The first view you have of Angoon when you arrive by ferry or boat is a section of the town along the coast that was destroyed by the U.S. Navy in October 1882. Children perished, houses burned and winter food stores were lost. Canoes were destroyed and blankets and ceremonial objects were taken. Accounts of the event differ, but both Naval and Native stories agree that the accidental death of a Tlingit elder working on board a whaling ship led to the tragic outcome.
Following custom, the Tlingits requested payment – in this case blankets – to help recompense for the death of an important member of their village. Instead, the whaling captain complained to the U.S. Navy, which steamed over from Sitka in a Navy cutter and attacked Angoon a few days later.
Surviving with what the land and sea offer has been a way of life for the Tlingit people for thousands of years. It was no different in 1882, when the attack by the U.S. Navy left townspeople stranded on the beach with little to no food and no shelter. The Beaver Canoe that survived the bombardment is known as the savior of Angoon, as it allowed villagers to haul firewood and fish. The prow of the canoe, decorated with a symbol of the Beaver, mysteriously disappeared in 1910. In 1999 it was discovered at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and repatriated with great ceremony. Today it resides in the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.
From the beach on Chatham Strait, look across the inside passage toward Sitka, and imagine a cutter ship lining up to take aim. While the ordinances from that shelling were eventually all cleared, and clan houses were rebuilt, the bombardment of 1882 still rings loudly for the people of Angoon.