The first definite knowledge of Alaska was acquired in 1741 through the expedition under Vitus Bering, a Dane in the Russian service, who, in that year, sailed from Okhoysk as far as 58° 30' N. lat. A couple of years later, Siberian fur hunters began to coast along the mainland of the American continent and the Aleutian Islands in search of the valuable sea-otter. In 1762 Andreian Tolstykh, after a sojourn of three years in these regions, returned to Russia, and on his representation of the commercial importance of Alaska Catherine II sent an expedition to foster trade and colonization. Rival companies began to dispute the territory, but in 1780, two traders, Grigor Shilikof and Ivan Golikof, relying on home influence, chiefly that of Rezanof, Chamberlain to the Emperor, formed the Russian-American Fur company, the history of which is the history of Muscovite domination of Alaska from 1780 until the sale of the territory to the united States in 1867. In 1786, Gerassim Pribilof, an employee of the company, discovered the seal rookeries in the Bering Sea. This discovery occasioned the reopening of trade with china, from which Holland and England, by their greater facilities, had driven Russia. The fur of the seal was especially prized by the Chinese, who had found the secret of plucking and dyeing the skins, and a lucrative trade was the result. Alexander Baranof, who, in 1790, became general manager of the company, was for more than a quarter of a century the presiding genius of a commerce which extended to California and the Sandwich Islands as well as to China. Kodiak island was the first head-quarters of the Russians in Alaska, but they afterwards established their capital at Sitka, on Baranof Island, where a new centre of Russian activity was established. Shipbuilding and various other industries were started. Rude agricultural instruments were made for the Mexican and Californian trade; and bells were cast for the Spanish mission churches, which are said to be still in use. The policy of inland exploration which was pursued by the successors of Baranof turned the energies of the fur company into other channels, and necessarily reduced its dividends. The charter granted in 1799 had been renewed in 1821, and 1844. When it expired in 1864, a renewal was not granted, nor was it sought. Negotiations had begun with the United States, which ended in the purchase of Alaska in 1867, for $7,200,000. The official transfer was made in October of that year, General Rousseau acting for the United States and Prince Maksutof for Russia. The Russians were given two years to close up their business in the territory. Meanwhile American activity was rife; squatters and miners flocked into the country, and great commercial companies were organized to exploit the new field. These companies have made fortunes in fisheries and fur-hunting, while in recent years mining of the various metals has been promising similar returns.
According to the census of 1900, Alaska embraces, inclusive of the islands, 590,804 square miles. These figures represent all of the North American continent west of the 141st meridian of western longitude, with a narrow fringe of land between the Pacific and British territory, all the islands along the coast, and the Aleutian chain. The acreage, according to the Governor's report for 1901, is 360,529,600. This great empire is equal in size to all of the States east of the Mississippi. Its heart is a great central plateau, 600 miles long east to west and 400 miles broad north to south, although its extreme limits are 800 by 1,000 miles; this does not include the Aleutian Islands the stepping stones to Asia that stretch from its southwesterly portion westward into the Pacific about 1,500 miles. Numerous inlets provide an easy coastwise intercommunication, but the chief natural highway is the mighty Yukon, navigable for 2,500 miles from east to west. It divides the Alaskan territory near the centre, and is ice-free from June to October. Petrof says that at its mouth it discharges into the Bering Sea a greater volume of water than the Mississippi. Several large navigable rivers, notably the Koyukuk and Tanana, flow into the Yukon, but many of the smaller streams, running into the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean, are shallow, and available only for small craft, a circumstance which is retarding the work of prospecting and mining. Various railways in and through Alaska are projected, one or two of which are under construction. The completion of these new channels of inland transportation will advance a hundredfold the interests of the country. Alaska is mountainous, but contains extensive river valleys of productive soil. From Seattle to Skagway is a distance of about 1,000 miles, a little more than from New York to Chicago; and from Seattle to the most distant point of Alaska is about the distance from New York to San Francisco. The gold-fields of the Yukon are reached from Seattle by ocean steamer, rail, and river steamer in about six days. It takes about twice as long to reach the placer mines of Nome. Communication is open during the summer season only; in winter, transportation is carried on with the aid of dog-teams.
