Table of Contents
Alaska Native Land Claims
Unit 3 - Alaska Natives and Their Lands
Chapter 10 - New Migrants

"I am glad that I lived to see the Americans in the country. The Aleuts are better off now than they were under the Russians. The first Russians who came here killed our men and took away our women and all our possessions; and afterward, when the Russian American Company came, they made all the Aleuts like slaves, and sent them to hunt far away, where many were drowned and many killed by savage Natives, and others stopped in strange places and never came back. The old company gave us fish for nothing, but we could have got plenty of it for ourselves if we had been allowed to stay at home and provide for our families. Often they would not sell us flour or tea, even if we had skins to pay for it. Now we must pay for everything, but we can buy what we like. God will not give me many days to live, but I am satisfied."

—Peter Kostromitin, Makushin

(Quoted in Bancroft, History of the
Pacific States of North America.)

Replacement of Russian colonial administrators by Americans meant little to most Eskimos, Indians, and Aleuts of the former Russian-America, now called Alaska. About 20,000 Eskimos and Indians lived in the interior and along the western and northern coasts where Russian traders had rarely traveled. Most of the Eskimos and Indians had been ignorant of Russia's claims of ownership, and for a number of years were to be unaware of the sale of the vast territory to the United States.

Many of the remaining 10,000 Eskimos, Indians, and Aleuts were also largely unaffected by the change. They lived in the southern coastal regions where their contacts with Russians went back 50 years or more. During the early years under the American flag, however, most of them would not even see any representatives of the United States.

Taken together, these 30,000 people were considered to be the "uncivilized native tribes" referred to in the Treaty of Cession. As noted earlier, the treaty had provided that "uncivilized native tribes" would be excluded from citizenship and they would be "subject to such laws and regulations as the United States may from time to time adopt in regards to aboriginal tribes of that country."


Chapter 10
New Migrants

Brevet Major General Jeff C. Davis, commanding officer of the Military District of Alaska, 1867-1870

Upon the 1867 transfer to the United States, Alaska became a military district, governed by the War Department. Its commanding officer, Brevet Major General Jeff C. Davis, who later was to win distinction as an Indian fighter in California, was charged with providing protection to American citizens, Russian subjects, and the aboriginal tribes. His orders said he would act as the general superintendent of the tribes, "protecting them from abuse and regulating their trade and intercourse with our own people."

Because the principal posts established were in the southeastern part of the territory, it was the Tlingits who were most affected by the Army, then later by the Navy, during Alaska's first 17 years as an American colony.

Tlingit reaction to sale. When Tlingit chiefs first learned that Alaska had been sold to the United States, they objected and advised the U. S. officials that the Russians had lived in their country only with their permission. Although they had not previously united politically, they organized to discuss their objections to the sale. An agent of the U. S. Treasury Department reported in 1869 that:

The dissatisfaction among the tribes on account of the sale of the territory did not arise from any special feeling of hostility, but from the fact that it was sold without their consent, they arguing that their fathers originally owned all the country, but allowed the Russians to occupy it for their mutual benefit, in that articles desired by them could be obtained from the Russians in exchange for furs; but the right of the Russians to sell the territory, except with the intention of giving them the proceeds, is denied.

Some of the chiefs were in favor of waging war and driving out the "Boston men," their name for the Americans. However the chief of the Chilkats warned that the locations of the coastal villages made them easy targets for possible bombardment from U. S. war vessels. He persuaded the other chiefs to wait and see what the Boston men would do.

Military occupation. Their wait was not long. In 1869, when two Tlingits were killed by a soldier, Tlingit leaders demanded a settlement from the Army in keeping with their system of law. When the Army failed to pay for the loss of life with blankets or other articles of value, Kake Tlingits retaliated by killing two prospectors. The Army then bombarded three Kake villages, destroying homes, winter food supplies, and canoes. A special agent of the U. S. later reported that the punishment of Kake was for acts that had been provoked by the Army itself.



Alaska is purchased from Russia by the United States. Treaty of Cession provides that " 'uncivilized Native tribes' to be subject to such laws and regulations as the United States may from time to time adopt in regards to aboriginal tribes of that country."


Governance of Alaska by the Army, then by the Collector of Customs, then by the Navy.


Beginning of salmon industry; first canneries established.


First important gold discovery in Alaska (Juneau).


The Organic Act makes Alaska a District with appointed governor and other officers; protection for lands used and occupied by Natives promised.


Native Allotment Act provides first opportunity for Natives to obtain land under restricted title.


Alaska becomes a territory with a two-house legislature; capital at Juneau.


Alaska Native Brotherhood is founded in Sitka.


