When the U.S. Army Tried to Control the Tlingit… and Failed
This article is a slightly updated version of a presentation I gave in February 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’ve titled this article, “When the U.S. Army Tried to Control the Lingít… and Failed.” My intention is to explain what the U.S. Army’s mission was in Alaska from 1867 to 1877; how Lingít clans and individuals perceived, reacted to, and resisted the U.S. military presence; how American officers and soldiers attempted to control the Lingít and other Native peoples; how those efforts led to oppressive uses of force and tragic outbreaks of violence; and finally, how the Army failed in their mission to assert U.S. sovereignty after ten years of deployment in Alaska.
Sovereignty and Control
I’d like to start by two questions, one broad and one specific:
- First, what does it mean for a land and its people to become part of another country? Or, put another way, how does a place become part of another country? What does it take for that process to happen?
- And second, more specifically, when did Alaska become part of the United States? If you had to point to a year, an event, a moment in time, when did that happen?
If we want to understand what it means for a country to be a country, or for a group of people to be politically independent, we need to understand the concept of sovereignty. Defined very simply, sovereignty is the ability of a group of people to rule over themselves, without the interference of others. Today we understand that the U.S. federal government has sovereignty, and no other countries interfere with what goes on within our borders. The 50 states and 574 federally-recognized tribal governments in the United States also have sovereignty, although that sovereignty is less absolute because of the powers delegated to the federal government.
Back in mid-nineteenth century, most of the Indigenous peoples of the lands that would come to be called Alaska held absolute sovereignty in their communities. There were some Indigenous groups that had come under the power of the Russian-American Company and could no longer follow their own laws or control their own destiny. Across most of so-called “Russian America,” however, the Russian Empire could not exercise sovereignty over most of the residents of the land. That included the independent clans of Lingít Aaní (Tlingit Country).
The map shown here is produced by a website called Omniatlas. Unlike typical historical maps, where lands are colored in simply according to whatever colonial empire claimed them, the maps from Omniatlas attempt to portray what areas of the world different governments actually controlled. On the map above dated to 1846, you see in purple the few areas where the Russian-American Company exerted real power, although I would argue the mapmaker should not have colored in all of Chichagof and Baranof islands, but rather only a small area around Sheetʼká (Sitka), within the territory of the Sheetʼká Ḵwáan (Sitka Lingít people).
Throughout this time period, Lingít clans continued to govern themselves according to their own laws and customs, as they had since time immemorial. They strongly and effectively resisted any Russian attempts to interfere with their sovereignty. All of that would change after the United States purchased Alaska in 1867 — but as I hope to demonstrate, it didn’t change all at once, and U.S. forces ultimately failed in their initial attempts to gain sovereignty over the Lingít.
Historian William Morrison distinguishes between two types of sovereignty — symbolic sovereignty and developmental sovereignty. A country can gain symbolic sovereignty over a territory by fulfilling “the formal requirements of sovereignty under international law.” In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, empires established claims to symbolic sovereignty over large areas of land in the Americas by appealing to the Doctrine of Discovery, the concept that gave Europeans legal justification to seize lands they found that weren’t occupied by Christians. Imperial powers further substantiated their claims by placing crosses, raising flags, and building forts and settlements in those lands. They then signed treaties with other empires to recognize the borders of each other’s claims and the limits to their symbolic sovereignty.
However, symbolic sovereignty often consists of only the appearance of power or control. Developmental sovereignty, by contrast, is when a government can implement specific policies in a territory it controls. In other words, it’s when a government actually has the power to make things happen. The Russian-American Company did not have the power to act on desired policies in Lingít territory or impose Russian laws on Lingít clans. The Russians did not have true developmental sovereignty in the region except within the Russian settlement at Sheetʼká.
When I asked the question earlier, “When did Alaska become part of the United States?” I’m sure you must have thought about the Alaska Purchase, the deal made between the United States and Russia in 1867. However, it’s important to ask what was really sold by Russia and purchased by the United States in that transaction. For the most part, what was transferred in the purchase was limited symbolic sovereignty — a claim to the land that other empires and governments around the world would recognize. But, just because other world powers agreed that the United States owned the land, didn’t mean the U.S. had the developmental sovereignty to do whatever it wanted in that land. Nor did it mean that the people living on that land would recognize that the United States had any sort of sovereignty over them.
