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Monday, July 16, 2012

The 1869 Bombardment of Wrangell

What if I told you that over 150 years ago, Wrangell was almost blown to smithereens by the U.S. Military after a member of the Stikine tribe bit off a white woman's finger?

You wouldn't believe me.  I didn't believe it at first.  How had I not heard this story before?

While not a lot of documentation exists on the Bombardment, most tell a very similar tale.  If you haven't heard of the 1869 Bombardment of Wrangell yet ... spoiler alert!
... The US Army was also involved in a shelling, later in 1869. 
George Thornton Emmons, a US Naval officer in Alaska from 1882 to 1899, and later one the first ethnographers to study Alaska Natives, wrote about the Wrangell incident in "The Tlingit Indians" his masterwork, which was written in the 1930s and 1940s but not published until 1991. 
"The shelling of Wrangell in 1869 by the Army at Fort Wrangel was ordered to enforce the surrender of an Indian named Scutdoo or Scutdor who had killed a White trader in retaliation for the wanton and unjustifiable killing of an Indian name Si-Wau by Lt. Loucks the second in command of the post," Emmons wrote. "Si Wau was drunk at the time and had bitten off part of a finger of (another soldier's) wife."
Emmons noted that Scutdoo was a cousin of Si Wau and felt duty bound to kill a white to avenge the death. The Army shelled a large portion of the Indian village and then took Scutdoo's mother and another Native hostage. Scutdoo gave himself up and was tried, convicted and hanged for the murder.
Emmons reported that before the execution Scutdoo expressed sorrow over the killing and said he had nothing personal against the dead trader and he hoped to meet up with him in the afterlife.
That's the Cliffs Notes version, courtesy of Dave Kiffen from his article US Navy Bombed Angoon 125 Years Ago, which can be found at

What that clip leaves out is that the U.S. Military blasted a few cannon balls into what was then Fort Wrangel and threatened to take the whole place down if Scutdoo didn't give himself up to be hung.  Well, he did.  In fact, Scutdoo's hanging was the first recorded in Alaska (Dec. 29, 1869), according to
The Bombardment made waves in the National news, but somehow isn't remembered when we, the locals, celebrate Wrangell history.  Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) and WCA hope to change that thanks to a new grant.  SHI was the recipient of a one-year National Park Service (NPS) Battlefield Preservation Grant to document 1869 Bombardment through oral history work with elders in partnership with the WCA.  This is the first ever NPS grant awarded to an organization in Alaska to study a U.S. conflict with a Native tribe.

The final report generated through the grant will be given to the WCA and community of Wrangell to allow them to determine what could be done to preserve, market, develop or memorialize the conflict for the community’s advantage.  Some Battlefield Grant recipients in years past have gone on to build memorials, or be recognized as a National Historic Site, like Chief Shakes Tribal House.

Zachary Jones, SHI Archivist & Collection Manager and PhD student in Ethnohistory at University of Alaska Fairbanks focusing on Tlingit and Russian relations, will serve as the primary investigator on the Bombardment and believes “past writings do not do the situation justice.  Reports out there now largely represent only one side of the story.  They didn’t go far enough. One needs to understand Tlingit law, the cultural context and aspects of Federal Indian policy to address the whole situation.  I look forward to working with and serving the WCA and community of Wrangell in bringing this complex issue forward."

Fort Wrangell, 1869, by Vincent Colyer, who reported to President Ulysses S. Grant on the Bombardment

Monday, July 9, 2012

Rasmuson Foundation excited about Tribal House progress after visit

Wrangell Cooperative Association was pleased to welcome one of the earliest and largest contributors to the Chief Shakes restoration to Wrangell, as members of the Rasmuson Foundation paid the Tribal House and Carving Shed a visit on June 25th.

“The Chief Shakes Island Tribal House restoration is exactly the type of project the Rasmuson Foundation likes to get behind,” said Ed Rasmuson, who before becoming President and Chairman of the Board for National Bank of Alaska spent two years running the Wrangell branch after Senator Frank Murkowski.
Rasmuson Foundation members

“I called Wrangell home in 1966 and ’67 and it still holds a place in my heart. I would like nothing more than to see the Native culture preserved for future generations. Throw in the visitors that the restored Tribal House and a new carving facility will bring to town and this was a no-brainer project for us to back.”

“The Rasmuson Foundation absolutely loves Alaska,” added Rasmuson. “We’ve contributed more than $2.5 million to Wrangell projects and are proud to have contributed to Wrangell Cooperative Association (WCA). We can’t wait to see the Tribal House and Carving Shed completed and the totems back in their rightful place again soon.”

Project Manager Todd White, WCA's Carol Snoddy and Ed Rasmuson
WCA’s Carol Snoddy worked for Ed Rasmuson at National Bank of Alaska/Wells Fargo for 30 years and “was very encouraged with the Rasmuson Foundation’s visit.”

“The members and their spouses were all really enthused on the island and genuinely excited to see our progress,” said Snoddy. “I really do believe that Wrangell is one of the bright spots in Southeast Alaska right now and our progress will help to strengthen our community and Native culture. Now it’s time to get the House back together and get those totems back up.”

Project Manager Todd White gave Foundation members a rundown of the project during the Shakes Island visit, showing off the freshly raised corner posts and mapping out the next steps in the restoration.

“The South wall framing is in place,” said White. “We're waiting on the second batch of our Cedar donated by Sealaska so we can finish the front wall, so we’re going to do some roof work in the meantime.”

Speaking on the South wall, White admitted to being a little nervous as Superintendent Richard Oliver made cuts through the corner posts for sill beams and framing.

“I was a little nervous for the first cut,” said White. “There's a lot of pressure riding on the cuts at this stage, not only due to the time and manpower involved in getting the Cedar here, but by the time the logs were finished, delivered and then adzed, they are valued at $30,000 a piece. I just told Richard, ‘If you can't make the cut, nobody can.”