Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve (YUCH) is situated in east-central Alaska and has as its eastern boundary the United States/Canada international border. The preserve extends westward from the Canadian border into interior Alaska to the end of the Yukon-Tanana Highlands. On the north is the Porcupine River and the Alaska Highway is the southern border. It was created as a preserve in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. The implementing language states that it "shall be managed for the following purposes, among others: To maintain the environmental integrity of the entire Charley River basin, including streams, lakes, and other natural features, in its undeveloped natural condition for public benefit and scientific study; to protect habitat for, and populations of, fish and wildlife, including but not limited to the peregrine falcons and other raptorial birds, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, and wolves; and in a manner consistent with the foregoing, to protect and interpret historical sites and events associated with the gold rush on the Yukon river and the geological and paleontological history and cultural prehistory of the area." As this language demonstrates, prehistoric and historical archaeological resources are significant in the preserve and require inventory, evaluation, protection, and interpretation.
This extensive area is readily accessible by boat and air. The Taylor Highway terminates in Eagle, a community of about 165 peoples, 12 river miles south of the preserve boundary. The Steese Highway terminates 161 miles east of Fairbanks at Circle, a community of about 80 people, 14 river miles north of the preserve.
YUCH encompasses approximately 2,527,000 acres, of which about 2,148,000 acres are federal land; most of the nonfederal land is held by Doyon Ltd., the native regional corporation. Land is also held by the Eagle Village corporation and in native allotments. There are about 4000 acres in mining claims and private lands.
YUCH encompasses two nationally significant rivers. It contains a portion of the upper Yukon River valley, an area rich in historic, biotic, and geologic features, and the entire Charley river drainage, a National Wild and Scenic River. The Yukon river flows southeast-to-northwest through the preserve between valley walls that range from steep bluffs along high, upland benches to terraces representative of several stages of river downcutting. The preserve is within the Northern Plateau physiographic province. This province is comprised of a large wedge of intricately dissected uplands and alluvium-covered valleys. Upland areas in the southern portion of the preserve grade into a lowland belt. Major tributaries of the Yukon River include the Charley, Kandik, Seventymile, Tatonduk, and Nation rivers.
The Charley River, draining an area south of the Yukon, is the largest tributary within the preserve. For most of its length it is characterized by rugged uplands, becoming more rolling terrain near its confluence with the Yukon. Topographic relief is varied within the preserve, ranging from 600 feet above sea level along the western boundary to more than 6000 feet in the Charley River headwaters area.
The area was subject to at least two major glacial advances during the Pleistocene - the Illinoian and the less extensive Wisconsin. During both glaciations coverage was confined mainly to upper valley channels and cirque basins, leaving many areas ice-free. Several researchers have suggested that these non-glaciated intermontane areas (refugia) were important for early human immigrant occupation, in that they afforded favorable habitat for many of the economically important large terrestrial mammals such as the mammoth, bison, elk, and the more familiar bear, moose, sheep and caribou. During the Holocene there were several climatic fluctuations ranging from the Hypsithermal to the Little Ice Age that certainly affected life in the preserve area.
Pollen profiles from the middle Tanana Valley suggest that 16,000 years ago the vegetation in this area was principally a tundra-steppe biome characterized by grasses, sedges and Artemesia. By 14,000 BP the climate had begun to change from cool and dry to moist and warmer. Spruce first appeared around 11,000 BP in lowland settings with forests gradually expanding into the uplands. A modern, boreal coniferous/deciduous forest was present by 9000 BP. The present day preserve is dominated by taiga (boreal) forest consisting of white and black spruce, and deciduous trees such as birch, cottonwood, poplar, and alder.In some areas there is also high brush, muskeg bog, or alpine tundra. A variety of fauna, large and small mammals and birds, are present. Such animals as moose, caribou, grizzly, black bear, sheep, beaver and muskrat have inhabited the area since the end of the Pleistocene. Additionally, there have been annual summer runs of salmon in the middle Yukon River (king, silver and chum) that would have been major sources of food to local inhabitants.
