Why Was There No Major Tlingit-American War?
Explanations for Relative Peace in the Late Nineteenth Century
This article is a slightly-adapted version of a presentation I gave in September at the Sharing Our Knowledge Conference. The conference was held in Ḵaachx̱an.aakʼw, the town commonly known as Wrangell, on the lands of the Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan (Stikine People) in Lingít Aaní (Tlingit Country).
If you’d prefer to listen to my arguments rather than reading them, you can watch the YouTube video recording of my presentation below:
I want to analyze the historical question “Why was there no major war between Lingít and the United States of America?” First, I will make sure to clarify what I mean by this question, and then I will offer a series of possible explanations or answers from a variety of historical perspectives that I hope will prove thought-provoking and help foster further dialogue.
Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the United States government and American settlers made war against hundreds of distinct Indigenous peoples across the North American continent, persecuting and killing many Native people, dispossessing most Indigenous nations of their homelands, and denying them their political and cultural independence. Most Americans should be broadly aware of these facts, although educators like me have a lot of work to do in order to make sure that new generations understand this history and its implications for us in the present.
However, this broad story across North America does not fully apply to the history of Lingít Aaní, or Tlingit Country. In Lingít Aaní, the U.S. military did attack and dispossess Lingít communities, but there was no extended war that took place between Lingít and Americans. It’s worth considering why that might have been the case.
The image below shows a select list of so-called “Indian Wars” that occurred between the U.S. government, American settlers, and Indigenous groups across the Great Plains, southwest, and intermountain west on lands that are today part of the United States. This partial list comes from only a period of little over two decades, from approximately 1867 to 1891, or from the U.S. purchase of Alaska to the time of the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre, which occurred in 1890 during the Ghost Dance War. It should go without saying that there were many wars between the United States and Indigenous peoples that occurred before 1867, and there continued to be extended violent conflicts even after Wounded Knee.
The casualties of these wars ranged from a few dozen people killed, wounded, or displaced in some cases, to hundreds and even thousands of casualties and refugees in others. All of these conflicts involved multiple connected violent confrontations, and required Indigenous nations and smaller groups to organize armed resistance for weeks, months, years, or even decades in order to combat American settlers, and the U.S. government.
For the Lingít, however, there was no equivalent conflict that could be placed in this same category. There was no case where any group of Lingít organized prolonged violent resistance to the United States — nothing that could be accurately called a war.
When I say this, I need to make crystal clear that the Lingít did resist American colonization in a variety of ways, some of them violent. They did face off against Americans in armed confrontations, and there were acts of violence that the U.S. military perpetrated against Lingít after the Alaska Purchase of 1867, most notably across central Lingít Aaní in 1869, from Sheet’ká (Sitka) to Ḵaachx̱an.aakʼw (Wrangell), to the U.S. Army attacks on the Ḵéex̱’ Ḵwáan (Kake people) in the so-called “Kake War”, and finally, in the U.S. Navy bombardment of Aangóon (Angoon) in 1882. As historian Zachary Jones illuminates in his work, the “Kake War” was not a war, but a one-sided attack by the U.S. military to which there was no violent response. The same occurred in Wrangell and Angoon as well.
I will not discuss each of these events in greater depth here, and there are many scholars who have analyzed them in the detail they deserve. For now, however, it is important to note that in spite of this violence, Lingít leaders never led clans into prolonged battles with the United States. In other words, the Lingít never chose to start a war with the Americans, even when, under most any conception of international law, the United States did launch violent attacks against Lingít that would have justified war.
To perhaps put this idea more creatively, there was no Lingít equivalent in the late nineteenth century to famed Indigenous military leaders like the Apache leader Goyaałé, commonly known Geronimo, or the Modoc leader Kintpuash, commonly called Captain Jack. There were no large, bloody confrontations like the Battle of the Greasy Grass, commonly called the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or scenes of slaughter like at Wounded Knee.
