Beyond the Moon Crater Myth
A New History of the Aniakchak Landscape
A Historic Resource Study for Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve
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An example of an American fur trader in Alaska, ca. 1912. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, THWAITES 247.33.

Incorporating Aniakchak:
American Fur Traders, Oil Prospectors, and Reindeer Herders

All appears quiet and content as the wind blows its strong breath of ownership through the ruins of a once popular Alutiiq village and its oil fields. Surely, the wind does own the now-quiet town nestled between the grand Pacific Ocean and the magnificent mountains of the Alaska Range.

Marlane Shanigan, Kanatak Tribal Council

Near the very place on the Alaska Peninsula where the Russian crew of the St. Peter encountered "Americans" for the first time, Father Hubbard waited at the Harris salmon cannery, near False Pass, for a plane to fly him up the length of the Alaska Peninsula and into the Aniakchak Crater. While waiting for the weather to improve, Father Hubbard happened to strike up a conversation with a fish trap operator. The operator was infuriated that the Bureau of Fisheries, the federal agency charged with regulating the Alaska fishery, was allowing seine boat fishermen to catch salmon near his fix trap site. "It's this way," the operator grumbled to Hubbard:

....Suppose a miner working hard all his life finds a good prospect in an undeveloped region. He locates his claim and develops it. Later on others flock into the region and stake claims above and below his. That's all right too, as far as it goes. It is part of the game for many to reap where few sow. But suppose some sort of legal maneuver closes up the original prospector's workings, because he is getting too much gold, while the others who have come in on the strength of his pioneer efforts are allowed to continue panning—then the original miner would have a real grievance.

"That's life," Hubbard agreed. "Some people spend half their life making something and the other half keeping everybody else from getting it away from them." Hubbard then added, "Only when we get to heaven shall we be free from such earthly annoyances." The trap owner pondered Hubbard's observation, and after only a moment, replied, "Well, I sure want to get there, but if hell is worse than what I have to go through on earth, then I'd be plumb out of luck if I missed out all around."

The sentiment the trap owner expressed to Hubbard that day represented a broader view of frustration and anxiety held collectively by many Americans towards ongoing socioeconomic and ideological changes. Historian Robert Weibe notes that throughout the decades that bridged the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, "A pall of thwarted opportunity, of frustrated dreams, hung over large parts of the nation." [1] Such frustrations stemmed from rapid industrial development occurring throughout the country since the end of the Civil War. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, cities had grown in size and number. Americans flocked to many of them to labor in factories. Meanwhile farm production skyrocketed, invigorated by new marketing methods and use of new machinery. Railroad construction stimulated and unified the economy, while gold and silver strikes in the West fueled dreams. Even the sticky dark petroleum, discovered in Pennsylvania just before the Civil War, gave rise to a new industry and became what many began to call "black gold."

Rapid urbanization, industrialization, and immigration conspired to drastically alter the structure of American economy and society. Though most Americans benefited from this transformation, many people at the time felt as if control over their lives and the resources they depended upon was slipping away from them. The combination of rapid changes produced during the twentieth century, and ultimately people's response to those changes, caused a shift in American values, from those held by isolated, autonomous agricultural communities of the 1800s to those of corporate-minded professionals living in urban regions by the 1920s. The new American mind-frame valued continuity, regulation, specialization, and practical management. Moreover, such twentieth century challenges changed the way Americans thought about the role of government. In an effort to deal with the magnitude of social and economic problems derived from this industrial transformation, reformers of this era believed that government was the only institution capable of finding solutions to cure society's ills. As power in this country shifted from the individual to an amorphous institution, Americans accepted, perhaps begrudgingly, the "need for a government of continuous involvement." [2] Thus, to maintain a sense of order and tangibility, the federal government was suddenly engaged in peoples lives like never before.

When Father Hubbard arrived in Alaska in the 1930s, the Glacier Priest, like the trap operator, sought out an American frontier landscape in which one could still control one's own destiny. But despite Father Hubbard's effort to paint a frontier picture of the Far North in his popular lectures, Alaska was hardly immune to such instruments of change. In fact, within just ten years of the Alaska purchase, the architects of American incorporation—big business and the federal government—began to absorb Father Hubbard's remote, exotic, and isolated Aniakchak region into the larger American world.

In fact, when the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, U.S. officials saw Alaska's value, especially its economic worth. According to William A. Williams, author of Roots of the Modern American Empire, in 1867, a number of U.S. lawmakers argued that the annexation of Alaska was necessary for the expansion of American trade and influence in Asia and eventually the whole world. Echoing sentiments of Manifest Destiny, Ignatius Donnelly of Minnesota declared that it was America's true destiny "to grasp the commerce of all the seas and sway the scepter of the world." Similarly, Congressmen Green Berry Raum of Illinois argued that the annexation of Alaska would hasten transformation of the Untied States into "the leading commercial nation of earth," which would control all the rich trade with the East. [3]

Historian Walter LaFeber makes a similar argument in his book The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898, which states that the culmination of American expansion is linked to the national industrial capacity and the need to seize new markets, especially Asian markers. LaFeber points out that the first to realize this need was Secretary of State William H. Seward. [4] Likewise, In his study Conflict on the Northwest Coast: American-Russian Rivalry in the Pacific Northwest, 1790-1867, Historian Howard I. Kushner supports Williams and LaFeber's argument, for he suggests that Seward, the architect of the Treaty with Russia, looked upon annexation of Alaska as "a stepping-stone to Asia's markers." [5] According to Kushner, the sale of Alaska was the "culmination of continental expansion," which even the great Pacific Ocean could not stop. [6] According to these historical interpretations, then, the United States made the decision to purchase Alaska because American leadership saw Alaska as a bridge that connected them to the markets and resources of the Pacific. [7]

Though Kushner agrees with the interpretation that American leaders desired Russian America as a bridge to Pacific markers, he also justly adds that American businessmen saw value in the northern acquisition in its own right. [8] As Kushner points out, U.S. entrepreneurs recognized the potential of everything from Alaska's whaling fishery to its ice trade. As a result, U.S. leaders began to put pressure on Russian dignitaries, which, as Kushner contends, would have brought the sale sooner had it not been for America's internal conflict, the Civil War. In Russian historiography, the aim, if not the exclusive reason, for the sale of Russian America was U.S. expansion and even the threat of an immediate military clash. Articulating Russia's realization that the Russian-American Company alone could not defend its territory in North America against a growing American presence, the frustrated Russian minister to the United States, Edward de Stoeckl, wrote, "American freebooters" were "rapidly multiplying in the Pacific.... [And] however spacious the regions of the United States Federation may be, they do not seem extensive enough for the feverish activity and spirit of enterprise of the Americans." [9]

Thus, contrary to popular frontier mythology, immediately after Russia sold Alaska to the Untied States, Corporate America and the Federal Government—not rugged individuals—began to explore and, eventually, integrate the coastal areas of Aniakchak into a distinctly American way of life. The first American capitalists to reach Aniakchak Bay represented the California-based Alaska Commercial Company, which ran a station at Sutkhum from 1878-1884, and introduced the system of American credit to the region. Just over a decade later, oil seeps off the peninsula coast attracted exploratory drillers, who staked their first claims in 1901. Within two decades, companies like Chevron and Mobil had transformed the village of Kanatak, located up the Pacific Coast from Aniakchak, into a booming frontier town. And, finally, in a paramount attempt at social and cultural engineering, beginning in 1910, government-sponsored reindeer herding was introduced to the Bristol Bay side of Aniakchak. By providing subsistence-dependent Alaska Natives with a specialization, the program endeavored to instill within the Alutiiq population there, along with the Inupiaq in-migrants, an entrepreneurial spirit, and ultimately, to incorporate the Aniakchak region into America's capitalistic culture.

For many individuals—the "little guy"—especially the newcomers still holding onto nineteenth century American frontier values, this was a time of great disillusionment. Time and again, individual dreams had been trumped by corporate and governmental interests. For those who spent half their life making something and the other half keeping everybody else from taking it away from them, these changes represented more than simple annoyances. As the fish trap operator explained to Hubbard, "it felt like hell on earth."

Print at The Signing of Treaty of Cessation, March 30, 1867, from the painting by Emanuel Leutze showing the Alaska purchase. Shown left to right; Robert S. Chew; William. H. Seward (Secretary of State), William Hunter; Mr. Bodisco; Baron de (Eduard) Stoeckl (Russian Diplomat) Charles Sumner and Frederick W. Seward. Alaska State Library, P243-1-086.


Not surprisingly, one of the first commercial enterprises that American businessmen pursued in the new territory was the sea otter trade, a venture that had been well established by the Russian-American Company for at least eighty-three years. In 1868, just one year after the purchase, The San Francisco-based Alaska Commercial Company formed to facilitate the Alaskan fur trade. Economically speaking, the Americans picked up where the Russians left off. Within ten years, the Alaska Commercial Company began to operate trading posts throughout the Aniakchak region, and, at first, most residents hardly noticed things had changed.

In fact, for the most part, life on the central Alaska Peninsula under American rule existed much as it did under Russian authority. The number of American newcomers was still relatively low in the late 1800s; therefore the cultural and social reality created between the mix of Russians and the Alutiiq residents remained basically intact. Like the Russian artels, American trading posts attracted Alutiiq and Creole settlements, from which their inhabitants engaged in trade. However, over time the American fur traders began to introduce subtle changes characteristic of a capitalistic, market-driven culture. Although notable cultural disruption did not take place immediately, companies like the Alaska Commercial Company paved the way for the larger American corporations, which did begin to alter the Aniakchak region enormously by the turn of the century.

In December 1867, Hayward Hurchinson, a successful wartime business promoter representing the San Francisco-based business, Hurchinson, Kohl and Company, traveled to Sitka to bid on the Russian-America Company's remaining assets. There, Hurchinson met Prince Dmitrii Maksutov, the company's chief manager, and de facto representative of the imperial government in Alaska. With Alaska now held by the Stars and Stripes, it was Maksutov's responsibility to sell off the Russian-America Company's merchandise and property, consisting of a merchant fleet and a far-flung chain of trading posts. [10] That winter, a charming and diplomatic Hurchinson outmaneuvered his American competitors and purchased from Maksutov the company's inventory, merchant vessels, and trading posts. Hutchinson was even able to negotiate rights to the Russian-American Company's coveted sealing interests in the Pribilof Islands. [11] Hunting and procurement of fur-bearing animals quickly ensued, and the following autumn, associates from Hutchinson, Kohl founded the Alaska Commercial Company to take over the American fur trade in Alaska.

Because of the conservation measures taken by the Russians to protect their investment in the fur trade, sea mammal numbers had rebounded in the Aniakchak region. Consequently, the Alaska Commercial Company restored Russian outposts and opened a few new trading posts there. By the 1880s, Native and Creole inhabitants, who had deserted previous settlements as a result of the declining Russian fur trade, now had incentive to return to the region in larger numbers and settle entirely new villages along the Alaska Peninsula coastline. Chignik elder Polly Shangin recalled, "After the white people came and put up a store, my father hunted sea otters." [12] For many, it was business as usual.