Citizenship Act extends citizenship to all Alaska Natives who had not become citizens earlier.


First Alaska Native — William L. Paul — elected to territorial legislature.


Native Townsite Act provides opportunity for Natives to obtain restricted deeds to village lots.


Provisions of Indian Reorganization Act extended to Alaska permitting establishment of reservations for Native groups.


Congress approves the Statehood Act; right to Native lands is disclaimed; State to choose 103 million acres.


Court of Claims rules that Indian title of Tlingits and Haidas was not extinguished and that they were entitled to compensation for lands taken from them by the United States.


Historians from H.H. Bancroft to Ernest Gruening agree that the Army's influence over the decade of its rule was not only demoralizing for the Tlingits, but that the Army was largely responsible for the incidents of violence which occurred.

Many of the problems of these years were caused by liquor. Although there was traffic in alcohol before the transfer, historian C. L. Andrews reports that it was an ex-soldier who taught Indians how to make "hootch," a liquor made from molasses. In 1877, when the Army was withdrawn to battle Nez Perce Indians in Idaho, a missionary observed that, "sending of soldiers to this country was the greatest piece of folly of which a government could be guilty."

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Tlingit Chief Annahootz

That soldiers were not necessary to protect whites was shown during a two-year period between the time the Army left and the Navy arrived. Sitka Tlingits did destroy the Army stockade, however, and they occupied the abandoned buildings. Departure of the Army also led to a declaration by Chief Annahootz about retaking their country. As reported by historian Ted Hinckley, Annahootz said:

"The Russians have stolen this country from us and after they have gotten most of the furs out of the country, they have sold it to the Bosten Men for a big sum of money, and now the Americans are mad because they have found that the Russians have deceived them, and have abandoned the country, and we are glad to say that after so many years hard fight we get our country back again."

The absence of soldiers also contributed to the fears of the white population. The customs agent at Sitka was alarmed that the Tlingits would attack the white citizens, since, as he said, "many of these Indians have wrongs to redress and injuries to be made good, inflicted upon them while the country was in the hands of the military." The Sitka agent added:

. . . as the Indians are roaming at their leisure and pleasure all over the place night and day, the probabilities of some murderous outbreak, ending in a general massacre, are exceedingly great.

On the other hand, the customs agent at Wrangell, where there was a gathering of white miners, expressed fears for the safety of the native population.

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Home of Chief Ko-Teth Sha-Doc, Ketchikan, 1905

With 1,500 Indians in the vicinity of Sitka and only 20 American citizens and Russians, the sense of threat may have been real. But no "massacre" occurred. The period during which the American government was represented only by a customs office was generally free of violence.

No extinguishment of title. During Alaska's first decade as an American colony, there was but little interference with traditional uses of the lands and waters, even among the Tlingits and Haidas. And there was no extinguishment of aboriginal or Indian Title.

No laws had been adopted by Congress to allow persons to obtain title or other rights to land, and partly for this reason, there was very little movement of white settlers into Alaska. Since there was not the same urgency to extinguish Indian title as existed in the American West, there was no need to make treaties with native tribes. The designation of "Indian Country" was formally applied to Alaska in 1873 to prohibit the sale of liquor, but the designation did not extinguish Indian Title.



An archbishop and members of his party journeying to the Yukon Territory in 1886 were stopped by a chief of the Chilkat Tlingits and told to pay a fee for passing through their area. When the archbishop protested, the chief reportedly assaulted him. Upon hearing of the complaint, Governor A.P. Swineford (along with 12 men) traveled to Chilkoot village and arrested the chief, who "boldly asserted the right to exact payment for the privilege of passing through the country he claimed as belonging to his people." Swine-ford then talked with the Chilkats, warning them that they "must abandon their preten-tions of right to collect toll from white men passing through the country inhabited by but not belonging to them in a political sense . . ."

Source: Letter from Governor A.P. Swineford to the President, October 1, 1886.

Intrusions. There were, however, intrusions into aboriginal lands. One such instance was the recording of squatters' and miners' claims by the U.S. Customs office even though such claims could not lawfully be made. Further, the claimants were not removed from their claims, despite the military's authority and obligation to do so.

Intrusion into Native lands was made possible in 1880 during the Navy's rule. Chilkat Tlingits had steadfastly refused to allow the movement of whites through their territory into Canada and the Navy's commander saw this as a deterrent to the development of Alaska. He sent a warship carrying a Gatling gun to escort five sailboats of armed prospectors to the Chilkat country. The ship's officer explained to the Chilkat chiefs how the gun worked and read a letter to them assuring them that the prospectors would not interfere with their fur trade. The Chilkat chiefs then agreed to open Dyea Pass into Canada to gold hunters.