The Lingít Response to the Alaska Purchase
That brings us to what happened during and after the Alaska Purchase, the transaction that supposedly made Russian America — now called Alaska — part of the United States. The Russian and American perspectives on the Alaska Purchase are widely known, so I won’t discuss them here. Instead I want to focus on the Lingít responses to this event, all of which demonstrated that Lingít clans would not give up their sovereignty. Lingít refused to accept that this purchase meant their lands were owned by another power, or that they would have to follow anyone else’s laws but their own.
The formal transfer ceremony between Russian and American soldiers was held at Sheetʼká in October 1867. A few Lingít nobles are believed to have stood in the crowd to watch the ceremony, others watched from canoes in the harbor, and hundreds of other Lingít would have heard the cannon fire when a U.S. warship and the Russian battery alternated firing twenty-one shots each. Lingít had received no formal notification of the treaty negotiations, and they certainly were not included in the process.
However, just because they were not officially informed of the treaty negotiations, it would be incorrect to assume that Lingít knew nothing about the changes going on until the ceremony in October. During the summer of 1867, Lingít would have noticed right away when the Russian-American Company’s previous ban on American trade was lifted and some American ships, officials, and civilians began arriving in Lingít Aaní. The choice of the United States not to consult with the Lingít before their arrival must have indicated to Lingít leaders that they would not be treated as equal partners with these newcomers. This disrespect sparked distrust and resentment among Lingít throughout the region. In November 1867, one month after the transfer, U.S. Army Major General Jefferson C. Davis wrote about the Lingít in Sheetʼká, stating that they were at peace and seemed to fear the U.S. military’s power, but “they frequently boast they can and will whip us one day.”
The Lingít were used to evaluating the firepower of foreigners in their lands, and they had done so with the Russians for decades, determining if, when, or how they could challenge the intruders in a fight, if that became necessary. Lingít did the same when the Americans arrived, but they realized their weapons were outmatched.
As soon as Lingít leaders learned of the new American claims to their lands, they met in clan councils to discuss how they could respond. Some leaders wanted to declare war right away, but leaders of the Jilḵaat Ḵwáan (Chilkat people) argued convincingly — and prophetically — that most if not all of their communities would be vulnerable to bombardment from the American warships. The councils decided that the best course of action would be to wait. Lingít knew they had numbers on their side, and for the time, they could afford to be patient with these new invaders in their land.
These are not the actions of people who would simply surrender and accept that a foreign country had purchased sovereignty over them and their lands. Instead, the Lingít responded rationally and intelligently to the circumstances they were faced with, and chose what they thought was the best path to preserve their independence. These actions show that the Alaska Purchase was not the end of the story explaining how Alaska became part of the United States. Instead, it was only the beginning.
The U.S. Plan for Alaska
The time period from 1867 to 1877 is known by some historians as the “Army Phase” in Alaska history, as that branch of the U.S. military was given primary jurisdiction over Alaska after the purchase, assisted by the Navy, Treasury Department, and some other agencies of the federal government. The U.S. government designated the land as the military Department of Alaska, and although many Americans at the time mistakenly referred to it as a territory, there was no territorial government.
Officials involved in the Army occupation of Alaska assumed that after the land was transferred and the Army took control, a territorial civil government would be organized soon afterward. This process had happened already in parts of what would become the Lower 48. The military would assert control, and within a few years, enough American settlers would arrive to create a civilian government. Instead, because so few American citizens arrived who could organize a territorial government or justify its existence, a civil government was not created in Alaska until seventeen years after the purchase, in 1884. Until that time, the U.S. government did not provide a clear legal framework for military or civilian officials in Alaska, creating all sorts of uncertainties and legal gray zones. Historian Bobby Lain characterized the Department of Alaska as a colony distant from the rest of the country that was “acquired before the United States was ready for overseas colonies.”
While American policies in Lingít Aaní often appeared vague or disorganized, the overall objective of the United States was still clear: The military was meant to secure the U.S. claim to Alaska, protect any incoming American civilians, and suppress any perceived “restlessness” from the Indigenous peoples already living on the land. That mission placed the U.S. Army’s attention on the people who lived in closest proximity to Americans, most of all the Lingít. So-called “restlessness” among Indigenous peoples could consist of any actions these people took to reject or resist American military domination, or activities that scared settlers or defied American cultural sensibilities.
