History of Wrangell

The first Presbyterian Church in Alaska

Several now famous people made their way through Wrangell in the past, including Wyatt Earp who served as a temporary marshall for 10 days while he and his wife, Josie, were on their way to the Klondike. John Muir wrote of his adventures in Wrangell. Soapy Smith, famed outlaw, used to hide out in Wrangell when things were too hot for him in Skagway.

Wrangell is the third oldest community in Alaska, and the second oldest community in Southeast, and the ONLY city in Alaska to be ruled by four nations and under three flags... Tlingit, Russia, England, and the United States

Since the last Ice Age
A significant portion of the North American continent was buried under miles of glaciers during the last of the "Ice Age". However, recent archaeological and paleontological evidence indicates that at least a portion of Southeast Alaska, the outer coast, may have been ice-free during the late Pleistocene. Three archaeological sites within the Tongass National Forest have been reliably dated in excess of 9,000 years BP: Hidden Falls at approximately 9860 BP; Groundhog Bay at approximately 10,180 years BP and On-Your-Knees Cave, with rare human remains, at approximately 9730 BP .

The Tlingits
Tlingit influence in Southeast is well documented in the literature. The Tlingit migration stories describe the early migration of the Tlingit through the Canadian interior, the discovery of "the hole in the ice", and the subsequent discovery of the "land of plenty" when a couple was brave enough to explore where the hole led to. Local Wrangell Tlingits believe the hole in the ice was in fact the Stikine River corridor, perhaps a river beneath the glacier that led from the Canadian interior to a series of lush island along the coast of Southeast Alaska during the last of the "Ice Age".

Subsequent movement into the area by the Haida and Tsimshian impacted the Tlingits and brought competing interests for the resources. Disputes over resources are commonly described in ethnographic accounts, along with descriptions of the Stikine Tlingits as fierce warriors who were able and willing to fight against their neighbors. Tlingits were equally well known as seasoned negotiators and traders. Trade networks from Southeast extended into the interior of Canada and up the Copper River and beyond. George Vancouver was the first recorded white man to come to the Wrangell area. He came in 1793, while on a survey expedition and just missed discovering the nearby Stikine River. Captain Cleveland visited the "Village of Steeken" on April 16, 1799, where he did some fur trading with the Indians.

Under the Russian Flag
It wasn't until the early 1800's that the Native Alaskans were visited by outside forces. Lt. Dionysius Zarembo, commander of the Russian-American Company ship Chichagof, landed at present day Wrangell in 1833. Wrangell started in 1834 as the Russian Redoubt St. Dionysus. The Russians established the Fort in order to preserve their interests in the region. Both the Spanish and English had also been carefully scouting the extent of Russian settlement with an eye towards occupation themselves

Stikine Tlingit Chief Shakes V, recognized some advantages of cooperation with the Russians, and moved the Tlingit village from its former site at "old town" to Shakes Island in the heart of the current city of Wrangell to be near the Russian Redoubt. Aleuts, Eskimos and Interior Athabaskans were brought to Southeast as sea otter hunters for the Russian companies. When the sea otter was nearly exterminated, the Tlingits, with their long established trading connections with the interior Indians, sought other furs such as marten, fox, beaver and lynx to support the waning fur industry. It was through this trade network that the Tlingits themselves regionally influenced lifestyles in providing modern goods, such as beads, knives, guns, traps, metal pots, and disease to the interior Indians.

In June of 1834, shortly after the Russian Redoubt was completed, Peter Sheen Ogden with eight officers, and 80 plus Hudson Bay Company employees, supplies and trading goods, sailed north to establish a post on the Stikine River. When the Hudson Bay ship neared Redoubt St. Dionysius, Lt. Zarembo refused to allow them to anchor and ordered the ship to leave at once. Ogden protested to the Chief Russian in Sitka, Baron von Wrangel, saying that the British had as much right as the Russians to trade for fur on the Stikine. Although Baron von Wrangel was not at Sitka when the protest came, his assistant Captain Etolin was and he fully agreed with Lt. Dionysius Zarembo. Captain Etolin sent two Russian ships to help Lt. Zarembo protect the Russians' interest in the Stikine fur trade. Ogden was willing to fight the Russians until the Tlingits stepped in, claiming their ancient right to the fur region of the Stikine. Since Ogden could not fight both the Russians and the Indians, Ogden decided to leave.

