Alaska was discovered by the Russians in 1741 and remained a possession of Russia until transferred to the United States in 1867. In 1794 regular missionary work was begun among the Aleut on Kodiak Island by monks of the Greek Catholic (Russian orthodox) church, under the Archimandrite Joassaf, with marked success among the islanders, lint with smaller result among the more warlike tribes of the mainland. Within a few years the savage A lent were transformed to civilized Christians, many of whom were able to read, write, and speak the Russian language. Among the pioneer workers were Fathers Juvenal, murdered in 1796 by the Eskimo for his opposition to polygamy, and the distinguished John Veniaminof, 1823 to about 1840, the historian and philologist of the Alaskan tribes, and author of a number of religious and educational works in the Aleut and Tlingit languages, including an Aleut grammar and a brief dictionary. Fathers Jacob Netzvietoff and Elias Tishnoff also have made several translations into the Aleut language. About the time of the transfer to the United States the Christian natives numbered 12,000, served by 27 priests and deacons, with several schools, including a seminary at Sitka Chapels had been established in every important settlement from Prince William Island to the outermost of the Aleutian Islands, a distance of 1,800 miles, besides other stations on the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Nushagak Rivers, and regular churches at Sitka, Killisnoo, and Juneau. In 1902 the Greek church had 18 ministers at work in Alaska.
The first, Protestant missions after the transfer to t he United States were begun by the Presbyterian in 1877, under the supervision of Rev. Sheldon Jackson and Mrs. A. R. McFarland, with headquarters at Ft Wrangell, where a school had already been organized by some Christian Indians from the Methodist station at Ft Simpson, British Columbia. Within the next 18 years some 15 stations had been established among the Indians of the south coast and islands, besides two among the Eskimo, at Point Barrow and on St Lawrence Island. Among the earliest workers, besides those already named, were Rev. J. G. Brady, Rev. E. S. Willard, and Mr. Walter Stiles. The principal schools were at Sitka (1878) and Juneau (1886). At Pt Barrow a herd of imported reindeer added to the means of subsistence. The majority of these missions are still in successful operation.
The next upon the ground were the Catholics, who made their first establishment at Wrangell in 1878, following with others at Sitka, Juneau, and Skagway. In 1886–87 they entered the Yukon region, with missions at Nulato on the Yukon, St Ignatius on the Kuskokwim, St Mary’s (Akularak), St Michael, Nome, Kusilvak Island, Nelson Island, Holy Cross (Koserefsky), and others, the largest schools being those at Koserefsky and Nulato. With the exception of Nulato all were in Eskimo territory. In 1903 the work was in charge of 12 Jesuits and lay brothers, assisted by 11 sisters of St Anne. The Innuit grammar and dictionary of Father Francis Barnum (1901) ranks as one of the most important contributions to Eskimo philology.
In 1884 the Moravian pioneer workers among the eastern Eskimo, sent a commission to look over the ground in Alaska, and as a result a mission was established at Kevinak among the Eskimo of Kuskokwim River in the next year by Revs. W. H. Weinland and J. H. Kilbuck, with their wives. In the same year other stations were established at Kolmakof, on the upper Kuskokwim, for Eskimo and Indians together, and farther south, at Carmel, on Nushagak River. In 1903 there were 5 mission stations in Eskimo territory, in charge of 13 white workers, having 21 native assistants, with Rev. Adolf Stecker as superintendent. The reindeer herd numbered nearly 400.
In 1886 the Episcopalians began work with a school at St Michael, on the coast ( Eskimo), which was removed next year to Anvik, on the Yukon, in charge of Rev. and Mrs Octavins Parker and Rev. J. H. Chapman. In 1890 a mission school was started at Point Hope (Eskimo), under Dr J. B. Driggs, and about the same time another among the Tanana Indians in the middle Yukon valley, by Rev. and Mrs T. H. Canham. In 1903 the Episcopalians in Alaska, white and native, counted 13 churches, a boarding school, and 7 day schools, with a total working force of 31.
The Baptists also began work in 1886 on Kodiak Island, under Mr. W. E. Roscoe. In 1893 a large orphanage was erected on Wood Island, opposite Kodiak, by the Woman’s Home Mission Society, its sphere of influence now including a great part of the Alaska peninsula westward from Mt St Elias.
The Methodists, beginning also in 1886, have now several stations in south east Alaska, together with the flourishing Jesse Lee Industrial Home, under the auspices of the Methodist Woman’s Home Mission Society, on Unalaska Island.
In 1887 the Swedish Evangelical Union of Sweden, through Revs. Axel Karlson and Adolf Lydell, respectively, established stations at Unalaklik on Bering sea (Eskimo) and at Yakutat, on the south coast among the Tlingit. In 1900, in consequence of an epidemic, an orphanage was founded on Golofnin bay. The civilizing and Christianizing influence of the Swedish mission is manifest over a large area.
In 1887 the Kansas Yearly Meeting of Friends began work on Douglas Island, near Juneau, through Messrs E. W. Weesner and W. H. Bangham, chiefly for the white population. In 1892 a school was opened among the Kake Indians of Kuiu and Kupreanof Island, under the auspices of the Oregon meeting, and in 1897 another mission, under the auspices of the California meeting, was established among the Eskimo in Kotzebue Sound. Here also is now a large reindeer herd.
In 1890 the Congregationalists, under auspices of the American Missionary Association, established the Eskimo mission school of Wales, at C. Prince of Wales, on Bering Straight, under Messrs W. T. Lopp and H. R. Thornton, the latter of whom was afterward assassinated by some rebellious pupils. In 1902 the school war in prosperous condition, with more than a hundred pupils and a herd of about 1,200 reindeer.
In 1900 the Lutherans, under the auspices of the Norwegian Evangelical Church, established an orphanage at the Teller reindeer station, Port Clarence, Bering Streight, under Rev. T. L. Brevig, assisted by Mr. A. Hovick, the missionaries having charge also of the Government reindeer herds at the place. It was at Teller station that Rev. Sheldon Jackson, in 1892, inaugurated the experiment of introducing Siberia reindeer to supplement the rapidly diminishing food supply of the natives, as the whale had been practically exterminated from the Alaska coast. The experiment has proved a complete success, the original imported herd of 53 animals having increased to more than 15,000, with promise of solving the problem of subsistence for the Eskimo as effectually as was done by the sheep introduced by the old Franciscans among the Pueblos and through them the Navaho.