I want to briefly show you another map from Omniatlas, just to help you think about the United States in 1867. The U.S. military had been greatly reduced in size after the end of the Civil War, but soldiers were also being used to enforce the policies of Reconstruction in the states that had rebelled. Meanwhile, in the west, many Indigenous nations still maintained their independence, as indicated by the areas of white on the map above. The most prominent at the time, in orange, were the Lakota led by Maȟpíya Lúta or Red Cloud, who were waging a war of resistance against the U.S. at the time—a war the Lakota won. In short, the United States of 1867 was not a country with fully consolidated developmental sovereignty stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the U.S. military was not ready or willing to send thousands of soldiers to go conquer a new colony hundreds of miles to the northwest.
As I talk about these concepts of sovereignty and colonization, I want to make sure I don’t misrepresent this history or how the people involved in this history perceived it. The American military officers who made these plans and the soldiers they sent to Alaska did not really believe they were entering a struggle over sovereignty with the Lingít people. They generally believed that it was a manifest, obvious fact that the U.S. had already acquired sovereignty over Alaska by purchasing the colony from Russia, and that it was natural and inevitable that whatever Indigenous peoples lived there would be governed by the United States. They thought all they needed to do was make sure there was law and order — that is, American law and order — in what was — to them — clearly U.S. territory.
In the view of many of the soldiers and officials the U.S. sent to Lingít Aaní, the primary cause of most of the problems of “restlessness” or breaking of “law and order” that Indigenous people caused for them was the consumption of alcohol. American officials were ordered to regulate the importation and production of alcohol in the region in order to stop it from reaching Indigenous hands, something the scholar Nella Lee called an “impossible mission.” There were plenty of Indigenous people, American traders, and even corrupt U.S. officials who had an interest in keeping the trade and production of alcohol going.
However, the fundamental source of conflict between Lingít and Americans during this time was not alcohol. Instead, it was the fact that U.S. forces invaded Lingít lands and refused to recognize Lingít sovereignty. Following this invasion, conflicts then arose when U.S. forces and Lingít clans took actions that disregarded and violated each other’s laws and property. These violations were then used as justifications for the U.S. Army to launch multiple attacks against Lingít communities, leading to death and destruction.
Let’s take a look at where the Army established its presence. The first American military post in Alaska was at Sheetʼká, where the Russians had had their colonial capital and where the U.S. Army took over the Russian stockade. Several months after the transfer, in April and May of 1868, the Army established two more posts in Lingít Aaní — Fort Tongass and Fort Wrangel.
Fort Tongass was built next to Kadúḵx̱uka, a Taant’a Ḵwáan Lingít community on a small island near the southern boundary between U.S. and British claims where U.S. forces could guard the border and impose custom duties. Fort Tongass was also located little over twenty miles from Gàash, or Cape Fox Village, primary home of the Sanyaa Ḵwáan. Fort Wrangel was built at the community of Ḵaachx̱an.áakʼw in Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan territory, less than a mile northwest of the site that had hosted Russian and British forts and trading posts in previous decades. Here, the U.S. aimed to control the important trade on the Shtaxʼhéen (Stikine), the largest river in Lingít Aaní.
Looking at the map I’ve provided above, you can start to imagine that these three U.S. military posts had quite limited influence over all the Lingít and other Indigenous communities in the region. The garrisons of the three forts were only a few hundred soldiers at any given time — a few dozen each at Fort Tongass and Fort Wrangel, and the remainder in Sitka. The region’s population was estimated to be several thousand people, and the vast majority of them were Indigenous, since there were even fewer white American civilians present than there were soldiers. This is an amateur map I made and it’s not comprehensive, but it does highlight a lot of the most important Indigenous communities in the region and illustrates that even though the U.S. Army established forts at three key locations, most Lingít still lived far away from these garrisons.
Regulations and Confinement
I won’t describe the initial interactions between Lingít leaders and U.S. officials in this article, but suffice it to say, in these initial interactions and as the United States established its military posts, the Lingít continued to show a strong commitment to diplomacy, and — as I mentioned earlier — Lingít clans chose to avoid war with these newcomers if at all possible. Nevertheless, U.S. forces still intended to interfere in Lingít life and violate Lingít sovereignty in ways that clans could not easily accept.