Despite several survey projects in recent years, the archeological resources of the preserve are not well known. There are 90 recorded prehistoric sites in the preserve and numerous other known prehistoric resources that have been reported but not documented. However, enough is known that the archeological potential of the preserve, both for early and late sites, can be judged as very high. In addition, the potential for historical archeology is also very high. Because of the possible significance of the archeological resources in the preserve, they were specifically addressed in the implementing language of ANILCA.
A brief summary of the regional chronology will provide context for the purposes of this document. YUCH is within the Interior cultural area for NPS properties in Alaska. Well-documented sites appear in the archeological record just prior to 11,000 BP. Dry Creek, Component I, exhibits a flake and core technology dated to about 11,100 BP and the Mesa Site in the central Broooks Range has been reevaluated recently as a lanceolate point site dating to 11,500 BP. Other early assemblages, such as the lower levels of Onion Portage on the Kobuk River and Healy Lake just outside of DENA , exhibit a microblade and microcore technology which has been defined as the American Paleoarctic tradition dating to 8000-10000 years ago. Subsumed under this term is the Denali complex of Interior Alaska and including the Campus and Donnelly Ridge sites. It has been suggested that fluted and lanceolate points appear in the Arctic prior to 6000 BP, as Paleoindian technology diffused or migrated northward. Dating is insecure, however, and these artifacts have been placed as early as 11,500 BP and as recently as 4000 BP. The earlier tradition has been named the Northern Paleoindian tradition and the later one the Northern Plano Tradition.
Northern Archaic assemblages provide evidence of a boreal adaptation and date to between 6000 to 4000 BP. Side-notched projectile points, sometimes occurring in association with a core and microblade technology, are the hallmark of this time period. Various interpretations of this phenomenon have been put forward. The side-notched points are similar to that of the Archaic in the boreal forests south and east of the Arctic and this technology either diffused northward or was carried by migrating Archaic peoples.
About 6000 years ago, a new technology, representing a new group of people, is discernable in the archeological record. The ASTt people became the first pan-Arctic culture, spreading south as far as the Alaska Peninsula and east as far as Greenland and Hudson's Bay. However, in Interior Alaska in this time period, notched points and a core and blade industry continue to be extant and associated in many archeological assemblages. The microblade industry of the Interior has been grouped into a Denali Complex , which originally was equated with the Paleoarctic tradition. Recent research has extended the dates of the Denali Complex to as late as 3000 BP, which throws the interpretation and integrity of this cultural construct into doubt.
Following this time period it becomes possible to discern in the archeological record the Athabaskan tradition, which can be definitely traced from 1500 BP to historic times. Due to the lack of a clear cut archeological record (from a stratified site), researchers are not in agreement as to how far back into the past the people of the Athabaskan tradition, considered the direct ancestors of the Athabaskan peoples of modern times, can be traced. Some sources have interpreted the archeological record here as showing in situ cultural development over the long-term and they consider the development of the recognizable Athabaskan cultural pattern to have begun with the major environmental and adaptive changes that preceded the Northern Archaic tradition.
In contrast, other researchers suggest that two distinct populations have inhabited the Interior through time. The earlier people, or "Amerinds", are thought to be the ancestral group for the Paleoindian cultures. The recognizable Athabaskan cultures are thought to represent a much later migration. Another theoretical thread is one that links the effects of a major volcanic eruption in the St. Elias Range (represented archeologically as the White River ash) at about 1890 BP with the displacement of groups around Kluane and Aishihik lakes, movement to the northwest and the appearance in the Brooks Range with Kavik points and tchi-thos and other generalized implements associated with the Athabaskan tradition. On linguistic evidence, Krauss has suggested that 3000 years may have elapsed since the numerous modern Athabaskan languages diverged from a common language present in Alaska.
