Fort Stikine

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For the steamship destroyed in an explosion in 1944, see SS Fort Stikine.

Fort Stikine was a fur trade post and fortification in what is now the Alaska Panhandle, at the site of the present-day of Wrangell, Alaska, United States. Originally built as the Redoubt San Dionisio or Redoubt Saint Dionysius (Russian: Форт or Редут Святого Дионисия, r Fort or Redut Svyataya Dionisiya) in 1834, the site was transferred to the British-owned Hudson's Bay Company as part of a lease signed in the region in 1838, and renamed Fort Stikine when turned into a Hudson's Bay Company post in 1839. The post was closed and decommissioned by 1843 but the name remained for the large village of the Stikine people which had grown around it, becoming known as Shakesville in reference to its ruling Chief Shakes by the 1860s. With the Alaska Purchase of 1867, the fortification became occupied by the US Army and was renamed Fort Wrangel, a reference to Baron von Wrangel, who had been Governor of Russian America when the fort was founded. The site today is now part of the city of Wrangell.



By a decree of Emperor Paul I known as the Ukase of 1799, the Russian Empire had in 1799 asserted ownership of the Pacific coast and adjoining lands of North America as far south as the 55th degree of latitude, with Novo-Arkhangelsk, today's Sitka, Alaska, founded shortly thereafter. In 1821, Emperor Alexander issued another ukase which extended the Russian claim south to 51 degrees north, also forbidding foreign vessels from approaching within 100 Italian miles of any Russian settlement.[1] Other powers protested and the line was withdrawn to "the line of the Emperor Paul", 55 degrees north, with parallel treaties with the United States and Great Britain (in 1824 and 1825 respectively) adjusting that southwards slightly to 54 degrees 40 minutes north so as to include all of Prince of Wales Island within Russian territory.

Redoubt Saint Dionysius[edit]

Under the Russo-British Treaty of 1825 (Treaty of St. Petersburg) establishing that boundary, and also establishing a land boundary northwards following the summit of the mountains, ten marine leagues from the coast, British rights to the Interior were guaranteed by Russia, along with the right of navigation of the Taku and Stikine Rivers, which were (and largely still are) the only access to those regions of what is now northern British Columbia. In 1833 Peter Skene Ogden went up the Stikine on reconnaissance and found the river too shallow for the HBC's sailing vessels. In 1834, under orders from John McLoughlin, Chief Factor of the Columbia Department of the HBC, based at Fort Vancouver, Ogden returned on the brig Dryad with the mission of establishing trade and a fort in the Stikine hinterland.[2] The expedition was met with armed opposition from the Russian-American Company, under Baron Wrangel's orders, near the river's mouth. During the ensuing confrontation and what would become a naval standoff, with the ships Chichagof and Orel dispatched from Sitka, Ogden and his men were driven off and Hudson's Bay Company stores, intended for trade and the establishment of the upriver post, were seized. Captain Lieutenant Dionysius Zarembo, commander of the Chichagof, under further orders, established a fortification on Zarembo Island which was named the Redoubt Saint Dionysius, also known as the Redoubt San Dionisio, to prevent further British attempts at access to the Stikine, control of which was seen to be contrary to the interests of the local fur trade on which Sitka depended.

Anglo-Russian Convention of 1838[edit]

When news of the confrontation reached Fort Vancouver, McLoughlin was outraged and quickly sent word to company HQ in London. In the ensuing diplomatic confrontation, resulting from Britain pressing indemnities on Russia for damages relating to the seizure and actions contrary to the treaty of 1825, Baron von Wrangel was forced out of office in disgrace because of the great cost in both money and prestige to the Empire. A treaty signed in 1838, known as the Anglo-Russian Convention, paid out a negotiated indemnity to Great Britain and also established the British right to build and maintain posts at the mouths of the Taku and Stikine as well as established a lease of the mainland and adjoining islands - the lisière from Cross Sound south to 54 degrees 40 minutes north.[3] In return for this lease, Britain would supply so many furs per annum to the Russian-American Company. Also included in the arrangement was an extension and expansion of shipments of vegetable, dairy and meat produce from the settlements of the HBC at Forts Langley, Nisqually and Vancouver (see Pugets Sound Agricultural Company).

