Alaska's first census-taker faced challenges

Aunt Phil's Trunk

An unofficial head count taken at Sitka by the U.S. Army in 1869 revealed 391 civilians made up the town’s population, which included 10 saloonkeepers and 29 prostitutes.

It was hoped that the 1880 Census would elevate Alaska’s image. Chosen to take the important tally was one of the most controversial figures in Alaska history, Ivan Petroff. Years later, historians would say Petroff was everything from a “Prevaricator Par Excellence” and able historian, to a three-time Army deserter, falsifier of documents and “teller of tall tales.”

Petroff faced many obstacles to his newly appointed mission. No one knew how large the territory of Alaska was, and there were no roads, only a few Native trails. Travel by water also was at a minimum. A mail steamer reached Sitka only once a month, and other than a few revenue cutters and Native bidarkas, canoes and umiaks, there were few sailing vessels.

Government was hardly existent in Alaska during this time. By 1878 all the Army posts had been abandoned, and by 1880 there were only two post offices – one in Sitka and one in Wrangell. While there were a few U.S. Customs collectors and inspectors, there wasn’t a single municipal government and no newspapers.

When we think of the task faced by Petroff more than 100 years ago, we can only marvel that he accomplished as much as he did. He got to only around half of the vast territory and had to depend upon whaling captains, traders, U.S. Signal Service personnel, Russian Church records, priests, missionaries and merchants for help in acquiring statistics.

He traveled about 8,700 miles by kayaks and open boats. Petroff’s count totaled 33,426 people, including 430 Caucasians, 1,756 Creoles, 17,617 Inuit, 2,145 Aleut, 3,927 Tinneh (also known as Dena’ina), 6,763 Tlingits and 788 Haidas.

Of course, his figures were questioned – especially in Southeast – and there were official protests of a short count. But as Ted C. Hinckley wrote:

“If Petroff had had a dozen or so competent field workers and the finest of land and water transportation, he might have been able to do it in five years.”

Gov. Swineford said Petroff was perhaps the most knowledgeable man for the job.

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1812, he lost his father, a Russian army officer, in the Crimean War. Petroff came to the United States in 1861, enlisted in the Army and soon deserted.

He re-enlisted at Fort Colville, Washington Territory, as a private in Battery F, 2nd U.S. Artillery, but when his company was posted to Alaska in June 1868, he deserted once more. Authorities arrested and imprisoned him.

However, Petroff was released when his battery commander needed an interpreter to deal with the Russian-speaking population at his post. By 1869, he was in Fort Kenai, the old Redoubt St. Nicholas, and stayed there until his discharge in 1870.

Another enlistment led to one more desertion and imprisonment, but he was freed after a California senator interceded. Soon after, Petroff went to work for Hubert Howe Bancroft and probably wrote much, perhaps more than a quarter, of Bancroft’s “History of Alaska, 1730-1885.”

This column features tidbits found among the writings of the late Alaska historian, Phyllis Downing Carlson. Her niece, Laurel Downing Bill, is turning many of Carlson’s stories into a series of books titled “Aunt Phil’s Trunk.” Visit

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