I use the term “relative peace” in the subtitle of this article. However, I do feel like I should further qualify my words and provide a contrast by using a famous quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” To use Dr. King’s definition, the late nineteenth century was absolutely not a time of “true peace” in Lingít Aaní. It was not even a time where there was a mere absence of tension:
Instead, as all of us should be aware, the late nineteenth century was a time in which the United States colonized Lingít Aaní; denied Lingít laws; exploited Lingít lands, waters, and resources; and engaged in systematic campaigns to destroy Lingít culture and society through forced assimilation. It is also important to note that even if no major war occurred, there were undoubtedly hundreds of Lingít who died from violence as a result of colonization, as well as hundreds and thousands lost to ongoing outbreaks of infectious diseases brought to the region by outsiders. As Shoshone historian Ned Blackhawk writes, violence “became intrinsic to American expansion.” Few people, least of all Dr. King, would describe this time as peaceful, at least not without serious qualification.
Nevertheless, definitions of peace can vary widely, and when historians and political scientists define peace in a broader geopolitical view, they typically do so according to the absence or even just a low frequency of major wars. The Latin word “pax,” although translated as “peace,” refers more accurately to broad and prolonged political stability. In cases where many historians judge a “pax” to have existed, a major political and military power was able to exert control over a large region or even the whole world for an extended period of time, limiting or disincentivizing groups or other states from going to war within that sphere of influence.
Major wars and acts of destruction resulting in millions of deaths were a large part of leading up to what made such “peace” possible. In the words of the Roman historian Tacitus, “They make a desert and call it peace.” And during each of these so-called “peaces,” imperial powers were able to exploit millions of people, extracting their wealth and denying them political self-determination. Therefore, we must be especially careful in how we define peace, and note that the absence of wars in a place or time period has often coincided with exploitation and injustice.
One way to use the term “Pax Americana” would be to refer to how the United States influenced the limiting of major wars across North and South America starting in the late nineteenth century. As part of this concept, one could argue that the imposition of U.S. sovereignty over Indigenous peoples by the early twentieth century created a Pax Americana on the North American continent. Again, this argument doesn’t mean that there was justice, or a lack of violence or tension, but rather that the actions of the United States created conditions under which major wars became extremely unlikely.
So, after providing all of this contextualization and qualification, I will return to the central question of my presentation: Why did no major war occur between Lingít and the United States during the late nineteenth century?
There are a number of possible explanations that could be considered, each of which could help to at least partially answer the question. Here I have chosen four explanations, although there are certainly many others, and they could be phrased and formulated in a variety of different ways. I outline these four explanations in order from the broad to the particular, and the degree to which you find them convincing may depend at least in part on your understanding of history: Do you believe that human history is most profoundly shaped by larger forces, like geography and the environment, or by long-term trends in human society? Or, do you believe that history hinges most on specific events and the actions taken by individuals?
The potential answers I will present to this question of why there was no major Tlingit-American war are as follows:
- the geography of Lingít Aaní and its distance from centers of American population and power;
- the environment and natural resources of Lingít Aaní;
- the political independence and divided interests of different Lingít groups; and
- the specific decisions and compromises made by Lingít and American individuals, and Lingít clans, that avoided further violence.
These may seem like a lot of answers to a single question, but history is complex, and determining what caused something in history to occur — let alone what caused something not to occur — can be a challenging and stubborn task.
As I provide each of these explanations, I will also offer potential historical parallels and counterexamples — other events and patterns from history that may reinforce or cast doubt on the argument. It is not my intent here to propose a single definitive answer for the question of why there was no major Lingít-American war; instead, I want to provide a range of evidence and arguments for you to consider, and you can judge for yourselves what explanations are most convincing.
Along with mentioning other examples from history to compare and contrast with the Lingít experience, I will also ask some counterfactual questions to hopefully prompt some thinking about the most important causal factors in this history. The study of history is not a science, and there is no way for us to look back into the past and run experiments that isolate different variables. However, if we ask counterfactuals, or “what if?” questions, they can help us intellectually test — at least to some extent — the relative weight of different elements in this history.
