I’m Emma Atkinson. You might have heard my voice on KRBD’s Morning Edition or during other local news hours – I’m the summer news intern here.
I’ve been in Ketchikan for about a month, and I’ve learned that it’s a place full of stories and secrets. I’ve heard rumors, not-so-urban legends and tales that seem just too weird to be true.
So, I’m going to do a little investigating.
Welcome to the first installation of Ketchikan Uncovered, a series during which I’ll dive into the intricacies of the First City and find answers to your burning questions.
First up? Let’s look at how Ketchikan became…Ketchikan.
It’s no secret that there are multiple theories about the origin of the city’s name. But which one is right? Is it even possible to narrow it down to just one explanation?
To find out, I first talked to David Kiffer, a bona fide Ketchikan historian who knows more about the town’s history than I probably know about anything.
I asked Kiffer, a freelance writer, how he came to be such a Ketchikan history buff.
“My great-grandfather came here in 1894,” he said. “He was a miner. So my mother’s family has been here all that time. My father’s family came here shortly after World War I to be fishermen, and ‘til the end of her life, my [maternal] grandmother referred to them as ‘those blow-ins.’”
Though he’s lived in far-flung places like Ireland, Boston and Los Angeles, Kiffer said he’s spent most of his life here, in Ketchikan.
He’s always been a history guy.
“So, kind of tell me, how did you learn all of this?” I asked. “Just…by living here, by photosynthesis, or…”
“I’ve always been interested in history, and I’ve always been interested in local history,” Kiffer responded. “And I’ve had some very good teachers, who were very interested as well.”
When I finally stopped making jokes about the process by which plants get their food, we got down to business.
“So, tell me – there seem to be a lot of different explanations or backgrounds as to the origin of Ketchikan’s name,” I said.
“Yes,” Kiffer answered. “And it’s virtually impossible, at such a late date, 120-some years later, to actually sort through them. We joke that there are about as many different variations on where Ketchikan got its name as there are people in Ketchikan.”
Kiffer told me that, as far as he can tell, there are three commonly believed theories.
The first and most common is that Ketchikan is a variation of a Tlingit word meaning ‘the spread wings of an eagle.’
The second theory is that the name comes from a different Tlingit word which means ‘the white spots on a salmon.’
“Now, why that would be a name kind of relates to the whole idea of the circle of life, I’ve been told,” he said. “Salmon come back to Ketchikan, and they turn white in the creek, and they die, and more salmon come in a big cycle. So that’s kind of a cool name.”
The third explanation says that the Tlingit word ‘kan’ means ‘place’ or ‘home.’
To get a second perspective on the history of the name, I turned to someone with a deeply personal connection to Ketchikan – Joe Williams, Jr.
Williams was born in Ketchikan and raised in the neighboring village of Saxman. He’s Tlingit.
Williams’ family has also been in Ketchikan a long time – much, much longer than Kiffer’s.
“My father’s side of the family’s ancestry came to this location because of Ketchikan Creek; come here for literally thousands of years, arrive here by mid-June, remain here through the end of September,” he said.
Williams said his ancestors would work on the beaches of Ketchikan, catching and drying salmon. Eagles came to the beaches for the same reason – to catch and eat fish.
And as the Tlingit fishermen got close to the eagles, they would fly away.
“When you heard that whooshing sounds of the eagle when it’s flying by you, in our Tlingit language, we say kitcxan,” he said. “And kitcxan means, ‘thundering wings of an eagle.’ Early days settlers phonetically spelled out kitcxan to be ‘Ketchikan,’ and that’s how Ketchikan got its name.”
This sounds pretty similar to Dave Kiffer’s first explanation, right? I thought so, too.
When I asked Williams about the other stories I’d read – mostly online and in Ketchikan guide books – he laughed.
“But, another explanation I heard is that it comes from khach khanna…which means ‘spread wings of a prostrate eagle,’” I said.
“Boy, that’s a new one…that’s a new one,” he laughed.
“But you hadn’t heard that one before?” I asked.
“I have not. It’s the first I heard of it, so…”
“Well, I just looked it up on the internet. Maybe somebody made it up for a tour book or something.”
I still can’t remember where I found that explanation.
So, which one is right?
From what I’ve gathered, other than its derivation from a Tlingit phrase, there is no one correct answer to that question of where Ketchikan’s name came from. Nothing verifiable, at least.
But that’s kind of how history is, right? Especially in small, very old communities like Ketchikan. Kiffer knows this, too.
“So much of Ketchikan’s history is oral, so much of Ketchikan’s history is anecdotal,” he said. “I mean, you’ve heard the old line about… ‘When the story becomes better than the truth, print the story,’ or some variation on that. Everyone in Ketchikan has a story.”
He said it can be frustrating, as a historian, to not be able to nail down the exact history of a building, or family, or name. But I think it’s kind of romantic.
Like Kiffer said, everyone in Ketchikan has a story. And I’m here this summer to listen to and tell those stories.
Thanks for joining me for the first installment of Ketchikan Uncovered.
Do you have questions about Ketchikan? Something you’ve always wondered, but never really had the chance to find out? Let Emma know by submitting your queries to KRBD’s Facebook page or by calling KRBD at 225-9655.