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Regional History
Southcentral Alaska

In this section you will learn about:

  • Physical geography
  • Early inhabitants
  • Native cultures
  • Russian intrusion
  • Russian fur trade
  • Russian supply difficulties
  • Coal development
  • American exploration after 1867

Volcanoes and glaciers shape the land

This region of Alaska is sometimes called fire and ice country." The fire comes from the volcanic mountains that guard Cook Inlet. The ice is from the great glaciers that course out of mountain ranges and from the icefields that spawn still more.

Volcanoes and glaciers were at work shaping Southcentral Alaska long before the first people came. Geologists believe that 225 million years ago the region was made up of a string of island volcanoes that arched across a shallow sea. During the millions of years that followed, the sea floor was lifted, lava flowed over it, mountains grew, and the landscape began to take on the features it bears today. About one million years ago glaciers covered much of Southcentral Alaska. As the glaciers retreated about 9,000 years ago, two great rivers, the Copper and the Susitna, began to cut wide swaths from north to south.

By the time the first Native groups reached the region, attracted by the plentiful foods of the waters and shore, Southcentral Alaska looked very much as it would today if all of the highways, airports, homes, and businesses were erased. Yet the shape of the land continues to change. Eruptions occur from the area's 28 active volcanoes. Huge plates shift deep within the earth and rearrange the surface features. Permafrost influences groundwater, soil, and vegetation to determine where building can take place. Volcanoes, earthquakes, and permafrost together affect Southcentral Alaska and those who make it their home.

Cultures meet and mix

For thousands of years Southcentral Alaska has been a gathering place. Mountain ranges come together here, separating the mild maritime climates of Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound from harsher interior climates that occur on the inland side of the mountain ranges. River valleys cut through the mountains. People, traveling along these natural highways, have met in Southcentral and their cultures have overlapped. Today the region is a meeting place of ideas, commerce, and political power. More than half of all Alaskans live within its boundaries.

The shape of the land largely determined where the first Southcentral residents lived. The rugged mountains were inhospitable, but river valleys were more livable. Primary among the rivers were the Susitna River which empties into Cook Inlet and the Copper River which empties into the Gulf of Alaska.

Athapaskan Indians moved through the river valleys from Interior Alaska. The Tanaina settled in the Susitna River valley and on the shores of upper Cook Inlet, and gradually moved south to the Kenai Peninsula. The Ahtna moved to the Copper River plateau. The Eyak established their territory at the Copper River delta.

The Chugach Eskimos came by sea. They settled on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Over the centuries, however, the Tanaina Athapaskans displaced them. The Chugach migrated east to claim many islands in Prince William Sound.

On the Sound food was plentiful most of the time. The Eyak with whom the Chugach shared the Sound were people of the shore. They gathered shellfish and caught salmon that entered the Copper River in summer to spawn upstream. They also hunted seals and sea otters, but did not venture far into the waters of Prince William Sound.

The life of the Chugach Eskimos also centered on hunting and fishing. Salmon, herring, halibut, and sea mammals were their staple foods, but they also hunted rodents, birds, and mountain goats. Cook Inlet and the bordering shores provided the Tanaina Athapaskans with a plentiful supply of fish and game. Away from Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet supply was less certain. Intermittent starvation was a regular pattern of life for inland Natives.

Constant warfare among different groups brought a gradual mixing of Native cultures. Prisoners taken in raids became slaves or wives of the victors.

For raiding, for hunting, and for warfare, dependable water transportation was essential. Southcentral Natives borrowed boat designs from each other. The Tanaina used birch-bark canoes and moose-hide boats on the rivers that entered northern Cook Inlet. When they settled on the Kenai Peninsula they adopted Eskimo and Aleut kayaks and umiaks. After European ships sailed into Sauthcentral waters the Tanaina sometimes used sails on their umiaks.

The Chugach Eskimos of Prince William Sound like other Eskimos, the Aleuts, and the Tanaina Athapaskans went to sea in umiaks and kayaks. Unlike them the Chugach also used wooden dugout canoes that, because of their design, were only safe in sheltered waters. The Chugach dugouts were adaptations of the more graceful canoes of their Eyak neighbors. The Eyak were in turn influenced by their seafaring Tlingit neighbors to the south who traveled long distances in their larger craft. Some of the Tlingit craft were larger than the sailing ships used by the people who next entered Southcentral Alaska, the Russians.

Cook Inlet's Earliest Residents

In August, wild roses ramble over a rocky point of land on Cook Inlet's Turnagain Arm. Hundreds of motorists pass the spot every day as they journey from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula and back on the Seward Highway.

