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A Brief History of Alaska

George Pararas-Carayannis

(This brief summary of the history of Alaska was prepared in connection with the compilation of a Catalog of Tsunamis in Alaska initially published by the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics of the University of Hawaii, then as a report of the World Data Center A- Tsunami)

Introduction

This brief review of the early history of Alaska was prepared in connection with the compilation of a Catalog of Tsunamis in Alaska which was co-authored with Professor Doak Cox. It was initially published as a report of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics of the University of Hawaii, then as a report of the World Data Center A- Tsunami. The completeness of the record of Alaskan tsunamis and the reliability of its information have depended upon learning of cultural development along the coasts. Thus, researching Alaska's early history for Tsunami information was important to the compilation of a catalog on tsunamis.

Alaska's history began over 200 years ago, but in some ways it is still a sparsely settled frontier. Hence, the history of Alaska is discussed in this report with special reference to its exploration, the development of permanent settlements, and other aspects bearing on the probabilities that events such as tsunamis would have been not merely noted, but permanently recorded. The historical section presented here is based mainly on a review of the works of Bancroft (1886), Beaglehole (1966), Colby (1939), Friis (1967), Gruening (1954), and Heintzleman (1957)

Early Map of Alaska

Early Alaskan Settlements

Prior to its European discovery, Alaska was populated by Indians in the north eastern portion and the interior, by Eskimos on the coasts and islands of the Bering and Arctic Seas, Cook Inlet and Kodiak Island, and by Aleuts on the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands.

The European exploration of Alaska began with the 1741 voyages of Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikoff to the Aleutian Islands, the coasts of the Gulf of Alaska, and southeastern Alaska. Beginning in 1745, the Aleutian Islands and the Alaska Peninsula were visited frequently by Russian fur traders, some of whom wintered on one or another of the islands. They established a settlement of at least semipermanent European occupancy in about 1760 or 1770 at Iliuliuk on Unalaska. The Fox Islands were explored in some detail by an official Russian expedition under PoKo Krenitsin and Mikhail Levashev. Prince William Sound was explored by the English expedition under James Cook in 1778. Information about the Alaskan-Aleutian coasts was extended further by late 18th century Russian, Spanish, and French expeditions.

The first permanent settlement in Alaska was made in 1784, at Three Saints Bay, Kodiak Island, by a Russian fur company headed by Gregory Shelikoff. The second followed in 2 years at Kasilof on Cook Inlet. In 1792, the Kodiak Island settlement was moved to the present town of Kodiak, and a rival fur trading company established a post in Cook Inlet. A settlement was established near Yakutat in 1795, and a shipyard was established in Resurrection Bay.

In 1799, 4 years after Shelikoff's death, his company was reorganized under a Russian Irnperial charter as the Russian American Company and given control over all of the Russian territory in America. Alexander Baranov, the new head, established a new settlement in that year, which, following a massacre in 1802, was relocated in 1804 and became the present town of Sitka. The company established a considerable number of other forts and trading posts. A census in about 1818 showed a total Russian population of 321 scattered among nine settlements from Sitka to Kodiak.

Russian vessels carried supplies to the settlements and transported the furs back to Russia. In the early 19th century, a large part of the trading was taken over by American vessels. A whaling ground was discovered off Kodiak in 1835, and other grounds subsequently off the Aleutian Islands and in the Bering Sea and in the Arctic Sea in 1848, which led to the presence in these waters of scores of whalers, mostly American, during the summer months.

Early Map of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands

Russia Sells Alaska to United States

The dwindling of the fur trade and involvement in the Crimean War led Russia to sell Alaska to the United States in 1867. The Alaska "district" was administered in succession by the Army for 10 years, the Treasury Department for 2 years, and the Navy for 5 years, without even a code of laws. Its first governor was appointed in 1884, it was given its own legal code between 1898 and 1900, and in 1906 it was permitted to send an official delegate to the National Congress. Alaska finally became a territory in 1912, and a state in 1959.

In spite of the almost total lack of government, some industries were maintained and even added in the early years of American administration. First, fish salteries and later fish canneries were established, most of which operated in the summer only. Gold was discovered in 1876, and Juneau was established in 1880 following a gold find there. The capital was moved there from Sitka in 1906. A placer operation was begun in 1887 at Yakutat; shortly after a lode mine opened on Unga Island in the Shumagins, and in 1895, there was a gold rush to the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet. Trans-shipment needs in connection with the development of the mining led to the establishment of a number of ports on the Gulf of Alaska and Prince William Sound. Cordova was established in about 1890, Valdez in 1898, and Seward in 1902. Other towns developed as a result of fishing needs, and schools were established at Indian, Aleut, and Eskimo villages.

REFERENCES

Pararas-Carayannis, G, and D. C. Cox. A Catalog of Tsunamis in Alaska. Data Report Hawaii Inst.Geophys. Mar. 1968

Pararas-Carayannis, G, and D. C. Cox. A Catalog of Tsunamis in Alaska. World Data Center A- Tsunami Report, No. 2, 1969.

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