I had the opportunity when I was in college and more recently this past fall to investigate the U.S. Army records from the forts in Alaska that are kept at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The records kept by the officers at the forts and the reports sent to their superiors help illustrate how they attempted to control the Lingít, and how far that control could or couldn’t reach. The Army attempted to monitor Lingít movements throughout the region, but could not prevent them from going anywhere except inside the walls of their own forts. Orders were not to allow Natives within the military posts between sunset and sunrise. However, there are records of passes written by officers that gave permission to Lingít to stay in the restricted areas during these hours, so while it seems the military did generally enforce this regulation, exceptions were made.
The Army also monitored sales of gunpowder, shot, bullets, and cartridges from their own arsenals, and sales private merchants made to Natives. Nonetheless, the U.S. government did not restrict the Lingít from buying ammunition. There was a law theoretically extended to Alaska that prohibited sales of firearms to Natives. However, the way the law was apparently interpreted in Alaska, only sales of the most advanced breech-loading guns were prohibited. Realistically, little was likely to stop American traders from selling muskets, powder, and shot to Natives in Alaska. There was strong demand, and providing a steady supply of guns and ammunition supported continued fur trading.
The U.S. Army enforced what historian Bobby Lain called “an arbitrary order” in the Department of Alaska, impacting Indigenous peoples, residents of mixed Russian and Native heritage, and new American settlers alike. From 1872 to 1875 alone, records show an astonishing 200 Lingít and 147 white and mixed Americans were assigned to so-called “confinement” by the Army in Sitka without trial or standard legal process. The use of force by the U.S. Army to imprison and punish people became a part of daily life around Sitka, Fort Wrangel, and Fort Tongass, a reality that neither the Lingít nor American civilians could easily challenge.
The photo above is of documents I found at the National Archives listing prisoners in confinement at Fort Wrangel during August to December of 1875. There were so many prisoners during those months that the officers chose to make two lists, one for “Indian” prisoners — of which there were ten — and one for “civilian” prisoners, of which there were three. Note how the Army’s terminology excludes Indigenous people from even being categorized as civilians.
The Sanyaa Ḵwáan and Fort Tongass
One striking example of the U.S. military’s use of coercive force comes from Fort Tongass in August 1869, when several Sanyaa Ḵwáan Lingít were accused of stealing from a trading sloop. The captain claimed articles worth $55.50 had been taken from his boat, while only three bear pelts worth $4.00 had been “left on board” by the Lingít. The Lingít stated they had stolen nothing. One man had bought items fairly in return for his pelts, and the others had only received small gifts of different goods, and it had been a common practice for traders to part with these kinds of gifts for decades.
During the height of the fur trade decades before, the Russian and British governments did not have military forces on the coast that would have been willing or able to get involved in minor disputes between white traders and Indigenous customers. In this case, however, the trader reported his alleged robbery to U.S. officials, and the troops at Fort Tongass were ordered to seize six members of the Sanyaa Ḵwáan and hold them as hostages until those responsible for the alleged crime were found. Within the following week, it was reported that seven Sanyaa Ḵwáan were brought to the fort, and at least four stayed and were kept “at hard labor” by the Army while two of their leaders were sent back to their communities to find the individuals who were accused of the crime. While these Lingít were confined and forced to perform hard labor, testimony was collected by the officers. A man named Kache professed to be the man who had sold the bear pelts to the trader. The American commanding officer concluded that Kache was the sole individual responsible for the alleged robbery, and he recommended to his superiors that all the prisoners besides Kache be released. In his testimony, however, Kache also claimed that he had accused the trader of being a whiskey smuggler, and that he and his fellow Lingít had intended to seize the sloop in order to bring the trader to Fort Tongass for violating U.S. law.
It is open to question whether Kache might have made this statement in order to deflect guilt onto the trader, or if he genuinely wanted to turn the trader in as a smuggler, perhaps in order to gain favor with U.S. officials. The white trader, in turn, might have accused the Lingít of robbery in order to preempt any accusation of smuggling against him. Regardless of what truly happened in the incident, there is no record of the trader being charged with smuggling, and it is unclear how long Kache was kept imprisoned by the U.S. Army. In the meantime, Sanyaa Ḵwáan brought a large amount of trade goods to Fort Tongass in the effort to free their people who were imprisoned there, such that the commander wrote, “more probably has been returned to me than was reported to have been taken.”