When archaeologists excavated Beluga Point they uncovered evidence that pushed the date of known human occupation of eastern Cook Inlet back thousands of years. Carefully removing layer upon layer of earth, the scientists determined that there had been at least three different settlements at Beluga Point. Blade materials found in the oldest layer indicated that Eskimos lived at the spot between 4,500 and 6,500 years ago. In the next settlement period, the Beluga Point occupants used more sophisticated weapons. The archaeologists found chipped lance points that had been worked some 3,000 years ago. The most recent occupants left behind remains of a hearth, spear points made of ground slate, and the bones of mountain sheep.

Beluga Point was probably not a permanent settlement. Turnagain Arm has almost no shellfish. The winds blow constantly across the water and Beluga Point offers little shelter. Continuing studies are expected to help explain the use of the area.

South of Beluga Point on the Kenai Peninsula, fishermen stand elbow to elbow casting for king salmon at the juncture of the Moose and Kenai rivers. Excavations in 1978 near this spot showed that Eskimos were the first fishermen on these rivers. The remains of a house believed to be 1,500 years old, fragments of a slate ulu and other tools, and the skulls of two young Eskimos were unearthed. Experts believe that Eskimos such as these once built fires on a hearth lined with stones and birch bark in the center of their log home. Near the fire, an Eskimo woman would have used the ulu to scrape skins or slice salmon. An Eskimo man would have worked slate into lance points, scrapers, or awls. The Moose River excavations proved that Eskimos had moved much farther inland to make their homes than had at first been believed.

The Moose River and Beluga Point sites may help to understand more about the migration routes of early Native peoples. In modern times, the Tanaina Indians have occupied all of upper Cook Inlet. They were the only northern Athapaskans to move to a coastal area. The farther south the Tanaina moved, the more they adopted Eskimo ways of life and depended upon the resources of the sea. By the time the Russians arrived in Southcentral Alaska, the Athapaskans had displaced Eskimos as far south as Seldovia.

Russian hunters arrive

Although Vitus Bering's expedition had come to Southcentral Alaska in 1741, it was not until 1783 that their search for furs brought the Russians back. Potap Zaikov headed the expedition. Three Russian ships carried 300 men. Zaikov sent smaller boats to explore. The leader of one of the scouting parties, Leontiy Nagaiev, returned on August 18, 1783 to the ships to report sighting a large river, which the Natives called the Atna. Years later, other explorers would name it the Copper River.

Except for the river's discovery, Zaikov's expedition ended in failure. The Chugach Eskimos refused to reveal the location of their best hunting and fishing grounds. Almost half of Zaikov's men died of scurvy before the expedition returned to Unalaska the following spring.

Shelikhou founds Three Saints Bay

Also in that summer of 1783, Gregorii Shelikhov came to Southcentral Alaska on the Russian ship Three Saints. He intended to headquarter his trading company on Kodiak Island and expand Russian settlement in Southcentral Alaska. Finding good anchorage in a bay southwest of the present-day town of Kodiak, Shelikhov there established the first permanent Russian settlement in North America. After developing several outposts on Kodiak Island, he turned his attention to Cook Inlet. In May of 1786, Shelikhov's men began constructing Aleksandrovsk, today's English Bay, near the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Bluffs with seams of exposed coal were close at hand, but the Russians were moving onto the mainland in search of furs not fuel.

Russian firms compete for furs

From 1786 to 1799, Shelikhov's trading company competed with rival Russian firms for furs. Alexandrovsk remained Shelikhov's only Kenai post. The Lebedev-Lastochkin Company built Fort St. George at the Kasilof River mouth in 1787 and Fort St. Nicholas at the Kenai River mouth in 1791. Two years later the rivals began competing on Prince William Sound. In 1793, Lebedev's men built an important post, Fort Sts. Constantine and Helen on Hinchinbrook Island and established a small garrison on Montague Island at Zaikof Bay.

In both Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet the rivalry between the companies for land and see, otter pelts was fierce. At times the conflict erupted in open warfare and slaughter. Sometimes Natives were involved in the bloodshed sometimes the battles were limited to members of the competing companies.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the Lebedev-Lastochkin Company had declined because of poor leadership and organization. The last of the employees either went to work for Baranov or left Russian America. Shelikhov's chief manager, Alexander Baranov, became virtual ruler of Alaska in 1799. In that year the Imperial government chartered and granted a monopoly to the Russian-American Company, which was formed by merging many of the competing fur trading firms.

