Accumulated Fragments: Histories entwined: A ship, her origins and her adventures

I’d like to share a piece of Southeast Alaska history, intertwined with a proud ship named after the first English village in America; it seemed especially interesting. Who would have guessed that a sailing ship of war would be involved in so many historical periods: American anti-slavery, the Irish potato famine, the Civil War, the change from sail powered to steam powered ships, the purchase of Alaska and, finally, the settling of Juneau and development of the gold district. It was also interesting to me that before the USS Jamestown was destroyed, Alaska (August 24, 1912) became an organized incorporated territory.


The USS Jamestown

On Dec. 12, 1844 the first USS Jamestown (a sloop of war), named for the colony, was commissioned by The United States Navy in Gosport Navy Yard, Virginia. Initially, she became the flagship of Commodore Charles Skinner in command of United States naval vessels operating off the coast of Africa to suppress the slave trade. Later, a joint resolution of Congress, on March 3, 1847, authorized the Secretary of the Navy to use the Jamestown to carry food to the starving poor of Ireland during the potato famine. Following that, she went to the Mediterranean to assist in protecting American citizens and interests during the epidemic of revolutions shaking Europe in 1848.

The Jamestown remained a fighting ship of the US Navy until Feb. 14, 1860 when she was decommissioned. After the outbreak of the Civil War, the Jamestown was recommissioned. Over the next few years she compiled an outstanding record. On Oct. 12, 1862 she was sent to the Pacific to protect American commerce from Confederate privateers where she remained on duty until the end of the war.

After working as a hospital ship in Panama, the USS Jamestown, along with the USS Resaca, were ordered north to join the North Pacific Squadron because many of the crew of each ship had picked up yellow fever. The north pacific around Alaska was used as a quarantine area for yellow fever at that time. It was thought that the cooler climate would help those affected.

In Russian America big changes were just around the corner. On March 30, 1867, a treaty between Russia and the United States for the purchase of Russian America by the United States was signed in Washington, D.C. Soon after, on June 20, the Treaty of Purchase was ratified by the U.S. Senate and proclaimed by President Andrew Johnson. Around the same time, the Governor of British Columbia came by ship to Sitka to settle up Hudson’s Bay Company affairs in Russian America. Then on July 23, John Kinkead was appointed postmaster at Sitka; making it the first American post office in the newly purchased Alaska. However, he did not arrive in Sitka until Oct. 9, and the office was not opened until January of 1868 (President Chester Arthur appointed Kinkead as governor of the newly formed District of Alaska on July 4, 1884). Kinkead came to Sitka aboard the steamer John L. Stephans along with General Jefferson C. Davis with his troops. General Davis would become the first of the military commanders of the Department of Alaska (The Department of Alaska, overseen by the military, would remain such until May 17, 1884). On Sept. 11, 1867 The USS Jamestown and the USS Resaca dropped anchor in the Sitka harbor. Finally, on Oct. 18 the USS Ossipee arrived with U.S. Commissioner General Lovell Rousseau and Russian Commissioner Naval Commander Alexei Peshchurov.

On the afternoon of Oct. 18, 1867, 200 American troops were drawn up in front of the “Baranoff castle,” facing 100 Russian troops; both dressed in their finest uniforms. The two Commissioners stood before their troops. A tall flag pole with the Imperial Russian Flag whipped in the wind above the castle. As the Russian flag was slowly lowered, the flag wound itself around the top mast crosstrees and became disengaged from the signal halyards, apparently determined not to come down. Several Russians climbed up the shrouds supporting the staff but their strength became exhausted and they had to slide down. During all this the Russian military salute was going on and the commissioners were becoming extremely impatient. Finally, a running bowline was made in one end of the mast rope and a man was hoisted up. He cleared the flag but instead of bringing it down with him, he threw it down upon the bayonets of the Russian soldiers presenting arms underneath. The American Ensign was slowly run up, followed by another salute of 21 guns fired alternately by the battery on shore and the USS Ossipee. Three cheers were given by the Americans present.

