Vitus Bering, commanding a Russian expedition, is credited with the discovery of Alaska. There were two vessels in his expedition—the “St. Peter” and the “St. Paul.” The St. Paul commanded by Alexei Chirikof, drifted apart from Bering’s vessel, the “St. Peter,” in a storm and one month later landed “near the entrance of a large sound, surrounded by forested mountains, beneath the towering majesty of a cone-shaped peak.” Since there seems little doubt that Chirikof’s landfall preceded Bering’s, Sitka has been accepted as the site of Alaska’s discovery by Russia on July 15, 1741.
In 1799, Alexander Baranof built Fort Redoubt St. Archangel Michael six miles north of the present day Sitka (near the ferry terminal). This settlement was destroyed two years later by Tlingit warriors, and in 1804, Baranof returned from Kodiak to re-stake a settlement in the Sitka area. Following the battle at Indian River with the Tlingit, the Russians were able to settle in the former Indian site which is now Sitka, and the Indians evacuated the area until about 1822.
Flying the flags of many nations, explorers and traders followed on the heels of the discoverers, seeking the fur wealth of the sea-otter. The first major development effort, however, was that of Gregor Shelikof, the Russian Merchant Prince. Shelikof organized the Russian American Company and founded the headquarters on Kodiak Island in 1784.
Alaska was officially transferred to the United States at Sitka on October 18, 1867. Sitka remained the capital until 1912, when the territorial government was moved to Juneau.
Sitka’s fortunes had ebbed to that of a small fishing hamlet, until the beginning of World War II brought a naval center to Japonski Island, with 30,000 military personnel and over 7,000 civilians. Today the naval center has been converted to Mt. Edgecumbe Educational and Medical Center, a boarding high school and hospital for native children from all over Alaska.