Walking the streets of Sitka, you may find it hard to believe that this quiet coastal community was once the hub of the West Coast: a center for trade, diplomacy, and the arts. When San Francisco had less than 10 residents, Sitka was home to 800 Russians, Europeans, Tlingits, and Aleuts. The oldest town on the West Coast, it was the capital of Russian America—called New Archangel—and was booming from the early 1800s through the United States’ purchase of the territory in 1867.
You can learn about all these people. Explore the art and culture of Tlingits—still a thriving culture in Southeast Alaska—at museums, tribal houses, and parks. Visit Tlingit wood carvers, artists, and dancers. Or learn about Aleut sea otter hunters, who were brought here by the Russians. Examine their skin boats at the Sheldon Jackson Museum, which contains artifacts from Aleut, Tlingit, Eskimo, and Athabascan Natives. It was the trade in sea otter skins that first brought the Russians into the area, as the pelts fetched huge sums of money in China. Two pelts were the equivalent of one year’s pay for Russian sailors!
Like all capitals, New Archangel was not only a center for trade, but also for education and the arts—it was nicknamed “The Paris of the Pacific.” Russian leaders like Bishop Innocent, Alexander Baranof, and Ferdinand von Wrangell set up schools, museums, and libraries, and commissioned ethnographic and botanical surveys of Alaska. They even had Alaska’s first lighthouse installed on the top of the castle at Castle Hill. The structure burned down a century ago, but you can visit this promontory, which is a state park. The crown gems of this era include the Sitka National Historical Park’s Russian Bishop’s House and St. Michael’s Cathedral.
Sitka’s past also included skirmishes and battles over control of the area, and you can learn about the two largest confrontations at the Sitka National Historical Park and the Old Sitka State Historic Site. Both have walking trails and interpretive signs, while the national park includes a visitor’s center with Tlingit art, a film, working artists, and living artifacts. There are also totem poles carved by Haida artists (another Native group in Southeast Alaska) at the park.
There’s plenty to explore, whether on ranger-led walking tours, guided trips, or visits to Russian and Tlingit dance groups.