It is clear that the U.S. Army did have significant power over Lingít communities, and they could exert that power through threats of imprisonment and military force. Many Lingít, in turn, were willing to cooperate with the American forces in order to keep the peace and maintain good relations, even if it meant suffering unjust punishments.
The Army’s Use of Violence
It is important to emphasize that although the number of soldiers the U.S. Army sent to Alaska was small, and the range of influence their forts had was limited, their officers were willing to exert their power aggressively as soon as they arrived. In the orders written to the commander of the department, General Davis, it was suggested that in dealing with Natives:
It may be well to have guns charged with grape and canister always bearing on their village, ready, at an instant’s warning, to destroy them.
If any member of a tribe maltreat a citizen of the United States, the whole tribe, and especially its chief, will be held responsible for the offense, or crime committed by one of its members, unless they expel such criminal, or deliver him to us for punishment.
This policy of inflicting collective punishment on Lingít communities was carried out to devastating and tragic effect throughout the year 1869. In fact, part of the reason the Sanyaa Ḵwáan may have been so willing to cooperate with the forces at Fort Tongass and so eager to keep the peace in the summer of 1869 was that they would have known very well about the attacks the U.S. military had carried out against other Lingít in previous months. In January, February, and December of 1869, the American occupying forces carried out multiple violent attacks across central Lingít Aaní in the community of the Sheetʼká — Sitka, against multiple communities of the Ḵéex̱ʼ Ḵwaan (Kake people), and against the Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan (Stikine) community of Ḵaachx̱an.áakʼw, commonly known as Wrangell.
Given the focus of this article, I will not tell the stories of these attacks with the full detail they deserve. However, there are numerous sources available where you can find more information, including oral history that was preserved and then recorded by Lingít knowledge-bearers like William Tamaree, and more recent research conducted by historians including Dr. Zachary Jones of the National Park Service, and Ronan Rooney, creator of the podcast Wrangell History Unlocked. I will be happy to help point anyone in the right direction to learn more about these stories.
Deaths at Sheetʼká
I will now summarize as best I can what happened in the Army attacks of 1869. Three Lingít leaders met with General Davis in the American stockade at Sheetʼká on New Year’s Eve, 1868, including Shkeedliḵáa of the Jilḵaat Ḵwáan (Chilkat people). Davis had made an exception to the rule of not allowing Lingít into the fort at night, and American officers and Lingít leaders had likely been drinking together, with alcohol provided by Davis in violation of U.S. law. As the Lingít leaders were leaving the fort in the early morning of New Year’s Day, a sentry kicked Shkeedliḵáa and then assaulted him with the butt of his rifle. In response, Shkeedliḵáa tackled the soldier and wrestled his rifle away, taking it with him seemingly as compensation for the disrespect.
When he heard what Shkeedliḵáa had done, Davis sent soldiers into the streets of Sheetʼká in order to bring the leader back — according to one soldier, “dead or alive.” An armed standoff occurred between the soldiers and some Lingít, and when an American fired, it set off volleys from the two sides that left five Lingít wounded, one dead, and one American wounded. Davis then ordered Sheetʼká to be put on lockdown. The fort’s artillery was aimed at the community, and Davis threated that if Shkeedliḵáa did not give himself up, the Army would destroy the town. In the meantime, several other Lingít were shot and killed by American soldiers when they were attempting to escape Sheetʼká by canoe. The standoff lasted a few days, but in the end Shkeedliḵáa agreed to surrender in order to spare the town from bombardment.
On the morning after Shkeedliḵáa gave himself up, two members of the Tsaagweidí clan of the Ḵéex̱ʼ Ḵwáan (Kake people) were shot and killed by an American sentry as they left Sheetʼká by canoe. A Tsaagweidí leader named Coodick returned to shore and requested compensation from General Davis for the deaths of his two clan members. Davis refused to pay, so under Lingít law, there was a debt that still had to be paid for these two lives lost. As Coodick and his people traveled home to Ḵéex̱’ Ḵwáan territory, Coodick found and killed two American trappers in order to fulfill that debt and restore balance in his clan’s relationship with the United States.
