted into Fort Stikine, also called Fort Highfield. This deal between European imperial powers complicated the relationship between Lingít and the Russians, and it meant that for the next thirty years, Lingít increasingly found themselves situated between three empires.

Lingít Aaní Surrounded

Over the next three decades — the 1840s, ’50s, and ‘60s — the British infiltrated and began to surround Lingít Aaní, the Russians entrenched themselves at Sheetʼká and made new attempts to colonize Lingít hearts and minds, and the United States expanded its power on the Northwest Coast rapidly, with grave consequences for the Lingít and other Indigenous nations.

First, let’s examine the British. Not only did the Hudson’s Bay Company bring its employees into Lingít Aaní under the terms of its agreement with the Russians, but it also established trading posts outside of Lingít Aaní that both attracted and threatened Lingít commerce.

In 1840, the same year they assumed control over Dionisievskii Redoubt and made it Fort Stikine, the Ginjichwáan built Fort Taku, also called Fort Durham, over 100 miles north of Fort Stikine on the mouth of the Taku River in the territory of the Tʼaaḵú Ḵwáan. Even when company policies shifted and Fort Taku was abandoned, the company continued to send steamships to conduct trade in the area. Trading with the Ginjichwáan also led Lingít to travel south to visit the growing town of Victoria, starting soon after the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Victoria in 1843.

British encirclement created challenges the Lingít had never faced before. In particular, they had never faced an outside competitor intent on disrupting the trade routes on the mainland that Lingít clans had maintained for so long. The Hudson’s Bay Company also brought unprecedented supplies of alcohol to some groups of Lingít, which led to new problems and social changes. Nevertheless, the Ginjichwáan were interested in business, and they did not truly attempt to colonize any Lingít communities, even when they claimed to have a lease on a large portion of Lingít lands.

major Indigenous communities and imperial posts around Lingít Aaní in the mid-19th century

Redoubled Russian Efforts

While the British pursued profits by trading with Lingít along their leased territory, the Russian-American Company implemented a number of policies to bring Lingít leaders and individuals into their fold as cooperative employees, collaborators, and Russian subjects.

In particular, the Anóoshi began to develop businesses in Lingít Aaní that attracted Lingít to earning wages and participating in an economy based on cash and credit. The Russian-American Company surveyed coal deposits in the Lingít Archipelago, and began supplying its own needs from those resources. In 1849, a new boom economy appeared in California due to the gold rush there, leading the Russians to export ice, having blocks of glacier towed south to eager customers. The Anóoshi also entered the whaling industry, and the two ships of the Russian-Finnish Whaling Company found success in the Pacific through the 1850s.

In all of these enterprises, the Russians recruited Lingít as laborers like they never had before. Lingít found immediate benefits in the wages they received, adding to the wealth of their communities that were still sustained by their own resource harvesting and production. Historian Jonathan Dean wrote that, by the mid-1860s, the Russian-American Company was “on the verge of developing a laboring class” out of local Native populations, including Lingít. It is essential to note, however, that most Lingít ḵwáan did not take part in these changes. The developments in the Lingít economy remained almost entirely restricted to the Sheetʼká Ḵwáan, who had lived near the Russian invaders and maintained relative peace with them for decades. In spite of their limited geographic reach, there were major transformations underway in both Lingít and Russian American society.

Encircled by Epidemics

While Lingít Aaní was encircled geographically by the outposts of the Hudson’s Bay and Russian-American companies, Lingít communities were also attacked and metaphorically encircled by powerful non-human forces — epidemic diseases.

This topic is a tragic one to discuss, but I would be telling an incomplete story if I did not explain how the empires that the Lingít resisted in their lands not only brought soldiers, settlers, and new economic and political projects, but also deadly diseases. These diseases not only brought immense tragedy to Indigenous nations, but their effects threatened communities’ self-sufficiency and the ability of clans to respond to new pressures.

Most disease outbreaks in this era seemed to start in Sheetʼká. It was the largest, most diverse community in the region, and the destination of Russian ships coming from other parts of Russian America, as well as from other continents. Bacterial infections like streptococcus and diphtheria killed children at Sheetʼká in the 1840s. The town was struck by an unknown respiratory disease in 1843, leading many to develop pneumonia and other respiratory conditions. In 1845, many children caught whooping cough. Lingít continued to travel and interact extensively between communities, so it is likely that most if not all the diseases that afflicted Lingít in Sheetʼká swept across other areas of Lingít Aaní. In most cases, however, Russian doctors or other officials simply were not present in other Lingít communities to record the extent of these epidemic terrors.