Commissioner Peshchurov stepped forward and said, “General Rousseau, by the authority vested in me by his Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Russia, I transfer to you the Russian possessions of Alaska.”

General Rousseau replied, “I accept it on behalf of the Government of the United States”.

Thus, ended the ceremony; much to the disgust of the newspaper reporters who were present and expected a lengthy speech from both dignitaries to report to their papers.

On May 30, 1868, the USS Jamestown, who had remained in port since before the transfer, lifted anchor and sailed for Mare Island, Calif. Following repairs, the Jamestown cruised the Pacific for three years on the west coasts of North and South America and as far west as Tahiti, Fiji, and the Hawaiian Islands. She was in and out of service until May 8, 1879. On that date, with a new captain she sailed, once again, to Sitka where she surveyed the harbor and proceeded to protect American interests. The new Captain, Lester A. Beardslee, became the first US Naval officer to take command of the Department of Alaska. Up until 1877 the Department of Alaska had been administered by the Army. Then from 1877 to 1879 the Department of Treasury took over via the Collector of Customs. In 1879 the Navy was given jurisdiction over the Department.

Captain Beardslee was transferred to the post of Commander of the Pacific Squadron to later become a Commodore. His replacement as Captain of the USS Jamestown and Commander of the Department of Alaska on Sept. 13, 1880 was Commander Henry Glass.

At the time gold was discovered in Silver Bow Basin, the Navy’s one ship in Alaskan waters was the USS Jamestown, rated as a sloop-of-war, and as a full-rigger without steam power she was not a handy vessel for moving among the narrow channels of Southeastern Alaska. Consequently, the Jamestown stayed at moorings in the inner harbor at Sitka and most travel was done with her two steam launches.

At the end of November, 1880, following a report from Richard Harris and Joe Juneau that they had discovered gold, Commander Glass sent one of his steam launches to Gastineau Channel with a party of miners. In late January of 1881, he sent the launch back to the mining camp, this time with his executive officer in charge, Lt. Commander C.H. Rockwell, who was to give assistance in organizing a mining district as provided by the country’s mining laws.

Only once in the history of the American Navy has a substantial gold discovery been made and a full-scale mining district organized in a territory under its jurisdiction. Also, never in the history of American mining, except on Gastineau Channel has a mining camp germinated, sprouted and grown under the watchful eye of the U.S. Navy. During the process of organizing, the miners voted to change the name of the mining camp from Harrisburg (Richard Harris said he named it for the capital of Pennsylvania) to Rockwell.

The launch made several trips from Sitka to Rockwell. In a report to the Secretary of the Navy on May 7, 1881, Commander Glass wrote: “Mr. Rockwell returned on the 27th of April and his report decided me to go at once to the mines to investigate the situation and take such steps as might be necessary. I arrived at Rockwell on the 30th of April and at once called upon the mining recorder and several other gentlemen of intelligence for information, and became convinced from their statements that some prompt and decided action should be taken to guard against serious disturbances which were liable to occur at the mines at any time, it being frequently said ‘there is no law in Alaska.’ There have been frequent disputes over the ownership of property in town and of placer claims and quartz ledges. Some of the disputes terminated in threats of open violence in persons and property. I decided to give notice to all the inhabitants of Alaska, and more particularly to the miners at Rockwell, that the military authority of the government would be exercised for the preservation of good order and the protection of all residents. With this object, I called a meeting of all the miners and others in the town on the 2nd of May and gave notice of my intention.”

Commander Glass did take action and picked a site for a military reserve where he proposed to erect buildings and to station a garrison which would keep order in the camp and the general area. The place he selected was later occupied by the federal Court House, Alaska State Jail and, presently, the State Office Building. The Military Post remained in place until Dec. 15, 1881.

Commander Glass reported to the Secretary of the Navy: “ Finding it no longer necessary to maintain a force on shore at this place, I have ordered all the men and officers to duty on board ship and have given custody of the unoccupied buildings to the postmaster, the only government official now at this point.”