Ships supply Russian America

Baranov was an able administrator. He realized that the Russian American Company's major problem was supplying the Alaska colony. He needed more ships and closer sources of agricultural products. Baranov attempted to fill the first need by establishing a shipbuilding industry. In 1793 he chose a site on the Kenai Peninsula's south coast which he named Resurrection Harbor.

Building ships in Alaska in the 1790s was an ambitious under taking. For the first one, wood for the hull came from a nearby island. Company storehouses on Kodiak Island furnished the tools, rigging, and sails. Much of the ship's construction still depended on the ingenuity of the builder. Baranov had no tar to seal the ship's hull. Instead, he invented a compound of fit pitch, sulfur, ocher and whale oil. To fuel the fire for casting the iron fittings, his men mined coal from the bluffs at Aleksandrovsk. In 1794, despite all of the difficulties, Baranov launched a 73-foot vessel, the first European ship to be built on the Northwest coast. The completed ship, christened the Phoenix, had three masts, two decks, and the capacity to transport 180 tons of cargo.

With the Phoenix and other ships that were to be built in Russian America, Baranov hoped to satisfy his second need of finding new sources of food. Although fish were plentiful in Russian America, the staples and luxuries (such as flour, sugar, tobacco, and vodka) that the Russians there longed for took years to transport from Russia. They came either by way of Siberia or around Africa's Cape of Good Hope and through southern seas to the North Pacific. Now that he had a way to build the necessary ships, Baranov wanted to establish trade relations with other, closer, countries to obtain food. At the same time, he planned to introduce agriculture to Russian America so that his workers would not be so dependent upon distant supplies.

The first experiments with agriculture in Southcentral Alaska were conducted at Fort St. Nicholas. The Russians planted several acres of potatoes and turnips and raised grass to feed a few cattle. Baranov soon concluded that the land along Cook Inlet was too steep for raising crops and the soil was not suitable for growing grain.

This difficulty in introducing agriculture to Southcentral Alaska made the Russians even more dependent upon the ships they were building to transport foodstuffs from far places. However, the ships also served other purposes. They enabled the Russians to move large quantities of supplies and people within Russian America. This helped greatly as the Russians followed the sea otter, which were being hunted to extinction in Southcentral Alaska, to Southeast Alaska.

Russian attention refocuses

As the focus of Russian-American Company activity moved to Southeast Alaska the Russian posts on the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound were nearly abandoned. By 1819, only 41 company employees still lived in all of Southcentral Alaska. Even the Russian Orthodox priests had withdrawn.

Father Juvenal had been the first Russian Orthodox missionary to travel in Southcentral Alaska. He reportedly baptized more than 700 Chugach Eskimos when he visited Fort Sts. Constantine and Helen in the summer of 1795. From there he traveled to Fort St. Nicholas where, he later wrote, he baptized "all the local inhabitants."

Father Juvenal and the other early missionaries were volunteers from monasteries in northwest Russia. Although handicapped by the shortage of food, supplies, and housing in the colony, they set to work immediately to try to improve the treatment of Natives and introduce them to Russian Orthodox beliefs. Father Juvenal's mission work came to a tragic end when he failed to return from a journey to the Iliamna Lake area.

In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, a desire to increase the harvest of land mammal furs refocused the company's attention on Southcentral Alaska. As Russians gradually returned to the area, missionary efforts were revived. A log church was constructed at Fort St. Nicholas in 1841. A few years later, a priest arrived to serve a parish that included the entire Southcentral Alaska coast. It took Father Nicholas two years to make the rounds of all his villages. He traveled with a portable canvas church, which he moved by hand wagon in summer and by dog sled in winter. The priest performed marriages and baptisms, settled complaints, and helped vaccinate Natives against smallpox.

Father Nicholas also served employees who were stationed at Russian-American Company outposts. The employees were divided into two groups. Colonial citizens were those who had worked in the colonies for 15 years or more. Colonial settlers were Creoles, born in Russian America, who had worked for the company for at least 20 years. The colonial citizens and settlers were permitted to remain in Russian America after they retired and were given pensions. One of the retirement centers was Ninilchik.

Ninilchik, which still exists today on the west coast of the Kenai Peninsula, was founded in the later years of Russian occupation. Some of the Russians at Ninilchik raised cattle and chickens, along with vegetables, to add variety to their basic diet of fish.

Coal mining begins

Until the 1840s Russian posts in Southcentral Alaska had primarily dealt in furs. Then, unexpectedly, the 1849 gold rush in California gave the Russians a new market. California's population had exploded with the gold rush. Coal was much in demand. The Russian-American Company assigned Peter Doroshin, a young mining engineer, to study the coal and other mineral deposits of the Kenai Peninsula.