One example of an epidemic that was reported to have started in another part of Lingít Aaní was an outbreak of measles said to have appeared in Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan territory in 1848 and then spread to Sheetʼká afterward. Although both typhus and typhoid fever had been reported in Sheetʼká in previous years, a new outbreak of typhoid fever appeared in the town in 1857, brought by a Russian ship. It then spread to other Lingít communities with deadly effect.

Then in 1862, less than three decades after it devastated Northwest Coast communities in the 1830s, smallpox struck again. This time, the virus came with an infected person who traveled from San Francisco to Victoria, arriving there in March. The patient was identified, but was allowed to get lodging in a densely-populated neighborhood. A local newspaper stated, “The case is not considered a dangerous one by the authorities.” Within two weeks, however, several more cases were reported in Victoria. The British authorities did vaccinate some of the Indigenous residents of the town and surrounding area, but the disease spread quickly beyond their paltry efforts.

Large numbers of Indigenous people from all along the Northwest Coast had established a permanent trade encampment just outside of Victoria. In one count, it had a population of over 2,000. A few hundred Lingít — mostly from the Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan — likely made up about fifteen percent of this Indigenous urban community. Smallpox arrived in the camp by April 1862, rapidly disabling and destroying countless families. By the time the epidemic was over, one report estimated there were 1,000-1,200 bodies that lay unburied on just one acre of the camp.

As survivors were driven out of Victoria by British authorities and returned to their home communities, they brought the disease with them, spreading death and destruction across the Northwest Coast, including Lingít Aaní. Indigenous people were not the only vectors for this smallpox epidemic, however. There were also thousands of American prospectors who traveled to the Stikine River in the spring of 1862 after gold was discovered there, and the people of the Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan were among the most devastated by the disease.

Written records are not detailed enough to show the overall effect of this smallpox epidemic on the Lingít. However, it appears the disease spread from south to north across the Lingít Archipelago and then onto the mainland. At least one community of the Hinyaa Ḵwáan was so devastated that the survivors fled and left their homes intact, but no one returned to live there for decades. Twenty-six years after the epidemic, the U.S. naval officer and ethnographer George Emmons reported that it was still “a veritable city of the dead.”

The near-constant waves of disease afflicting the Lingít undeniably weakened their clans and communities. Different epidemics killed or debilitated elders, adults, and children, grievously impacting the leadership, labor force, fighting strength, and the very futures of clans. Smallpox, for example, could make men who survived the disease impotent, and could make women who survived unable to breastfeed. The birthrates of Lingít women almost certainly decreased as child and adult mortality rose, leading to further stagnation and decline in the Lingít nation’s population. Although Lingít families remained in control of their children’s education, the intergenerational transfer of knowledge must have been harmed by so many unexpected and sudden deaths of knowledge-bearers, intergenerational links, and young people expected to become future leaders. There were distinct house groups that disappeared due to mass death, and some clans may have become so diminished in strength that they joined larger related clans, ceasing to exist as independent political entities.

In many ways, it is an inspiring story that Lingít clans and communities fiercely maintained their sovereignty and independence during the mid-nineteenth century, even as major world empires claimed their lands. However, it would be impossible to deny that the Lingít nation also experienced major loss during this time, in large part due to the diseases outsiders brought to their lands.

Striking Back Against the Empire

Nevertheless, the Lingít persisted. In particular, when looking at Lingít actions toward the Ginjichwáan, it is remarkable how often Lingít clans successfully resisted, negotiated with, or even attacked representatives of what was, at the time, the most powerful colonial empire in the world.

As soon as the British arrived and established Fort Stikine as a Hudson’s Bay Company post in 1840, the Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan insisted that the Ginjichwáan would have to agree to Lingít terms in order to reside and trade on Lingít land. The Naanyaa.aayí clan leader Shéiyksh V reportedly told the British that if they did not follow the conditions for trading set by the Lingít, no one at the fort would live.

Shéiyksh likely wanted to demonstrate he would maintain his people’s trading rights as his predecessor Shéiyksh IV had, and negotiate with any foreigners on his people’s lands from a position of strength. While Shéiyksh never carried out his threat and no Lingít ever killed a Hudson’s Bay Company employee at Fort Stikine, the records from the company indicate the British felt genuinely threatened and fearful through the years they resided in Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan territory. The Lingít clearly understood they could use this fear to their advantage.