The actual wealth of Alaska consists in fur-seals, fisheries, and gold mines. The principal breeding ground of the fur-seal is on the Pribilof Islands, just north of the Aleutian chain. From 1868 to the middle of 1903 the seals taken by the lessees of these islands represent a value of $35,000,000; other furs to the value of $17,000,000 bring the total value of the Alaskan fur trade in this period to the sum of $52,000,000. These figures take no account of the pelagic-seal catch. The salmon fisheries are another source of wealth: in 1901, 19,000 barrels of canned salmon were sent to the United States, and in 1905 the total value of the fish exportation was $9,010,089. The cod fisheries promise, by reason of their vast area and rich supply, to exceed in value those of Newfoundland or any other part of the world. Placer gold has been located in many places in Alaska a fact which proves that the territory is only beginning to reveal its wealth. Gold mines are being successfully worked in three localities: southeastern Alaska, the Yukon River and its tributaries, and the Cape Nome district opposite the coast of Asia. The output of gold in American Alaska in the fiscal year 1905 was about $10,000,000. It copper, coal, tin, silver, gypsum, and marble now enter into the calculations of commerce. There is abundant supply of valuable timber, especially in southeastern Alaska, but it is not yet legally available for export, as the public lands have not been surveyed. Agriculture is possible in about 100,000 square miles in southeastern Alaska, which owes to the "Japan current" its temperate climate, and which can produce wheat, oats, grasses for cattle, and vegetables in great variety. The latest official reports speak with praise of the supplies raised by the Holy Cross mission on the Yukon. It would be possible for the land to furnish at least a portion of the food supply needed by the present population. The total wealth accruing to the United States from its Alaskan possessions between 1867 and 1905 is calculated at nearly $160,000,000. In 1891, Dr. Sheldon Jackson introduced reindeer from Siberia into northern Alaska, but their usefulness as a means of transportation, and a source of supplies for miners and natives, is still a matter of experiment. The animals are farmed out in herds to various mission centers on the Yukon, along the Bering coast, and on the Kotzebue Sound. Reindeer moss, indigenous to northwestern Alaska, furnishes abundant food for those animals, whose numbers now reach about 6,000.
Alaska offers a great variety of climates. Along the southern and southeastern coast the "Japan current" distributes a part of its equatorial heat, and creates on the fringe of the islands, and some twenty miles inland, a distinct temperate zone. The mean temperate of Sitka is 32x Fahrenheit. Winter opens in December, and the snows are gone by May, except on the mountain-sides. Little of the warmth of the "Japan current" reaches north of the Aleutian range. The winter in the Yukon and Seward peninsula is rigorous and long; the summer warm and brief. The winter sun rises in the Yukon valley from 9:30 to 10, and sets between 2 and 3. The summer sun rises at 1:30 in the morning and sets at 10 in the evening, and the twenty hours of daylight are followed by a diffused twilight. In general, the changes of climate in the north are rapid and extreme, the mean summer temperature being from 60°-70° Fahrenheit, while the winter cold registers as low as 50° and 60° below zero, and near the Arctic Circle still greater extremes are met with, the thermometer reaching 70x below zero. However, owing to the dryness of the atmosphere, the intense cold is not disagreeable, and white men in those northern regions experience no inconvenience in traveling over the tundras with their dog-teams and sleds.
Alaska, though called a territory, is properly known as the "District of Alaska". It has no legislature and no territorial form of government, but is governed directly by Congress, and locally administered by a governor, assisted by a secretary, and a surveyor-general, United States marshals, and attorneys, appointed by the President, subject to the approval of the Senate. It constitutes a judicial district, with three subdivisions and three courts. The governor is required to make an annual report to the Secretary of the Interior. The capital is Sitka, on Baranof Island, a city founded by the Russian Governor of that name in 1799, and the oldest town in Alaska. The sale of liquor to the natives is governed by special regulations. From 1867 to 30 June, 1903, the Government revenues amounted to $9,555,909, of which $7,597,331 were paid in as a tax on fur seals, and $528,558 as customs.