The first deposit that Doroshin examined was a coal vein near Port Graham. When he returned to Russia in 1853, Doroshin convinced the company to mine the coal. Within three years, a crew had erected buildings, installed necessary machinery, and shipped 800 tons of coal to San Francisco. At the height of the operation Coal Village was the third-largest Russian town in Alaska, exceeded only by Sitka and Kodiak. It was a well planned community, containing 20 houses and a church, warehouse, sawmill, blacksmith shop, stables, small foundry, and the mine structures themselves.

The high cost of production ended the mining venture in 1860. The distance to market made Alaska coal prices too high to compete in California. The coal mine closed and the Russian-American Company suffered a major financial loss.Southcentral Alaska contained other minerals besides coal. Doroshin had prospected for gold on the Kenai Peninsula and reported that he found colors in the gravels of several streams. He also learned of copper deposits. The Copper River area was reported to be the source of copper that could be obtained from Ahtna Indians.

The Russian-American Company decided not to continue to explore for minerals. In part this was based on a fear that mineral development might interfere with their fur trade. Also, in the early 1860s the Russian government was beginning to consider selling Russian America. The sale was completed, to the United States, in 1867.

Americans explore

In 1868, a year after Alaska's purchase, the United States revenue cutter Wayanda came into Southcentral Alaska waters. The captain, J.W. White, hired a Russian navigator to help him explore the unfamiliar coastline. White visited the abandoned Coal Village site. "A large amount of money had been expended here and all to no purpose," White reported. "All the shafts are now filled with water and many of the buildings are worthless." There was no point to reopening the mine. There was no local market for the coal and no profitable way to export it. Captain White also visited other former Russian posts. At the end of his voyage, he concluded that the Kenai Peninsula offered the best possibilities in Alaska for agriculture.

White's voyage convinced him that regular revenue cutter patrols would be the best way to establish good relations with Alaska Natives, but the army was designated to administer Alaska and established a system of military posts. The following spring, 120 soldiers arrived at the old Russian post of Fort St. Nicholas. They moved into the walled compound, renamed Fort Kenay, that included a blacksmith shop, stable,' guardhouse, bakery, commander's house, and two log barracks. The fort was occupied for only a short time. All troops except the Sitka garrison were ordered withdrawn from Alaska in 1870, and Fort Kenay was abandoned that September.

Prospectors and traders arrive

Ten years after the Alaska purchase, Americans knew little more than the Russians had of what lay beyond the coast. Encouraged by gold discoveries in the Canadian Cassiar near Southeast Alaska and rumors of Doroshin's discoveries in Southcentral Alaska, prospectors set off into the Southcentral Alaska wilderness. Few left written reports of their travels. George C. Holt was an exception.

Holt spent the summer of 1876 prospecting on the Kenai River, but found "nothing that would pay over $2 a day." Prospecting in the Susitna and Copper river drainages was not successful either, so Holt signed on as a trader for the Alaska Commercial Company. Holt operated a trading post at Nuchek and then at Knik on the north shore of Cook Inlet. Holt's career ended, however, when he was shot to death there in 1885 after arguing with a Native over a plug of tobacco.

Petroff takes the census

The United States wanted to determine how many persons were living at trading posts like Holt's and in the outlying country. In 1880, a Russian immigrant named Ivan Petroff was appointed to take the first census of Alaska.

Petroff counted 25 communities in Southcentral Alaska, 11 of them on the Kenai Peninsula. His familiarity with Alaska was as limited as any non-Native's at the time. He wrote, "What the country north of Cook's Inlet is like no civilized man can tell, as in all the years of occupation of the coast by the Caucasian race it has remained a sealed book."

Summary questions

  1. What three geologic conditions most influence the land and people of Southcentral Alaska?
  2. Name the two most important transportation corridors through the mountains of Southcentral Alaska.
  3. What are the four major Native groups that live in Southcentral Alaska?
  4. How did the Russian-American Company become the sole fur trader in Alaska?
  5. What was Baranov's greatest problem?
  6. List five items needed by the Russian-American Company that might have been transported by the Phoenix.
  7. Why was the shipping of coal to California not a successful business?
  8. How many communities were in Southcentral Alaska in 1880?

Inquiry questions

  1. Research one of the geologic conditions and tell how it affects the way people live in Southcentral Alaska. How have people adapted, both in older and in modern times?
  2. Make a chart of the four Native groups of Southcentral Alaska showing the locations and characteristics of each.
  3. Describe the problems Baranov had to overcome in building the Phoenix.

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