The largest point of contention between the groups was the prices the Hudson’s Bay Company offered for Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan furs. The Russians paid less, so Lingít often traveled south to sell their furs for higher prices at Fort Simpson. Rather than maintain the prices from their other company post, however, the Ginjichwáan at Fort Stikine wanted to offer lower prices like the Anóoshi had. The Lingít insisted that the Ginjichwáan should pay more, and withheld their business.

The company had a sawmill, built a fair distance from the fort, and Lingít began to dismantle it in the summer of 1840 as a lesson that the British were on Lingít land and needed to live up to Lingít expectations. Eventually, while the traders at the fort had to abide by the prices set by company higher-ups, they started providing extra gifts to Lingít traders and leaders, effectively conceding it would cost them more to purchase Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan furs.

By 1849, the Hudson’s Bay Company decided to close the trading post and dismantle and abandon the fort. The Lingít protested the news, and the tension almost led to violence. Despite the conflicts they had with the company, the Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan clearly still placed a high value on maintaining easy access to trade goods. They would have preferred to keep the Ginjichwáan on their lands, close at hand, in order to better control them.

Lingít sometimes welcomed new business ventures from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and sometimes they rejected those ventures with outright hostility and violence. Lingít were drawn to the goods that outsiders brought to trade with them, but also adamant about preventing those interlopers from interfering with Lingít-controlled commerce.

When the Ginjichwáan seriously threatened to fully encircle or undermine Lingít-controlled trade routes, Lingít clans used force to end this foreign encroachment. In 1839, Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan Lingít destroyed the Hudson’s Bay Company post named Lake House that was located at Dease Lake, inland from the Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan in Tahltan territory. There were no company employees at Lake House when the Lingít destroyed it, but the act sent a clear message that the Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan should remain the primary trade partners of the Tahltan. Interfering with Indigenous-run trade routes or trying to cut out the Lingít as middlemen was a dangerous business.

Lingít would have to teach the Hudson’s Bay Company this lesson again in the 1850s. In 1852, G̱aanax̱teidí men of the Jilḵaat Ḵwáan (Chilkat people) traveled three hundred miles north over land to destroy Fort Selkirk. They looted and then burned down the Hudson’s Bay Company post, which they saw as a threat to their trade with the Dene groups of the region. According to George Emmons, writing in 1916, the Lingít warned the Ginjichwáan after burning the fort against ever encroaching on their trade zone again. The Jilḵaat Ḵwáan would then maintain their trading rights with the interior for the next four decades, until the time of the Klondike Gold Rush at the end of the nineteenth century.

Staying Lingít in “Russian America”

Meanwhile, some Lingít responded to new Russian policies, using Russian resources and job opportunities in order to raise their own status and material well-being. Nevertheless, Lingít did not compromise their sovereignty, especially outside of Sheetʼká, and stayed true to their own political and legal systems. Multiple Russian policies in Lingít Aaní would fail, or had limited impact, as Lingít would not cede power to the Anóoshi.

Even within Sheetʼká, where the Russian administration could claim to have the most influence over the Lingít inhabitants, Lingít were ready to use force to resist the Anóoshi, just as they had in previous decades. After an accumulation of small conflicts, a Lingít man wounded a Russian sailor in 1855. The Russian-American Company Chief Manager demanded the Lingít man be banished from Sheetʼká. Lingít began to agitate. The Russians withdrew into their fort. Soon after, a Lingít marksman shot a Russian standing on the fort battery, leading the Russians to release two warning salvos. In response, the Lingít sacked a church outside the walls of the Russian fort and took up firing positions within it. The Russians then opened fire with rifles and cannon. The sides battled for two hours, resulting in perhaps fifty Lingít and up to around thirty Russian casualties. Two Russians died in the skirmish, and four more died later from their wounds. Though the Lingít certainly did not defeat or drive out the Anóoshi in the 1855 battle at Sheetʼká, the sudden and shocking nature of their attack provided a forceful demonstration that the Russians had still failed to absorb the Lingít into their empire.

While short, the battle was shocking to Russian officials. Following this seeming moment of defeat for their colonization efforts, some Russian administrators pursued even more conciliatory policies to keep the peace with the Lingít. From the perspective of the Anóoshi, these strategies yielded some positive results, bringing about yet another Lingít-Russian rapprochement.

Nevertheless, observers sent by the Russian emperor still found fundamental weaknesses in the company’s colonial endeavor. These reports then contributed to the decision to detach Russian America from the Russian Empire. Although it goes unmentioned in many histories, the powerful resistance of the Lingít to Russian rule was a crucial factor that influenced the imperial government’s decision to sell their colony to the United States.