Later during the period of Navy rule, its commanding officer disrupted traditional patterns of land and water use by encouraging a treaty of peace between the Stikine (Wrangell area) and Hutsnuwu (Angoon) Tlingits. In the treaty they agreed that members of each tribe "shall be free to travel, hunt, or fish in the territories of either." Such a provision effectively weakened tribal laws governing land and water ownership.

Another kind of intrusion, which also took place during the Navy's period of rule, involved the removal of Aukwan Tlingits from the mining settlement called Rockwell (now Juneau). Despite the Navy's obligation to expel the miners — owing to the absence of any land laws — it did not. The officer in charge reported, in explaining the Navy's action, that the Tlingits had been paid for the land. Such transfers of land rights were not legal, for there were no land laws.

The Organic Act (1884). The first land law for Alaska provided specific protection to claims of miners and lands used by missionaries, but gave only promise of continued use and occupancy of lands to holders of aboriginal rights. The law was the Organic Act, adopted by Congress in 1884 to provide the first civil government for the territory.

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Potlatch dancers at Sitka, 1904


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Klinkwan, Prince of Wales Island, 1899

While mining interests stimulated passage of the Organic Act, the rights of Natives* [*the word "Native" is capitalized to make clear that the reference is to persons of Eskimo, Indian, or Aleut birth, not to all persons born in Alaska.] affected its provisions. The stated intention of the committee sponsoring the measure was "to save from all possible invasion the rights of Indian residents of Alaska" until such time as "the Secretary could ascertain what their claims were." During debate on the measure, Senator Plumb of Kansas had said:

I do not want to impose a government on several thousand Indians, for the purpose of assuming to consult the convenience of about four hundred white people, which shall do the Indians more hurt than it will do the white people good. Pending an investigation of this question I propose that the Indian shall at least have as many rights after the passage of this bill as he had before.

While the provision of the act regarding Native lands did not permit them to acquire title, it was a provision of much future importance:

Indians or other persons in said district shall not be disturbed in the possession of any lands actually in their use or occupation or now claimed by them but the terms under which such persons may acquire title to such lands is reserved for future legislation by Congress.


"The fact that these interior tribes are better morally than their brethren of the coast is so apparent that even the dullest observer must see the difference between the two, and wonder how it happens that these natives who have been brought into contact with our boasted civilization are more objectionable in their manners and less trustworthy than those who have not enjoyed these advantages. A few words will suffice to show the moral character of these gentle hyperboreans. They are honest in their dealings with strangers and amongst themselves, as we had ample means of finding out. They are simple and credulous, and easily deceived, showing that they are not liable to deceive others. They are hospitable, and although intensely curious, are not prying or intrusive. In their domestic relations they are kind and devoted to each other, and the universal consideration paid by all to the very old and feeble is one of the touching and admirable traits of their character. The extraordinarily kind and indulgent treatment of their children is a trait which is common to all these northern tribes."

Source: J, C. Cantwell in Cruise of the Revenue Steamer Corwin in the Arctic Ocean in the year, 1884, by M. A. Healy, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1889.

The U.S. policy of "civilizing" American tribes was also reflected in the act. Grants of up to 640 acres could be made to missionary stations to allow continuation of their activities.

Figure 1

Year of Census

Eskimos, Indians, and Aleuts











































Source: Rogers, George W., "Alaska Native Population Trends and Vital Statistics, 1950-1985," Institute of Social, Economic, and Government Research, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska, November 1971.

the time of passage, greater importance lay in the act's extension of mining laws to Alaska. Those with mining claims could obtain title to their claims unless such claims were located on a site physically occupied or improved by members of Native groups. The land office established by the act quickly made legal the mining claims recorded illegally over the preceding 17 years. Among other events, the earlier dispossession of the Aukwan Tlingits was made legal.

However important the Organic Act was to become in the future in its recognition of aboriginal use and occupancy, it effectively denied Natives at the time the opportunity to obtain title to their lands under the white man's system of title recognition. It provided the legal means for miners to deprive Natives of their land and resources. Although title to land apart from mining claims could not be acquired, other lands were staked, posted, and recorded.

Passage of the Organic Act launched a period of growth in the white population of the territory and the development of business and commercial enterprises. In 1880 there had been 430 whites; by 1890 there were about 6,700 non-Natives in Alaska. With this growth was to come new intrusions on lands used, occupied, or claimed by Natives.




Alaska Native Land Claims Copyright 1976, 1978 by the Alaska Native Foundation
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