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Regional History
Southwest Alaska
1867-1912 The Era of American Exploitation

In this section you will learn about:

  • The effects of Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries
  • Changes resulting from purchase of Alaska by the United States
  • Expeditions of various explorers
  • The effects of gold discoveries

Kodiak declines

Alaska was treated as Indian territory" after its purchase by the United States in 1867. Building on its experience in the American West where it had to deal with hostile Indian tribes the army established five forts in the newly acquired territory. One was in Southwest Alaska. Battery E of the Second Artillery garrisoned Fort Kodiak on June 6, 188. The following year troops went to St. Paul Island in the Pribilof Islands. The troops were ordered withdrawn in 1870 from all Alaska posts except Sitka.

A visitor who arrived at Kodiak a decade after the fort closed found the old barracks falling down, bridges rotting, and streets washing away. The village still had 500 residents. Most were Creoles who worked as mechanics, carpenters, blacksmiths, bricklayers, or hunters for fur companies.

Kodiak's years as a fur trade center were nearly over. The Russians had tried to conserve the sea otter population by dividing the hunting ground into sections and allowing hunting in each section only in alternate years. In the decade before Alaska's purchase they had limited the total sea otter kill to about 1,500 a year. Under American jurisdiction there were no conservation measures. The number of sea otter taken tripled in the early years of American occupation. The population was soon depleted.

Alaska Commercial Company controls Pribilof rookeries

After the army withdrew only the summer patrols of revenue cutters provided the Pribilof Islanders with a measure of law and order. There were few laws to enforce. In the first seven years of U.S. ownership Congress passed only two pieces of legislation that concerned the territory. The first established Alaska as a customs district and prohibited importing or selling distilled liquor.

The second, in 1870, established the Pribilof Islands (often called the Seal Islands) as a reservation.

The reservation act granted a 20 year franchise for operating the Pribilof seal rookeries to the Alaska Commercial Company. In exchange for the monopoly, the Alaska Commercial Company paid the government rent and a royalty fee of $2.625 on each seal skin. The company also agreed to care for the Aleut population that lived on the islands.

The company did little for the Pribilof Islands' Natives. Although the Russians allowed the Aleuts to keep the seal skins that theyneeded for making boats, the Americans required them to pay. Only Aleuts who brought furs to trade were allowed to obtain supplies at the company store. The company did build new houses for the Aleuts, but they were not a success. Traditional Aleut barabaras were very well suited to the Pribilof Islands' climate. Built partially underground, they consisted of sod matted over a timber frame. The new houses were described as "neat and snug." They were lined with tar paper, painted, and furnished with stoves. But in the cold and windy Pribilof Islands, the poorly insulated frame houses were hard to keep warm.

When Lieutenant J.E. Lutz of the Revenue Marine Cutter Corwin visited St. Paul in 1884 he reported that Aleuts were treated "exceedingly well." Those who wanted to become seal skinners earned as much in two months of work as the average laborer in the United States earned in a year. They also received, free of charge, a "quantity of fuel, salt meat and condensed milk," as well as housing.

The task of protecting the Pribilof Islands' seals from poachers fell to crews of the revenue cutters, but they lacked jurisdiction to prevent the seals from being killed during their annual migration. The fur seals reach their Pribilof Island breeding grounds in the spring and leave in the fall. By 1878, their migration routes, which take them thousands of miles to the south, had been discovered. Sealing ships from Canada and the United States were beginning to follow the herds to kill the seals on the high seas. Pelagic sealing, as this practice was called, was not controlled by law. As a consequence, more than 100 sealing ships were chasing the migrating herds by 1890, and the fur seals faced extinction.

Revenue cutters have a variety of duties

The Corwin, along with other cutters like the hush and the Bear, was assigned to patrolling the Bering Sea. The cutters were expected to prevent seal poaching from the Pribilof Islands rookeries and to carry out many other duties. Crews took note of bearings, soundings, tides, currents, and rocks in the Aleutian Islands' waters, where the volcanic nature of the coast and sea floor brought almost constant change. They were called upon to help shipwrecked crews whose vessels had struck uncharted rocks or been cast ashore in the wild wind storms called willawaws or woolies.

