While the opulent Company manager’s house (the ‘castle’ for which this hill is named) no longer exists, the importance of this hill top remains. One of the most striking attributes of this location is the unparalleled view of Sitka Sound. The Kiks.ádi clan had fortifications and clan houses atop the hill. When Baranof sailed into Sitka Sound for the first time, he wanted this hill top to be the location of the Russian seat of power in Sitka. The reason for both of these groups wanting to control the same hilltop was partially because of this view. All travel and trade in and out of Sitka was by boat, whether by dugout cedar canoes or by tall European trade ships. The view here meant that whomever controlled this hilltop would be able to see anyone entering Sitka Sound from far off, giving them ample time to greet either friend or foe.
When Baranof returned to Sitka in 1804 after the destruction of the Russian trade post in 1802, the Kiks.ádi here on Castle Hill would have been the first to see his ships and warn the rest of the community. While this hilltop is easily defended against attacks from land or dugout canoe, this is not the case against tall ships with cannons aboard. Therefore the Battle of 1804 did not occur here, but at a second Kiks.ádi fort at the mouth of Indian River on the long tidal flats. Looking southeast towards the Sitka National Historical Park visitor center, these tidal flats can be seen stretching into Sitka Sound at low tide. The Battle lasted six days, with the Kiks.ádi and Russians both well armed and well matched, though with good luck and timing for the Russians with the assistance of the Russian war sloop the Neva, Baranof and his fellow Russians prevailed. Following their victory, Baranof took over the now-abandoned Kiks.ádi fort atop this hill, and in 1808 it became the location of the official headquarters of the Company, and the capital of Russian America.
Another big change happened in Sitka in 1867, with the sale of Alaska to the United States. The official transfer ceremony during which the Russian flag was lowered, and the American flag raised, occurred right outside the manager’s ‘castle’ atop this hill. The seat of American governance in Sitka was located here initially, until the decline of the fur trade and whaling in Sitka, and the discovery of gold in the Yukon precipitated moving the capital to Juneau in 1906. Other government buildings, like those for the US Department of Agriculture, were located on Castle Hill for a time, but in 1955 all buildings were removed and the hilltop became a state park open to the enjoyment of all. In 1959, the American flag was raised here for the first time with 49 stars, as Alaska was admitted into the union as the 49th state.
From the view atop Castle Hill, we can look out and see many of Sitka’s Russian heirlooms that are a part of our everyday lives in Sitka: enriching us with the history lived and lessons learned throughout the years. Know that everywhere you step in Sitka has a history dating back thousands of years: a dynamic history that continues to change and grow as we add our own stories to it.
This concludes the Russian-American History Downtown Audio Tour. If you’re interested in learning more about Sitka’s Russian and Tlingit history, visit the Sitka National Historical Park visitor center at 106 Metlakatla Street at the east end of Lincoln Street, the Russian Bishop’s House at 501 Lincoln Street, or online at nps.gov/sitk. Thank you for listening! Enjoy your time in Sitka.