The westward expansion of the United States did not just open new lands to eager settlers; it opened new doors of opportunity for women. Nineteenth century social ideals limited a woman’s sphere to home and family, but the demands of the western experience challenged women to venture beyond accepted standards of feminine behavior and find independence as homesteaders and entrepreneurs. A child of westward expansion, Sitka’s former postmistress Paulina Cohen tackled the new frontiers of womanhood as artist, traveler, and business woman extraordinaire.
Born in 1859, Paulina Cohen grew up in the gold camps of California. Just nine years before her birth, Paulina’s parents, Bertha and Abraham, had emigrated from Prussia where Abraham had trained as a brewer. Seldom in one place for very long, the Cohen family followed the gold discoveries north, operating breweries as they went in San Francisco, Portland, and British Columbia.
In 1867 Russia transferred its claims on Alaska to the United States. Lured by new opportunity, Paulina’s father quickly secured passage to Sitka, established partnerships, opened the Sitka Brewery in 1868, and became one of the first Jewish merchants in the town. Paulina, her siblings, and mother Bertha joined Abraham a few years later. Even from the beginning, Paulina became an instant favorite among Sitkans.
“The best masked ball this year was given by the Kohens (sic) who caused everyone to get inebriated with beer of his own manufacture. Many of the visitors were interested not so much in the reception by the hospitable hosts as in their newly arrived daughter, Pauline, good looking young girl who likes to dance.” –Stephen Ushin, 1874.
Clearly influenced by her family’s hard-working, industrious nature, as an adult Paulina proved a strong business woman and an active member of the community. In 1878, Paulina began teaching and by 1887 also helped in the post office. When the postmaster retired in 1890, Paulina received the appointment. She held the position for a decade and became the first to offer money order service in Sitka. She only stepped down in 1900 in order to run the Baranoff Hotel. After the Organic Act of 1884 prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol, Paulina even worked to keep her family’s brewery business afloat by applying to the Department of the Interior for a license to produce “medicinal” beer.
In her spare time, Paulina organized picnics, volunteered to teach English at the Russian school, taught Sunday school and participated in amateur theatricals. Paulina also pursued her love of painting. With no formal training available in Sitka, she took lessons from visiting professional artists. She captured the local flora in watercolor studies and her landscapes recorded early post-Transfer Sitka scenes seldom seen in photographs.
In no apparent rush to “settle down,” Paulina did not marry until she was thirty-six–a ripe old age for a woman in the nineteenth century–and when she did, it was to Alexander Archangelsky, a man more than ten years her junior. She continued to work after her marriage and even supported her husband by renting furnished rooms in California where the couple moved in 1903 so that he could further his mining education. Upon his graduation, the couple returned to Alaska where Alexander worked in Treadwell at the Red Bullion mine and mill, and helped to discover claims that would develop into the Hirst-Chichagof Mining Company on Chichagof Island.
In 1910 Paulina and Alexander left Sitka for Seattle and Honolulu, but soon continued on to Tahiti where the tropical environment and natural beauty of the islands won a place in their hearts. Paulina made numerous trips back to Sitka and the United States through the years but she always returned home to Tahiti, and in 1941 passed away in the small town of Vairao. Paulina’s life broke every mold as she trail blazed the way for independent business women to follow, and as an artist, she left an invaluable visual record of life in Sitka at the turn of a new century.
By: Kristy Kay Griffin, Curator of Collections & Exhibits
Date: March 2016