After 1900 cutter captains were appointed United States Commissioners. Their ships became floating courts. The captains performed their judicial duties well. Their decisions recognized the differences between the Native and non Native cultures, and took the Native outlook into account.

In addition to other functions, revenue cutters provided transportation for hundreds of persons. Stranded people, shipwreck victims, captured poachers, missionaries, teachers, scientists all boarded the sea going taxis. The cutters brought Alaska bound mail when they arrived in the Bering Sea for their summer tours and took outgoing mail when they left in the fall.

Economic activities diversify

The route of Arctic whalers took them through the Aleutian Islands. After whaling ships converted to coal in the 1850s they stopped at Unalaska to take on coal which had been shipped from British Columbia. They also bought other supplies.

Sealing and whaling were the major commercial activities in the Bering Sea during the first two decades after 1867. Area fisheries also began to attract more and more interest. In the mid 1860s Captain Matthew Turner of San Francisco had found abundant cod southwest of Kodiak Island off the Shumagin Islands. Because the cod banks lay within Russian territory, Turner had to wait until the Alaska purchase to begin fishing there. Cod-fishing vessels in the Shumagin Islands numbered 14 within a year.

Although the cod were plentiful, getting them to market was difficult. The fish were apt to spoil during the long journey from the Bering Sea to San Francisco where they were cured. In 1876 the McCollam Fishing and Trading Company of San Francisco established a shore station and saltery on Popof Island in the Shumagin Islands group to help solve the problem. Ships sailed for San Francisco with their holds full of dried salted cod instead of fish that could spoil.

In addition to salted cod, Southwest Alaska began to produce salted salmon. One of the best salmon streams in the world was the 16 mile long Karluk River on Kodiak Island. The Karluk River had provided salmon for Shelikov's people when they first arrived in 1785. A Russian trading post had been established at the site a short time later. A saltery opened in the 1870s, and a cannery followed. In the 20 year period between 1878 and 1898 Kodiak Island produced more than one third of the salmon canned in Alaska. Much of it came from the Karluk River fishery.

Salmon were also plentiful in rivers of the Alaska Peninsula. Salteries operated in the area for several years before the first Bristol Bay cannery was built by the Arctic Packing Company in 1884. It was located at Kanulik, not far from the Russian Orthodox Church mission at Nushagak. A year later, the Alaska Packing Company built the Scandinavian Cannery on the west bank of Nushagak Bay. Other companies arrived soon after to begin canning in Bristol Bay, South Naknek, and Kvichak Bay. Canneries also opened at Squaw Harbor on Unga Island, at Sand Point on Popof Island, and at Ikitan Bay.

In summer Scandinavian and Italian fishermen arrived from the Pacific Northwest and California to fish the heavy runs of salmon and deliver their catch to the canneries. Most cannery workers were Chinese. They were brought from San Francisco each season on ships that carried all the necessary supplies for the canneries.

Americans arrive in riverine Southwest Alaska

Life in the Yukon and Kuskokwim river deltas continued almost unchanged during the early years of American ownership. One of the first Americans to travel through the Yukon Kuskokwim river deltas was Edward W. Nelson. Stationed at St. Michael to collect weather data for the U.S. Signal Service, Nelson made several long journeys to collect ethnographic specimens and data about the Natives. In winter, 1878, he crossed the delta to the Kuskokwim River.

The Signal Service established a station at Nushagak in 1881 and Nelson transferred there from St. Michael. He continued to collect information about the weather, birds and animals, geography, and Natives of Bristol Bay.

The Russian Orthodox church was the only active mission group in Southwest Alaska until 1884. That year Sheldon Jackson, the general agent for education in Alaska, invited Protestant churches to open missions and schools around Alaska. He appealed to the Moravians to consider mission work in the Nushagak and Kuskokwim River areas.

When the Moravian missionaries, J.A.H. Hartmann and William H. Weinland arrived at Nushagak Bay in 1884 to investigate the area, they learned the Russian Orthodox had an active mission and school at Nushagak. The two men continued investigating the area, ascending the Kuskokwim River as far as Napamiut.

