EUROPEAN EXPLORATION AND RUSSIAN SETTLEMENT PATTERNS ON THE LOWER KENAI PENINSULA
In the late 1700s Russian and European interests centered on southcentral Alaska. During this period, outside adventurers pursued economic opportunities on Kodiak Island, Cook Inlet, and Prince William Sound. These regions had comparatively warm microclimates, ice free protected bays, accessible forests, and pasture lands suitable for hunting and agriculture. For the most part, however, they avoided Kenai Peninsula's seaward coast. Tidewater glaciers at the mouths of deep fjords alternating with narrow jetties of rocky mountainous outcrop, as is found along the Kenai Peninsula, had few redeeming features for the development of permanent harbors, trading posts, or settlement. Fort Voskresenskii, the Russian fortified redoubt and shipyard constructed on the lowlands at the head of Resurrection Bay in 1794,  was abandoned after the construction of only one vessel. In the early 1800s the Russians relocated their shipbuilding industry to Kodiak and Sitka. By 1820 the Russians had begun to remove Fort Voskresenskii. As Russian investment eventually moved into other regions of Alaska, there appears to have been little regret at leaving the Kenai coast.
By the late 1700s, European interest and trade in southcentral Alaska increased despite Russian settlement and enterprise (see Table 3-1). Surely attracted by Russian commitment to the area's resources, English and Spanish ships entered southcentral waters in search of new routes, fame, and trade. In 1778 Captain James Cook ranked among the most noted of these first explorers. 
When Cook returned to England in 1780, his lucrative trade in Alaska sea otter pelts received no public attention. Mindful that the price sea otter fur brought on the Chinese market would only heighten European rivalry, Britain, then at war with the American Colonies, hoped to keep the news secret until it could afford to monopolize the fur trade. Spain, in turn, attempted to employ a similar tactic of concealment in their land claims north of California. Spain withheld official published accounts of its three expeditions in the 1770s, a move that later undermined the Spanish claims of exclusivity. 
The English, who protested the Spanish claims, argued that Native habitation pre-dated Spanish exploration and that the Spanish had made little attempt to establish any type of permanent settlement.  According to the accounts of the Russian sponsored expedition of Joseph Billings in 1790, Spanish frigates annually visited villages and forts in the vicinity of Cook Inlet trading hardware, beads, and linens for sea otter pelts.  Otherwise, most of the Spanish exploration originating from forts in California ventured only as far northwest as Prince William Sound (see Table 3-1).
Table 3-1. Chronological Summary of Russian, Spanish, and English Exploration and Survey of the Kenai Coast and Prince William Sound Regions
This list is meant to be representative, not conclusive. American exploration and trade are entirely omitted. Also, descriptions of trade and travel along the coast continued after 1849.
Soon after the 1783 Treaty of Paris, British trade routes developed between the northwest American coast and Canton, the only Chinese port open to international vessels. The first expedition of King George's Sound Company, also known as the London Company, navigated along the southeastern shore of the Kenai Peninsula.  In July 1786, company representatives Nathaniel Portlock and George Dixon left Cook Inlet, crossed Kachemak Bay and entered the narrow harbor of Port Graham. In search of a route to the Pacific, the captains assumed the harbor was an inland channel and named the small island at the entrance Passage Island. According to Portlock, Russian occupation at Port Graham appeared to be a seasonal and temporary encampment manned by twenty-five Russians and a crew of Natives from Unalaska and Kodiak islands. The Russians slept in a canvas tent while the Native crew took shelter under overturned boats pulled up on shore. There were no signs of trade with local Chugach, and Russian hunters depended on their crews to trap and hunt furs. While scouting the inner shores of the harbor, Portlock and Dixon observed several large Native huts that appeared to be recently abandoned. On the northern shores of the harbor they recorded the location of two veins of coal on the surface of the rocky hillside. Portlock wrote:
In 1788 the British sea captain John Meares collaborated in a joint trading venture known interchangeably as the Associated Merchants of London and India, the United Company of British Merchants, and the South Sea Company of London. The company concentrated its trading efforts between the Queen Charlotte Islands and Prince William Sound. In 1789, Captain William Douglas received orders to trade as far as the Sound, then to turn back. The land to the west of the Sound, including Kenai Peninsula and Cook Inlet, had less potential as trading zones as "it is so totally possessed by Russians that proceeding there would be only [a] waste of the most valuable time." 