The Destruction of Ḵéex̱’ Ḵwáan Communities
Soon after the news of these killings reaching Sitka, the warship USS Saginaw was dispatched to destroy Ḵéex̱’ Ḵwáan communities as collective punishment for the death of the Americans. The orders given were to seize hostages to force the killers to turn themselves in, and to burn the Ḵéex̱ʼ Ḵwáan communities — even if the killers surrendered. Ḵéex̱’ Ḵwáan clans received advance warning of the ship’s approach, and they met to determine their response to this oncoming threat. They ultimately decided to retreat from their homes and hide in order to protect their families.
When the Saginaw arrived at the first Ḵéex̱ʼ Ḵwáan community on its course, the soldiers found the clan houses deserted. They burned everything there, likely killing an elderly Lingít woman who had stayed home in bed because of her health. The ship then proceeded to the largest community of the Ḵéex̱ʼ Ḵwáan, which was also abandoned, and the soldiers set fire to everything in sight. The Saginaw then destroyed a third and final community, as well as two empty Lingít forts nearby.
After the attack, the people of the Ḵéex̱ʼ Ḵwáan spread out to take shelter at their smaller seasonal camps, which had been overlooked and untouched by the Americans. However, not only had the attackers destroyed the people’s homes in their larger communities, but also all of their winter food supplies. It was February, and food was scarce. The Ḵéex̱ʼ Ḵwáan worked desperately to survive, but many died as a result of exposure and starvation.
The Bombardment of Ḵaachx̱an.áakʼw
Violence broke out again ten months later, this time in the community of Ḵaachx̱an.áakʼw (today commonly called Wrangell). On Christmas Day, 1869, the U.S. Army garrison at Fort Wrangel held an enormous party, invited Lingít from Ḵaachx̱an.áakʼw to attend, and distributed alcohol freely. The officers commanding the fort flagrantly broke U.S. law by distributing alcohol to Native people, and directly disobeyed their orders not to allow Natives to stay within the fort during evening hours. The Army reports written about the events that followed do not mention the party, so they were clearly distorted to hide these violations. However, other American and Lingít sources make clear that there was a Christmas party held at the fort, and it began a series of events that led to the deaths of at least three Lingít and one American.
In the midst of the party, a Lingít man hit his wife after he felt humiliated by her. A white woman intervened, and the man attacked her too. The American soldiers shot and killed the man immediately. They then also shot his brother, likely as he tried to intervene, and he died of his wounds soon after. The Lingít party guests fled the sudden chaos at the fort and ran back to their homes in Ḵaachx̱an.áakʼw.
Shxʼatoo, the father of the two men killed at the party, learned of his sons’ violent deaths late that night. Lingít oral history records that Shxʼatoo asked his wife right away for his most precious clan clothing. The care Shxʼatoo put into his dress that night indicates how seriously he took the legal, ceremonial, and spiritual implications of the duty he was preparing to perform: He took his gun, walked to Fort Wrangel, and found the gates locked. He then walked into the American part of the town, and found a merchant who was awake and standing in front of his store. Shxʼatoo shot the American merchant to restore the balance after the Americans had killed his sons. He then fled into the forest behind the town.
The soldiers at Fort Wrangel learned of the shooting right away. Like General Davis had done at Sheetʼká months before, the commanding officer sent an ultimatum to the clan leaders of Ḵaachx̱an.áakʼw that the fort’s artillery would bombard their homes if the man responsible did not turn himself in. The second-in-command at the fort even reported that he told the Lingít, “their village would be destroyed like the Kake villages last winter” if they did not comply. That afternoon, the soldiers began bombarding Ḵaachx̱an.áakʼw. Many of the residents evacuated to the south, out of the range of the fort. Other Lingít moved through the forest and surprised the American garrison by opening fire on the fort from the wooded hillside above it, although they were driven away when the soldiers fired scattershot in their direction.
The following morning, it may have been Lingít who fired on Fort Wrangel first, but then the fort fired its artillery on Ḵaachx̱an.áakʼw yet again. By evening, Shx’atoo returned to Ḵaachx̱an.áakʼw from the forest and agreed to surrender to the Americans. He is remembered to have said to his people, “If I do not give myself up you will all die.” Shx’atoo surrendered at Fort Wrangel and was then tried before a court martial and sentenced to death by hanging. Before his hanging, Shx’atoo sang a song he composed, wearing the dancing hat his mother brought for him. After the noose was placed around his neck, he jumped from the gallows himself, showing the strength and independence he had to take his own life, rather than allowing the soldiers to kill him. It is unknown if any Lingít died in the Army’s bombardment of Ḵaachx̱an.áakʼw, but heavy damage and trauma was clearly inflicted upon the community.