The missionaries recommended a site near a village named Mumtrekhlagamute on the lower Kuskokwim River for a mission. In 1885 Weinland, John H. Kilbuck, and Hans Torgerson sailed the Bethel Star up the river's shifting channels with lumber and supplies for the new mission. They named their new mission Bethel. Several years later they opened a mission, Carmel, near Nushagak.

In spite of a cool reception from the Natives, the Moravians continued their mission work. Weinland recommended opening an industrial school at Nushagak. The federal government agreed to cosponsor the project and the school opened in January of 1888.In the years following passage of the Organic Act, many other schools opened in Southwest Alaska. Commissioner Jackson had appealed to the Methodists to undertake educating children in the Aleutian Islands and on the Alaska Peninsula. The first Methodist mission opened at Unga, but was soon transferred to Unalaska. For more than a decade Agnes Soule housed dozens of children in her own home in Unalaska while awaiting funds to build an orphanage. In 1898, she married a physician, Dr. Albert Newhall, and the couple spent 20 years providing medical care, teaching, and serving the Methodist church. The orphanage was named the Jesse Lee Home.

The Baptists, who had been assigned to Kodiak, had recognized the need for an orphanage as well. In 1891 they began building a school and orphanage on Woodv Island. The Baptist mission also developed an agricultural program. Students raised vegetables and livestock on the mission farm.

On the Yukon River delta the Roman Catholic church opened a mission at Kanelik in 1891. Two years later, they moved to Akularak. When a boarding school was built at the mission in 1896, students came from as far as St. Michael and Nelson Island to enroll. Over the next half century, the changing currents of the Yukon River filled the slough on which Akularak was located and the delta's population shifted too. In 1951 the mission moved once more, to a new site named St. Mary's.

Wells expedition captures public imagination

Among the first to describe the delta country and the Alaska Peninsula was E. H. Wells. Wells was a member of an exploring party commissioned in 1890 by Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper to investigate Alaska and send back exciting copy. Wells and another member of the team, A.B. Schanz, crossed the water portage from the Yukon to the Kuskokwim river drainage. They entered the Kuskokwim River 275 miles above its mouth. At trader Linn's post near the Bethel mission, they enjoyed a meal served "civilized fashion at a table" before continuing their journey.

The men continued their trip in small canoes to Nushagak. At the Alaska Commercial Company trading post operated by John Clark, Wells built a 12 foot sled that he named Earthquake for an overland journey across the Alaska Peninsula to Katmai Station.

While Wells was crossing to Katmai by sled, Schanz followed a route slightly north. Accompanied by the trader and seven Eskimos from Nushagak, Schanz ascended the Nushagak, Mulchatna, and Kakhtul rivers, portaged to the Holitna River, and traveled to Lake Clark, which they named for the trader.

Schanz rejoined Wells at Kodiak and they headed for Seattle. Although the newspaper sponsored expedition did not contribute much scientific knowledge about Southwest Alaska, the accounts were popular and widely read by the American public.

More important scientifically than the Wells adventure was an 1898 U.S. War Department and U.S. Geological Survey cooperative expedition. Geologist Josiah E. Spurr led a team from upper Cook Inlet through the Alaska Range to the headwaters of the South Fork Kuskokwim River. The party started up the Susitna River from Cook Inlet in three canoes in late spring. Ice was still in the river. As they worked their way over the Alaska Range, Spurr and his men drew maps, collected plants, and studied the wildlife and geology of the country. From the headwaters the party went down the Kuskokwim River in the canoes they had transported across the mountains. When they reached Bethel, Spurr changed his plans. Instead of crossing to the Yukon River and going to St. Michael, part of the team would head for Bristol Bay.

Half of the group, led by Spurr, followed the Kuskokwim River to its mouth. With local Eskimos as guides they went up the Kanektok River then portaged to Togiak. From Bristol Bay they followed Wells' route to Katmai Station.

Gold strike brings boom to ports

St. Michael boomed when gold was discovered in the upper Yukon River region in the 1890s. It was the closest deep water port to the mouth of the Yukon River. The Alaska Commercial Company had taken over the Russian operation in 1867. Several competing trading companies built warehouses at the site. In 1897 $30,000 worth of furs had been traded there. The major customers, however, were gold prospectors traveling upriver. At St. Michael people transferred from ocean ships to river boats.