Alaska Commercial Company trading posts. By B. Bundy. (click on image for a PDF version)

During 1880, U.S. census taker Ivan Petroff recorded people living at the villages of Oogashik [Ugashik], Oonangashik [Unangashak], Mashikh [Meshik], Kuiukak [Wrangell], Kaluiak and [Chignik Bay]. [13] Not surprisingly, each village was the site of an Alaska Commercial Company post. The company also opened a store in Wide Bay in 1897, drawing people from Bristol Bay to the future village of Kanatak on Portage Bay, and in "Sutwik Bay," at what was the Russian-American Company's artel site at Sutkhum. [14]

The Alaska Commercial Company's Sutkhum station ran a seasonal store, outfitted hunters, and bought or traded sea otter and other furs between 1878 and 1884. Hunters from Wrangell, Afognak, Katmai, Kodiak, and Ugashik traded at Sutkhum. Using bidarkas, dories, or the mail steamer Dora, which later served the cannery operations, furs from wolverine, mink, red fox, caribou, and otter were brought to Sutkhum by local inhabitants to sell or trade. [15] From there company agents sent the furs to stations on Kodiak Island, where transport businesses like the Alaska Steamship Company, sailed the cargo to San Francisco and Seattle. From the West Coast ports, pelts were sold in markets all over the world. In payment for furs, the Alaska Commercial Company traded western commodities—tea, coffee, hardtack, clothing, and crockery—items to which Alutiiq people had grown accustomed. [16] The Company did not sell liquor and drastically limited the amount of available sugar sold in their posts, to discourage people from making home brew. [17]

The Sutkhum hunters found the methods American employed along the central peninsula coastline to be similar to the hunting practices during the Russian days. Hunters searched for animals along the reefs and islands, from the Shumagin Islands to Puale Bay. Mike Sam of Chignik Lagoon recalls stories his grandfather used to tell him about sea otter hunting. According to Sam, hunters still used bow and arrows. Like their ancestors, they were constantly exposed to storms, and while waiting out the bad weather in what was usually some kind of makeshift shelter, the hunters gambled away their catch to one another. [18] In 1880, Ivan Petroff described a typical sea otter hunt:

The great body of Aleutian [Alutiiq] hunters still retain the spear and in a few instances, the bow and arrow. The sea otter is always hunted by parties of from four to twenty bidarkas, each manned by two hunters. From their village the hunters precede to some lonely coast near the hunting ground, either in their canoes or by schooners and sloops belonging to the trading firms, a few women generally accompanying the party to do the housework in the camp....the rents of the party are pitched in some spot not visible from the sea, and the hunters patiently settle down to await the first favorable day, only a smooth sea permitting the hunting of sea-otter with any prospect of success...As soon as the otter comes up within spear's throw one of the hunters exerts his skill and lodges a spear head in the animal, which immediately dives. An inflated bladder is attached to the shaft, preventing the otter from diving very deep. It soon comes up again, only to receive a number of other missiles, the intervals between attacks becoming shorter each time, until exhaustion forces the otter to remain on the surface and receive its death wound. [19]

Like the Russians before 1867, the Alaska Commercial Company maintained a near monopoly of fur trade along the central Alaska Peninsula coastline. But, as operations became more commercialized, signs of competition began to develop along the peninsula, which eventually led to problems between the Alaska Commercial Company's traders and their Alutiiq hunters. A noted Company rival operating in the same region was Nikolai Olgin, a church leader, who built the Mitrofania chapel in 1881 and owned a schooner, which he used as a trading post. [20] Although he was a single operator, Olgin chipped away at the Alaska Commercial Company's control of the market in this area by selling merchandise at lower prices. In 1888, an exasperated agent from the Wrangell Station described the competitive situation along the central peninsula in a letter to the Alaska Commercial Company's headquarters in Kodiak:

Reed & Olgin were also on the [Suthwik] Isld. My party reported Olgin bought from Ugashik party one sea otter paying $75.00 therefore. Olgin has an assortment of Mdse thru his trades with other parties. Although my party had no money when they left for Suthwik, several of them brought Mdse and money from there, the natural inference, that Olgin has succeeded in buying also sea otters from my party. [21]

Although seemingly advantageous, selling their furs to the highest bidder created a problem for local hunters. Accordingly, hunters lured by higher prices from the competition allowed their debts incurred from the Alaska Commercial Company to deepen. The Company tried to garnish wages from hunters, even those hunters who tried to avoid their obligations by changing the stations with which they exchanged their furs. But, even as hunters continued to amass debt, the Company continued to outfit hunting expeditions. [22] In a report written in 1898, Father Vasilli Martysh described how debt kept Native hunters in a kind of indentured service to the Alaska Commercial Company:

...for furs on hand which Natives bring to the store for sale, they are paid, not in money but by company checks, which can be cashed only at the company agents'... It's not an infrequent occurrence, where even for furs in hand such checks are not issued but simply the catch added to a half-century old debt. [23]

Four men, seated at Alaska Commercial Company's office, San Francisco, 1904, Left to right: H. McIntyre (formerly Treasury agent), Capt. M.C. Erskine, Professor George Davidson and Capt. Gustave Niebaum. Alaska State Library, Michael Z. Vinokouroff Photograph Collection, ca. 1880s-1970s. PCA 243-2-168.

While the fur exchange economy made its inevitable transition to capitalism, the language spoken between hunters and agents to negotiate their transactions became a problem. Unlike the Russian-American Company, which mainly hired bilingual Creoles to manage trading posts, Euroamericans ran most Alaska Commercial Company stores, and they spoke only English. Most hunters and other lower employees were Russian Aleut and/or Alaska Native, and allegiant to the Russian tongue. If local residents wanted to do business, however, they had to learn to communicate in English. At some stations, mainly on the Pribilofs, the Company provided American educational courses, which published textbooks in English and Russian. One textbook taught a Creole or Native person that:

The people in California or other states live in fine houses, built of wood, brick, iron, or marble. The Americans work very hard to earn money and instead of spending it in gambling and drunkenness, they build fine houses in which they have good books, fine furniture, and every necessity of life. [24]

Adding to the problems between agents and hunters was an apparent lack of interest that managers of the Alaska Commercial Company paid to their operations on the Alaska Peninsula. The primary reason for such a lack of interest was economic: the region's commercial hunting activities were often eclipsed by the profits the Company received from its Pribilof Island lease. Between 1870 and 1890—the Company's heyday years—Sutkhum, and the rest of the peninsula posts, remained mere afterthoughts compared to the sealing stations in the Bering Sea, as well as the more lucrative Kodiak and Aleutian stations. In the spring of 1882, Grigorii Panshin, who operated the station in Sutkhum, wrote to Benjamin McIntyre, the Alaska Commercial Company's chief trader for the Kodiak district, to inform him that too few hunters were available to hunt for sea otters and requested that Kodiak send families to procure furs. [25] Although a small group of people spent their winters on Sutwik Island, it appears that no resident hunters resided at Sutkhum at all. [26]

As a result, the Sutkhum station, like most stations on the Alaska Peninsula, spiraled downward in the 1880s. In his letter to McIntyre, Panshin described famine, depleted sea mammal supplies, a possible epidemic, and even the rumor that "they [management of the Alaska Commercial Company] will remove the Sutkhum store." As difficulties intensified, personal conflicts brewed between the American agent and the Creole hunters. Panshin complained that hunters took what they wanted from the store, sabotaged baidarkas, and even threatened his life: "I also write to you that I am sending Ego Patriotic Naomi," wrote Panshin. "I would not send him for any purpose but I am afraid to leave him here. He nearly killed me in March." [27]

By the same token, agents seemed to have had little respect for the native hunters. Some agents, like Frank Lowell of Wrangell and Frank Kruger of Ugashik, married local Alutiiq women and invested their time and resources in the communities. Most agents, however, treated the Creole and native hunters with contempt. For example, agent Fisher, who preceded Lowell at the Wrangell post, described the local people as being "lazy," "drunk," and "worthless." Fisher stared in a letter written in 1888 that he was "disgusted with the pagans" and requested that the Alaska Commercial Company relieve him as soon as possible. [28]

By 1880, sea otter and fur seal populations had declined exponentially, and even though the company paid Alutiiq hunters fairly high prices for pelts, the rarity of the animals made producing an income nearly impossible. A marked increase in demand for seal fur caused prices to rise, and suddenly, seal hunters from countries all over the world scoured the northern seas. Many of the sealers who worked Alaskan waters were Atlantic fishermen and whalers accustomed to the open ocean or pelagic hunting style of the Grand Banks. The pelagic hunters killed their prey at sea, outside the cloistered waters surrounding the Pribilofs or the coastal waters of the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula. Because pelagic hunters had no way of knowing the gender of their prey, they killed both males and females. Moreover, pelagic hunting practices were inefficient. Many times, even if they managed to harpoon their target, many wounded animals were able to escape, only to die somewhere else. As a result, these wasteful methods soon reduced the number of pelts available, and everyone engaged in the fur trade suffered.

Oil wells drilled in Cold Bay between 1902 and 1963. None of the drills discovered commercial sized oil seeps. Modified from Roderick, 1997. (click on image for a PDF version)

The Alaska Commercial Company made ten million dollars in profit between 1867 and 1880, three million dollars more than the United States paid for Alaska. Although the Company was the most successful trading company in the region, with fewer skins to sell, the Company was forced to diversify investments. By late 1897, the excitement of the Klondike Gold Rush had permeated the country. As a result the Alaska Commercial Company shifted interest from furs to gold, hoping to sell goods and services to the thousands of Americans trying to reach the golden fields of Nome and the Yukon. [29]

With a new focus, the Alaska Commercial Company began to cut loose its posts located outside of the gold mining interests. It sold the Ugashik store to its agent, Frank Kruger. It was even suggested by Lowell, the agent in Wrangell, that managers sell the Wrangell stock and accounts to Kruger for cash. [30] By 1902, Alaska Commercial Company had either closed or abandoned all its stores on the Alaska Peninsula, including Sutkhum in 1884.

The slow decline of the fur trade brought varied change among local residents. Alutiit responses and their adjustments to the decline—both good and bad—began to show just after the turn of the century. Russian priests described a rise in starvation and disease throughout the peninsula, due in part to a lack of food and medicine normally purchased at local Alaska Commercial Company stores. One priest, however, reported that store closures positively affected local peoples. In 1901, Father Vasilii Martysh noted that "First, drunkenness is undoubtedly less... Secondly, the Aleuts [Alutiit] returned to their original [traditionally prepared foods, rather than canned food, etc.] which are the only ones appropriate to Alaska." [31] The end of the fur trade certainly meant tough times for many people who had grown accustomed to and dependent on Western goods. But as hard as this period of transition was on the people living in the central Alaska Peninsula, they managed to adapt.

In fact, the strategies most people employed at the end of the nineteenth century were not so new. In order to survive, many Alutiit returned to pre-contact ways of gathering food and making clothing. They trapped land mammals in the winter, dug for clams in the spring, gathered berries and hunted caribou in the fall, and fished for and dried salmon all summer for winter storage. [32] Along with the technological knowledge and skills required to meet substantive and material needs, the Alutiiq people were able to either maintain or revive many elements of the pre-contact spiritual relationship with the natural world. When oil companies from the Lower 48 began to drill near Kanatak after the turn of the century, and the Columbia River Packers Association moved into Aniakchak Bay to trap salmon for their cannery located in Chignik Bay in 1917, residents of the central Alaska Peninsula were actively using the area on a seasonal basis. [33]


As the people living in the Aniakchak region moved into the twentieth century, the only economic activity that they had known for 150 years—the fur trade—was coming to a close. Even worse, there was no evidence that gold, the most important mineral of the day, existed within the Alaska Peninsula's ashen landscape. In 1880, U.S. census taker Ivan Petroff reported:

On the coast of the peninsula opposite Kodiak island coal has been found, together with many indications of the existence of petroleum; but if other mineral deposits are hidden within the recesses of the mountains they have thus far escaped the searching eye of the prospector and explorer. [34]

Although such revelations regarding the region's resources dissuaded a rush of gold miners to the region, "indications of the existence of petroleum" ignited interest from another group of prospectors. Thus, as quickly as the Alaska Commercial Company was abandoning outposts and selling its stock and assets, the booming American oil industry set its sights on the Alaska Peninsula coastline, When the discovery of gold near the Klondike River attracted a rush of American prospectors and capitalists to Alaska in 1897, not all came looking for gold. Some were convinced that beneath Alaska's frozen ground lay pools of petroleum just waiting to be drilled from the earth.

Oil, then, represented Aniakchak's entrance into the modern capitalistic system at the beginning of the twentieth century that, in many ways, marked the end of 150 years of mutual dependency and interaction between Alutiiq hunters and parishioners, Russian promyshlenniki and priests, and American trappers and traders. In the decades after the Civil War, the United States had made great advances in production, which linked rural economies to centers of industry and manufacturing on the East Coast. By the turn of the century, investors in those power centers, including the oil-producing states of Texas and California, began to explore the northern region for fossil fuels and, by 1901, had staked claims along the Pacific coast of the Aniakchak landscape.

As this study has attempted to show throughout these chapters, it was during the fur trade—from 1741 to the early 1900s—that the central Alaska Peninsula served as a kind of common ground, characterized by relatively mutual agreement between Alutiit, Russians, and early Americans. Throughout most of those years, not only did the Alutiiq people adjust to demands of the fur market without entirely abandoning their older spiritual relationship to the world around them, but because trade networks at the time were limited and military enforcement remained far away, to survive, both Russians and early Americans adopted, and at times depended upon, Alutiiq technology, hunting and fishing skills, as well as their intimate knowledge of the region's natural resources. In many instances, these newcomers needed the Alutiit, not only the men for hunting furs, but women too, for companionship, which ultimately resulted in a new mixed Native-Euroamerican culture.