No one knows why he decided to close down the post, because it wasn’t long after that that real problems developed between the natives and the whites which resulted in several deaths. However, on the day previous to the closing, the residents voted to rename the camp, turning down “Harrisburg” and “Rockwell” in favor of “Juneau.” I suppose that could have had something to do with it.

On Oct. 18, 1881, the USS Jamestown released command to the USS Wachusett and returned to California. Commander Glass remained in Alaska with the Wachusett. The USS Jamestown was fitted out as a hospital ship and later as a training ship. Finally, in January, 1913 she was destroyed by fire at the Norfolk Navy Yard.

The origins of Jamestown

At the beginning of the 17th century, the British King, King James I established a joint stock company called the Virginia Company of London. This company was established specifically to develop colonial settlements in North America. The King granted the company the coastal land from the 34th parallel (Cape Fear) north to the 41st parallel (in Long Island Sound). The company also owned a large portion of Atlantic and Inland Canada. Within those areas, the company was allowed, by its charter, to establish a 100-square-mile settlement.

On April 26, 1607, the Virginia Company’s ships filled with colonists and supplies landed on the southern edge of Chesapeake Bay (near present day Virginia Beach). They named the place Cape Henry. Immediately, the colonists were met by natives (Paspahegh) and were welcomed with dancing, feasting, tobacco ceremonies and crucial provisions. This was very lucky for the colonists as most, if not all, of the colonists were not agriculturally inclined. However, the James Fort settlement, established there on May 14 became the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.

Captain Edward Maria Wingfield, elected president of the governing council on April 25, 1607 while still aboard ship, decided to move the encampment. So, on May 24 they established the Jamestown Settlement on a James River island about 40 miles upstream from the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. The island was surrounded by the York River in the north, the James River in the south, a swamp on the west and the Chesapeake Bay in the east. This piece of land had deep water on two sides, making it a navigable and defensible strategic point for a fortified settlement. Perhaps the best thing about it, from an English point of view, was that it was not inhabited by nearby native tribes, who regarded the site as too poor and remote for agriculture. Also, the island was swampy, isolated, offered limited space and was plagued by mosquitoes and brackish tidal river water unsuitable for drinking. In addition to the malarial swamp, the settlers arrived too late in the year to get crops planted. As suggested before, many in the group were gentlemen unused to work and their man-servants were equally unaccustomed to the hard labor demanded by the harsh task of carving out a viable colony. In a few months, 51 of the party were dead; some of the survivors were deserting to the natives whose land they had colonized. In the “starving time” of 1609–1610, the Jamestown settlers were in serious trouble. Only 61 of the 500 colonists survived the period. There is scientific evidence that the settlers at Jamestown had turned to cannibalism during the starving time.

Even though the first colonists had been greeted by the natives with lavish feasts and supplies of maize, the English, lacking the inclination to grow their own food, became hungry and began to strong-arm more and more supplies from nearby villages; relations quickly deteriorated and eventually led to conflict. The resulting war led to the total annihilation of the Paspahegh within 3 years. In fact, if the Virginia Company had not continued to resupply the settlement with additional colonists and food, the settlement would have died out also.

From 1619 to 1699 Jamestown was the capital of the Virginia Colonies. When the statehouse burned in 1698 the legislature temporarily moved to a place called Middle Plantation and was able to meet in the new facilities of the College of William and Mary. Rather than rebuilding at Jamestown again, the capital was moved permanently to Middle Plantation, renamed Williamsburg, to honor the reining monarch, King William III. The old town of Jamestown slowly disappeared into agricultural lands and history, though its legacy lived on with its namesake ship.


1) Dictionary of American Fighting Ships by the U.S. Navy Department

2) The founding of Juneau by R.N. DeArmond

3) Historic Jamestowne by Preservation Virginia

4) Journal of the USS Ossipee by Capt. George F. Emmons

5) A Sitka Chronology 1867-1967 by R.N. DeArmond

6) The Sitka Historical Society


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