The pupils are under the official supervision of a United States general agent for education in Alaska, who resides in Washington. In 1905, there were fifty-one public schools, with sixty-two teachers and 3,083 pupils. From 1884 to 1901 Congress made a small annual grant for the support of these schools, but in 1901 an act was passed by which license fees collected by unincorporated towns were to be applied in part to the establishment and maintenance of schools "for the education of white children and children of mixed blood who lead a civilized life". Such schools are placed in charge of the Governor of Alaska as ex-officio superintendent of education. By the same act the education of the Eskimos and Indians remained under the control of the Secretary of the Interior, and provision is made for the work by an annual appropriation ($50,000 in 1905). The principal elements of this public education for the natives are the teaching of the English language, spoken and written, and the arts of reindeer-herding and transportation, helpful at once to the white man and the native. (Statement 351 of the Commissioner of Education to the Secretary of the Interior, 30 June, 1905, 26-48).
The Alaskan aborigines fall into four major divisions or groups:
It is a very rare occurrence that the son of a Shaman adopted the trade of his father. Probably the Shaman on his death-bed forbade his son to do so, explaining to him the worst side of his position, and turning his desires in another direction. Many of the Shamans call their occupation the service of the devil, and told the young men that nobody who had any fear or apprehension must lay claim to the title of Shaman, and that they themselves had not adopted the profession voluntarily, but because they were powerless to resist the devil.
There were, of course, numerous errors in a religion allied to such practice. Nevertheless, we do not subscribe to the statement (p. 13) in "Handbook 84 on Alaska", issued by the Bureau of American Republics, Washington (1880):
Except as their ideas are modified by relations and intercourse with white people, they have no religion, unless certain definite superstitions, having no connections with an definite idea of a supreme supernatural being, be called religion.
On the contrary, it can be seen in the writings of Petroff, Holemberg, and Veniaminof that they possess certain elements of religion. Thus, every tribe recognized a Creator, termed in the tradition of the coast Nunalukhta; throughout the archipelagic circle, Agoughouk; among the Kodiaks, Shliam-Shoa; and along the narrow strip to the southeast, Yeshl, or Yehl. They held an immortality and a state of retributive rewards and punishments even beyond the grave, and this in the uncommon case of cremation of the body. They exhibited at times a wonderfully elaborate moral code. This is especially true of the Hydah branch of the Thlinkets, who, ethnologically, are the most interesting branch of the Alaska natives. They inhabit Prince of Wales Island, and their haunts are visited yearly by hundreds of tourists. The myths attached to their origins the stories of the descent of their families, one from the bear, another from the whale, a third from the raven, and so on; and the elaborate totem system resulting therefrom, with far-reaching clan restrictions have given the Hydahs a special place among the aboriginal peoples. The totem system, with its well-known poles, or carved tree trunks, originated with the Hydahs, but in course of time extended to the rest of the Thlinket group. There were three kinds of carved poles: the historical, the death, and the pedigree, or totem pole, the last giving the line of descent of the mother's family. Children were always known by the totem of their mother. many of those are still standing, but the combinations of figures of birds and other living things, distorted beyond recognition, are no longer intelligible. The encroachment of modern methods and intercourse with the white races have made the Thlinket group more or less oblivious of the past. The totem system is dying out; even the family totem is falling into disuse. It was the cause of much injustice and suffering owing to the unequal and unjust distribution of poverty. Among the traditions of the Alaskan tribes, resemblances can be traced to certain Biblical narratives the creation of light, the fall of man, the deluge, the confusion of tongues, the dispersion of races, etc. Polygamy was common in a more or less exaggerated form. In northern Alaska, it is no longer so common, though it sometimes occurs. Matrimony, until ratified by the birth of children, is not looked upon as being indissoluble, but rather as a sort of espousals. There was also a belief in metempsychosis. They held, with most savages, that it is a strict duty to revenge insult or injury. The hardships to which females were subjected at critical periods are appalling, and may explain their premature old age.
