Danger in Yakutat, 1880

a Google Earth shot of
Laax̱aayík (Yakutat Bay)
This year I've written a few different in-depth posts on the blog about moments from Tlingit history—a natural outgrowth, I suppose, from all the fun research I did while writing my senior thesis. I wrote about a Spanish expedition that came to Prince of Wales Island in 1779, (likely bringing smallpox), and I wrote about a battle in Prince William Sound in 1792 fought between Tlingit, Russians, and the Russians' Chugach Sugpiaq allies (the first recorded battle between Tlingit and Russians).

More recently, I highlighted some of my favorite facts from the book Land of the Ocean Mists by Francis Caldwell. Now I'd like to share a full story from Land of the Ocean Mists, paraphrased in my own words and with additional information provided. The story concerns a dangerous year spent in the place the Tlingit named Laax̱aayík, a place we now call Yakutat...

Kalyáan and his wife at
the Alaska State Museum
(photo by me)
James Hollywood was an American who came to Sitka in the early 1870s, some few years after the United States purchased Russia's claim to Alaska. He had the good fortune to marry a daughter of Kalyáan in Sitka, a high-class Tlingit woman indeed, as Kalyáan (often written as Katlian) was the name passed down from the famed leader of the Kiks.adí (a clan of the Sheetʼká Ḵwáan) who fought valiantly against the Russians in 1802 and 1804.

Hollywood built the Gold Hunter in 1877, a ship intended for trading cruises, as well as—obviously—prospecting. The Gold Hunter left Sitka for Laax̱aayík in June of 1880, following rumors of gold, and Hollywood brought his wife, their two daughters, and three men to join him. One of the men drowned in an accident at Lituya Bay, but the others made it to Yakutat and found good prospects for gold there.

After some time, the two other men decided to make another prospecting trip against Mr. and Mrs. Hollywood's advice. Apparently Mrs. Hollywood warned the men that she had overheard there was a plot to kill them for their guns and ammunition. Nevertheless, the two Americans left for the mountains, accompanied by three Tlingit guides.

According to Mrs. Hollywood’s story recounted years later, one of guides killed both American men just hours after the expedition began. He used a shotgun to kill one and wound the other, and then finished him with a rock. After the Hollywoods heard the news, they stayed in their cabin all winter, and Mrs. Hollywood demanded that her husband stay inside at all times for fear he would be killed. She felt more protected outside, perhaps, because she was the daughter of Kalyáan.

After a few months in the cabin, the Tlingit-American family of four escaped, sailing away from Yakutat in early 1881. Their ship wrecked on the Fairweather Coast in a storm, but some Tlingit from the Alsek River area brought them to a Xunaa Káawu hunting party, which then helped them return home to Sitka. Gold fever did not lead anyone back to Yakutat until eight years later, in 1888, and Hollywood never went prospecting again.


Iʼve never been to Yakutat, but
Iʼd love to visit (image source)
After the Hollywood family returned to Sitka, the U.S. military authorities went north to apprehend the two miners' murderer. Frederica de Laguna's chef d'œuvre Under Mount Saint Elias tells that story in brief: Commander Edward P. Lull took the U.S.S. Wachusett to Yakutat and brought two Yaakwdáat Ḵwáan leaders on board. Apparently these leaders had protected the Hollywoods during the winter from the murderer, but Lull took one of them hostage on his ship and sent the other ashore, demanding that he find the perpetrator and surrender him. Eventually the alleged murderer was brought aboard, as well as a man and two women who Hollywood thought were witnesses. All four Tlingit were sent over a thousand miles away to Portland, Oregon, the nearest federal court. De Laguna provides no more information on their fate.