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The Alaskan Missions of the Episcopal Church
A brief sketch, historical and descriptive

by Hudson Stuck, D.D.
Archdeacon of the Yukon

New York: Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, 1920.

Chapter I. The Purchase--Before and After

WHEN, in 1867, the senate of the United States ratified the treaty with Russia, negotiated by Mr. William Henry Seward, whereby Alaska was purchased by the United States for seven million dollars, a beginning of the Christianizing of the country had already been made in two directions, by two agencies. The Russian or Orthodox Greek Church had established missions along the southwestern coast and the Aleutian Islands, and the Church of England had sent its pioneers from the Northwest Territories into the valley of the Yukon.

The Russian Church began work in Alaska in 1794, when eleven monks were sent to a settlement on Kadiak Island. Five years later a ship corning from Russia with a bishop and a number of clergy was lost with all hands. Frightful ravages had been committed among the natives of the coast by the Siberian fur hunters, and the Aleutian Islands had been half depopulated, when the most noted and vigorous of the Russian missionaries, John Veniaminoff, went to Unalaska in 1824. His active intervention on behalf of the Aleuts, his devoted labours amongst them, his writings and translations, justify the very honourable place that is given him in Alaskan history. Ten years later he was made Bishop and removed to Sitka, was later translated to the see of Kamchatka, and thence to the patriarchate of Moscow, the highest office in the Russian Church. At the time of the Purchase, the Russian Church had eleven priests and sixteen deacons at work in Alaska.

The Church of England missionaries entered Alaska from the east, following the building of the Hudson's Bay Post at Fort Yukon in 1847. In 1861 the Rev. William Kirby, afterwards Archdeacon, crossed the Rockies from the McKenzie country and made the first visit of a missionary to the upper Yukon. The next year Robert McDonald began his work amongst the Yukon Indians. The name of this man, afterwards made Archdeacon of the Yukon, is as notably associated with the middle part of that great river as is the name of Veniaminoff with the Aleutian Islands. He travelled far and wide upon the Yukon and its tributaries, evangelizing the Indians; he translated the whole Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal, into the Indian tongue, and he is still remembered with reverence and affection by the Indians of many thousands of square miles.

For twenty years after the purchase the American Episcopal Church did nothing for Alaska. The Greek Church continued its operations along the southeastern and southwestern coasts. There was a cathedral at Sitka, and churches at Wrangell, Kadiak, Unalaska, St. Michael; one mission on the Kuskokwim river and one on the Yukon, near its mouth.

The English Church maintained its labours in the Yukon Valley under the devoted superintendence of Bishop Bompas of the diocese of Selkirk; another name that will never be forgotten on the Yukon. The Rev. Mr. Can-ham was at Nuclacayette (now Tanana) more than half way down the Yukon; the Rev. Mr. Hawkesley at Fort Yukon; the Rev. A. V. Sim died teaching on the Porcupine River: all three agents of the English Church Missionary Society.


It is not easy to speak of the beginnings of work in southeastern Alaska without going a little further south and invading British Columbia. In 1856 Capt. J. C. Prevost, of H. M. S. Virago, returned to England from a four years' cruise off the coast of British Columbia. Since Vancouver's voyages of the last decade of the previous century these coasts had been frequented by traders of all kinds, with the usual unfortunate results, and nothing whatever had been done to Christianize the natives or to counteract the degrading influences. Captain Prevost made strong representations to the English Church Missionary Society, and in consequence William Duncan was sent out to Fort Simpson in 1857, to begin one of the most strikingly successful missionary enterprises of modern times. When, five years later, a number of converts had been made, Duncan transferred them to an island near the coast, the name of which, Metlakahtla, was to become known throughout the world. Here, in an exclusively Christian and exclusively Indian community, the people made astonishing advances in civilization under Duncan's masterful leadership; all sorts of industrial enterprises were successfully established, and for many years the cleanly, orderly, busy village was the shining example of what can be done with Indians under the influence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and under favourable circumstances of environment and direction. Some of the bloodiest and most turbulent of American Indians had been transformed into peaceful, faithful Christian people.