Analyzing the Attacks
The shocking violence that occurred throughout 1869 at Sheetʼká, in Ḵéex̱ʼ Ḵwáan territory, and at Ḵaachx̱an.áakʼw demonstrated that there was deep conflict between Lingít and Americans: Neither group could accept or even fully understand the other’s laws. Lingít could not accept the U.S. government’s claim to rule over them and their lands, and they could not understand the American concept of individual guilt and legal responsibility. Meanwhile, the Americans could not accept or believe that Lingít could continue to govern the land using their own legal system, and they could not understand the Lingít values of reciprocity, balance, compensation, and collective responsibility.
However, while both Lingít and Americans did not understand each other’s cultures and legal systems, the Army attacks of 1869 revealed that there were enormous inequalities of power between the two nations. Through their overwhelmingly superior firepower, the Americans forced Lingít communities to bow to their demands, and Lingít leaders could not in good conscience choose to respond to this violence with declarations of war, knowing their communities would stand no chance against American artillery or gunboats in such a war.
Nevertheless, in spite of all this violence, and the imbalance in military power, the Army’s attempts to deny Lingít sovereignty, ignore Lingít laws, and control the Lingít way of life would still ultimately fail.
After the Attacks
The Army’s attacks on Lingít communities in 1869 became news across the United States. The publicity this violence created then contributed to a reduction of the military presence in Alaska and the closure of two of the Army posts in Lingít Aaní. Officials in the states learned about the February attacks on the Ḵéex̱ʼ Ḵwáan by the summer of 1869, and Vincent Colyer, Secretary of the Board of Indian Commissioners, was asked to investigate. As a result, Colyer was present in Lingít Aaní when violence broke out again in Ḵaachx̱an.áakʼw in December. A few months later, he released a highly critical report for Congress that even described the violence at Ḵaachx̱an.áakʼw as a “massacre.” The image of the U.S. Army’s presence in Alaska was tarnished, and it added to the reasons military and civilian officials already had to reorganize the federal government’s mission there.
In the fall of 1870, only three years after the transfer ceremony and little over two years since the posts outside Sheetʼká were established, the U.S. government closed both Fort Tongass and Fort Wrangel. The photo above is one I took at the National Archives of the last Post Order Book from Fort Tongass, which was disestablished in 1870 and never reestablished. The War Department closed these posts partially in response to the scandal of the violent attacks on the Lingít, but also because of general military reorganization at a national level, as well as charges of mismanagement, corruption, and laziness leveled against the Alaska garrisons. The government had more than enough reasons to cut costs on military spending that was supposed to protect an extraordinarily small number of white American settlers.
With their presence and resources substantially reduced, Army commanders faced new conditions for interacting with Lingít. Officers began to find it expedient or even necessary to follow Lingít laws and norms, and to placate Lingít whenever Americans tread on their rights. In 1870, General Davis paid compensation for the death of a Lingít man who was killed by a white constable in Sheetʼká — a clear contrast with his refusal to pay compensation to Coodick the previous year. In 1875, the Americans compensated a Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan clan for the loss of one of their leaders after he died while in U.S. custody.
Fort Wrangel was reestablished in 1874, but the Army still took a conciliatory stance toward the Lingít. They followed a de facto policy of recognizing Lingít law whenever there were disputes between Lingít groups, and effectively accepted that they could not impose U.S. laws on all the people living in the lands the United States claimed. The continuing strength of the Lingít clans throughout the region, compared to the small American presence limited to one or two forts and two sizable settler communities, meant that the Army had little ability to interfere further in Lingít affairs. Americans would continue to have to accept many Lingít norms until conditions changed in the future.
In June 1877, conditions did change, but not in a way that signaled American power in Lingít Aaní was growing: The U.S. federal government now withdrew all of its soldiers from the Department of Alaska, deciding to cut spending even further by leaving only a single revenue cutter to patrol Alaska waters. The cutter would be overseen by the Department of the Treasury, and would require far less funding than forts with Army garrisons.