To reach St. Michael one traveled from West Coast ports to the Aleutian Islands. There ships crossed from the north Pacific Ocean into the Bering Sea through Unimak Pass and usually stopped at Unalaska. Unalaska and its neighbor Dutch Harbor grew rapidly.

Judge Wickersham founds Dillingham

In 1903 Judge Wickersham, who presided over the Third Judicial District court in Interior Alaska, received complaints about the sale of liquor to Natives in the Alaska Peninsula area. Wickersham traveled to Bristol Bay and held court at Nushagak.

While he was in the area, Wickersham selected a site for a commissioner's court. He chose a small tract of public land on the north shore of Nushagak Bay. Wickersham named the spot Dillingham, in honor of a U.S. Senator from Vermont who had been sent to Alaska that summer to investigate needed legislation. Wickersham made arrangements for building jails at both Dillingham and Unalaska.

Prospecting on the Kuskokwim River

Prior to 1907 prospectors occasionally searched for minerals in the Kuskokwim River drainage. A small rush to the region occurred in 1900 when rumors circulated in Nome about Russian gold discoveries on a tributary of the Kuskokwim River. The fabled "Yellow River" and its gold were not found. The first significant gold discoveries were made in 1907 along Fox and Bear creeks, tributaries of the Tuluksak River which enters the Kuskokwim River just north of Bethel. Three years later, miners working only with picks and shovels recovered nearly $15,000 in gold.

Prospectors rushed from nearby Iditarod to stake claims in the Kuskokwim River drainage. Gold deposits were located on the George River and Crooked Creek in 1909. Within a year, 300 prospectors were building log cabins at the new settlement they named Georgetown.The mineral wealth of the Kuskokwim River area was not in gold, but in mercury. This metal, commonly called quicksilver, is used to extract gold from other minerals because it combines with gold to form an amalgam, or alloy. The amalgam is then heated to separate the mercury and gold.

Mercury comes from cinnabar ore. Along the Kuskokwim River were places where the whole bluff was red with cinnabar. The Russians knew of deposits near their trading post on the river. W.W. Parks staked the Alice and Bessie claims not far from the post in 1906 and began operations. Placer gold miners at Iditarod and Bear Creek used quicksilver from Parks' mine.

Other cinnabar claims were staked around Georgetown and Sleetmute. The cinnabar mines operated irregularly, in response to the local demand for quicksilver. Most of the mine operators did not have the capital to develop their claims. Their growth wasalso hampered by the lack of transportation to and around the Kuskokwim River.

Bethel's rapid growth

Local riverboat Captain James Robertson complained in 1911 that the task of charting the Kuskokwim River had been completely neglected, although the area's population was growing rapidly. Robertson reported "perhaps ten times as many people in the valley this year as a year ago." A radio station had opened at Bethel and other businesses were getting underway. The captain believed that all that was needed to assure Bethel's rapid development as a port was a survey of the bay.

A year earlier, the northern Navigation Company had brought the sternwheeler Lavelle Young from the Yukon River to begin operating between Bethel and Takotna. Plans were being voiced to haul freight into the Innoko River mining district by way of the Kuskokwim River. Not until 1915 were the first reliable charts drawn of the channels at the mouth of the river, enabling ocean vessels to reach Bethel safely.

Summary questions

  1. Why did the sea otter population decline greatly after the United States bought Alaska?
  2. Why did the Pribilof Islands' seal population face extinction by 1890?
  3. What brought Chinese workers to Southwest Alaska?
  4. Why did St. Michael grow in the 1890s?
    5. Who named the town of Dillingham?
  5. What hampered the development of mines in Southwest Alaska?

Inquiry questions

  1. The Jesse Lee Home was originally established at Unalaska. Find out where it has moved since then.
  2. Make a report on one of the revenue cutters that patrolled the Bering Sea. Tell when the ship was built, some of the things it did in Alaska, and what happened to it.

The Sea, A Common Bond
1743-1867 Era of Russian Violence
1867-1912 The Era of American Exploitation
1912 1924 Lessons From The Land
1924-1959 The Recent Years
1959-1980 Joining Old And New
Suggested Readings

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