1. The geography of Lingít Aaní and its distance from U.S. power centers made war less likely.
The first potential explanation for why there was no major war between Lingít and the United States is geographic: The nature and location of the Lingít homeland made it difficult and unlikely for the United States, or indeed other imperial powers in North America, to attempt large colonization and settlement efforts that might have incentivized colonizers to make war, or that might have led Lingít to respond with war to defend their sovereignty.
Lingít did not meet any Europeans until 1741, when Alexei Chirikov’s ship Sv. Pavel visited Lingít Aaní. That date is much later than when many other Indigenous peoples in North America — and certainly those living on the coasts — encountered Europeans, and it must be primarily due to distance from Europe and the trade routes Europeans had developed until that time. Then, when other imperial powers sent expeditions to Lingít Aaní in the late eighteenth century, including the Spanish, British, and French, the distances from their centers of power were still too great for them to maintain substantial and prolonged colonial claims to Lingít resources and territory. The image below illustrates how Lingít Aaní was located thousands of miles away from any of the primary economic and population centers of the major imperial powers that might have wanted to colonize the region in the eighteenth century. Then, as the United States expanded in the nineteenth century, in large part based on the foundation of earlier European claims, Lingít Aaní remained far away from the major routes of settlement and military conquest.
It can also be argued that, aside from being simply a matter of geographic distance, the extreme landscape of the Northwest Coast of North America, and Lingít Aaní in particular, made European and American settlement difficult or unattractive, compared with the gentler, more convenient, or more enticing geographies of areas like the eastern woodlands, the Great Lakes region, or the Great Plains, all of which saw much more colonial settlement and wars between Indigenous peoples and colonial powers. In contrast, the Coast Range and the fearsome North Pacific provide imposing obstacles for would-be intruders into Lingít Aaní. Other extreme regions in the Americas where wars between Indigenous peoples and colonial powers were avoided or long delayed might include large areas of the boreal forest and tundra in what would become Canada and Alaska, the deserts of the Great Basin, and the depths of the Amazon Rainforest.
In spite of this distance and geography involved, there was at least one major war between the Russian Empire and Lingít clans, as seen in the Battles of Sitka in 1802 and 1804, and there were armed conflicts between Lingít and Russians that occurred throughout the time that the Russian American Company attempted to colonize Lingít Aaní, from the 1790s up to the 1860s. However, many historians argue that distance and its impact on the logistics of the Russian American Company was a key factor leading to the sale of Russian America to the United States, and perhaps Russians would have used more violence to take firmer control of Lingít Aaní had it been more accessible. In any case, ultimately this argument is that geography was the key factor in why there was no major war between Lingít and Americans, not Lingít and Russians, and circumstances differed greatly between the aims of these colonial powers and the eras in which they claimed Lingít Aaní.
I will conclude addressing the geographical explanation by posing my first counterfactual question: “What if, starting at least two or three centuries ago, Lingít Aaní was magically relocated somewhere further south, such as just off the coast of the lands now called Washington, Oregon, or California?” (See the image below.) Those lands saw massive waves of American settlement in the mid-nineteenth century, and they also saw numerous wars fought and genocidal violence perpetrated against Indigenous nations there by American settlers, the U.S. federal government, and territorial and state governments.
Asking such a question might seem ridiculous, since of course it is not possible to relocate a geographic region, and perhaps the Lingít would not truly be Lingít as we know them if their homeland was located anywhere else. Some scholars would reject this question as going beyond the bounds of appropriate, realistic counterfactual thinking. However, other scholars believe artificial but imaginative scenarios like this one have the power to spark important inquiries. If we examine the history of the Pomo, the Yurok, the Nisqually, or numerous other Indigenous nations of the Pacific coast, and consider the wars they fought with Americans in the nineteenth century, we might conclude that the Lingít would have been just as likely to go to war had they lived in the same places, and had their lands been just as accessible to American settlers. Such a conclusion may help emphasize the importance of geography in this history, and may even lead you to believe it was a determinative factor.