Christianity was introduced into Alaska in 1794. A few spasmodic attempts were made prior to that date by Russian traders, notably Glottof, but according to the candid chronicler Veniaminof already quoted, it was not so much Christian ardour as business considerations that induced the Russians to persuade the Aleuts to accept baptism. The converted natives were always more manageable. They became attached, to a certain extent, to their godfathers, and gave their trade exclusively to them. The first serious attempt to Christianize the Alaskan tribes was made by Shelikof, one of the organizers of the Russian American fur company, who, in 1787, petitioned the Russian synod to send missionaries to convert the Aleuts. he promised to provide them with transportation, and to support them in their new field. In a ukase, dated June, 1793, Catherine II instructed the metropolitan Gabriel to select the best material for the mission, and in 1794, a band of ten. eight ecclesiastics and two laymen, under the guidance of Archimandrake Ivassof, left St. Petersburg for Okhotsk, whence they sailed for Kodiak. This large island was for some years the head-quarters of the Russian-American Fur Company, and from it the monks dispersed in different directions under the protection of the fur hunters. Makar proceeded to Unalaska and proceeded to baptize the natives; another, Juvenal, laboured among the natives of Kodiak island and those on Cook's Inlet. This missionary was murdered two years later for trying to put down polygamy.He was a man of great energy, and did more to spread the Russian doctrines than the rest of his companions.In 1798, Ivassof, the leader, was promoted to the rank of Archbishop of Irkutsk, in Siberia, but was lost at sea the following year. Missionary work remained in abeyance until the arrival of Alexander Baranof, who asked for a priest for Sitka, the new headquarters of the Fur Company. In 1816, Sobolof, the first Russian-Greek missionary, apparently, who laboured among the Thlinkets, reached southeastern Alaska. In 1823 Ivan Veniaminof, the most distinguished of the Russian ecclesiastics in Alaska, known as the "Enlightener of the Aleuts", arrived in Unalaska. During his career of nearly thirty years, he displayed intense zeal. He was instrumental in spreading Christianity over a vast extent of territory, visiting not only the Aleutian Islands, but all the coast of the mainland from Bristol Bay to the Kuskokwim. Veniaminof was a man of exceptional ability. He mastered the Aleut and Thlinket languages, translated portions of the New Testament, composed a catechism and hymnal, and began an exhaustive research into the traditions, beliefs, superstitions, etc. of the nations of the Aleutian group. In 1840, after the division of the diocese of Irkutsk, he was consecrated Bishop of Kamchatka, the Kurile and Aleutian Islands, and assumed, after the Russian custom, the name of Innocentius. During his sojourn in southeastern Alaska, he devoted himself with great zeal to the conversion of the Thlinkets. He established at Sitka a seminary for the training of natives and half-breeds for the priesthood, an institution that was maintained for many years. In 1852, he was transferred to Yakutsk, and died in 1879, Metropolitan of Moscow. Veniaminof, of whom there exists a biography, is highly venerated as a man and a writer. Petroff says of him, however, that the success of his work of conversion was only temporary and was confined altogether to the time of his presence among the natives. In 1859, Archimandrite Peter, rectory of the seminary at Sitka, was made bishop of that place. He was succeeded, in 1867, by Bishop Paul. In 1870 his successor, Bishop John, took the title of Bishop of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. An important event was the transfer, in 1872, of the head-quarters of the Russian missions from Sitka to San Francisco. Bishop Nestor was sent thither, in 1879, in charge of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands; he was lost at sea in 1882. In 1888 Bishop Vladimir was appointed to the same office; in 1891 Bishop Nicholas; in 1898, Bishop Tikhon; and in 1904 Bishop Innocent. In 1893 Russian orphanages were opened at Sitka, Kodiak, and Unalaska; and in 1894 a Russian church and school at Juneau. Parochial schools are attached to every Russian church. The Report on Education for 1903 (2352-53) enumerates in Alaska thirty schools, with 740 pupils, and adds that there are sixteen parishes in Alaska with 10,225 parishioners. The Czar still maintains a salaried hierarchy there, but his influence is destined to dwindle away before American missionary endeavors.
