Whereabouts of Alaska Day flag remain a mystery

Today marks 139 years since U.S. took control of territory

Posted: Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Today marks the anniversary of the first time an American flag flew on Alaskan soil, but on each Alaska Day some historians wonder if that particular flag still remains in the Last Frontier.

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Alaska Day commemorates the transfer of what is now the 49th state from Russia to the United States, which purchased the region for $7.2 million.

On Oct. 18, 1867, a ceremony was held on Castle Hill in Sitka, where the stars and stripes was first raised on Alaska soil as a symbolic transfer of sovereignty from Russia to the United States.

"In our collection is the American flag that was reportedly raised on Castle Hill," said Steve Henrikson, Alaska State Museum curator of collections.

There are a few inconsistencies with it that make Henrikson wonder if the actual historic flag was replaced with another one somewhere along the line.

"It's kind of a folk-art type of a flag," he said. "It's not a real well-sewn flag, which makes people wonder if this is the flag that the secretary of state (William Seward) sent for the ceremony."

The flag in the museum archives was given to Alaska by the U.S. State Department, but it has one less star on it than the number of recognized states on Oct. 18, 1867, Henrikson said.

"The ship may have been in route to Alaska prior to that, so to me that is not as big of an issue as why the flag isn't as nicely made as it should have been," he said.

Know and go

Alaska Day pancake breakfast

When: 7 to 9 p.m. today.

Where: Juneau Senior Center.

Cost: $12 adults; $6 children.

Beneficiary: Senior Nutrition Program.

An authentic note stamped by the State Department accompanied the flag, but the jury is still out on whether it is the actual flag, Henrikson said.

"We'll probably never know for sure, but it is just one of those long-standing mysteries that we wonder about when Alaska Day rolls around," he said.

Sitka resident Elaine Strelow believes Oct. 18 is more than just a day some Alaskans don't have to work.

"For us it has special meaning that we like to share with the rest of the state, reminding them how we came to be Americans in this place," Strelow said.

Most state and city employees have the day off work and public schools in Juneau and Sitka are closed today. Some banks and other businesses are closed as well to commemorate the state holiday.

Whether Alaska Day is a day to celebrate depends on your perspective, Henrikson said.

The transition of American ownership was difficult for many Alaska Natives, he said.

The Tlingits, the traditional landowners in Sitka prior to the arrival of Russians, were not considered during the 1867 ceremony, said Walter Sobeloff, chairman of Sealaska Heritage Institute's Council of Traditional Scholars.

"I think even to this day some of the Natives are indifferent to it because the primary owners of the land were not even asked, when they were here first," he said.

Strelow said it is important to commemorate all of the cultures on Oct. 18 that have helped create the Alaska we know today.

"That event changed the history of the United States," she said. "I think some writers would say it changed the history of the world."

Although an important date for the European settlers in Alaska, Oct. 18 was not officially commemorated for a number of years, said Gladi Kulp, head of historical collections for the Alaska State Library.

"The first listing of Alaska Day was in 1913, which was the first Territorial Legislature," she said.

Kulp said remembering the state's history is important.

"I think the more knowledgeable we are about our history the better able we are to make decisions about current issues in the state."

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