Although the fur trade linked the Aniakchak landscape to distant markets from Moscow to Peking, to New York and, in doing so, imposed a new set of meanings on the local landscape, transport systems and global markets remained quite limited, and therefore the trade goods and other resources that entered into Aniakchak did little to shift the balance of power in one direction entirely. Admittedly, the American arrivals caused significant disruption after 1867 in terms of sea mammal depletion, new cost-cutting business practices, racism, and religion. But, it was not until the Americans began to import all necessary means to extract Aniakchak natural resources, making them ultimately independent from the 150-year-old local trade system, that Aniakchak's cultural and social accommodation broke down and relationships of power shifted toward the American corporations. In other words, the Alutiit and Creoles, even the American solitary entrepreneur, were no longer necessary participants in such economic endeavors.

Families utilized furs well into the 20th century. Mary Griechen, Joe Oda and Sophie Griechen, date unknown. Photograph courtesy of the Pilot Point Tribal Council, Ace Griechen Collection.

Although the fur trade continued well into the twentieth century, the first signs that the balance of power was shifting on the central Alaska Peninsula occurred in 1901 at the small coastal Alutiiq and Creole village of Kanatak, located on the shores of what was then known as Cold Bay. That year, oil seeps off the peninsula coast attracted exploratory drillers to the village and, within two decades, companies like Chevron and Mobil had transformed the village of Kanatak into a booming frontier town. Unlike the few Russians and Euroamerican who stayed and married within the Native and Creole communities throughout the Aniakchak region, these American had no plans to stay.

The actions of these oil seekers were driven by outside forces that had nothing to do with the local community or ecosystems. Those who attempted to capitalize on Kanatak's oil knew that their aim was to extract the resource entirely, and then leave. They came to extract wealth and, consequently, saw Alaska as little more than a storehouse of commodities. As Alaska historian Stephen Haycox points out, these newcomers "did not go to the frontier to live a subsistence lifestyle in the wilderness, they went for the money." [35] Thus, unlike Alaska Commercial Company agents, Orthodox priests, or Russian promyshlenniki, who, along with the Alutiit, basically lived dependant upon Aniakchak's natural resources, in Kanatak, oil prospectors found the local trade networks mainly irrelevant in their quest for oil. For they imported all necessary needs and constructed a boomtown that replicated the material, institutional, and ideological characteristics of the American culture they left behind.

The prospectors who came to Kanatak never consciously intended to destroy a culture or an ecosystem, but, rather, their aim was to discover oil. In Crude Dreams, author and oilman Jack Roderick writes, "Like the gold prospector, the oil explorer has a peculiar mind-set. He or she believes that tomorrow the mother lode will be found." [36] "Tomorrow," however, never arrived for those oil explorers who spent over sixty years prospecting along what was believed at the time to be one of Alaska's most promising sites—the oil fields of Cold Bay. These hopeful prospectors simply didn't know that however obvious these seeps seemed, they were often inaccurate indicators of recoverable subsurface petroleum reservoirs.

At the time, scientific and popular belief held that oil lay within the earth like a lake or basin. Today, geologists know that oil is found in porous rock—sandstone or limestone usually. Crude oil, or commercial grade crude oil, can only be found as it flows through these interconnected porous spaces. [37] Although scientists remain puzzled as to why the layers of rock below Kanatak never produced commercial sized deposits, geologist Robert Blodgett offered the following multi-layered explanation: "One, local volcanism generated a "void filling mineral" possibly occupied the space in which oil would have normally been reserved; two, the technology used by turn-of-the-century oil drillers never reached depths that modern day rigs can descend; and three, they simply were drilling in the wrong places." [38]

In the end, this seemingly oil rich region did not result in the prosperous boomtown for which prospectors hoped. Despite the close attention of both the federal government and some of the most powerful business interest in the world, Kanatak disappeared from the world-view. With several failed attempts to strike the "mother lode," Kanatak became not unlike the numerous ghost towns hidden in the mountains and valleys of the American West. Still, the fate of Alaska's first fossil fuel economy, albeit minuscule by later standards, offers a glimpse of things to come.

The First Boom...and Bust

Alaska's oil comes from fossilized marine life deposited in enormous quantities on the ocean floor millions of years ago, which over the eons was buried by sediments that prevented its complete oxidation and decomposition. Today, crude oil represents millions of years of solar energy, collected in the fossilized life and, compressed by layers of earth, into a thick, dense, powerfully energized sludge. [39] In his study of Alaska's long relationship with fossil fuels, Donald Worster notes that "Tapping that fossil energy is like calling back all the protein that fed all the dinosaurs on earth for hundred million years and gorging on it." [40]

The first real attempt to bring fossil fuel energy to market in Alaska centered near the small native village of Kanatak, known primarily as the place where the winter mail for Bristol Bay and Nome was carried across the peninsula by dog team. [41] But by the turn of the century, Kanatak had become synonymous with oil. U.S. surveyors identified the region the "Cold Bay District," an area that included the Alaska Peninsula coastline from Wide Bay to Puale Bay, and extended inland to Becharof and Ugashik lakes. [42] The name designation acknowledged the district's cold, incessant wind and rain. Even before U.S. surveyors provided the name "Cold Bay," a Russian Orthodox priest described the area as "A dreary, harsh, cheerless region!" [43] Oilmen who worked in Cold Bay agreed. For they found the area hard to work in because the climate was "generally disagreeable, always windy, usually raining....Temperatures fell well below zero. Blizzard conditions prevailed." In the winter "the ground was frozen so solidly as to be unworkable..." In the spring, "it was so swampy as to be almost unworkable." [44] The weather was so "foggy and rainy" during the summer of 1920, lamented a U.S. geological surveyor, that conditions were "highly unfavorable for photographic mapping." [45]

Despite difficult climate conditions, people inhabited Cold Bay, specifically at the village of Kanatak. Alutiiq immigrants from the Bristol Bay village of Nushagak founded Kanatak in 1890. [46] Kanatak grew from "just a few barabaras" to a village of at least one hundred people by the 1940's. Ties with other communities were maintained when friends and relatives traveled from Kanatak to hunt, fish, or seek summer work at the local cannery. The village was also a refuge for families from Cold Bay, Katmai, and Wrangell after their homes were destroyed by the Katmai volcanic eruption in 1912.

Long before oilmen from the Lower 48 took interest in the Alaska Peninsula, these Native inhabitants had been aware of the area's petroleum seeps since "time immemorial." [47] While encountering first Russian promyshlenniki, and later Americans speculators, Alaska Natives happily told these international visitors of "oil seeps in lakes and near riverbeds" scattered along Alaska's coast from Katella to Kanatak [48] Such accumulated pools produced thick oozing pockets of oil with "an odor that could be detected miles from the source." [49] Bears near Kanatak were reportedly seen "covered with the stuff." [50] Moreover, Native people made good use of these petroleum pools. Some burned blocks of oil-saturated tundra for a fuel to cook their food and heat and light their homes. Later, the inhabitants of Kanatak would use what they called "tar" to clean their guns. [51]

Although local Natives and Creoles clearly regarded oil pools as valuable, their uses for it were limited, and therefore, their demand for the resources was considerably less than its supply. What made the possibility of commercial-sized oil in Kanatak valuable was "the human labor and skill that fashioned it into useful objects." [52] Because crude oil in its raw form had much less intrinsic value, local people could afford to be generous in sharing it. "For the most part..." as on historian put it, "...fuel was buried beyond all their knowledge and skill to recover [it]." [53] To make Kanatak's oil valuable, modern geological science had to discover its full extent, appreciate its potential, explain it origins, and figure our how to drill it and use it.

To Jack Lee, a young oil prospector exploring the district of the Alaska Peninsula in the vicinity of upper Becharof and Ugashik lakes, oil had a much greater intrinsic value. Lee, while prospecting in 1900, observed the seeping pools of oil in Kanatak. He knew what the local people did not—that oil, among other uses, made a combustible engine run. [54]

Men wearing ground squirrel parkas at Wrangell village in Chigninagak Bay on the Alaska Peninsula. This photo may be of the Wrangell Station of the Alaska Commercial Company, circa 1900. Morseth, 2003, page 85. Photo courtesy of the National Archives, RG22-B5350.

After his discovery, Lee succeeded in convincing prominent oil companies that the surface seepages and oil residues in the area were worth investigating. Geologists made preliminary surveys and found that the district showed promise of oil production. [55] By 1901, the word was out, and suddenly, East Coast investors had turned this "hard, dreary cheerless region" into oil country. [56] Giant pools of oil seemed to seep everywhere, while the sedimentary mountain range rising up from the coastline formed what geologists called anticlines, which appeared to prospectors as geological "traps"—ideal places to contain oil. [57] According to U.S. geologist Robert Blodgett, "they thought Kanatak was going to be the next Houston." [58]

At the time, the central Alaska Peninsula was still considered to be so remote that the current U.S. Coast Pilot could offer "no accurate information.., about the bays between Port Wrangell and Chignik Bay." [59] Lack of geographical information did not stop commercial interests, however. In 1901, pioneering oilman and speculator, J. H Costello, staked several oil claims where five giant seepages oozed into a stream, aptly named Oil Creek. Between 1902 and 1905, Costello, using a steam-powered cable tool rig, drilled two holes near the creek, one hole measuring a quarter-mile deep. In 1903, excitement over what oilmen described as Kanatak's "eastern" fields soared when passengers, supplies, and drilling outfits landed at Cold Bay. Prospectors immediately commenced the construction of several miles of wagon road to access the drilling sites in the east field. [60]

Meanwhile, another group of claimants from California incorporated under the name Pacific Oil and Commercial Company, and drilled three shallow holes on Trail, Dry, and Becharof creeks, burning the oil from the surface seepages to fuel the rigs. Later, the Oil Creek wells were designated Costello No. 1 and Costello No. 2, while the other wells became known as Pacific Oil No. 1, Pacific Oil No. 2, and Pacific Oil No 3. Promise of a future "mother lode" drove these prospectors and increasingly lured more, creating a boomtown at the head of Puale Bay. [61]

By 1903, companies shipped in machinery and lumber. Prospectors there constructed two substantial frame buildings that were used as a trading post and post office. [62] Depths of 500 to 1500 feet were reached with the crude equipment, oil-bearing sands were penetrated, causing temporary optimism, and even small quantities of oil were obtained, but the gushers never came through. [63] Although hopes ran high for about a year, the excitement ended. [64] The project was deemed a failure and the disillusioned backers refused to finance further oil drilling in the district.

* * *

Turn of the century interest in Kanatak's oil possibilities reflected a near frenzied search for petroleum products generated by several oil strikes that occurred in the mid-to late nineteenth century in the Lower 48. Even if Alutiiq and Creole communities depended upon solar radiation to support a hunting and fishing existence, the rest of America was becoming more and more dependent upon a fossil-fuel system and the industrial way of life. Donald Worster provides a snapshot of this emerging American lifestyle in an essay titled Alaska: The Underworld Erupts:

They [white Americans] employed that energy to bring into their homes resources from the most distant corners of the earth, including Alaskan canned salmon, whalebone corsets, and gold watch chains. They warmed themselves in their townhouse parlors by coal they had not personally collected but had purchased from a deliveryman, who carted it about the city in a horse-drawn wagon." [65]

And, of course, the greatest portion of the energy Americans consumed by far went to feed a plethora of machines that made their clothes, carried them across the continent, and allowed them to communicate from hundreds of miles away. Even before the invention of machines like the internal combustible engine in the late 1800s, people used petroleum products for a variety of treatments. Early settlers used oil as an illuminant in kerosene lamps, for medicine, and as lubricant for wagons and tools. A U.S. Geological Survey conducted by William Henry Dall reported in 1869: "Petroleum floating on the surface of a lake near the Bay of Katmai, in its crude state was an excellent lubrication for machinery." [66] While these applications were important, the main purpose of oil was to light city streets and homes throughout nineteenth-century America.