The plans, intentions, and expectations of the U.S. Army forces in Lingít Aaní changed significantly throughout the ten years they were deployed there, from 1867 to 1877. At first, the Army expected to quickly pave the way for American settlement, controlling the region through whatever regulations it was empowered to implement, and through the use of arbitrary imprisonment and punishments to establish what the soldiers viewed as law and order. The Army was also prepared to unleash disproportionate violence on Indigenous peoples at the first sign of threat or resistance. That violence was unleashed in the attacks of 1869, and those attacks demonstrated that Lingít during this time were forced to concede some of their authority and sovereignty when threatened by technologically superior military power.
Lingít leaders had the skills to negotiate and maintain peace, even in the face of overwhelming odds. They accepted they would sometimes have to ignore their own laws and sense of justice in order to maintain good relations with these foreign invaders, as the Sanyaa Ḵwáan did when they were imprisoned and forced to labor at Fort Tongass. Lingít did give in to American demands under threat of extreme and disproportionate violence, as in the cases of Shkeedliḵáa at Sheetʼká and Shxʼatoo at Ḵaachx̱an.áakʼw. These men likely saved many Lingít lives through their surrender to U.S. forces. And, while no one from the Ḵéex̱ʼ Ḵwáan surrendered to U.S. forces in 1869, the Ḵéex̱ʼ Ḵwáan clans were forced to sacrifice their homes and possessions. They could not defend their communities against the violent power of the Americans, and had to escape to survive as they could.
Nevertheless, the Army’s plans to conquer Lingít Aaní through violent force failed, in large part because of the indomitable strength and resistance of the Lingít people. After the Army’s power in Alaska was reduced, the Lingít effectively convinced U.S. officials that the best way for Americans to coexist with Lingít in their lands was for the Americans to accept and honor Lingít laws in many situations.
In addition, most Lingít communities remained distant from Americans throughout the decade from 1867 to 1877. There were many Lingít communities I did not mention in this article, from the Hinya Ḵwáan on Prince of Wales Island to the Yaakwdáat Ḵwáan or Yakutat people, simply because their interactions with U.S. authorities at this time were slim to none. Most Lingít continued to live within their own well-established political, social, and economic systems.
Above is one last map from Omniatlas, showing Alaska in 1870. The lands the mapmaker shaded green clearly communicate how limited the developmental sovereignty the United States had over Alaska was at this time.
After a decade of laying claim to Lingít Aaní, the United States retreated. Many Lingít were left with scars from traumatic treatment and attacks, but by the fall of 1877, the soldiers were gone. There were few Americans left in Alaska who could attempt to control Lingít lands and Lingít lives. The Lingít remained sovereign and independent, and the Army had failed its mission.
- Hinckley, Ted C. The Canoe Rocks: Alaska’s Tlingit and the Euramerican Frontier, 1800–1912. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1996. [Read my review.]
- Jones, Zachary R. “The 1869 Bombardment of Ḵaachx̱an.áakʼw from Fort Wrangell: The U.S. Army Response to Tlingit Law, Wrangell, Alaska.” Sealaska Heritage Institute, 2015.
- Jones, Zachary R. “Battlefield Alaska: The U.S. Army’s 1869 Bombardment of the Tlingit Village of Khaachxhan.áak’w.” Alaska History vol. 34, no. 1, 2019.
- Jones, Zachary R. “‘Search for and Destroy’: US Army Relations with Alaska’s Tlingit Indians and the Kake War of 1869.” Ethnohistory, vol. 60, no. 1, 2013.
- Lain, Bobby Dave. “North of Fifty-Three Army, Treasury Department, and Navy Administration of Alaska, 1867–1884.” Ph.D., University of Texas, Austin, 1974.
- Morrison, William R. Showing the Flag: The Mounted Police and Canadian Sovereignty in the North, 1894–1925. University of British Columbia Press, 1985.
- National Archives and Records Administration, U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1821–1920, Military Installations.
- Remsberg, Stanley Ray. “United States Administration of Alaska: The Army Phase, 1867–1877: A Study in Federal Governance of an Overseas Possession.” Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1975.
- Rooney, Ronan. “The Bombardment of Wrangell.” Sharing Our Knowledge Conference, September 8, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Kx1rP0N0hM&ab_channel=SharingOurKnowledgeClanConference.
- Tamaree, William. “Scutdoo Hero in Native Version of 1869 Battle.” Wrangell Sentinel, 1976.
Please leave a comment below with your thoughts and questions, or let me know if you’d like me to send you a complete list of citations, or any other information. Gunalchéesh!