2. The environment and natural resources of Lingít Aaní made for less pressure on Lingít-American relations, so war was less likely.
A second explanation is that it was not merely that the Lingít lived a great distance away from would-be colonizers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that made war less likely, but rather that the environment of Lingít Aaní and the natural resources present there made European and American mass settlement less attractive, and made Lingít labor more valuable, therefore easing relations and decreasing the likelihood of war.
Russians and Americans alike discovered quickly that the lands they claimed in this region were not conducive to the types of farming that would-be settlers would have wanted to transplant here. Farming difficulties hampered the Russian-American Company and limited the attractiveness of the region to American settlers, who in many other areas of the continent — again, as in the lands now called Washington, Oregon, and California — rushed to seize Indigenous lands in order to establish American-style agriculture.
The most significant resources that eventually led to some American migration into Lingít Aaní in the late nineteenth century were gold and fish. It’s arguable that the exploitation of both of these resources did not require the arrival of significant numbers of American settlers, or even the taking of most Lingít lands. Instead, American companies desired to use Lingít labor in both the mining and fishing industries, and in some cases cooperated or found compromises with Lingít leaders and clans in staking mining claims and opening canneries.
There were no large deposits of placer gold in the lands that would become Southeast Alaska, and it was those types of deposits that brought in the greatest numbers of prospectors, such as in California or the Klondike. Instead, the largest gold deposits in maritime Lingít Aaní needed to be extracted from the ore through hard rock mining, which was not accessible for large numbers of independent American miners. Instead, the Treadwell Mine employed Lingít, among others, as wage laborers in the mine.
As for fishing, there were certainly tensions and many conflicts that occurred as American canneries and fishermen began to exploit Lingít fishing sites, which were at.óow, clan property. However, some canneries did agree to pay clans for the use of this at.óow, at least for a time, and many Lingít men and women agreed to supply fish or work as processors for the canneries. The growing industry also did not often threaten Lingít survival through destroying all of the people’s food resources, at least not until many of the salmon stocks in Lingít Aaní began crashing decades later in the twentieth century. We could make a comparison between this history of resource exploitation and the history of the destruction of bison populations on the Great Plains: The rapid killing off of bison by American hunters is usually judged to have been a key factor in the wars fought between the United States and numerous Indigenous nations on the plains. Would the Lingít have turned to war if their salmon resources had been threatened more gravely and immediately?
I will offer three counterfactuals here in order to conclude the argument that the environment and natural resources decreased the likelihood of major war in Lingít Aaní:
- “What if Lingít territory was better suited to European and American-style agriculture?” Would that have resulted in mass migration of would-be farmers, and conflicts leading to war as Lingít lands were overtaken and seized by settlers?
- “What if there was more readily-available gold in Lingít Aaní?” Would that have led to disastrous violence with white prospectors overrunning the region, as seen throughout U.S. history in places like Georgia or California?
- Or, “What if Americans had posed a greater, more immediate threat to salmon runs?” Would such a sudden and dangerous threat to the Lingít way of life have sparked a major organized, violent response?
If you reach the conclusion to one or more of these questions that war would have been more likely, then the environment and resources of Lingít Aaní must have played a role in how this history developed.
3. The political independence and divergent interests of Lingít clans prevented alliances from forming that could have waged war.
I will now turn away from broad geographic and environmental explanations toward a more strictly political one: In this explanation, it was a lack of unity among the Lingít, namely the independence of Lingít clans, that prevented them from launching organized resistance to the United States. When the U.S. purchased Russia’s claim to most of Lingít Aaní in 1867, the foundation of Lingít political structure was approximately sixty different independent clans, all of which made their own political decisions. In the past, clans had formed alliances to fight major wars against colonial invaders, such as in the First Battle of Sitka in 1802. While there is evidence that at least some Lingít leaders wanted to resist and wage war when U.S. forces arrived, however, they did not manage to form a coalition that could realistically challenge the Americans.