The Klo-Kut site, in the middle Porcupine River drainage near YUCH, provides the longest unbroken prehistoric record of Athabaskan occupation. The well-stratified context and preserved faunal remains reveal 1500 years of continuous occupation that culminates in a well-documented historic Athabaskan village component. Morlan characterizes the inhabitants of Klo-Kut as primarily caribou hunters, oriented primarily toward upland, treeless areas, and hypothesizes a similar lifeway for other northern Athabaskans during the late prehistoric period. Another site, EAG-139, which is located on the left bank of the Yukon River between Eagle and Eagle Village, represented a Han Athabaskan village that was occupied between 1880 and 1890 AD. Based on oral history and archeological data from the site, it appears that the Han families there focussed on hunting large and small game, especially salmon and caribou.
Direct contact with Euroamericans was made in 1847 with the establishment of Fort Yukon. The Han had been in indirect contact with the Russians to the west and the Hudson's Bay company to the east prior to that. By 1873 a trader from Fort Yukon named Moses Mercier founded a trading post on Belle Island, opposite what was to become Eagle City. During the 1880's and 1890's, various trading outposts and settlements were founded in the territory of the Han and acculturative pressures on them became very strong.
Gold had been known to be present in the Yukon Basin since the 1870's, even though the first major strike, on the Fortymile, did not occur until 1886. During the last half of the 19th century, prospectors and miners came in ever-increasing numbers . Circle City was founded as a mining camp in 1893. Other claims resulted in settlements at Seventymile in 1888 and at Mission Creek (Eagle) in 1895. In 1897 gold was discovered on the Klondike River in Canada and the "Klondike Stampede" was on. Literally tens of thousands of people poured into Han territory. Dawson, Eagle, and Circle became boomtowns. Between these major nodes, smaller settlements and outposts - Nation, Miller's Camp, Biederman's, Slaven Cabin, Star City, and Woodchopper Roadhouse -- became hubs of activity. The Yukon River became the highway, connecting all of these places by riverboat. The effects on the region and its inhabitants were irreversible.
YUCH contains a rich, varied record of significant historic sites. However, much of the historic record has not been verified in the field, especially as to location, extent, condition, time period, and status. The methods and theory of historical archeology would be major components of such an inventory and evaluation. It should be noted that the historic resources (and their archeological components) of YUCH are important not just for the gold rush story but for other themes as well. These include frontiers (e.g. Indian, trading, mining, military and missionary), the fur trade, aboriginal acculturation, 20th century mining and trapping, English-Russian-American and Canadian relationships, and international activities such as the telegraph, trails, steamboats and mail delivery.
Most of the preserve area was inhabited by the Han group of Athabaskan Indians. Only one major ethnographic research effort, Osgood's 1932 work, was done on this group. Acculturative changes had already had a great effect on the traditional culture and way of life. Han traditional accounts and oral history, historic narratives, and archeology are the main tools left to elucidate the late prehistoric and protohistoric life of the Han. The northern fringe of the preserve was inhabited by another Athabaskan group, the Kutchakuchin, who spoke another Athabaskan language. The same need for research holds for that group as well.
There were three Han settlements, corresponding to three local bands. Farthest upriver was Nuklato, near the mouth of the Klondike, opposite Fort Reliance. A middle band was located at Johnny's Village (Klat-ol-klin), or David's Camp, which are associated with present-day Eagle Village. The third was Charley's Village (Tadush), located either at the mouth of, or across from the confluence with the Kandik. These "villages" served as base camps from which various subsistence efforts were launched. Families were quite mobil and boundaries shifted frequently. In general, the Han were opportunistic hunters and gatherers with a river-oriented winter settlement pattern (due to the presence of salmon and the use of rivers for transport). Well before European contact intergroup trade networks that reached from Siberia to Canada supplied the Athabaskan economy with a wide variety of resources that were not otherwise available. The Han were skilled traders, often acting as middlemen for other groups. These same trade networks eventually became the routes through which European trade goods first made their way into the Interior. First actual contact was made sometime around 1843.
Since Osgood's observations were made after nearly 100 years of intensive European contact that had significantly altered traditional patterns, it is possible that the standard view of Han culture as exclusively showing large communal population centers along the main rivers was biased. Until much more archeological inventory is accomplished, with the view of examining the late prehistoric and protohistoric record, this view will have to be accepted but treated with caution in interpreting past cultures in this area.
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