Under the British Flag
Ogden went to Vancouver and talked with Dr. John McLoughlin who was in charge of all Hudson Bay Company posts on the Pacific Coast. The two men agreed that the Russian government should pay the Hudson Bay Company for the furs they had been denied from the Stikine Valley. Dr. McLoughlin prepared a claim for his company of 21,150 pounds, 10 shillings, sterling seeking reimbursement by the Russian government. A settlement was reached and the Hudson Bay Company withdrew its claim in exchange for a lease to the Alaskan mainland from Portland Canal to Cape Spencer. The term of the lease was ten years in consideration of payment to the Russian-American Company of 2000 land otter skins each year and provisions of food for the Russian colonies on the west coast. On May 30, 1840, the Hudson Bay Company ship Beaver reached Fort Dionysius. The Russian flag was lowered and the British flag raised. The fort was renamed Fort Stikine. John McLoughlin Jr. was made commander of the fort. Eighteen Hudson Bay Company men were left to gather the furs and defend Fort Stikine. The Russians transferred their men to Sitka. Soon after the transfer of Fort Stikine to the British, there were several failed attempts by the Tlingits to capture the fort. The Hudson Bay Company leased the fur lands of the Stikine area for more than 20 years and continued to operate the fort until the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 by the United States.

Under the American Flag
The 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia was known as "Seward's Folly" after William H. Seward, The Secretary of Interior. Most in the federal government believed Alaska was nothing but ice, snow and glaciers, with little value other than for the exported furs. Gold, however, had been discovered on the Stikine River in 1861. There were three Gold Rushes in and around Wrangell. The first one occurred when a man named Buck Choquette found gold on the Stikine River in 1861 on what is now call Buck's Bar. Buck Choquette was a Hudson Bay company employee. He was the first white man to find gold. Until Skagway came into existence, Wrangell served as the trade center for all the gold rushes, offering access to the Klondike fields through the Stikine River corridor and then on into the interior to the Yukon River. At one point over 10,000 persons were in Wrangell at one time, waiting for supplies and transportation up the Stikine. To put that into perspective, Wrangell has a current population of 2300 people! A number of buildings from this time period still exist in Wrangell.

In 1868 a military post was established and a new fort was built in Wrangell at a cost of $26,000. The American's named the fort after Baron von Wrangel of the Russian-American Company. The fort, located where the present day post office is, was composed of a stockade with narrow gun holes and several block houses. Inside the walls were barracks, officers' quarters, and supply sheds made of logs. South of the fort was the Tlingit village of about 35 houses and 500 inhabitants. The Fort Wrangell Post Office was established in 1869. The fort was abandoned in 1877.

Not long after the purchase of Alaska, the fishing industry got its start with the establishment of several canneries throughout Southeast. The canneries were responsible for the eventual development of the large fish traps at stream mouths that dramatically impacted the salmon runs. These traps were later outlawed, but had serious impacts to the local economies, particularly the Tlingit groups who had traditionally procured their subsistence resources from these streams. Chinese laborers were used in the canneries. Deadman's Island, adjacent to the Wrangell airport is said to be where the Chinese dead were preserved in barrels in salt-brine prior to transport back to their country of origin for burial.

The second gold rush started in 1872 when two prospectors named Thibert and McCullough came to Wrangell with gold they found at Dease Lake in the Cassiar country in Canada. Then, when gold was discovered in the Klondike, Wrangell became a mining center for the third time. Thousands of people went up the Stikine in 1898 to travel the Teslin Trail to the Klondike. During the 1898 gold rush, famed Marshall Wyatt Earp spent 10 days as Wrangell's marshall. He declined to become a full-time town marshall since he was on his way, with his wife, to strike his fortune in the Klondike. Some locals jokingly claim that "Wrangell was too wild for Wyatt!"