Looking at other examples from North American history, from Tecumseh’s confederacy to Red Cloud’s alliance of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, we see that Indigenous leaders did wage major wars to protect their people’s interests when they were able to form large coalitions. In Lingít Aaní, however, the clans of different areas encountered and interacted with Americans at different times and in different ways, and there were few moments and few triggers that could have united many of them at once to launch organized, violent resistance.
Here I will pose two counterfactuals, the first more fanciful and the second more realistic: First, “What if Lingít Aaní had been politically unified?” I call this question fanciful because the independence of clans lies at the root of the Lingít way of life, and it seems highly unlikely that a single clan or leader could have created some sort of centralized Lingít state. However, we can look to the examples of other Indigenous nations like the Comanche or Lakota that possessed quite decentralized political structures, but still unified their grand strategic actions for some time in the nineteenth century and found great success fighting surrounding groups, including would-be invaders. Still, it does not seem inevitable that even a more centralized Lingít nation would have gone to war against the United States: The Kingdom of Hawai’i, for example, was a unified Indigenous state, but its power was slowly eroded and coopted before its seizure by Americans, and no major war occurred as part of that takeover.
The more realistic counterfactual to ask may be, “What if more clans had shared a sense of urgency and interest in driving the U.S. military from Lingít Aaní, and had faith that they could form an alliance that would be successful?” Perhaps the obvious answer to this question is that yes, if those conditions had been there, then a critical mass of Lingít clans could very easily have decided to wage war against the United States. The more difficult and interesting follow-up question would be, “What could have created those conditions?” Perhaps if the U.S. military had been aggressive in building more forts and bringing more soldiers to Lingít Aaní, or if many more American settlers had arrived at once and begun violating Lingít laws, that would have sparked a stronger reaction from more clans. Instead, the piecemeal, disorganized nature of U.S. military policy and the slow arrival of American settlers may have dampened the kinds of sparks that led to war elsewhere.
4. Clans and individuals were willing to make compromises to resolve conflicts, and made critical choices to avoid war.
In the final argument I will offer here, I will focus on specific conflicts and reactions in this history of Lingít-American relations in the late nineteenth century. Regardless of how far geographic, environmental, or broad political explanations go, it’s easy to point to numerous situations in which Lingít and Americans came into conflict with each other as the U.S. government and American settlers made attempts, and eventually succeeded, in colonizing Lingít lands. We must bear in mind that the U.S. military patrolled Lingít waters, attempted to impose new laws regulating the Lingít way of life, interfered in inter and intra-clan affairs, and protected Americans who themselves exploited Lingít people and broke Lingít laws.
In many of these instances where one side or both violated the expectations, norms, or laws of the other, such conflict could have led to violence, or when it did lead to violence, that violence could have developed into war. However, Lingít clans and individuals often chose to compromise on their legal principles and even sought out American officials to mediate disputes in order to avoid greater conflict. In addition, certain U.S. military and civilian officials showed at least some willingness and flexibility to accept some elements of Lingít law.
The exceptions to this, where there were large violent conflicts, stand out as occasions when U.S. officials refused to recognize Lingít claims or accept a compromise, or when they intended to collectively punish Lingít communities. Even in these instances, Lingít clans and individuals continually decided to avoid violence and seek peace, including declining to launch responses to the attacks from the U.S. military. There is evidence that certain individuals and clans did want to react with more violence on various occasions, but the lack of support from fellow clan members or potential allies from other clans led to these plans failing to materialize.