Few of the narratives typically written about the sale of Russian America indicate that Native groups made any impact on the Russian government’s decision. However, Indigenous peoples — especially the Lingít — very much influenced the Russian government’s understanding of its colony, even in faraway St. Petersburg. The perceptions of the emperor and his court were shaped by reports like those of Pavel Golovin, a navy officer who expressed profound frustration and astonishment in the face of Lingít independence.

Golovin wrote in 1860 that the Lingít carried weapons constantly, and most shockingly, stated that the colony’s capital at Sheetʼká was “constantly in a state of siege.” In truth, there was no violent, active siege. Golovin merely saw with new eyes the sort of strong military precautions the Russian-American Company had taken to defend its settlement since the Second Battle of Sitka in 1804 and after the short skirmish of 1855. Other difficulties had certainly plagued officials in Russian America. However, the reality that Lingít continued to resist colonization and exploit Russian vulnerabilities had a powerfully draining effect on the confidence of the would-be colonizers. It may prove impossible for historians to demonstrate definitely how much Lingít resistance diminished the Emperor’s faith in Russian America, but this evergreen defiance and independence clearly played a role in Russian officials’ perceptions of their imperial project’s weakness.

Encountering Waashdan Ḵwáan Expansion

Finally, it is time to turn to the third imperial power in this story, the people the Lingít called the Waashdan Ḵwáan, from the Chinuk wawa term for “Boston Men” — the Americans. There is no historical record of interaction between Lingít and the United States for fifteen years between 1841 and 1856. But, in 1856, a Lingít expedition led to these relations being reestablished in a shocking and violent new way.

That summer, a large group of over one hundred Lingít men, women, and children gathered in central Lingít Aaní. They belonged to multiple clans, including the Tsaagweidí, and likely came from communities in a few different ḵwáan — the Ḵéex̱ʼ, Shtaxʼhéen, and Hinyaa ḵwáan. This diverse group of Lingít then began a long journey south, traveling over six hundred miles. They eventually arrived in the Salish Sea, at the southern end of the Inside Passage, and spent weeks traveling around its waters. They entered Puget Sound, the southernmost inlet of the Salish Sea, mostly likely looking for ways to earn wages at the farms and lumber mills around the sound.

Only recently, the Waashdan Ḵwáan had begun to settle in the area, and they now called the land Washington Territory. The Americans had also just begun bringing more steamships into the region, for both military and commercial purposes. The Lingít knew the Waashdan Ḵwáan from when that nation’s merchant ships had visited their own waters, but there had never been so many of them living permanently on the Northwest Coast before, and the Lingít had never seen them use these powerful new steamships.

In October, northern Natives in Puget Sound attacked a small schooner, raided vacant American houses, and fought with the Squalli-Absh (Nisqually) on the lands where the Waashdan Ḵwáan had recently forced that nation to live on a reservation. It is possible the people involved in these incidents were some of the visiting Lingít, but it may have also been X̱aadas (Haida), Tsmʼsyen, or other Indigenous groups who knew there was wealth that could be taken in Puget Sound. Regardless of the perpetrators’ identity, American settlers sent for help, and one Waashdan Ḵwáan newspaper in the area stated, “Let them at once be blown out of our waters.” A steam-powered Waashdan Ḵwáan warship, the USS Massachusetts, soon began to pursue the Lingít north through the sound.

When Lingít traveled into the Salish Sea in the mid-1850s, they likely did not know they would become part of a massive struggle between Americans and Indigenous nations going on in Washington Territory at that time. During just fourteen months from 1855 to 1856, Washington Governor Isaac Stevens had forced the signing of ten different treaties in which Native groups ceded some seventy million acres of their lands to the United States. Settlers moved quickly onto new lands in response to the treaties, sparking violent conflict. Multiple “Indian Wars” were fought simultaneously throughout Washington Territory, on both sides of the Cascade Range. The war in Puget Sound came to an end in 1857 with the help of the U.S. naval presence which had been originally established to protect against raiding from northern nations like the X̱aadas and Lingít. It was into this context of tense and violent struggle around the Salish Sea that the group of over one hundred Ḵéex̱ʼ, Shtaxʼhéen, and Hinyaa ḵwáan Lingít traveled in 1856.

