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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

American Colonization

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

Episcopal station at the Koyukuk River. LC Carpenter Collection. The northernmost mission in Alaska, St. John's was located near the Arctic Circle.

American missionaries ventured to Alaska soon after the purchase and helped to Americanize the region. Presbyterians, led by the superintendent of the Home Missions of the Territories, Sheldon Jackson, were particularly prominent in the early years. Over time other churches also established missions to convert, educate, and assist native Alaskans.

Scientific exploration also continued apace, most famously with the Harriman Expedition along the coast of Alaska in 1899. Financed by railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman, this "floating university," as it was called, included famous scientists, naturalists, artists, writers, and photographers. Although the official photographers were Edward Curtis (who later became famous for his photos of Native Americans) and D. J. Inverarity, his assistant, others also took striking photos, primarily of the landscapes and native villages.

The expedition made a quick additional stop at Plover Bay, Siberia. Numerous scientific publications resulted from the Harriman Expedition, but probably of equal significance was the publicity it generated for an Alaska depicted as wild in nature, epic in grandeur, and bountiful in resources.

Presbyterian Ministers

After the United States purchased Alaska, numerous Presbyterian ministers ventured north with hopes of spreading Christianity. Several clergymen penned insightful descriptions of conditions in Alaska and accounts of their activities. Among other things, the writings reveal the spiritual faith that underpinned the missionaries' efforts to "civilize" the region's indigenous peoples.

The Harriman Expedition

Harriman Alaska Expedition. 1899. Albert K. Fisher Collection, LC Manuscripts Division

While missionaries endeavored to educate Alaska's indigenous population on religious matters, the Harriman Expedition set forth to increase America's understanding of the region's natural history and native inhabitants. One member of the expedition, Albert K. Fischer, compiled an album that included photographs taken by various people during the expedition. Several pictures shot by soon-to-be-renowned photographer Edward S. Curtis documented the region's cultural diversity.

Missions and Churches

The Presbyterians were not alone in desiring to harvest the souls of Alaska's indigenous population. Episcopalians established the St. James Mission at Tanana and a station far north on the Koyukuk River, Methodists founded the Eskimo Methodist Episcopal Church in Nome, and Roman Catholics held mass at the Holy Cross Mission on the Yukon River. Other denominations active in the area included the Russian Orthodox, Moravians, Congregationalists, Quakers, Baptists, and Lutherans. By the dawn of the twentieth century, more than eighty-two missions and churches provided practical and spiritual education to Native-Alaskan men, women, and children.