An 1898 issue of the Stikine River Journal gives an excellent picture of the rapid growth of Wrangell during the gold rush when it lists the stores in town. Included on the list are two sawmills, one cigar factory, two manufacturing jewelers, one fish cannery, three tin shops, two blacksmith shops, several carpenter and cabinet shops, one ship yard, about ten laundries, one plumbing shop, one copper shop, two breweries, two newspapers, and numerous lodging houses and restaurants. Most of the shops were false front buildings clustered along both sides of Front Street. In 1898, Front Street was constructed of boards placed on pilings over the water. Today, the downtown area is built on gravel fill and still has the false front look of the gold rush days. Unfortunately, two devastating fires, one in 1906 and the other in 1952, destroyed most of the historic buildings. The oldest buildings in town are located on the left side of Front Street starting at Norris Gift Shop and extending down to J. R. Fish Company Inc., which is located in the Biehl building. At the top of the Biehl building are letters which say, "Biehl 1898," but this is a an error which has occurred over time. The building was originally constructed in 1898, by R. C. Diehl, a pioneer and merchant from Montrose, Colorado. He was only in Wrangell for a few years and left shortly after the building was erected.

Missionaries came during the early 1870's establishing the first Presbyterian and Catholic churches and schools. Noted naturalist John Muir spent quite a lot of time in Wrangell in the 1880's, staging many of his explorations of southeast Alaska out of Wrangell. He caused quite a stir one stormy night in Wrangell, when he created a huge bonfire atop Mt. Dewey adjacent to town. Wrangell continued developing as a town and Wrangell incorporated as a city in 1903. Wrangell is the home of the longest consecutively published newspaper in Alaska, the Wrangell Sentinel.

In 1902, the creation of the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve and its subsequent transformation into the Tongass National Forest five years later, set in motion a series of events which eventually led to Southeast Alaska's and Wrangell's largest,employers during the mid to late 1900's - the wood and fiber companies. As with other southeast communities, Wrangell's primary economic base became fishing and timber. The first sawmill in Alaska was located in Wrangell. It shipped airplane lumber to Great Britain. The primary interests in the saw and pulp mills came from the Japanese, thus creating yet another foreign influence in Wrangell.

During the same period that the Forest was being created, activity within the political arena was providing some interest. In 1912 the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) was created, thus forming a solid political group whose aim was to achieve political equality for the Native Alaskans. In 1924, successful arguments led to the Natives receiving citizenship and the right to vote. The ANB and Alaska Native Sisterhood further exercised their political power by successfully lobbying the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to build the the first Native boarding school, the Wrangell Institute, in Wrangell in 1932. Native children were brought in from throughout Alaska, not just southeast Alaska, for education of grades Kindergarten through High School. The establishment of the Wrangell Institute is clearly the 'triumph and tragedy' of forced assimilation and government paternalism. While many of the former students feel they were given a golden opportunity for an education they never would have received in the 'bush'; there are an equal number still scarred by the trauma they faced as small children far from home in a completely different environment and social structure.

There were two salmon canneries within the City limits of Wrangell in 1929 as well as two shrimp and crab canneries that employed over 150 people. Fur farming was also very important in the Wrangell area. Wrangell and surrounding islands had fox, mink, beaver, marten and muskrat farms. During the 1920's to present day, Wrangell continues to be a center for mining, serving as a supply area for the gold fields of the Cassiar Country in Canada. On August 14, 1920, the first airplanes ever to come to Wrangell appeared and landed on Sergief Island at the mouth of the Stikine River. The four World War I DeHavilland bi-planes were on a round-trip flight from New York to Nome. Wrangell has survived two fires which destroyed the downtown areas, has survived the boom and bust cycles of the gold rushes, the fishing industry and timber history. Wrangell has a unique past, with influences touching people from around the world.

The Wrangell Museum and Wrangell Library ,have extensive photo collections, microfiche and other resources on Wrangell's history.