History of Transfer
In the spring of 1867, word was received that the territory had been sold to the United States and preparations for the transfer should be made. On the 18th of October the Commissioners arrived in Sitka and the formal transfer was arranged.
The U.S. troops, 250 strong in full uniform, were landed about three o'clock and marched to the top of the eminence on which stands the Governor's house, where the transfer was to be made. A company of 100 Russian soldiers took their place on the left side of the flagstaff.
The official account of the affair as presented by Gen. Rousseau to Secretary of State William Seward continues: "... The troops being promptly formed, were, at precisely half past three o'clock, brought to a 'present arms', the signal given to the Ossipee... which was to fire the salute, and the ceremony was begun by lowering the Russian flag... The United States flag... was properly attached and began its ascent, hoisted by my private secretary, George Lovell Rousseau, and again salutes were fired as before, the Russian water battery leading off. The flag was so hoisted that in the instant it reached its place the report of the big gun of the Ossipee reverberated from the mountains around... Captain Pestchouroff stepped up to me and said, 'General Rousseau, by authority from his Majesty the Emperor of Russia, I transfer to the United States the Territory of Alaska' and in a few words I acknowledged the acceptance of the transfer, and the ceremony was at an end."
The Ceremony: A dual cannon salute was fired for each flag. The Russian flag stuck fast in the lanyards during its lowering. Several soldiers were unsuccessful in their attempts to climb the flagpole and free the flag. A sling was rigged and a Russian soldier raised to the flag, but he dropped it after freeing it. Gasps were heard as the flag dropped and was blown onto the Russian soldiers' bayonets. The ceremony continued with the quick raising of the American flag. The Commissioners exchanged a few words and Alaska's 586,412 square miles belonged to the United States.
Source: Interpretive Sign at Castle Hill by the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation
At the time of the transfer, Sitka was a thriving Russian colony. A shipyard had been established as soon as the buildings necessary for housing the garrison were completed. The first ship built on the west coast of America was launched in 1806 at Sitka, and the Politofsky, the first steam vessel constructed on the North Pacific, was launched in 1842. Sitka also had the first weather observatory on the West Coast, equipped with the latest magnetic and metrological instruments (established in 1832) . It had a hospital and apothecary shop, a museum, a library, the Russian Orthodox cathedral, a church for the Natives, a Lutheran church, and five schools. It had sawmills, a flour mill, a bakery, a tannery, and a saltery. A fish trap at Redoubt Lake took 60,000 sockeye salmon each year.
Watercolor of Sitka by Captain Iurii F. Lisianskii, drawn during his visit to Sitka in 1804-05.
(Alaska State Library PCA 20-143)