Kenai Fjords
A Stern and Rock-Bound Coast: Historic Resource Study
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Chapter 2:

Acculturation and Change

Many questions surround the decline of the Chugach and the events that led them to abandon their coastal homes in favor of larger villages. Equally, the fate of the Unegkurmiut is unknown though it is likely that several environmental and social factors common to the Kenai and Alaska peninsulas contributed to the decline in population and loss of villages. Russian influences and acculturation that so altered the Chugach and Dena'ina populations in general, including disease, hostilities, and relocation, directly affected the inhabitants of the outer Kenai coast. As a point of comparison, the Native population of Kodiak Island, which once lived in sixty-five different villages, had been consolidated into just seven by 1841. [54]

Russian expeditions based from settlements in the Aleutians and on Kodiak Island began to penetrate the outer Kenai coastline and Prince William Sound in the 1780s. As Russian promyshlenniks pushed eastward, Kenai Peninsula inhabitants fell in the path of hunting parties. Khlebnikov reported that Baranov sent the first hunting crew from Kodiak Island towards Yakutat Bay arriving in 1794. Baranov traveled to Prince William Sound to personally induct several Chugach into the hunting party. [55] Okun noted that the Russian-American Company had less involvement with Kenai and Chugach, rarely calling upon them to trade or work--Russian labor documents typically referred to them as "independent tribes." [56] However, many other references pointed out that the hunting parties leaving Kodiak Island passed along the outer Kenai coast on their way to Prince William Sound. Sarafian, for example, notes that

In 1792, the Russians first attempted to employ Chugaches to hunt sea otter, but out of fear the Natives ran away and hid. By 1803, the company with the aid of gifts had induced the Chugaches of Chugach Bay to hunt sea otter and every summer thereafter about 60 Chugaches hunted this animal for it. At the end of the season, the company paid them the fixed price for their pelts in beads and tobacco. [57]

Often as many as 500 baidarkas participated in the hunting expeditions. Between 100 to 200 baidarkas traveled to other parts of the coast of Kodiak Island and along the shore of Alaska recruiting men from among the Kenai and Chugach. The constant shuffling and moving of residents led to the demise of many villages.

hunting baidarka
Hunting baidarka. From the collection of Ball, Flamen. Alaska State Library, photo PCA 24-99.

Baranov felt uncomfortable with the practice of consolidating villages and accused Shelikhov of "playing politics by asking [him] to hire them to leave their homes and face the unknown in the new settlements." [58] The Russians were very concerned by the drop in population. The number of available hunters decreased in the late 1700s, which Baranov attributed to the constant relocation of villages. Baranov noted that "From their number, many are killed or drowned, too old or too young, or rotten from disease well known here." [59]

Heiromonk Gideon, a church envoy to the Russian colonies, noted in the early 1800s that hunting crews leaving Kodiak for Prince William Sound and beyond, typically took on recruits from the outer Kenai Peninsula. [60] After stopping at Fort Alexandrovsk near Cape Elizabeth, crews regrouped and traveled southeast along the coast. Near Resurrection Bay, crews awaited envoys from Voskresenskii Redoubt who joined them on route. Once at Nuchek, the leaders sized up the crew, leaving the weaker men to hunt in Prince William Sound. The others headed south. This practice left many villages essentially deserted in the summer. [61]

Heiromonk Gideon recorded the drop in the number of baidarkas that made up these hunting parties, pointing out that at one time 800 boats traveled the coast together. [62] By 1799 the number fell to 500 and within another five years only 300 baidarkas gathered at the call.

Shelikhov regarded the land on the Kenai Peninsula as rich with an abundance of birds, fish, and timber. [63] The Russians expedited crews from Kodiak Island to trap birds along the coast and on the islands between the mouth of Cook Inlet and Resurrection Bay. [64] These parties included people relocated from the Aleutians as well as Chugach and Kenaitze who were physically unable to participate in the hunting parties. [65] Forts at Kodiak, Nuchek, and Alexandrovsk on the outer peninsula were stopping points for crews gathering bird feathers and for hunters to join hunting parties.