The Battle of Port Gamble

The party of Lingít fled from the USS Massachusetts, but within three days, the steamship caught them near the town of Port Gamble. The Lingít brought their canoes to a defensible encampment at the base of a tall hill, surrounded by thick forest. A shore party of American soldiers and an interpreter delivered a message from the American commander that he would forgive their crimes as long as the Lingít complied with his demands and never returned to Puget Sound. The Lingít leaders rejected these demands and the men jeered at the Waashdan Ḵwáan soldiers, who returned to their ship. Soldiers were sent to negotiate with them again soon afterward, but the Lingít again refused to leave.

In the morning, the Americans fired their cannon at the Lingít encampment, and the Lingít fired their rifles in return. Gunfire continued, and round shot and grapeshot ripped through the trees. A troop of twenty-nine American soldiers charged into the camp and set it on fire, driving the Lingít further into the forest. The Waashdan Ḵwáan also took axes from the camp and destroyed all but one of the canoes. The last canoe was too well protected by Lingít rifles. One American died, shot in the head. Other soldiers were injured by glancing shots from the Lingít before they retreated to their ships.

In the afternoon, thirty-seven of the Waashdan Ḵwáan soldiers returned to shore and disabled the final canoe while under fire from the Lingít. After the last canoe was chopped apart, a captured Lingít woman was sent by the soldiers to ask the Lingít men to surrender. Again, they refused. The American bombardment continued from the water whenever any Lingít was seen to appear.

The next morning, two of the elder Lingít leaders asked for peace in return for the means to go home, given that the Americans had destroyed their canoes. The Lingít had gone without food for two days, and twenty-seven of them had died in the fighting while twenty-one were wounded. The Massachusetts brought the survivors on board and the Americans gave them provisions before taking them north. The U.S. forces bought canoes for the Lingít in Victoria, and then continued further north. When the defeated Lingít left the American ship at an island in the Georgia Strait, the Waashdan Ḵwáan gave them the new canoes and provisions so they could paddle the hundreds of miles remaining to go home to Lingít Aaní.

Restoring Balance with the Waashdan Ḵwáan

This violent confrontation in 1856 is referred to as the Battle of Port Gamble. Lingít travelers had defended themselves, but suffered a painful and humiliating defeat. Not only were Lingít killed by U.S. forces during the battle, but a wounded clan leader died on board the American steamer as the Lingít were sent north after their surrender. Oral history passed down through the Ḵéex̱ʼ Ḵwáan tells that the leader who died came from the Tsaagweidí, and that a woman of that clan led an expedition the following year to restore balance by killing an American of equal status.

The Tsaagweidí expeditionary force came to Whidbey Island and chose Colonel Isaac Ebey as an appropriate target — a lawyer, customs official, and former territorial legislator. The Tsaagweidí woman and her companions approached Ebey’s house, fired a gun into the air, and then shot Ebey when he came outside his front door. The Lingít then beheaded him and returned north with his head to prove they had taken compensation from the Waashdan Ḵwáan.

the memorial marker for Isaac Ebey near Ebey's landing, Whidbey Island, Washington

The interactions between Lingít and Americans in the Salish Sea during the 1850s shocked the settlers in Washington Territory, and they enraged the Lingít who lost loved ones and clan members in the fighting. The killing of Isaac Ebey on Whidbey Island may have satisfied the Tsaagweidí desire for reciprocity to some extent. However, the balance sheet of the relationship between Lingít clans and the Waashdan Ḵwáan cannot have felt entirely even. The year 1856 signaled a new phase in Lingít-American relations, one far different than the largely peaceful and mutually advantageous trading that the peoples had been able to conduct decades before. The Waashdan Ḵwáan were no longer real “Boston Men” — sailors and traders from East Coast ports. To the Lingít, these people had now become a ḵwáan of soldiers, officials, and settlers, ready to confront the Lingít and colonize their land.


In March 1867, the United States purchased Russia’s claims to what the Americans would call Alaska for $7.2 million, an act that would change Lingít history — but not on its own, and not right away. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Lingít stood up to global empires, even as diseases and the Hudson’s Bay Company encircled Lingít Aaní and the Russian-American Company attempted to colonize them in new ways. Lingít in the mid-nineteenth century did not allow themselves to become ensnared in the colonial plans of the British or Russian empires, and they confronted the expansion of American settlers and military power on the Northwest Coast.