The effects of the work done at Fort Simpson were not confined to that locality. Parties of Indians who had received instruction passed over the boundary carrying- their teaching with them. When the United States took possession of Alaska in 1867 and established a military post at the old Russian Fort Wrangell, the soldiers were surprised to find Indians who would not work on Sunday but gathered for their own Christian worship. The Canadian Methodists also began a work at Fort Simpson in 1874 and the influence of their teaching spread across the boundary. Appeals from Wrangell were made to several missionary boards and in 1877 Dr. Sheldon Jackson--another great Alaskan name--visited the place in company with Mrs. A. R. McFarland, the widow of the first Presbyterian missionary in New Mexico, and left her there, to start a school. In the following year Dr. Jackson returned accompanied by the Rev. S. Hall Young, under whom a regular mission was established at Wrangell. Dr. Young has been actively connected with Presbyterian missions in many parts of Alaska ever since, and is the oldest Alaska missionary of any name. From this point the work was extended to Haimes on the Lynn Canal, and to Sitka, at that time the capital, on Baranoff Island. In 1885 the Presbyterians reported six regular stations and sixteen missionary teachers in Alaska.

The American Episcopal Church had not yet set hand to work at all.

Duncan's work had, it is true, been transferred to Alaskan territory, but it had ceased to have any connection with the Church. In fact it was his refusal to submit to the ecclesiastical authority of British Columbia that led to the transfer. The long series of acrimonious disputes, the tenacious hold which Mr. Duncan kept upon his sole personal rule, culminating in the severance of his connection with the missionary society which had sent him out and supported him, and the removal of himself and some five hundred Indians to Annette Island in Alaskan waters, all this has been told repeatedly, with much exhibition of partisan feeling. According to promise, when the excitement had had time to die down, Congress, in 1891, set aside Annette Island as a reserve for the Metlakahtla Indians "under such rules and regulations as shall be from time to time prescribed by the Secretary of the Interior." In 1914-15 the Secretary of the Interior prescribed such rules and regulations as to take from Mr. Duncan, in his old age, the authority to which he still passionately clung, and to vest the whole control of the place in the Bureau of Education. If the conspicuous success of William Duncan's early work be an illustration of the value of the "one man power" in missionary enterprise, so its subsequent vicissitudes and its unhappy conclusion are an illustration of the danger thereof. Duncan died at Metlakahtla in October, 1918, after having- continued at the place for some years purely on the sufferance of the government school-teacher.

An Unknown Land

Efforts were not wanting to induce the Church to take up its task. In 1882 Bishop Paddock, Missionary Bishop of the Territory of Washing-ton, made a visit to southeastern Alaska and came back telling- of the wonders of the land and urging the sending of missionaries. Many other voices were lifted to the same effect; resolutions were offered at Church gatherings; from time to time pleas were made by the Church newspapers. Bishop Bompas of the Canadian Yukon made repeated appeals to the Church at large and to the House of Bishops to consecrate a bishop for Alaska. It is never easy to arouse the Church to assume new responsibilities. So many undertakings already on foot are crying out for more vigorous support; the missionary treasury is always exhausted. "Let us do what we have set our hands to with some reasonable adequacy before we launch out into fresh enterprises" is a never-failing counsel of expediency that has all the maxims of proverbial philosophy behind it. But the history of the Christian Church displays a long succession of instances to show that the ordinary prudential considerations that should govern human affairs are out of place when they are brought forward to govern her affairs. Her work is a venture of faith. She has a right to take chances. It is scarcely too much to say that whenever a new opening is presented to her she has no right to refuse it.

Moreover it was long before the people of the United States came to look upon Alaska as anything else than a wilderness of ice and snow. Bret Harte's lines written at the time of the Purchase still represented the thought of the average American about the country. It was still the land

Where the short-legged Esquimaux
Waddle in the ice and snow,
And the playful polar bear
Nips the hunter unaware.
Segment of the frigid zone
Where the temperature alone
Warms on St. Elias' cone.

The echo of the ridicule that had been heaped on "Seward's Folly" had not yet died away.

Geography has never been a favourite study in America, and a high level of general knowledge is often found compatible with a surprising ignorance of a science which touches all other sciences most intimately and exerts a profound influence upon arts and letters. At a dinner of the elite of one of New York's most fashionable parishes, the writer was once asked if the Yukon were not in China. People will look at pictures of a country but they will not look at maps, although to those who have acquired the small knowledge necessary to read them, maps are far more interesting. It follows that, setting aside the work of the government surveyors, American maps are the poorest in the world, and there is no such thing as an even moderately good American atlas.

So though much had been written about Alaska, its inhabitants, its resources; though not only had its whole coast line been delineated but the whole course of the great river that runs through the midst of it had been described, yet to the great majority of educated people it was an unknown land, only slightly more interesting than Greenland or Spitzbergen because the United States flag waved over it.