Several of the Protestant sects, notably the Moravian, Presbyterian, Swedish, Evangelical, Congregational, and Episcopal, are at work in various parts of Alaska. Their mission statements extend up the Yukon and Kuskowim rivers, and along the main coast as far north as Cape Prince of Wales and Point Barrow. The Presbyterians, who landed in that country in 1878, have been the most successful. They have strongly organized missions in southeastern Alaska. The late Governor of the territory, John B. Brady, was a Presbyterian missionary for years; and the Rev. Sheldon Jackson, another Presbyterian missionary, is Superintendent of education for the territory.
Prior to the cession of Alaska to the United States, no Catholic priest had sojourned in the territory. In 1872, Francis Mercier, chief agent of the Alaska Commercial Company at Nuklukhoyit, alarmed at the constantly threatening of the Ten'a on the Yukon and Tanana, took steps to introduce Catholic missionaries among them. He invited the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to take up the work. In the autumn of 1871, Bishop Clut, of the Athabascan-MacKenzie district, with two companions, Father Lecorre and an Indian interpreter named Silvar, crossed over the mountains and wintered at Fort Yukon. The following spring the three sailed down the Yukon river to Nuklukhoyit, where they met a large number of natives from Tanana and Koyokuk districts. They then continued their journey down the river, instructing both Ten'a and Eskimo adults and baptizing their children. Notwithstanding the opposition shown by the Shamans and the Russianized natives, the Oblates considered the prospects so bright that they decided to establish stations on the Yukon. After spending a year in reconnoitering, Bishop Clut returned to his own missions, leaving Father Lecorre in residence at St. Michael at the mouth of the river. The missionary stayed there until 1874, when the news came to him that the spiritual jurisdiction of the Alaskan territory had been entrusted to the Bishop of Victoria, the saintly Charles John Seghers, who ultimately gave up his life in the work. In July, 1877, this prelate, with one companion, Father Mandart, made a preliminary voyage to St. Michael, and went up the river as far as Nulato. During the following winter he visited many native villages, and in doing so underwent severe privations. Before his return to civilization, he promised the Ten'a that he would establish missions among them. In the interval, Bishop Seghers was transferred to Oregon City as Coadjutor to Archbishop Blanchet. However, his first visit to Alaska produced immediate results. In 1878, Father Althoff went to reside at Wrangel, in southeastern Alaska, from which he visited the Cassiar country and the coast. He was transferred to Juneau in 1885, were he was joined by Father Heynen, who was sent to aid him in his labours at Sitka. These two apostolic men were the pioneers of the Church in southeastern Alaska. They lived in a log cabin, in the utter isolation of primitive missionary life, preaching the gospel to Thlinket and white man alike. In September, 1886, Father Althoff brought to Juneau the Sisters of St. Ann, for the service of the new hospital, and thenceforth always ascribed his success to their faithful co-operation. The names of those devoted women Sr. M. Zeno, Sister M. Bonsecours, and Sister M. Victor deserve to be recorded. Bishop Seghers had meanwhile secured his reappointment to the See of Victoria, and resumed his plans, long delayed, for the conversion of the Alaskan tribes. He invited the Society of Jesus to undertake the work of evangelizing the territory. In July of that year, the prelate now Archbishop Seghers accompanied by two Jesuits, Father Pascal Tosi and Aloysius Robaut, and a hired man named Fuller, started over the Chilcoot Pass for the headwaters of the Yukon. It was decided that the two Jesuits should remain for the winter at the mouth of the Stewart river, while the Bishop, with the servant Fuller, should proceed in haste to Nulato, not only to keep the promise he had made to the Ten'a six years previously, but to forestall the members of a sect who contemplated establishing themselves at that spot. During the 1,100-mile journey, Fuller developed symptoms of insanity, and at times threatened the Archbishop insolently. At Yessetlatoh, near the mouth of the Koyukuk, they took up quarters in an abandoned fishing cabin. On the morning of 25 November Fuller aroused the prelate from his sleep, pointed a rifle at him and shot him through the heart. Death was instantaneous. The