Prior to 1850, most lamp oil was rendered from animal fat, particularly whale oil. A thriving whaling industry developed to provide sperm whale oil for lighting, and a lower quality whale oil as a lubricant for machine parts. Sperm whale oil, widely known as "spermaceti," was very expensive. In fact, a gallon in the early 1800s cost about $2.00, which today equates to about $200 a gallon. Nonetheless, whale oil was the illuminant of choice, especially for the rich. The demand for whale oil took a tremendous toll on whales and some species, such as the bow-head, were driven to the brink of extinction. The hunt for whales in northern waters was curbed when a clean-burning kerosene lamp invented by Michael Dietz appeared on the market in 1857. Kerosene, known in those days at "Coal Oil," was easy to produce, cheap, and smelled better than animal-based fuels. The public quickly abandoned whale oil products and by 1860, at least thirty kerosene plants were in production in the United States, driving whale oil ultimately off the market as an illuminant by the end of the century. [67]

On August 27, 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, prospectors, attracted by oil found floating on water, attempted to tap oil by using a drill. At a depth of sixty-nine feet, the newly formed Pennsylvania Rock Company of Connecticut hit pay dirt, and Titusville and other towns in the area boomed. The discovery of oil in Pennsylvania attracted John D. Rockefeller, a young man with a reputation for organizing businesses to increase profitability. In 1860, he and his partner built a small oil refinery, and in 1866, Rockefeller opened an export office in New York City. The next year, he, his brother, and a few associates created what was to become the Standard Oil Company. By 1870, Standard Oil had become the dominant oil-refining firm in Pennsylvania. Rockefeller's company quickly grew vertically, but it also grew horizontally, as Rockefeller set out to integrate and control all aspects of the commercial oil industry; specifically, scientific research and development, transportation, and internal as well as international markets.

Standard Oil also expanded by absorbing its competition. In 1900, Standard Oil purchased the Pacific Coast Oil Company and in 1906, the company incorporated all its western operations into Pacific Oil, a company known today as Chevron. [68] By 1903, Henry Ford had incorporated the Ford Motor Company. His now-famed invention—the Model T—transformed the automobile from an American luxury into an American necessity. Even in Alaska, demand for Ford's affordable model-T rose, and by 1920, Chevron was the principal marketer of refined products in the Territory. [69]

* * *

The abundance of visible oil in the Kanatak area made it a seemingly natural site to drill. It seemed to the early explorers that it was only a matter of drilling straight down through the petroleum residue to strike commercial oil deposits. And, with Ford's assembly lines pumping out a car every few minutes, demand for new sources of oil was constant. Oilmen like Jack Lee believed Cold Bay was still the place to look, despite their busts in 1903 and 1904. Lee believed that had Kanatak pioneers drilled using more modern equipment, they might have reached the black gold they sought. [70] The visibility of oil, coupled with an increasing demand, did not easily overcome the difficulties of drilling in the remote region. Still, it was the federal government—not the mountainous landscape, brutal weather, nor the expense of oil exploration and development that prevented the oil industry from developing in Alaska for the next eleven years.

In 1906, an executive order issued by President Theodore Roosevelt withdrew from entry all known coal deposits on America's public lands, freezing their development until Congress could come up with a better plan to legislate Americans' natural resources. Then, to the dismay of the Kanatak oil prospectors, in 1909, Roosevelt added oil lands to the no-entry list. [71] Because Alaska was a federal territory, by 1910, the government had withdrawn all new oil leasing from Alaska lands, and in doing so, brought what little business remained in Kanatak to a standstill. For a decade the Cold Bay oil district was virtually deserted. [72]

From 1904 until 1920, only one or two non-Native people lived permanently in Kanatak, while approximately forty Native inhabitants lived there in the winter, particularly to maintain traplines for the numerous small land mammals. In the summer, however, all but one family scattered—some going to the Bristol Bay side of the peninsula to work in the canneries and others to the small native village at the head of Becharof Lake where they caught and dried salmon for winter food. [73] Any interest in oil appeared to have all but vanished.

The Second Boom...and Bust

In 1920, Kanatak reemerged to the forefront of oil exploration, when Congress passed the Mineral Leasing Act, which reopened previously withdrawn lands. According to one observer of the industry, "When Congress passed a law prohibiting entry on Alaska oil-lease lands. . . [it] proved to be a blessing in disguise, because when Congress changed its mind again in 1920, and passed a new bill permitting oil-land development under certain prescribed conditions, interest was immediately simulated in Alaskan oil prospects." Accordingly, "This new interest would probably never have taken place without the temporary probation." [74]

The new law allowed prospectors to lease oil and gas land, setting aside the old requirement of staking the land for mineral claims and working it each year. Whether it was a twenty-one-year-old from Seattle or Rockefeller himself, anyone who filed an oil lease application in the federal land office and paid a $10 filing fee, plus a rental fee of twenty-five cents an acre, received an exclusive right to the petroleum under that land for ten years. [75] With what the Seattle Post-Intelligencer exclaimed "the unlocking of the oil fields of Alaska," seasoned gold miners, bankers and bootleggers, as well of some of the biggest oil companies in the nation, joined the "oil rush" to Cold Bay, and the near ghost town of Kanatak was resurrected.

By 1921, geologists were again dispatched to the area, while the vicinity of Kanatak was the scene of concentrated activity. From a small Native village, Kanatak grew into a well laid out American small town of two busy streets boasting a number of boom town businesses—hotels, restaurants, stores, and taverns. According to one observer, "three hundred people lived in Kanatak's environs at its height of prosperity." [76]

Again, large number of prospectors and business adventures descended onto Cold Bay. Lumber, drilling equipment, crawler-type tractors were barged north and brought onto the beach, and new arrivals were immediately put to work. The first task at hand: to build a road seventeen miles long from Kanatak, up through the mountain pass, and over to the spot above the southeast corner of Becharof Lake were the drilling was projected. One of those new arrivals was Benjamin A. Grier who managed the Ray C. Larson lumber yard in Kanatak from 1923 to 1924. Grier, who lived in many parts of Alaska and even served on the Alaska Territorial Legislature in 1925 and 1927, was no shrinking violet, and even he noted how tough it was to live in Cold Bay. For entertainment, miners raced the only two horses in town against each other. According to Grier, "these damned horses tried to commit suicide. [And] I don't blame them !" [77]

The mainstreet of New Kanatak. Morseth 2003, page 82. Photo courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Elmer E. Rasmusen Library, Alaska and Polar Regions Department, Mother Collection 82-178-69.

But in spite of the dreary weather and seemingly impenetrable landscape, excitement for oil discovery eventually pushed claimants south, covering most of the central peninsula, to as far as the Chignik District. Geologists representing at least three different private oil companies, as well as U.S. Geological Survey parties, crowded into the small village to examine possible oil-pool locations. In addition, companies, such as Standard Oil Co. of California (Chevron) and Associated Oil Co., hired experts and non-experts alike to engage in drilling, establish a safe harbor, and engineer possible routes for a road to the oil fields. [78] That year, U.S. geologist S.R. Capps described the oil seepages on Oil Creek:

The most frequently visited seepages are those on the head of Oil Creek, about 5 miles west of Cold Bay. Here the largest seepage emerges from a smooth vegetation-covered slope in which no rock outcrops can be seen. The oil, accompanied by an abundant flow of water and considerable gas, bubbles forth as a strong spring, the surface of which is coated with a thick layer of brown oil. A rough estimate placed the volume of the oil flow at about half a barrel a day. The gas flows by heads and is of sufficient volume to support a strong flame for several seconds at a time. From this seepage the escaping water and oil flow down a long grassy slope in which most of the oil is entrapped. Similar conditions have existed for a long time, with the result of building up a large area of the less volatile paraffin residue of the oil, which has now hardened to a stiff, putty-like consistency. [79]

The role that the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) played in Kanatak's oil development was clearly significant. Reports such as Capps's gave credibility to Kanatak's economic potential and, literally, put the small coastal village on the map. Such descriptions generated so much excitement that even the first round-the-world flight—"the Magellan's of the Air"—made Kanatak one of their stops in 1924. [80]

Established in 1879, the USGS mission was to explore, identify, and catalog America's uncharted territory. According to historian Alan Trachtenberg, "Information gathered by the agency contributed to the federal government's policy of supplying fundamental needs of industrialization." [81] From the beginning, the agency's meticulously planned expeditions were concerned with natural resource development. As exploration continued throughout the American West, USGS maintained a close relationship with investors in mining enterprises and in the new field of economic geology. Increasingly, scientific inquiry began to serve as the cutting edge for competitive innovation. [82]

Because Alaska was so remote, the agency took little organized interest in territorial exploration before 1895. It was only after the 1897 Gold Rush that Congress gained a strong interest in Alaska's developing mineral industry. Lawmakers directed the Geological Survey to serve as the scientific arm to prospectors and mining engineers in Alaska. [83] The agency, then, produced reports that contained "useful information" in "untechnical language." [84] As historian Morgan Sherwood points out in his study of U.S. explorations in Alaska, "The primary emphasis on economic mineral deposits set the tone for all the Survey operation in the Far Northwest during the century." [85]

Such was the case for the agency's role in putting the region north of Aniakchak on the map. Due to USGS reports, word was out, and people flooded into the remote area. In the summer of 1922, two steamers landed drilling equipment at Portage Bay, and the small village of Kanatak was inundated with a wave of prospectors, surveyors, and dreamers. The non-Native population in the Cold Bay District increased from ten or fifteen to about two hundred within weeks. Prospectors hastily erected over one hundred tents, log cabins, and frame buildings to furnish necessary accommodations. Plans for a town site were laid out, and an attempt was made to regulate the location of buildings so that a future readjustment would not be necessary. By late autumn, hopeful prospectors continued to arrive on every boat, making one wary government surveyor note, "The future population of the town must depend upon the success attained in the drilling, as there is no other activity in the district that could sustain so many people." [86]

Industrial remains of the Kanatak oil boom, ca. 2004. Photograph courtesy of Roger Blodgett.

One of those hopeful prospectors was a man named Earl Grammer. [87] Grammer, armed only with a bedroll and a canvas tent, had prospected the Cold Bay District for over thirty years. Grammer, like Jack Lee, represented the "little guys," individuals who spent most their life savings, as well as their lives, searching for commercial oil on the Alaska Peninsula. In the spring of 1920, Grammer, along with several other "boomers" arrived at Kanatak and immediately began to explore the area. Convinced that commercial oil lay within the bedrock near Bear Creek and Salmon Creek, Grammer filed applications for oil and gas leases under his own and his business partners names. He even applied under the name of his sister and many of her friends. But, Grammer knew that if commercial oil was to be extracted, the endeavor would need support from a company the size of Chevron.

With the passage of the Mineral Leasing Act in 1920 by Congress, leasing large tracts of land became easier than under the old system, and thus, the large oil companies began to pay more attention to Alaska. Chevron's chief geologist, G. Dallas Hanna, concluded that Cold Bay was the best bet for large oil reserves in the Territory. In 1921 the company teamed up with General Petroleum (Mobil) to explore Cold Bay. Hanna acquired claims and leases held by other operating oil companies, as well as individual prospectors, and by 1922, Chevron and Mobil had each acquired the use of 10,000 acres. Based on information Hanna received from Earl Grammer, the companies built a cable-tool rig on top of the Pearl Creek Dome, or what prospectors called the "west field." In March 1923, they began to drill the Lee No. 1. It was the region's first deep oil well.