Bird hunting was especially important to the Natives. Russian policy prevented Natives from making fur parkas. The Russians confiscated as many furs as possible for trade, leaving the Natives to fend off the winter cold with bird skin parkas. Davydov observed that "They are in general forbidden to wear clothes made from expensive furs, which they are obliged to give to the company. They are allowed to make clothes from hares, marmots, squirrels, and birdskins." [66] On the return trip to Kodiak, many of the hunters also stopped on the islands near Resurrection Bay to assist with the bird hunt. [67] Davydov related, "In the spring the Chugach also collected and preserved eggs for Russian consumption; in the winter the Company requested sheep and marmots." [68]

In one account of Russian traders leaving Nuchek Bay, the value of a fur parka is illustrated when a Native couple were obliged to part company:

... One of the Natives was persuaded to accompany the ship as guide; the wife of the man was furnished with a quantity of beads to console her for the absence of her husband but when the ship was ready to sail the man took off his only garment a marmot parka and gave it to his wife to keep; the commander then fitted him out with an Aleutian bird skin parka and a canvas shirt. [69]

Smaller, remote villages like those likely to have existed on the Kenai coast had little chance of survival given the demands of the Russian companies. After a grueling summer at sea, many men returned to their villages in the late fall. At that time, food and clothing needed to be stockpiled for the winter months ahead. After a few seasons of this regime, many villages fell into ruin. By the 1830s Wrangell observed that because of extensive intermixing between the people of the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island, and Prince William Sound, their individuality had deteriorated.

Disease further annihilated village structure on the Kenai Peninsula. The first recorded epidemic spread through Kodiak Island and Cook Inlet in 1798. [70] The smallpox epidemics from 1835 to 1840 and the later ones in the 1860s decimated an enormous proportion of the Native population along the Gulf of Alaska coast.

The smallpox epidemic of the 1830s was at its most virulent from 1836 to 1838. It apparently began with the Tlingit and moved west to the Dena'ina. [71] By some estimates one in three died, and many of the survivors were left maimed or blind from the disease. [72] For the survivors, life changed dramatically. Weakened by disease, hunters lacked the strength to provide for the tired and dejected members of their villages. Starvation ensued. The demographics of small village settlement changed as orphaned children and others moved to neighboring villages. Often the Russian artels took in the orphaned children. [73] Entire villages disappeared as survivors fled to live in large villages. By one estimate, the Native population of the villages of Cook Inlet fell by fifty percent between 1836 and 1843. [74]

In the account by Zakahar Tchitchinoff, an employee of the Russian-American Company in the early 1800s, the epidemic of 1836 irrevocably devastated local villages and Native lifestyles on the Kenai Peninsula. The effects of the epidemic on the small, dispersed villages of the outer Kenai Coast can only be presumed through these accounts. Frequently visited for trade and hunting, these insular villages would have little protection against the effects of foreign disease.

...During the following winter (1836-37) I traveled continually from village to village in the Kenai District, trading, but it (sic) nearly every place the population had been reduced by at least one-half by the ravages of small pox. In many places the people were still of the opinion that the dreadful disease had been sent among them by the Russians, but a few individuals who had an opportunity to observe the effects of vaccination in Kadiak were of great service to us in assisting to eradicate the prejudice from the minds of the people. Some of the villages presented a terrible spectacle, the well inhabitants all having fled to some other locality while the helpless sick and the dead alone occupied the place–the latter in various stages of decomposition. During the cold weather, the epidemic abated somewhat in violence, but in the spring of 1837 it broke out again as bad as ever. [75]

It is possible that the outer coast villages never recovered from the devastating effects of the epidemics. Some villages were known to exist into the 1880s, but the decreased numbers may have contributed to the eventual relocation and loss of these villages. However, Russian recognition of a continued Native presence and of tribal organization is substantiated by inclusion of the Chugach in the Charter of 1844 that placed Natives under the colonial administration. The charter pertained to settled tribes, including "tribes living on the American coast, such as Kenais, Chugach and others." [76] Doroshin, a Russian mining engineer and geologist who spent several years in the Kenai region, was aware of five Chugach villages in 1852. Doroshin calculated a combined population of 284 persons. These villages fell under the jurisdiction of the Constantine Redoubt on Hinchinbrook Island. Doroshin also noted two additional villages, "Alexandrovskoe and Akhmilinskoe" on the southeastern shore of the Kenai Peninsula. [77] Akhmilinskoe had a population of ten families. In 1860 Golovin determined the Chugach population to be 226 males and 230 females, a total of 456. These estimates were based on the number of people living in the vicinity of the Constantine Redoubt. [78]

Living on the outer coast was difficult for the Chugach and Russians alike. With major Russian settlements to the east and west of the coast, the Native population was torn between the demands of working for the company and sustaining year round villages. This uneasy relationship lasted until the Russians moved farther south to establish a government seat in Sitka. However, the villages never regained the population they once had. Coastal inlets that may have once supported viable villages became stopover points for small boats navigating between Nuchek to the east and English Bay and Kenai to the west.

Illustration by Rockwell Kent from Wilderness, A Journal of Quient Adventure in Alaska, 1920. The Rockwell Kent. Legacies.

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002