In 1790 British naval officer George Vancouver commanded his ships the Discovery and Chatham to the Pacific Northwest to reconcile British interests at Nookta. Four years later, Vancouver arrived in Alaska from Hawaii and surveyed the waters of Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound. Russian contacts in Cook Inlet led Vancouver to believe that he could bypass the Pacific coast of the Kenai Peninsula through an inland waterway at the head of Turnagain Arm. This waterway supposedly led to the Passage Canal in Prince William Sound. Learning that the waterway did not exist, Vancouver circled the outer peninsula and dismissed a survey of the coast as too time consuming. He preferred to "examine the shores of the peninsula, so far only as could be done from the ship in passing along its coast."  Vancouver noted the abrupt mountainous shoreline and long valleys "buried in ice and snow, within in a few yards of the wash of the sea; whilst here and there some of the loftiest of the pine trees just shewd' their heads through the frigid surface."  From the maps of his ship route, he obviously steered clear of the bays and rocky outcrops along the Kenai coast. He recorded the Pye and Chiswell islands. He described the Chiswells as a "group of naked rugged rocks, seemingly destitute of soil, and any kind of vegetation."  Eighty years later, George Davidson proposed that Vancouver mistook the Chiswells for several "islets and the broken and numerous points of the long, low, wooded promontories stretching southward and forming Ayalik [sic] Bay, off which lie the Chiswell Islands." 
Thomas Heddington, a midshipman on the Chatham and the youngest member of the expedition, was one of three illustrators on Vancouver's voyage.  The two others were Henry Humphreys and John Sykes. Heddington prepared several surveys and drawings of the coast between Cape Elizabeth and Prince William Sound. Once back in London, Heddington submitted his work to the Hydrographic Office, but later in 1808 requested that his work be returned. The Admiralty honored the request only to lose all record or trace of the drawings.  One, entitled The Coast from Cape Elizabeth to the Western Entrance of Prince Williams Sound- with Elizabeth Island, Pyes Islands and Chiswells Islands off the Coast, would have been among the earliest known renderings of the coast. 
At Port Dick, a deep bay at the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, Vancouver encountered a large party of Natives in two-man boats. The men approached the English ships with a willingness to trade. Their number impressed Vancouver; he estimated a party of over four hundred men. Archibald Menzies, the botanist on board, described the men as being of "low stature, but thick and stout made with fat broad visages and straight black hair ... and their canoes are equally neat having their seams sown so tight as not to admit any water...".  In the 1930s, anthropologist Frederica de Laguna explained this encounter as one of the large inter-regional sea otter hunting expeditions that traveled along the coast.  Aleksandr Baranov, in a letter to Grigorii Shelikhov, recounted that Vancouver met a 500-baidarka hunting fleet of Kodiak and Chugach Natives led by Russians from the Kenai and Resurrection Bay areas in April and later again in Yakutat Bay.  The fleet stopped at the shipyard in Resurrection Bay to pick up five Russians, including G. Prianishnikov and Konstantin Galaktionov, and arrange for repairs and supplies of cannons, guns, and ammunition for the trip south to Icy Bay. 
Henry Humphreys prepared a sketch of the Port Dick encounter. In the margin of the drawing, Humphreys penciled in explanatory notes to the engraver back in England. He directed the engraver to add to the image "many canoes ... going into the Creek [sic] each carrying 2 people ... sight. Indian holding up Skins for traffic ... some going in at that place."  The final drawing, unlike Humphreys's original, shows the bay full of Native vessels.
Vancouver had anticipated a layover at the Russian shipyard in Resurrection Bay, but stormy seas and fog set in west of the Chiswell Islands. Apprehensive of the rocky coast and lacking accurate charts, Vancouver cancelled the stop and sailed the Discovery past Port Andrews (Blying Sound) into Prince William Sound. The route and the weather probably accounted for the poor delineation of the bay and coast in his atlas. However, his route as traced on his maps shows the wide clearance he gave to the coastline.
Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002