With such anticipation focused on Cold Bay, speculators began to look beyond the oil fields surrounding Kanatak. Rumors suddenly sprouted of seepages all over the Alaska Peninsula. Even along the remote Aniakchak coastline, oil seepages had been reported "from the country west of Aniakchak Bay and east of the high mountains in the central part of the peninsula" as well as "on the cape between Amber and Aniakchak bays." [88] A USGS report by geologists Smith and Baker specifically noted that a gas seepage was seen near the head of the East Fork of the Kejulik River. . .the gas flows in a nearly continuous stream of bubbles and has built up a low mound around the orifice." [89] Still, some geologists began to question the existence of commercial oil south of Kanatak. U.S. geologist George C. Martin, who had visited the Cold Bay District in 1903-04, expressed that in 1923, "The causes that led to the staking of most of the oil claims apparently were a general but erroneous popular opinion that much, if not all, of the Alaska Peninsula is probable oil land." [90]

At the time, however, most oil prospectors believed that the oil-bearing strata of the Cold Bay field similarly underlay the Chignik District. This popular but mistaken notion led many to quickly stake claim to what was termed the "Aniakshak" field. This field covered a broad area along the central Alaska Peninsula, covering an area that extended from the Ugashik River to just north of Chignik Lagoon. [91] Although Martin reported that he had found "no oil seepages, residues, gas springs, or structural conditions that are especially favorable for occurrence of petroleum" in the Chignik District in 1923, a large number of oil claims had been staked in the "Aniakshak" field by that year. [92]

According to NPS historian Frank Norris, "During the 1922 fiscal year thirty-five entries, totaling 115,200 acres, were made in the so-called Aniakc[as]hak field." For the next two years, the speculative fever quickened and "Anikashak" became the most popular field in the territory; eighty-eight new entries were made covering 225,280 acres in fiscal year 1923, while forty-three entries, covering 112,808 acres, were made the year afterward. [93] By 1923, speculators had thoroughly staked the area within the current park boundaries. In the end, they claimed a total of seventy permits. According to Norris, "the only area which was not staked was the Caldera itself." [94]

Many of the Aniakshak claimants were "pencil prospectors," in that they hoped to cash in on the work of others. [95] For those individual oilmen—the little guys—whose dreams depended on hitting the "mother lode," life was not only tough, but ultimately, a complete disappointment. In fact, many of the Kanatak prospectors gave their lives in the search for commercial oil. Between 1920 and 1926 Earl Grammer recorded the death of fifty friends and fellow prospectors in his journal. On one page, Grammer listed their deaths under the simple heading "Dead Men:"

Thompson, Curry and Boudin, froze. "Swede" committed suicide with a shotgun. Gordon Gust died from inhaling gas. Three froze, five drowned, five were murdered, five committed suicide and nine died natural deaths. [96]

The impact of the oil rush was similarly hard on Kanatak's Native inhabitants. By 1922, the new oil town had emerged parallel to the Native village. A fence and the narrow Kanatak Creek was all that separated the northern boundary of the Native village from the growing frontier sprawl. U.S. census takers first reported Kanatak in 1890, when twenty-six residents were counted. Kanatak and Wide Bay inhabitants were mainly affiliated with Ugashik and the Alutiiq village of Meshik. [97]

A U.S. survey in 1922 noted that most of Kanatak's residents were Creoles and "are all members of the Russian Orthodox Church." [98] The village maintained a church, which contrasted sharply to the subterranean houses in which most people lived. People spoke both Russian and their native language, and they lived by hunting, trapping, and fishing. [99] Some residents, according to the visiting priest, sold two or three sea otter pelts to the Americans exploring for oil. [100]

Father Martysh, Kanatak's visiting priest in the 1920s, strongly resented the new arrivals. "The general impression of [Kanatak Bay] I had was quite good," reported the priest. "But still on the return trip I found out, that here is a nest of drunkenness and every disgrace." [101] To Kanatak's local residents, it seemed as though nature itself objected to the industry's presence. In 1923, after a winter storm blew several buildings off their foundation, the police chief of the Kanatak village, Nicholai Ruff, told Grammer: "White man drink whiskey, no go church, stay up all night, water come, take house away. Native go church all time, water come, no touch Native house." [102] Grammer's journal also recorded tragic circumstances that habitually struck those ill-fed, ill-housed and shabbily clothed: "Demion, second Chief Fred Kalmakoff, and the Chief Ruff Kalmakoff, Chief of the Kanatak Natives—all died of T.B." [103] Too young to have experienced the oil boom era himself, Paul Boskoffsky, Ruff's grandson, recalls stories told to him by Kanatak's elders.

Families had lived in Kanatak for hundreds of years. The village was always small until prospectors came looking for oil. Then Kanatak became a boomtown with a store, a school, and many people. When no commercial oil was found, they all left. [104]

Traditionally, residents managed to survive in Kanatak, because they kept their population low. Up through the fur trade era, inhabitants of Kanatak were mobile, moving from place to place, always in pursuit of resources, especially during the winter when resources were scare. Because no major salmon stream existed in Cold Bay, residents hiked over the mountain pass to the headwaters of Lake Becharof, where they could easily catch salmon returning up the Egegik River, and, while on the Bering Sea side, they could hunt for caribou. In the winter, they returned to the Pacific to trap and gather shellfish and sea mammals in the spring. Therefore, to survive, even in relatively recent times, the village was small and residents moved within a seasonal cycle of their local ecosystem. When the oil boom brought exponentially more people to the area, the ecosystem could support neither American newcomers, nor the Native and Creole villagers. Consequently, humans, including the local people, began to depend more and more on imported goods such as food, clothing, and medicine, and less and less on the land surrounding them. So, in spite of corporate support, individual sacrifice, and federal science, when the search for commercial oil on the Alaska Peninsula went bust, both the town and the village of Kanatak disappeared.

By 1926, the enthusiasm for Aniakshak field was finally proved to be groundless and the oil frenzy of 1920-23 showed no more promise than the earlier boom in 1903-4. Geological surveyors failed to find the rumored oil seepages and reported, "The country southwest of Wide Bay, especially the Aniakchak District, is covered by large areas of igneous rocks, in which oil does not occur." [105] A survey report from the following summer made it clear: "the outlook for oil in the Chignik District is not hopeful." [106] Within a decade, the government cancelled most existing oil permits located in the Aniakchak and Chignik regions.

Even Cold Bay, the one-time Alaska's hot spot, lacked any sign of commercial oil reservoirs; it simply remained cold. Chevron decided to abandon the Lee No. 1 at 5,033 feet of depth in 1926, and as a result, Hanna recommended to investors that they pull out of Cold Bay. Such news stifled Earl Grammer's hopes for a mother lode find, but it did not end his dreams entirely. Unlike the Aniakchak and the Chignik districts, hopes for Cold Bay died hard. Geologists and oilmen could not believe that commercial oil did not exist in the anticlines and oil-pocked landscape. Chevron and Union Oil of California, and Tidewater Associated returned in 1937 to drill for oil on a 40,000 acre block of land leased by Kanatak's "little guy," Earl Grammer, wildcatter Russell E. Havenstrite, and three of Havenstrite's famous investors: Walt Disney, Darryl Zanuck, and Hal Roach. [107] But even Hollywood magic, not to mention its bankroll, could make Grammer's dream come true. The Grammer No. 1 well produced only saltwater, and at 7,595 feet, Chevron called it off. The Kanatak oil story was indeed, a repetition of the first oil venture.

Prospectors saw one last gleaming hope for Cold Bay in the 1950s when Shell Oil began to explore the area around Bear Creek and nearby Wide Bay, mainly using leases held by Grammer. [108] Shell partnered with Humble Oil and Refining Company, a company known today at Exxon. By April 1957, Shell had drilling units at Bear Creek, Ugashik, and Wide Bay. Exxon built a port and a five-mile road to the drill site. By late summer, drilling began on Bear Creek No. 1 well, on a lease held in the name of Earl Grammer's sister, Elsie. When, at 14,000 feet no oil was found, Exxon abandoned the well and the leases returned to Grammer. The drilling had cost Exxon over $7 million, as much as the United States had paid Russia for Alaska ninety years earlier. [109]

Kanatak Becomes a Ghost Town

In the end, thirteen wells were drilled in Cold Bay between 1902 and 1963, and none found crude. Like the boom that created it, Kanatak was impacted considerably by the industry's bust. Under the terms of the government lease rights, claimants took out all buildings and machinery. In 1939 all that remained was a single store, a school and a government weather station. [110] "Needless to say," notes Kanatak tribal member Marlane Shanigan, "when the oil companies left so did the stores, the bakery, the hotels, and the merchants." [111] Likewise, Boskoffsky recalls that when he was a child growing up in Kanatak in the 1950s, the stores and school were gone. There was no more electricity, and the mail boat from Kodiak that came once a month was their only communication with the outside world. [112]

Although the fossil fuel economy failed to materialize in Kanatak, the experience of this now-forgotten town is representative of events that occurred in varying degrees throughout the nonagricultural West; what historians would describe as the cyclical process of boom and bust. [113] Investors in Kanatak created the boomtown, based on speculated wealth. When no oil was found, Kanatak no longer had a reason to exist.

One by one, families began to leave Kanatak. Some left because they wanted their children to be educated, others left to find jobs. By 1952, the Russian Orthodox Church listed ten remaining people, who "counted themselves as the last." [114] Then, without warning, the U.S. government closed the post office. Boskoffsky, whose father was the postmaster, remembers those days:

We were stuck with no way to contact the outside world. One afternoon a helicopter flew over. Dad whipped off his coat and waved and waved. The pilot dropped down to check us out. Dad said, "Would you please call the Coast Guard and ask them to come early to fuel the light house and bring us groceries? We're all out of food! [115]

Two days later the Coast Guard arrived, bringing the Boskoffsky family provisions. Then, with little warning, the mail boat to Kanatak—the residents' only regular source of supplies—also stopped coming. The last boat to Kanatak arrived in 1956, and the remaining resident families—the Shanigans and the Boskoffskys—had to abandon their home with only what they could carry. They left behind furniture, bedding, and kitchen items—some even left with dinner on the table. As Boskoffsky recalls, "We said goodbye to our village, our home, and our baby sister in the ancient overgrown cemetery." [116] Kanatak had become a ghost town once again.

* * *

The failure to strike oil on the Alaska Peninsula, in some ways, represents events that shaped most prospectors' lives during this time. Few hit those "once in a lifetime" strikes like at Nome, the Klondike, Kennecott, or Prudhoe Bay. Though many oil seekers left the Alaska Peninsula disappointed rather than rich, it does not mean that their experiences were any less significant.

Had those prospectors struck the "mother lode," Kanatak would have experienced a much different story. As it happened, the oil industry's impact on the physical environment was minimal. Oilmen left behind steam engines and oil derricks that eventually rusted and rotten over time from Kanatak's ceaseless winds. The numerous miles of boardwalks and roads that connected the town of Kanatak to the oil fields are also gone, replaced by alders that from the air appear as a giant green maze, fanning outward from Kanatak.

Likewise, the oil industry would have disrupted the local villagers as well as others on the peninsula far more significantly had they discovered their "mother lode." Most people moved to familiar communities like Port Heiden, Egegik, and Chignik. Many families with roots to Kanatak continue to travel to Becharof Lake where their fish camp is located. And although the president of the Kanatak Tribal Council currently resides in Wasilla, the federal government recognizes that people are still culturally affiliated with the place. [117] Although today Kanatak is referred to as "abandoned," Marlane Shanigan, whose family left Kanatak on that last boat, disagrees. "Abandonment means that one leaves without the intention of returning. And Shanigan intends to return to her land someday, and thus "to our Alutiiq culture." [118] A visitor to Kanatak observed in 1931, "[Today] Kanatak is almost forgotten. But the little native village has its name on the map, and," like Shanigan, "waits for better days." [119]


Since the days when the Bering Land Bridge connected Asia to America, the Alaska Natives who inhabit Alaska's northwestern region—the Inupiat—have depended upon walrus, seals, whales, and particularly, caribou for their survival. Around fifteen thousand years ago, the species Rangifer tarandus crossed the land bridge from Europe and Asia and moved into North America. When the waters of the Bering Strait rose, the species that remained in Europe were called reindeer; in North America the animal became known as caribou. [120] Despite the watery division, reindeer and caribou remained close cousins, for both animals could interbreed. Still, as historian John Taliaferro notes, "Reindeer had a thousand-year head start toward docility; caribou would always be caribou, not readily tamed." [121]

For thousands of years, the peoples of northwestern Alaska hunted caribou for food and warm, comfortable, resilient clothing. Conversely, Siberian Natives living on the other side of the Bering Strait—the Chukchi—began to domesticate caribou. A millennium of breeding turned the wild caribou into the meeker, more manageable reindeer, which could be herded, used to pull sleds and pack supplies, even be milked. [122] The distinct cultural and environmental histories of reindeer and caribou remained geographically separated until events occurring in the late nineteenth century reunited the species.

Sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, the caribou herds of northwest Alaska began to dwindle. Some scientists think that hunters armed with efficient guns pushed the herds into the inhospitable interior of Alaska. Others argue that natural shifts in migratory patterns caused the decline. [123] Either way, problems ensued for the Alaskan peoples living along the Bering Strait and such problems became the impetus for the planned introduction of reindeer to the region.