Establishment of Fort Stikine[edit]

The following year, in 1839, James Douglas, later to be Chief Factor himself and also Governor of both Vancouver Island and British Columbia colonies, was sent north by McLoughlin to establish "Fort Stickeen" and what was formally called Fort Durham, but usually known as Fort Taku, or just Taku, under various spellings. Confrontations with the local group of Tlingit, the Shtakeen Kwaan ("Stikine Tribe") under Chief Shakes, near whose ceremonial clan house the fort had been erected, concderning control of the fur trade of the Stikine Country, led to the relocation of the principal village of that tribe to the location of the fort, and agreements with Shakes regarding control of trade in relation to other Tlingit groups and the inland Athapaskan peoples (the Tahltan, primarily) with whom the Stikines had long-standing agreements. Still, other tribes including the Haida, Nisga'a and Tsimshian traded at the post, with complicated consequences.

Fort Stikine and the slave trade[edit]

Much to the chagrin and horror of the company staff in charge of the post, the logistics of the fur trade resulted in an unexpected effect - an escalation of the slave trade by the Haida and Tlingits, with an accompanying rise in warfare and raiding against southern tribes (and each other) to provide goods for the purchase of furs to re-sell to the Hudson's Bay post. This, and the declining price of furs, and also the viability of the local supply, led to a decision by the company's Governor Simpson, after an 1841 visit, to close the northern posts, plus Fort McLoughlin farther south (near today's Bella Bella, to consolidate northern operations at Fort Simpson, located first near the mouth of the Nass, then at a more strategic location near today's Prince Rupert, off the mouth of the Skeena (today's Lax Kw'alaams).

Death of John McLoughlin, Jr.[edit]

The second Chief Trader appointed to Fort Stikine was the son of Chief Factor McLoughlin, John McLoughlin, Jr.. Unsuited to the appointment, the younger McLoughlin was unpopular with some of the Metis among the staff, who killed him in what was alleged by them to have been in self-defense at his drunken rage. Kanaka (Hawaiian) employees who witnessed the killing were to testify otherwise, and to allege that the rebel staff, led by one Urbain Heroux, had conspired with the local Tlingits to seize the post. Because the murder had happened on ostensibly Russian soil, the usual laws governing the Company and its staff, which were those of the Colony of Canada where the company's North American headquarters were, Heroux and the others were taken to Sitka for trial, and were ultimately released for lack of evidence. Governor Simpson, on his visit to the Russian American capital, was surprised to encounter Heroux at liberty on the streets of that town, but under Russian law the accused were free until convicted. Heroux was to live out his life in the Columbia District, but John Jr.'s death was said to be one of the factors embittering his father against the Company and his increasing sentiments and actions in favour of the American claim to what was becoming known as the Oregon Country.

Shakesville and Buck Choquette[edit]

In the company's absence, Chief Shakes took control of the post and of the Stikine River trade. Discovery of gold in the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1850, and then in the Thompson Country and Fraser Canyon in the later 1850s, led to wider encroachments and exploration by whites far beyond the locus of the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush of 1858-1861. One intrepid adventurer, Alexander "Buck" Choquette, originally from Quebec and who had been in the California goldfields, had already explored in the area of the Nass and other rivers between there and the Stikine. Equipped with an acquired proficiency in the Chinook Jargon, Choquette was at Fort Victoria when he met some of Shakes' people and persuaded them to bring him with them to the Stikine and what was left of Fort Stikine, which had by then become known as Shakesville (though still also referred to as Fort Stikine despite the absence of a formal post or a Chief Trader). Choquette was to earn the respect of Shakes and also the hand of his daughter Georgiana (or Georgie) as his wife, with the marriage consecrated according to the elaborate ceremonials of Tlingit custom.