remains of the murdered Archbishop were taken down the Yukon river to St. Michael, whence, two years later, they were transferred to the crypt of the cathedral in Victoria, B.C. The murderer was subsequently tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. This tragedy changed the condition of mission work in Alaska; new and complicated problems presented themselves to the Jesuits. Father Tosi went to Europe, where he met the President of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith at Lyons, who contributed $4,000 towards the support of the Alaskan missions. A decree of the Propaganda, dated 17 July, 1894, raised Alaska to a Prefecture Apostolic, with Father Tosi, S.J. as the first incumbent of the office. He exercised his duties as prefect Apostolic until March, 1897, when he resigned, owing to failing health, and died, at the age of 51, at Juneau, 14 January, 1898. The Very Rev. John B. René, S.J., was appointed to his place. He resigned in March, 1904, and was succeeded by the present incumbent, the Very Rev. Joseph R. Crimont. The conditions of the Alaskan mission have changed greatly since the advent of the first missionaries. The discovery of placer-gold mines, and the influx of miners into Alaska, during the past six years, have robbed Alaska of much of its primitive isolation. There are resident Jesuit priests at Juneau, Douglas, Fairbanks, Nome, Skagway, St. Michael and Seward. From these centres, white missions are attended at Ketchikan, Wrangel, Eagle City, Circle City, Forty Mile Post, Golden City, Council City, Sitka, Haines, Valdez, Chenilia, Kliketari, Pastolic, Picmetallic, Steben, etc. Among the native tribes there have also been missions, exclusively Ten'a, on the Yukon at Koserefsky and Nulato. The Eskimos in the Nome district on the Kuskokwim and in the Yukon Delta are also attended by Jesuit Fathers and Brothers. In southeastern Alaska, owing to lack of men and means, no Catholic mission among the Thlinkets have yet been established. A training-school for boys and girls exists at Holy Cross mission near Koserefsky. The girls are under the care of the Sisters of St. Ann. These native children are taught the arts of cooking, sewing, etc., the boys, with the Jesuit lay brothers as instructors, are taught gardening, carpentry, and smithing of various kinds. The lives of the missionaries who are devoting themselves exclusively to the native population are lives of intense isolation, but their personal sufferings and inconveniences count for little when there are souls to be saved.
The Prefecture Apostolic comprises the 531,409 square miles that make up the territory of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, From 1867 to 17 July, 1894, these missions were subject to the Bishop of Vancouver Island, B.C.; they were then placed in charge of a Prefect Apostolic who resides at Juneau. The total population is about 72,000 of which about 15,000 are Catholics, one third of these being natives. The mission is entrusted to the Society of Jesus. There are at present (1906) seventeen Jesuit Fathers and one secular priest in charge of twenty-eight stations, of which twelve are provided with resident priests, the others being missions attended occasionally. Nine of the missions are provided with chapels. Jesuit Lay Brothers (8) and Brothers of Christian Instruction (2), from Ploermel in Brittany, attend to the Catholic education of the boys. The girls are in charge of Sisters of Charity of Providence (8), Sisters of St. Ann (22), and Ursaline Sisters (3). There are five convents, two academies (Juneau and Douglas City), three day schools, four hospitals (Juneau, Eagle, Douglas, and Nome), an orphanage for Indian girls and an industrial school for Indian boys (Koserefsky). The total number of children in Catholic institutions is 288. There is as yet no seminary for ecclesiastical students. The orphanage and mission schools are supported mainly by Catholic charity, and the hospitals by organized contributions.
United States Bureau of American Republics, Handbook, 1884; Alaska; Archives of Prefecture Apostolic of Alaska; Devine, Across Wildest America (Montreal, 1905). Also Gibbs, Dall, Nelson, Holmberg, with Petroff, Navy, and other Russian writers.
APA citation. (1907). Alaska. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01246b.htm
MLA citation. "Alaska." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01246b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael Donahue. A.M.D.G.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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