Reindeer husbandry, a circumpolar endeavor everywhere except North America, came to the Aniakchak and surrounding regions in the last decade of the nineteenth century as a government project headquartered near Nome. The reindeer experiment in Alaska began in 1890, when Captain M.A. Healy of the Untied States Revenue Cutter, Bear, who had witnessed starvation among the St. Lawrence Island Eskimo in previous years, conceived the idea of transporting domestic reindeer from Siberia to the coast of the Seward Peninsula. Though the condition of starvation was far more perceived than real, Healy proposed the plan to Dr. Sheldon Jackson, General Agent for Education in Alaska, who was a passenger on the cutter. Dr. Jackson, a Presbyterian minister, embraced the idea and vigorously began to lobby both the U.S. government and private sources for assistance. He argued for the importation of reindeer because, as the minister proclaimed, Alaska Natives had become "a vanishing race." [124]

Just two years later, Jackson convinced Congress to appropriate funds, and the domestic reindeer industry in Alaska commenced. Between the years 1892 and 1902, a total of 1,280 reindeer from various parts of Siberia were exported to the Seward Peninsula, near Port Clarence. While the original plan was designed mainly to provide food and clothing for famished and freezing Eskimos, in 1897, gold was discovered near Nome. By 1898, large numbers of miners entered the peninsula, creating a commercial market for reindeer products and draft animals. Boosters claimed that reindeer meat would be soon sold in American markets just like beef and mutton. "Eventually...", wrote an industry booster, "...the American housewife should be able to buy juicy steaks and roasts from Alaska as cheaply as those from our Western prairies." [125] Even as early as 1895, Dr. Jackson wrote, "It is now found that the reindeer are as essential to the white man as to the Eskimo." [126]

In spite of a potentially profitable commercial market, Dr. Jackson devised a system by which local men were trained as herders, and could then participate not only as laborers, but also as owners in the new industry. In 1892, the same year the reindeer were brought to Alaska, Jackson established the apprenticeship program, which was administered by regional superintendents. To receive reindeer from the government, Alaska Natives were required to serve a term of internship of approximately five years. During this term, the apprentice, who was accompanied by either Saami herders or the more experienced Native herders, tended the herds day and night, winter and summer, and learned the proper care for reindeer. Besides learning reindeer husbandry, the apprentice also became an invested partner, for at the end of his first year of service, the apprentice received reindeer as payment. As each of the four remaining years of his apprenticeship was completed, the apprentice received more animals. By the time that he had concluded his apprenticeship, the Eskimo would have a small herd of his own. This system assured the government that the local herder had gained a thorough knowledge of his responsibilities, and, when he assumed ownership of the herd, he was able to act independently and wisely. [127]

Because Dr. Jackson was the general agent of education, the mission stations and the schools fell under his administration. Accordingly, Jackson's reindeer program became an integral part of the territory's educational systems. [128] Since district superintendents of the schools assumed the dual role of educators and Reindeer Service administrators, the existing school system controlled both distribution and custody of reindeer. Between the years 1905 and 1907, Dr. Jackson fell under political attack for his handling of the schools system and the reindeer program, particularly his wide use of missions as institutions for distribution of government deer.

Thus, several important policy changes occurred that affected the future of Native involvement in reindeer herding during 1907. Because it was no longer possible to entice a sufficient number of young men to leave their home village to learn reindeer herding on the Seward Peninsula, it was decided that the reindeer herds would be taken to them. That year a campaign was launched to distribute the reindeer owned by the government, missions, and Saami to new reindeer stations. [129] The herds, then, would be moved to distant villages throughout western Alaska. [130]

The Ugashik Herd and the Inupiat In-migration

The most southerly reindeer herd established by the Reindeer Service headquartered in Nome was the southwestern district, [131] which managed the Ugashik Range beginning about 1910. That year, the U.S. Revenue Cutter transported 380 deer to the reindeer station at Pilot Point, located on the Ugashik River. The government owned 131 deer in the Ugashik herd and Natives owned 249. [132] Although no food shortage at the time existed, the program was established on the central Alaska Peninsula to supplement winter hunting and trapping. Like the government overseers in Nome, local Reindeer Service agents touted reindeer herding in Southwest Alaska as a modern way to improve the economic well being of Alaska Natives by turning them into entrepreneurs. [133]

Reindeer range on the central Alaska Peninsula in the 1920s. Redrawn from 2003, Map 9.B. (click on image for a PDF version)

In the early years of herding on the peninsula, animal numbers were relatively small and cared for by a chief herder who was allotted an individual range, on which he maintained his own corrals. Although by the 1920s, the largest herd was owned by Sara Hansen, an Alutiiq woman who was from Pilot Point, the majority of the Native-owned deer belonged to the Inupiat families that had been moved into the area as herders. [134] Their job was to manage the herds and take on local apprentices. William Zunganuk was chief herder of the Port Heiden herd in the early 1920s. Zunganuk's herd grazed lands south of the Cinder River, past Port Heiden, and perhaps even as far south as Unangashak. The herd was corralled at Reindeer Creek, which runs west-northwest from the Aniakchak crater. [135] A chief herder named Nikavak owned the reindeer heard that grazed near the Cinder River. Nikavak corralled his deer near the river's mouth at a settlement known as Shegong. Another early corral was located at Dago Creek, at the mouth of Ugashik Bay. [136]

Many trained Inupiaq herders living on the Seward Peninsula saw the spread of the reindeer industry onto the Alaska Peninsula as a new opportunity. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the gold rush had passed into history, leaving many Nome residents looking for cash-paying jobs. Aniakchak residents recall that the Inupiat initially moved to the Alaska Peninsula with the reindeer herds that were introduced to the Pilot Point area in 1910. A few years later, family members began to join them, traveling on the revenue cutter or private schooners. For instance, three generations of the Supsook family made the trip to the Alaska Peninsula on Charlie Madsen's schooner Challenger in 1914. Other families, such as the Zunganuks, came by skin boat, a journey that took them two summers to complete. [137]

During these early years of reindeer herding, the Inupiaq families were tightly connected. Because the Inupiaq never embraced Orthodoxy, the Alutiiq and Russian-Creole residents held a great deal of distrust of the newcomers, fearing shamanism and other aspects of the Inupiaq's unfamiliar customs. [138] The Inupiaq lived much of the year in isolated settlements, spoke their own homeland language, worked, and socialized within their community. When it came to reindeer herding, families assisted each other. Each year Sam Supsook's family went to the Zunganuk's roundup on Reindeer Creek, where the boys helped with the corralling. Sam's son, Valentine Supsook, remembers that corralling the deer was how he met his future wife, Pauline, Zunganuk's daughter. [139] Similarly, chief herder Nikavak married Valentine Supsook's sister. Valentine, who also helped with the Cinder River herd, recalled that during the winter corralling, five or six young men would camp "back of Cinder River" and move the deer toward the corral. As the reindeer crossed through the waters, Valentine recalled, "The whole lagoon would be filled up with deer." [140]

Though reindeer herding beckoned many to the Alaska Peninsula, it was not the only opportunity awaiting the Inupiaq. The canned salmon industry operating in Bristol Bay and in Chignik was expanding, seemingly without limit, and the canneries needed workers. As Michele Morseth points out, the Inupiat in-migration resulted from reindeer herding, but most found stable work as cannery workers and fishermen. [141] As a result, the Inupiaq began to settle near Bristol Bay canneries, ranging everywhere between Port Moller to the Ugashik River. By 1917, Port Heiden had become a village of both Alutiiq and Inupiaq residents. The new migrants also formed small settlements at Unangashak and Shegong on the coast, and Ugashik Lakes in the interior of the peninsula. The Inupiaq communities established just outside the Alutiiq villages of Ugashik and Pilot Point were respectively called "Eskimo Village" and "Eskimo Town." [142]

From these settlements, the Inupiat continued to herd reindeer, hunt and trap, and like most everyone else living on the central Alaska Peninsula, they worked in some capacity for the commercial fishing industry. Unlike other seasonal activities, fishing took the herders away from their deer for most of the summer months. "My dad was a reindeer herder, chief of reindeer," explained Pauline Supsook, about her father, William Zunganuk. "[We] lived in Agashak for many years, back and forth, from 20s and 30s. Father took care of the reindeer until fishing time and fishing time you have to go fishing ['cause] gotta have something, some food to eat." [143] So when the family sailed to Pilot Point to fish for Bristol Bay salmon, the reindeer were on their own.

Reindeer herd across the River from Pilot Point, ca. late 1920s. Photograph courtesy of the Pilot Point Tribal Council, Ace Griechen Collection.

The Saami Herders

Inupiat were not the only newly arrived ethnic group to impact the Aniakchak region. The reindeer industry also attracted indigenous peoples from the northern regions of Scandinavia, the Saami, a nomadic people once called Laplanders, whose knowledge of reindeer breeding and technology spread throughout the Alaskan ranges. The Saami had not been Dr. Jackson's first choice to tutor Alaska Natives in reindeer husbandry. Because the first few shipments of deer came from Siberia, the minister naturally thought to employ Chukchi herdsmen to instruct the local residents. Much to the surprise of Reindeer Service personnel, the Inupiat, especially those from the nearby village of Kingegan, were not so pleased that reindeer were being imported into their territory. In cooperation with the Diomede Islanders, the Kingegan Inupiat held a mainland monopoly on the Siberian reindeer trade and saw their new instructors as a threat to their political and economic hegemony. [144] After violence broke out between the Bering Sea neighbors, the Siberia herdsmen returned to the Chukchi Peninsula, fearing for their lives. With the Siberian abandonment of the Alaskan reindeer herds, Sheldon Jackson invited six Saami reindeer herders to replace the Chukchi in 1894. The Saami were apparently more successful, and Jackson extended the invitation by asking Scandinavian newspapers to print the following advertisement:

In the introduction of domesticated reindeer into northern Alaska a few men are wanted who have had practical experience in the herding and management of reindeer. If any reader knows of a Laplander in the United States or Canada who has been brought up to the care of reindeer, and who would like to go to Alaska to take charge of reindeer, please communicate his name and address to Dr. Sheldon Jackson, Bureau of Education, Washington, D.C. Also state condition of health, age, experience with reindeer, and wages asked. [145]

Jackson's plan was to introduce the Saami reindeer herders, their equipment, and their herding dogs to the various Inupiat peoples living on the Seward Peninsula. And, with pastures in Norway becoming too overcrowded for reindeer herding, the nomadic Saami saw Alaska as a place to practice their livelihoods. Their responsibilities as instructors included teaching their apprentices herding, driving, milking, lassoing, and taming the reindeer, as well as teaching the Inupiat families how to make cheese, glue, sleds, fur boots, and harnesses. [146] According to Faith Fjeld, project coordinator for the Saami Baiki Foundation and director of the traveling exhibit "The Saami: Reindeer People of Alaska," Saami people pioneered the skills that went with reindeer herding such as lassoing, building pulkas or Saami sleds, and the use of herding dogs. In turn, they introduced these skills to Alaskan herdsmen. They also introduced a few traditions outside the realm of reindeer herding such as the cultivation of turnips and rutabagas, certain ways of smoking fish, and probably their most popular introduction, skis. [147] Instead of a payment for their work as instructors, the government provided the Saami with a loan of one hundred deer for their services. [148] Thus, the Saami, in just a few short years, had become major players in the reindeer industry in Alaska.

Valentine Supsook, who would have been a small child at the time, remembers that two Saami herders were sent to oversee the Ugashik herds: "They come up with that Revenue Cutter, maybe? Two of them, you know, or some kind of ship, anyway. They [the Reindeer Service] brought them Laplanders with them, see. So, they [Native herders] could see how to take care of reindeer." [149] Unfortunately, no records have been uncovered that provided the names of these men, where they came from, or how long they remained in the area. A small group of Saami did, however, live on the Kuskokwim River, near the community of Akiak. The Saami there worked as reindeer drivers, transporting gold and supplies to and from the miners working local claims. [150] By the 1920s the Saami had remained in Kuskokwim as herders, and drove their deer as far south as Naknek where there was a reindeer station at Reindeer Point, located near what is today Katmai National Park and Preserve.

