1882 letter sheds light on Angoon tragedy

Posted: Thursday, August 12, 1999

Below is an excerpt of the letter

The recent discovery of a letter written in 1882 may finally let Angoon residents lay to rest the most grievous event in their history - the U.S. Navy's bombardment of their village.

``The community wants to have closure in respect to the bombardment of Angoon,'' said Marlene Zuboff, executive director of the Angoon Community Association. ``While we have these elders alive, we want them to be able to see closure.''

The letter is the only known account of the 1882 bombardment written shortly after it, other than descriptions by the man who ordered the bombardment, Navy Cmdr. E.C. Merriman.

The letter's author describes Merriman as a glory-seeker. The writer also called the shelling and burning of Angoon a ``brutal and cowardly thing'' that was ``entirely uncalled for.''

In the attack, Tlingit canoes, clan houses and storehouses of food were burned or shelled, artifacts were looted and six children were killed. The entire town of Angoon, on Admiralty Island, was left homeless.

``How many people died of exposure during the winter was never recorded,'' said Matthew Fred Sr., Angoon leader and elder. ``How many people died of starvation was never recorded.''

The letter, signed ``Frank,'' is believed to have been written by Frank H. Clark, assistant to the paymaster of the naval ship. Clark was the only man named Frank aboard the ship at the time, according to Steve Henrikson, curator at the Alaska State Museum.

The letter was brought to the attention of Henrikson by Karl Lemmerman of Anchorage last year. Lemmerman tracked down Clark's name through a crew list from the USS Adams, the ship commanded by Merriman.

A friend of Lemmerman found the letter in a garbage dump near Boston about 10 years ago. The letter journeyed through two rare book dealers to the Beinecke Library of Yale University, where it is now kept.

With the account the letter provides, Angoon residents hope their calls for closure and compensation may finally be addressed. Village residents want a formal apology from the U.S. Navy and want to receive assistance from the U.S. Department of Defense in rebuilding the clan houses and canoes that were destroyed. They also want help retrieving items taken from the village without having to go through the lengthy legal process of repatriation.

Chief among these items is the carved bow-piece of the only canoe to survive the attack. The bow-piece, carved to resemble a beaver, was discovered in January in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

``We have no idea how they got it there because we had it here in Angoon,'' Fred said. ``Someone had to take it in theft.''

Some legislative efforts have been made to help Angoon in its quest for closure. In 1998, state Sen. Jerry Mackie of Craig proposed a resolution urging a formal apology to Angoon. The resolution passed the Alaska Legislature.

Mackie has been attempting to get a response from the White House, with disappointing results, said Martha Stewart, associate director of the governor's office in Washington, D.C.

``I can't say we've made much progress at all,'' Stewart said. ``At this point, we haven't been even been able to get them to acknowledge that they received the resolution. And based on that, I would say the likelihood of repatriation is a long way down the road.''

However, Stewart thinks the new evidence of the letter may help Mackie's efforts.

The Navy refused to comment on the matter.

However, its official version of the event differs greatly from Angoon's. Both sides agree the dispute was prompted by the accidental death of Tith Klane, a tribal shaman, aboard the whaling boat where he worked.

Upon Klane's death, Angoon Tlingits stopped work to mourn and prepare for his burial ceremony. The boat in which he died was brought ashore and 200 blankets were requested as compensation for the shaman's death.

Angoon residents said bringing the boat ashore was part of their customs.

However, J.M. Vanderbilt, owner of the whaling station, claimed the boat was brought ashore because the Tlingits had seized it. Vanderbilt also said villagers took two men hostage, an assertion denied by Angoon residents.

In response, Navy Cmdr. Merriman brought the civilian tug Favorite and the revenue cutter Corwin, both equipped with weaponry, to the village.

``This was the first chance our skipper has had for glory this cruise, and it was too good to lose,'' Clark wrote in his letter.

Merriman demanded the people of Angoon pay him 400 blankets or he would decimate their village. Hostages were not mentioned, said Zuboff of the Angoon Community Association.

When all of the blankets were not delivered, Merriman carried out his threat and shelled the village.

Billy Jones, a 13-year-old survivor of the attack, described the aftermath in a 1949 testimonial. Jones said that his people showed no anger, only sorrow for ``the day we paid for a crime that was not committed.''

``They left us standing homeless on the beach,'' he said.

Letter excerpt

A recently revealed letter provides new details about the decimation of Angoon more than a century ago.

The 1882 letter is believed to be written by Frank H. Clark, one of the men under the command of the Navy officer who ordered the bombardment. The letter is now part of Yale University's Collection of Western Americana in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The following part of the correspondence details the attack on Angoon, with minor spelling and punctuation corrections, as it was written in 1882:

``Lt. Bartlett went on a steam tug belonging to the North West Trading Co. He took besides his sixty men and rifles a howitzer and Gatling gun. All this preparation against a lot of Indians half of whom were unarmed.

``On their arrival at Hoochenoo (later called Angoon), the Indian village where the property was seized, they found the two white men released and the property all restored.

``The Captain then notified the Indians that they must pay him four hundred blankets as a penalty for their unlawful conduct and gave them until the next day at noon to raise them. The next morning they had raised only a little over a hundred and at noon only one hundred and twenty he then burned and bombarded a few houses that were at our side of the village and at the same time raised his demand to 800 blankets, which is $2,400.

``This they did not comply with and he then gave orders to shell the town. After firing thirty or forty shells into the town he sent the sailors and marines and burned about forty houses, some of which cannot be replaced for $3,000, and only left five houses standing.

``Besides the dwellings there were a large number of storehouses filled with smoked salmon and other winter supplies. All this was burned too.

``Many of the Indians were away at Harrisburg (later called Juneau) mining and their houses contained everything they possessed and were all burned up. Of course those Indians who were there saved what they could before the burning.

``Mr. Vanderbilt who is prejudicial against the Indians estimated the loss to the tribe at 30 or 40 thousand dollars. This of course does not include the suffering to women and children who will suffer from want of shelter and food during the winter. As the weather there is much more severe than here it will undoubtedly cause much suffering.

``Most of the officers including myself consider it a brutal and cowardly thing and entirely uncalled for. It would have been well enough to have arrested the ringleaders and punished them, but in this case many innocent people suffered more than the guilty, and a large number of them helpless women and children. It is estimated that there are about 800 people in the village.

``We are all anxious to see the account the papers will give of it and the report the Capt. will give of it. In other words, how big a lie he will tell in order to justify himself.''

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