One of the most striking examples of this dynamic is alluded to in a reference made in a U.S. Army report from February 1869. The context, briefly summarized, is that two men of the Ḵéex̱’ Ḵwáan (Kake people) had been killed in Sitka by an American sentry, and after the American commander refused to pay compensation for these deaths, a Ḵéex̱’ Ḵwáan leader killed two American trappers in order to restore balance. Those balance killings were reported to the U.S. military through Tʼaawyáatʼ, a leader in the Shtax’héen Ḵwáan, and as part of that report, Tʼaawyáatʼ stated that
propositions had been made to him by the [Ḵéex̱’ Ḵwáan], in presence of the [Sheet’ká Ḵwáan], ‘to form a league for the purpose of destroying all of the [American] military posts within the Department.’
That proposal was then rejected by Tʼaawyáatʼ.
Within days of this report reaching Sitka, the sloop of war the USS Saginaw was dispatched to destroy Ḵéex̱’ Ḵwáan villages as collective punishment for the death of the Americans. With advance warning of the ship’s approach, Ḵéex̱’ Ḵwáan clans met to determine their response, and they ultimately decided to retreat from their communities and hide in order to save their people. In January and February of the year 1869 alone, there were multiple instances where Lingít leaders could have chosen to engage in a major war against the United States. What if Tʼaawyáatʼ or other Shtax’héen Ḵwáan leaders had been more receptive to forming a coalition, and had chosen not to pass on information to the Americans? What if the Ḵéex̱’ Ḵwáan clans had decided to confront the USS Saginaw, even if their odds of success were low? There were undoubtedly many meetings and conversations Lingít had in the late nineteenth century about how they might resist the forces colonizing their homeland and their lives. In every case, however, they chose means of resistance other than war.
Determining the causes of historical events is often a difficult task, and determining why something didn’t happen in history is even trickier. I do not have a single, definitive answer as to why Lingít never fought a major war against the United States. However, I hope that in offering several different possible answers, I can help spark thought and discussion about the most important factors that determined or affected that history, factors that may have included geography, natural resources, politics, compromises, and individual choices. In hearing the arguments for the significance of these factors, there may be one or more factors that seem more determinative to you than the others. Or, your final answer may be “all of the above,” and you can conclude that all of these factors — and potentially others I failed to mention — were significant. Other explanations might include the devastating impacts of disease on the Lingít population affecting clans’ ability or desire to wage war, or the shifts in U.S. federal policy in the late nineteenth century in which the U.S. government turned away from treaty-making and creating reservations.
I find that all four of the explanations for peace outlined in my presentation — the geographic, the environmental, the political, and the individual — are all relevant to at least some degree. However, I think it is critical to state I do not believe in geographic or environmental determinism — that such factors made certain historical outcomes inevitable. Instead, I believe history is dependent on contingencies, and that even very small acts, choices, and seemingly random occurrences can affect the outcomes of major events in our past. It seems difficult to argue that the decisions of the governments and individuals involved in this history — including clan governments, the U.S. government, and other Lingít and American leaders — did not make an enormous difference. Lingít were active peace-seekers and peacemakers during the late nineteenth century. In the words of Ned Blackhawk, they “held visions of peace,” even in extremely difficult circumstances when their lands were invaded, their laws were ignored, and their communities were under attack. Further research is likely to reveal more occasions where brave individuals intervened to prevent greater tragedies, and I look forward to hearing those stories.
Regardless of your conclusions about the biggest causal factors behind the lack of a major war occurring between Lingít and the United States, what is ultimately most critical for us to do is to thoughtfully engage with and strive to understand haa shagóon, our history, and to consider the most important lessons we can draw from it.
- Blackhawk, Ned. Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006.
- Haycox, Stephen W. Alaska: An American Colony. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002. [Read my review.]
- 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. “‘Search for and Destroy’: US Army Relations with Alaska’s Tlingit Indians and the Kake War of 1869.” Ethnohistory 60, no. 1 (2013).
- National Archives and Records Administration, U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1821–1920, Military Installations, Washington, D.C.
Please leave a comment below with your thoughts and questions, or if you'd like me to send you a complete list of sources used. Gunalchéesh!