A Yup'ik elder from Levelock remembers back in the 1920s when the Saami arrived, driving their herds on skis. According to the informant, the Saami were herding 5,000 reindeer from Kuskokwim byway of Old Stuyahok, Reindeer Valley, and on down to South Naknek. [151] Likewise, South Naknek resident Carvel Zimin remembers when the Saami herders came though his village:

Yeah. The Lapps [Saami] stayed with the reindeer all summer, and they'd come in, and the head guy'd come in and ask who wanted reindeer, and whatnot, and they slaughtered for whoever wanted—no refrigeration. So they kept 'em alive. In fact right where my house is here is one of the places to slaughter the reindeer...they slaughtered 'em and some of the people wanted the skins for mukluks. [152]

Even if the two anonymous Saami herders remained only a short time and had little impact on the either the people or the herds that occupied areas west of Aniakchak, their cultural influence on the industry was clearly represented, transported by the Inupiat herders who emigrated from the Seward Peninsula in 1910. The Inupiat herders brought with them Saami knowledge of using herding dogs, breeding techniques, and taming deer. Norwegian anthropologist Ornulv Vorren, author of Saami, Reindeer, and Gold in Alaska, argues that not only did "the Saami who arrived as instructors in 1894 succeed in preparing a foundation for the establishment of reindeer domestication as a family livelihood among the Inuit" but, "because of their traditional herding techniques, sensible breeding, and versatility," the Saami allowed for "the reindeer industry in Alaska to stand on its own"—at least for awhile. [153]

Rounding up the Ugashik Herds

In July 1932, the Ugashik herd comprised 3,665 deer, of which the government owned only 851. [154] Because it was extremely difficult to keep large herds separate, quarrels among owners often occurred. To settle range disputes caused by mixing herds, Native herders formed two reindeer stock companies in the early 1930s. The Inupiat reindeer herders consolidated into the Peninsula Eskimo Reindeer Company of which Zunganuk was named chief herder. The Alutiiq herders organized the Ugashik Cooperative Reindeer Company and named Charley Johnson, a Scandinavia-Alutiiq, president. [155]

Various herd owners became members of the companies, who appointed their chief herders and gave them administrative and decision-making control of the day-to-day deer operation. For example, if an owner desired to replenish his home meat supplies or sell a deer, he had to both secure a government permit from the superintendent, and accommodate oversight by Zunganuk or Johnson, or whoever was the presiding chief herder at the time, in the selection the deer to prevent another owner's deer from being mistakenly selected. The chief herder identified an owner's herd by the cut marks on an animal's ear. Although 250 permits were issued in 1937, the local reindeer superintendent, Samuel C. Hanson, complained to his superiors in Nome that illegal private sales were taking place by members of both reindeer companies. [156] Still, to many Native herders, it seemed logical to sell the meat under the table rather than negotiate the confusing maze of government red tape. [157]

With the advice and consent of association members, the chief herders also hired young herders to assist with the herds. [158] That meant that there were usually two or three people managing the deer. Reindeer herding on the Alaska Peninsula was done entirely on foot and commonly aided by dogs. The type of herding practiced in the Aniakchak region was considered close herding. As opposed to open herding, where the animals were allowed to wander the country at will, close herding kept the deer held closely banded together. Typically, close herders made a big circle around the band each day, without disturbing it, while at the same time working in the few strays that wandered too far away from the outer grazing circle. [159] Close herding also allowed the deer longer continued human contact, which made the animals quite tame. Pauline Supook remembers feeding the tame deer sugar from her hand. "It tickles my... (laughs). I tried to pet them." [160] If permitted to roam about unherded, the reindeer quickly became half-wild. Thus, to Zunganuk, careful herding was of prime importance, not only to keep the deer in a state of domestication, but also to prevent mixing herds and loss of strays.

Moving herds along the peninsula coast presented few challenges, primarily because reindeer develop a strong affection for the range they customarily inhabit and, especially during the April and May fawning season, the deer manifest a strong urge to return to the range of their birth. The Ugashik herd's fawning grounds were located on the open tundra just south of Port Heiden. En route, reindeer fed exclusively on lichen plants, a low protein content herb which grows prolifically on the tundra throughout the Bristol Bay lowlands. This meant that herders worried little about starvation among their deer.

Because reindeer spend much of their energies in the summer months seeking relief from the swarms of insects that inhibit their range, each spring the chief herders instructed their assistants to navigate their deer to grazing grounds near the shores of Bristol Bay, where the sea breeze provided some relief. Reindeer are also fond of salt, and therefore drank the sea water or licked up the deposits on the beach. But when the herders left to go fish in the summer, the reindeer spread loosely on the range. Thus, summer herds grazed in a pattern more characteristic of open herding.

During rutting season, which occurs during September and early October, herders, who had completed their fishing duties and returned, moved the deer north toward the Ugashik Lakes area. There, the hills protected the reindeer from autumn storms. On the winter range, the herders usually lived in isolation in small cabins. From a cabin, one or two herders would go out each day to watch the herd, sometimes remaining out overnight. [161] One such herder's cabin probably was built near the headwaters of Reindeer Creek, at a locale known today as Caribou Cabin. "Reindeer cabins up—creek...There's camps up there," explained a Port Heiden elder:

A little above Caribou Cabin...that's where the reindeer headquarters [was]...just a little ways from the cabin...Southeast, south, directly south...It's on the bluff...when you stand over it, you could look down at the creek going down. [162]

When winter had settled in on the Alaska Peninsula, both the Alutiiq and Inupiaq herders commenced the big roundup. As stated in a 1922 report on reindeer herding in Alaska, a roundup was a "systematic business management of the herd." In Ugashik, the intent of the roundups was to split the herds between the two Native reindeer companies. [163] Beginning around mid-February, herders were sent out to locate the deer and then drive the animals towards their ranges. Because the herd size had reached to over 3,500 deer, usually twenty to twenty-five extra men, including the chief herder and his helpers, were needed during the roundup. [164] Superintendent Samuel Hanson attended a roundup in the winter of 1937. He described "the Big Roundup" at Ugashik in a letter to his supervisors in Nome:

When all the rest of the deer were together, Willie Zunganok came in after me with his dog ream. The day was ideal. Fine weather favored us. A skiff of snow had lately fallen which grew deeper the further we went east, until the dogs, already weary with two weeks of almost constant goring from morning till night, could scarcely pull the sled. Finally, after traveling about fifteen miles to the northeast of Pilot Point Village, we saw the deer on the knolls two miles left. Across "Pike Lake" was the camp, about two miles further. Willie's leader, which he had tuned lose, broke and ran after the deer, and "Snowflake," a reindeer dog that used to belong to Pete Olimpie, followed her. Some time after the five Eskimo dog teams that had come with us had arrived, Eskimo teams from Ugashik arrived. (The way these Eskimos can smell when the others are coming is uncanny.)" [165]

From the knoll, the herders could see the entire herd, and could, therefore, plan how to divide it. As Valentine Supsook explained, at a big roundup, "They tried to divvie up the large herd and Eskimos take half and half take to big lake, chase 'em down there and take 'em across the Ugashik." [166] In 1937, the Alutiit took their four hundred deer north to the Dago Creek Range, and the Inupiat herded their deer south, to the Ugashik Range.

"Good bye, we are gone. Good Luck!"

Although reindeer experts recommended that the herds be corralled at least twice a year—once in the summer and again in the winter—by the 1930s, the Ugashik herd had not been corralled since 1918. [167] The lack of corralling, at least at the reindeer station near Pilot Point, may have been due to the peninsula's undependable coastal climate. In his letter to Nome, Hanson complained that the corral he built in 1934 was rotten before the next season:

As I have told the Nome office many times before we are up against something different here, with the deer proposition, than you are up there in the Seward Peninsula. Here this winter, we had open weather all winter, water, water everywhere. There was so much water this winter that the Natives and Eskimos couldn't trap, nor visit their traps for weeks. [168]

In fact, by the 1930s, reindeer herding on the peninsula faced far bigger problems than the weather, including excessive alcohol consumption. "They drink too much Bevock," observed Hanson, "that's no doubt why the deer got away. Hanson also mentioned that the Alutiiq and Inupiat crews often failed to cooperate with each other. Making matters worse, when the chief herders went fishing and left their deer to roam in the summer, the herds merged with each other, and as a result, ownership disputes continually arose. Additionally, without the watchful eye of the herder, wolves, coyotes and bears preyed upon the deer. After a trip down Dago Creek in 1937, an Alutiiq herder named Jocu and his nephew, "Little" Nefotie, reported that there were "Plenty of dead deer!" [169]

Another major problem facing reindeer herders was illegal hunting, conducted by trappers. The illegal hunters were "non-owners," according to Hanson, "who lived in Egegik, Kanatak, and around Lake Becharoff and the Ugashik Lakes and Dago Creek." Hanson surmised that the poachers killed the deer for fox bait. He reported that in one incident a trapper from Egegik had killed twenty deer. Local resident Nick Alabama admits that he hunted domesticated reindeer when he was young. "It was the source of food for the people. . ." explained Alabama, ". . . and [there] use to be plenty back in those days in the area of Kuigaaq Creek." [170]

Still, the obstacles hindering the reindeer industry on the Alaska Peninsula transcended predators and poachers. The fact remained that the settled, isolated existence of the reindeer herder was never fully embraced by central Alaska Peninsula area residents who lived a seasonal lifestyle. Besides the distraction of the fishing season, the trapping season, which was conducted during the winter months, overlapped with corralling, which according to range rules had to transpire by the end of February.

Although new apprentices were hired in 1931 and 1932, it was becoming increasingly difficult for the Reindeer Service to find young men who were willing to give up the more lucrative activities of fishing and trapping for an industry that promised slow returns on a large investment of time. In spring, 1937, Willie Zunganuk complained to Hanson that the deer were fawning but he couldn't get anyone to help. [171] Even Charlie Johnson, president of the Alutiiq Reindeer Company, reported that he could find no reliable apprentices. According to Hanson, when Johnson went out to visit his herders at camp, they were gone, leaving only a note in their place saying, "Good bye, we are gone. Good Luck!" [172]

Sketch of the Ugashik Reindeer Range and Forage by Alfred J. Opland, Reindeer Service Unit manager of the Southwestern District, 1941. Alaska Reindeer Service. General Case Files. Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Archives, Alaska Region, Box 53 location 05/05/12 (5).

Reindeer Herding Comes to an End

On September 1, 1937, Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Reindeer Act, which restricted ownership of domestic reindeer in Alaska to Natives only. This measure did not prevent an unmotivated generation of Ugashik herders, however, from giving up on the industry. [173] The consolidation of the reindeer into herds of 2,000 animals made herding impossible for the few dedicated herders left to work the Aniakchak region. By 1941, the Reindeer Service Unit Manager of the Southwestern District had moved to Dillingham. According to the unit manager's sketch map, the Ugashik range had shrunk in size, relegating the entire herd to lands north of the Ugashik River.

Also during the mid-1940s, caribou returned to the Ugashik area for the first time in many decades, and as a result, the reindeer rejoined their ancient relatives and "went caribou." [174] Although caribou differ from domesticated reindeer in that they are proportionately larger animals, they are the same species so it did not take long for the caribou to absorb the remaining reindeer into their herds. The effects of such unique breeding can still be seen today—the size and color of the Alaska Peninsula caribou herd are markedly larger and lighter than other herds in Alaska. "I can still recognize reindeer from caribou..." notes a Newhalen elder, "...'cause they are stocky, have shorter legs and color of fur different from caribou." [175]

The Inupiat from the Seward Peninsula say that the disappearance of reindeer was like "melting snow in the spring." [176] In other words, the reindeer and their lasting affects on the region were not entirely lost, but instead, were ecologically and culturally absorbed. Even though the reindeer industry failed to engage the people of the Alaska Peninsula into a single occupation, remnants of the government experiment remain scattered throughout the peninsula. Certainly, the unique characteristics of the Alaska Peninsula caribou herd are a permanent outcome of the reindeer industry. Place names like Reindeer Point, Reindeer Station, Reindeer Valley, Reindeer Creek, and Caribou Cabin have survived the industry and serve as constant reminders of the region's cultural and economic history. But probably the most lasting impact of the commercialization of reindeer herding on the Aniakchak region was the Inupiat in-migration. By 1950, Pilot Point had more Inupiat residents than Alutiiq. Inupiat family names such as Achayok, Awanuk, Kiglonok, Metigoruk, Nikavik, Spoon, Supsook, and Zunganuk are to this day associated with the central Alaska Peninsula. [177] Undoubtedly, the reindeer industry had lasting impact on the central peninsula's ethnic identity and cultural landscape.