Stikine Gold Rush[edit]

In the spring of 1861, Choquette set out on a canoe trip up the Stikine with his wife and ten warriors of the Stikines to prospect for gold, discovering it at what has been known as Buck Bar since, just southwest of Telegraph Creek (the gold-rush settlement at Telegraph Creek was, in fact, known as Buck's Bar until the construction era of the unfinished Collins Overland Telegraph). When word of Choquette's discovery reached the other goldfields and the colonial capitals, the Stikine Gold Rush was launched and hordes of men sought out the Stikine, with Fort Stikine aka Shakesville become an important port-of-call for steamboats now bound for the river's many gold-bearing bars. In response to the influx of miners, most of them (but not all) American, Governor Douglas decreed the creation of the Stikine Territory, covering the lands inland from Russian American between the line of the Nass and Finlay Rivers north to the 62nd parallel to prevent American feared American annexation of the region, just as he had created the Colony of British Columbia in similar circumstances and had witnessed the loss of the Oregon Country to American settlers previously.

Experienced from goldfields elsewhere, Choquette knew more money was to be made in provision of goods and supplies to the miner than in the workings themselves, and obtained rights to sell Hudson's Bay Company wares both at his upriver post and at a revived trading post at Shakesville.[4] Choquette was to maintain this post in an uneasy relationship with the Hudson's Bay Company, as well as his store upriver, which relocated at various times depending on fluctuations in the activity of the rush.

Although exploration and some mining continued, the rush was well over by 1867, when the United States purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire. Despite the profitability of American trade and a wider range of goods, Choquette was faced with the decision of retaining the Hudson's Bay Company license and the freedom from American taxation that came with it by moving to just within British territory, which is to say, ten marine leagues upriver (approximately 30 km). Choosing a site opposite the Great Glacier, Choquette opened another store near the confluence of what became known as the Choquette River near the Stikine Hot Springs (see also Boundary Range). In time, Choquette would be given charge of a customs post and Hudson's Bay outlet, though opted eventually to remain at his preferred location, which he named Ice Mountain (his name for the Great Glacier).

Fort Wrangel[edit]

With Choquette's departure, and the British flag with him, which had flown over his store at Shakesville, American troops took over the old fortification of Fort Stikine, renaming it Fort Wrangel. It was the second US Army post established in Alaska, the first being Fort Tongass on Tongass Island, immediately north of 54°40′, but which was abandoned by 1870 as being of little real strategic or commercial value, as it was Fort Wrangel which controlled the main access inland and was therefore more viable as a customs port for the region, and Britain had shown no signs of military support for the claims that British Columbia had been making for its rights to the leased portion of the Panhandle, which had in any case been overtaken by American fishing, cannery and mining operations in the immediate aftermath of the Purchase.

Fort Wrangel again became a source of tension between American and British authorities in the region when more gold was discovered near Dease Lake in 1870, leading to the Cassiar Gold Rush of 1871. Once again thousands of miners poured into and through Fort Wrangel, and the US authorities attempted to exert control over British-registered shipping heading for the Stikine. A compromise was reached, and the confrontation derailed and prevented from escalating into warfare over the region. After the Cassiar rush was over, Fort Wrangel remained as one of the main US military installations in the region, and was again to play a strategic as well as a commercial role in relation to the Stikine's use as one of the lesser routes to the Klondike from 1897 and the mounting tensions of the Alaska Boundary Dispute, which was resolved by arbitration in 1903.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

"This paper was originally presented at a 2–4 June 1989 conference dealing with the Yukon/Alaska/BC border and the issues surrounding this border held in Whitehorse, YT, Canada. The conference was jointly sponsored by the Yukon Historical & Museums Association (YHMA), Yukon College, The University of Victoria's Public History Group, and the Alaska Historical Society. The proceedings were published by the YHMA."


Coordinates: 56°28′15″N 132°22′36″W / 56.47083°N 132.37667°W / 56.47083; -132.37667