Lingít firmly maintained their sovereignty and continued to practice their own way of life. This resistance and determined independence then contributed, ironically, to an act that ignored Lingít sovereignty entirely — the sale of Russian America to the United States. Though their society had changed in many ways since the arrival of European imperialists to their lands and waters, and though they had experienced tragedies, and faced unprecedented challenges, the clans of the Lingít nation had proven that they could stand up to some of the world’s greatest imperial powers. Even between three empires, the Lingít remained strong.

You can see my sources below, and please leave a comment at the bottom of the page with any thoughts and questions you have. Gunalchéesh!


  1. Bancroft, Hubert Howe. History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana: 1845–1889. History Co., 1890.
  2. Boyd, Robert. The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence: Introduced Infectious Diseases and Population Decline Among Northwest Coast Indians, 1774–1874. UBC Press; University of Washington Press, 1999.
  3. Buse, Michael. “Machine of Manifest Destiny: The USS Massachusetts, 1845–1863.” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly vol. 112, no. 1 (Winter 2020/2021).
  4. Crippen, James A. “Tlingit Ḵwáan, Clan, and House List.”
  5. Dean, Jonathan R. “Rich Men, Big Powers, and Wastelands: The Tlingit-Tsimshian Border of the Northern Pacific Littoral, 1799 to 1867.” Ph.D. in History, The University of Chicago, 1993.
  6. Dean, Jonathan R. “‘Their Nature and Qualities Remain Unchanged’: Russian Occupation and Tlingit Resistance, 1802–1867.” Alaska History 9, no. 1 (Spring1994, 1994).
  7. Emmons, George. “The Whale House of Chilkat.” Raven’s Bones, edited by Andrew Hope, III. Sitka Community Association, 1982.
  8. Emmons, George Thornton and Frederica De Laguna. The Tlingit Indians. University of Washington Press; American Museum of Natural History, 1991.
  9. Fortuine, Robert. Chills and Fever: Health and Disease in the Early History of Alaska. University of Alaska Press, 1992.
  10. Gibson, James R. Imperial Russia in Frontier America: The Changing Geography of Supply of Russian America, 1784–1867. Oxford University Press, 1976.
  11. Gibson, James R. Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods: The Maritime Fur Trade of the Northwest Coast, 1785–1841. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991.
  12. Gibson, James R. “Smallpox on the Northwest Coast, 1835–1838.” BC Studies no. 56 (Winter 1982–1983).
  13. Golovin, Pavel Nikolaevich. Civil and Savage Encounters: The Worldly Travel Letters of an Imperial Russian Navy Officer, 1860–1861. Western Imprints, Oregon Historical Society, 1983.
  14. Grinev, Andrei V. The Tlingit Indians in Russian America, 1741–1867. Translated by Bland, Richard L. and Katerina G. Solovjova. University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
  15. Hämäläinen, Pekka. The Comanche Empire. Yale University Press, 2008.
  16. Hinckley, Ted C. The Canoe Rocks: Alaska’s Tlingit and the Euramerican Frontier, 1800–1912. University Press of America, 1996. [Read my review here.]
  17. Holbrook, Francis X. and John Nikol. “The Navy in the Puget Sound War, 1855–1857: A Documentary Study.”The Pacific Northwest Quarterly vol. 67, no. 1 (Jan., 1976).
  18. Hyde, Anne F. Empires, Nations, and Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800–1860. Ecco, 2012.
  19. Inglis, Robin. “Lapérouse 1786: A French Naval Visit to Alaska.” Enlightenment and Exploration in the North Pacific, 1741–1805, edited by Stephen Haycox, James K. Barnett, and Caedmon A. Liburd.
  20. Kan, Sergei. Memory Eternal: Tlingit Culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through Two Centuries. University of Washington Press, 1999.
  21. Klein, Laura F. “Demystifying the Opposition: The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Tlingit.” Arctic Anthropology 24, no. 1 (1987): 101–114.
  22. Lutz, John. “Inventing an Indian War: Canadian Indians and American Settlers in the Pacific West, 1854–1864.” Journal of the West 38, no. 3 (1999).
  23. Oberg, Kalervo. The Social Economy of the Tlingit Indians. University of Washington Press, 1973.
  24. Olson, Wallace M. The Spanish Exploration of Alaska, 1774–1792. Heritage Research, 2004.
  25. Paul, William Lewis. The Alaska Tlingit: Where Did We Come From? Our Migrations, Legends, Totems, Customs and Taboos. Trafford Publishing, 2011.



Peter Stanton

I’m an Alaskan history teacher in Ketchikan writing a book on the Tlingit 19th century. I also write regularly about language, reading, travel, and politics.