* * *

In some ways failure of the reindeer industry was due in part to the naïveté of government officials who wanted to modernize Alaska Natives by assimilating them into a contemporary economic system. What the government failed to recognize was that this was an unnecessary endeavor, for Alaska Peninsula Alutiit had been part of an exchange or market driven economy for more than a hundred years. Indeed, as historian Roxanne Willis points out, "Native involvement with economic development was often part of a larger strategy of adaptation and cultural endurance, particularly in the twentieth century." [178]

Introduced first by Russian hunters and traders, and later by American corporations, the commercialization of hunting, trapping and trading had engaged residents long before the business of reindeer herding was introduced. Not only were these activities far more lucrative, but they also worked within the seasonal lifeways practiced by local people for generations. Herding on the other hand, prevented, or at least interfered with many seasonal pursuits on the central Alaskan Peninsula.

Although the people living on the Aniakchak landscape interacted with the outside world, by the turn of the twentieth century, the eventual decline of the commercialized fur trade and the failure of the oil industry was only the beginning of American incorporation. Indeed, the contrasting success of the canned salmon industry in the region ultimately was the cementing factor that brought the people of the central Alaska Peninsula into the fold of the American economic and cultural systems.


1Robert Weibe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (Hill and Wang,), 7.

2David Herbert Donald, in the Foreword to Wiebe, viii.

3William Appleman Williams, The Roots of the Modern American Empire (New York: Random House, 1969), 138.

4Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963) 29.

5Howard I. Kushner, Conflict on the Northwest Coast: American-Russian Rivalry in the Pacific Northwest, 1790-1867 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975) xi,

6Ibid., xi-xii.

7Russian historian Nikolai N. Boklhovitnow draws similar conclusions in Russian-American Relations and the Sale of Alaska, 1834-1867 (Kingston, Ontario: The Limestone Press, 1996), 1-4.

8Ibid., xii.

9For a discussion on Russia's decision to sell Russian America to the U.S. see Bolkhovitnov, 167-204.

10Molly Lee, "Context and Contact" in Nelson H.H. Graburn, Molly Lee, Jean-Loup Rousselot, Catalogue Raisonne of the Alaska Commercial Company Collection (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 22.

11Ibid., 24.

12Polly Shangin, interview by Michele Morseth 3/31/92, transcripts ANIA Files 2089/007.01-01, Box 1, Folder 10, Lake Clark Katmai Studies Center, Anchorage, AK.

13Morseth, 52.

14Ibid., 86.

15Tuten, 29.

16Lee, 30.


18Mike Sam, Interview by Patricia Partnow, 6/5/1990. ANIA 2089/0007.02-01, Box 1, Folder 11, Lake Clark Katmai Studies Center, Anchorage, AK.

19Petroff, 52-53.

20Ibid., 58.

21Ibid., 59.

22Ibid., 59.

23Vasilli Martysh, Pravoslavnyi Amerikanskii Vestnik' [American Orthodox Messenger] Vol. 3, p. 91. 1899. Translations by Patricia Partnow; reviewed and corrected by Lydia T. Black. Copies located in ANIA Files "Russian Orthodox Messenger" misc. documents, Lake Clark Katmai Studies Center, Anchorage, AK.

24Lee, 32.

25"Letter to McIntyre from Grigorii Panshin, Sutkhum 8 May 1882" Original in Alaska Commercial Company Records, Box 118, folder 1082: Kodiak Station, Letters, Incoming: Sutkhum 1882, translated by Katherine Arndt. Copy located in ANIA file 2089/009.01-01, Box 2, Folder 6. Lake Clark Katmai Studies Center, Anchorage, AK.

26Morseth, 87.

27Letter to McIntyre.

28Morseth, 58.

29Partnow, 128.

30Morseth, 61.

31Vasilii Martysh, "Travel Report to Afognak Parish, 1902," America Orthodox Messenger, Vol. 8, p. 13-15, 1904. Translations by Partnow, reviewed by Black. Copies located in ANIA "Russian Orthodox Messenger" misc. documents at Lake Clark Katmai Studies Center, Anchorage, AK.

32Tuten, 14-33


34Petroff, 25.

35Haycox, ix.

36Jack Roderick, Crude Dreams: A Personal History of Oil and Politics in Alaska (Fairbanks: Epicenter Press. 1997), 24.

37Ibid., 24.

38Robert Blodgett. USGS geologist, personal communication, 7/27/2005.

39Donald Worster, "Alaska: The Underworld Erupts," in Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 159.

40Ibid., 159.

41W.R. Smith and Arthur A. Baker, "Cold Bay-Chignik District," Mineral Resources of Alaska; Report on Progress of Investigations in 1922, USGS Bulletin 755 (Washington: GPO, 1924), 163.

42Stephen Capps, "The Cold Bay District" Mineral Resources of Alaska, USGS Bulletin 739, (Washington: GPO, 1921) 77

43Tikhon Shalamov, "The Alaska Travel of the Right Reverend Tikhon, Bishop of Aleut and Alaska" From the travel journal of 1895 of a priest of the Kodiak Resurrection Church. Translations by Richard Bland, Patricia Partnow, and Irina Dubinina. Copies located in ANIA Files 2089/008.02-01, Box 2, Folder 05, Lake Clark Katmai Studies Center, Anchorage, AK.

44Roderick, 28.

45Capps, 80.

46The village of Kanatak first appears in census records in 1890.

47Roderick, 23.

48"In Search of Black Gold: Early Exploration" in Katalla to Prudhoe Bay a Special Publication of Petroleum News, date unknown. Aniakchak HRS Collection, Lake Clark Katmai Studies Center, Anchorage, AK.

49Ibid., 9

50Roderick, 23.


52William Cronon, "Kennecott Journey, in Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America's Western Past (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992), 40.

53Worster, 160.

54George J. Eicher, Jr., "Kanatak Folds Again" in Alaska Life (Feb. 1944), 13.


56Blodgett, personal communication, 7/27/2005.

57Roderick, 22.

58Blodgett, personal communication, 7/27/2005.

59Norris, 418.

60Capps, 77

61Norris, 419.

62Smith and Baker, 163.

63Eicher, 13.

64Roderick, 24.

65Worster, 163.

66George Davidson, Coast Pilot of Alaska, (Washington D.C. GPO, 1869), 36.

67For more information on the Whaling Industry see John R. Bockstoce's Whales, Ice, & Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1986), 166.

68Joe, LaRocca, Alaska Agonists: the Age of Petroleum: How Big Oil Bought Alaska (North East, PA: Rare Books, Ink, 2003).

69Roderick, 27.

70Eicher, 14.

71Worster, 177.

72Norris, 419.

73Smith and Baker, 164-165.

74Eicher, 14.

75Roderick, 21.

76Eicher, 14.

77From the Benjamin A. Grier Scrapbook and Photograph Album; 1911-1952, UAA Consortium Library; Archives and Special Collections Department, University of Alaska, Anchorage.

78Smith and Baker, 154.

79Capps, 107.

80The Round-the-World flight itinerary lists Kanatak, along with Dutch Harbor, Atka and Attu, on the Aleutian Islands leg of the trip. World Flight Chronicle, "Seattle Ready for Next Flight to Ducth Harbor" Vol. 2 No. 24. 29 April, 1924.

81Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorruption of America Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 20.

82Robbins, 68.

83Institute for Government Research, The U.S. Geological Survey: Its History, Activities and Organization, Service Monograph for the U.S. Government No. 1 (New York, 1918), 43.

84Morgan Sherwood, Exploration of Alaska, 1865-1900 (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1992), 172.

85Sherwood, 171.

86Smith and Baker, 164.

87Earl Grammer's story can be found in Roderick's Crude Dreams, 19-31.

88Norris, 420.

89Smith and Baker, 206.

90George C. Martin, "The Outlook for Petroleum Near Chignik" Mineral Resources of Alaska; Report on Progress of Investigations in 1923, USGS Bulletin 773 (Washington: GPO, 1925), 209.

91Norris, Isolated Paradise, 420, Martin, 209.

92Martin, 209.

93Ibid., 420.

94Ibid., 420.

95Ibid., 420.

96Roderick, 25.

97Morseth, 80.

98Smith and Baker, 165.

99Ibid., 165.

100Vasilii Martysh, "Travel Journal for 1902" Russian American Orthodox Messenger, vol. 8, pp. 32-34, 1904. Translated by Partnow, reviewed by Black. Copies located in ANIA file "Russian Orthodox Messenger" misc. documents, Lake Clark Katmai Studies Center, AK.


102Roderick, 26.

103Ibid., 29.

104Paul Boskoffsky, Alaska: Man from Kanatak (Duluth, Minnesota, Arrow Printing: 2002), 14.

105Smith and Baker, 210-211.

106Martin, 213.

107Roderick, 29.

108Ibid., 29.

109Ibid., 31.

110Eicher, 15.

111Crowell, et al, 86.

112Boskoffsky, 15.

113Cronon makes the same claim in "Kennecott Journey," 44.

114Vital Statistics and Confessional Records 1896-1965, Vital Statistics for Kanatak Settlement [1923-1952], trans. Ekaterina Ogan, Afognak Village Corporation.

115Boskoffsky, 24

116Ibid., 25.

117Marlane Shanigan, "Kanatak Tribal Council," in Crowell, et al, Looking Both Ways, 86.

118Ibid., 86.

119Douglas, 14.

120Roxanne Willis, "A New Game in the North: Alaska Native Reindeer Herding, 1890-1940" Western Historical Quarterly 37 (Autumn, 2006), 279.

121John Taliaferrro, In a Far Country: The True Story of a Mission, a Marriage, a Murder, and the Remarkable Reindeer Rescue of 1898 (New York: Public Affairs, 2006), 7.

122Ibid, 7.

123Ibid., 6.

124US Bureau of Education, Report of the Commissioner of Education for 1892-1893 (Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1895), 1708-10.

125Frank G. Carpenter, Alaska: Our Northern Wonderland (Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc. 1928).

126Sheldon Jackson, Sixth Report on Introduction of Domestic Reindeer in Alaska, 1896 (Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1896), 15.

127Arthur S. Peterson, "The Introduction of the Domesticated Reindeer into Alaska," The Norwegian-American Historical Association, Volume XI: 102.

128Dean F. Olsen, Alaska Reindeer Herdsmen: A Study of Native Management in Transition (Fairbanks: Institute of Social, Economic and Government Research, 1969), 13.

129Olson, 38.

130Ibid, 38.

131An outline of grazing areas in 1926 shows that the Port Heiden was the most southerly of all grazing herds. In Ornulv Vorren, Saami, Reindeer, and Gold in Alaska: the Emigration of Saami from Norway to Alaska (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc, 1994), 83.

132Morseth, 145.

133Partnow, 233.

134Ibid., 234.

115Morseth, 146.

136Ibid., "Map of 1920s Reindeer Range," 148.

137Ibid., 142.

138Ibid., 151.

139Ibid., 146, 144.

140Valentine and Pauline Supsook, Pilot Point. (8/6/97 H98-04-04 ANIA 2089/007.01-01 Box 1, Folder 10, Lake Clark Katmai Studies Center, Anchorage, AK).

141Morseth 148.

142Ibid., 142.

143Valentine and Pauline Supsook, Pilot Point.

144Olson, 21.

145Vorren, 17.

146Ibid., 23.

147Faith Fjeld, "The Saami: Reindeer People of Alaska," A traveling exhibit held at the Alaska Native Heritage Center on June, 2004.

148Olson, 25.

149Valentine and Pauline Suspook.

150Vorren, 127.

151Neqa to Tepa: Traditional Knowledge of the Alaska Peninsula (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 211-031-102793, 1993.)

152Partnow, 234-235.

153Vorren, 160.

154Samuel Hanson to Sidney Rood, May 5, 1937, Bureau of Indian Affairs RG 75 Box # 53, Alaska Reindeer Service general Case Files, File 156.8 Ugashik 11933-1937. National Archives-Alaska Region.

155Hanson to Rood.


157Partnow, 235.

158Olson, 58.

159Seymour Hadwin and Lawrence J. Palmer, Reindeer Herding in Alaska, Bureau of Biological Survey, USDA, Bulletin No. 1089 (Washington, D.C., September 22, 1922) 33-52.

160Valentine and Pauline Supsook.

161Hadwin and Palmer.

162Neqa to Tepa, 283-000-92101, 2001.

163Hanson to Rood

164Hadwin and Palmer.

165Hanson to Rood.

166Morseth, 147.

167Hanson to Rood.



170Morseth, 147.

171Hanson to Rood.


173Olson, 15.

174Willis, 301.

175Neqa to Tepa, 243-00C-111592, 1992.

176Olson, 54.

177Morseth, 144.

178Willis, 278.

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