The government of the United States was not less indifferent to its new possession than the general run of Americans; perhaps the attitude of the government may be broadly regarded as an index of the attitude of the people. Upon the acquisition of the new territory a force of soldiers was sent to Sitka and Wrangell, but nothing else was done save to make the territory a district for the collection of customs. In 1877 the soldiers were withdrawn and for seven years thereafter there was no sort of government, no sort of authority whatever, in Alaska. There were no courts, no officers, no laws and no means of enforcing laws; no means by which anyone could acquire title to land.

The United States was otherwise occupied. It was the period of reconstruction following the Civil War. Economically it was the period of rapid expansion, of transcontinental railway building, of great grants of national money, of opening up and developing of new regions, when, as William Henry Seward said in a tribute to the influence of the McCormick reaper, "the line of civilization moves westward thirty miles each year." Politically it was the "era of good stealing" of which Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner wrote in "The Gilded Age", when public office was not regarded as "a public trust" but as the spoil of political success. There was nothing in Alaska to interest politicians.

Sheldon Jackson

So no less than twenty-five bills attempting to set up some sort of civil government in Alaska failed of passage by Congress, until in 1884 an inadequate measure of the sort was enacted. As a part thereof an appropriation of $15,000 a year for general education was made. A year later the post of General Agent for Education in Alaska was created, and the Reverend Dr. Sheldon Jackson, the Presbyterian missionary already mentioned, was appointed thereto.

There is no escape from the fact that to this appointment is due the beginnings of missionary work in Alaska by the American societies other than the Presbyterian; and I do not know that anyone would wish to escape the giving of honour where honour is due. The fact that I should like to escape is that it took the solicitation and pressure of a government official, and the offer of government subsidies, to set the heavy wheels of our own missionary society working ever so slowly. Until I had dug into the documents and dates I thought it might be escaped.

Dr. Sheldon Jackson was a very remarkable character. For many years he had been a sort of free lance general missionary in New Mexico and Arizona and the western territories, "the missionary mustang of the Rockies, cantering from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Circle", as one of his own Church papers described him. Always "on the edge of things", blazing out a way that Bothers should follow, it is said that about one hundred churches were organized in the West as the direct result of his labours.

I do not know that he was particularly eloquent: we do not read of thousands hanging upon his lips; nor particularly scholarly: his writings are but journalism. But he was a man of bold, outreaching conceptions and great resourcefulness in executing them; a man possessed with the momentum of a restless energy that, debarred from one avenue to the attainment of a purpose, instantly found an alternative, and, the immediate purpose achieved, flung itself promptly, with unchanging vigour, upon another; a man that would not be denied; the type that has advanced so greatly the outposts of Christianity in all ages of its progress.

Alaska owes very much to Dr. Sheldon Jackson, and it is grateful to the present writer to take this opportunity of paying tribute to his memory. Misrepresented and calumniated, withstood to the uttermost by venal officials, attacked by all those whose interests lay in degrading the native peoples, he went straight forward with his beneficent projects, perhaps not always in the most tactful way--men burning with zeal have not always time to be tactful--but inflexible, indomitable and, at last, to an amazing degree, successful.

The heathen, degraded condition of the natives of Alaska had made strong appeal to the Christian sympathies of Dr. Jackson long before. Now that he was charged with the administration of the government funds and forces on their behalf, he resolved to summon to his aid the Christian organizations of the United States, well knowing that without them the government could do very little indeed. From that resolve sprang not only the beginning of the work of the Episcopal Church in Alaska, but of the Moravians, Methodists, Baptists, Swedish Evangelicals and The Society of Friends. A meeting of the secretaries of the principal missionary boards was held at which an informal working agreement as to the allotment of certain regions of the vast field to certain organizations was reached, an agreement which--referring only to the work amongst native peoples--has, in the main, obtained to this day. It was a wise, statesmanlike thing to do; it has resulted in an almost complete absence in Alaska of the unfortunate, discreditable conflicts between rival religious bodies which have not been unknown elsewhere.

Because of the work of the Church of England along the Yukon River the natives of the whole interior were left to our Church. And before we pass on to the story of our own missionaries in Alaska, it is well to pause for a moment and think of the debt we owe to the pioneers of our Mother Church who broke the trail for those who were to come after them. The interior of Alaska now, with its steamboats on the rivers, its stores and roadhouses, its telegraphs and mails, is a very different place from what it was when the first Canadian missionaries crossed the mountains from the Mackenzie River and descended to the Yukon, sixty years ago, when the country was still Russian territory. I have the most profound respect for the memory of those men who, living in the land when it was a purely Indian land, not only carried the gospel to the Yukon natives, but translated the whole Bible and much other devotional literature into their language, which translations we are using today. Our easier, if ampler, efforts take in my mind a much lower place in the roll of missionary activities.

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