Kenai Fjords
A Stern and Rock-Bound Coast: Historic Resource Study
NPS Logo

Chapter 4:

This country is settled by Innuits, who have peopled the east coast of the peninsula, and from there eastward along the mainland nearly to the Copper River. Two of the trading stations in the Kenai district are located among these Innuits at English Bay and Seldovia. [1] — Ivan Petroff, 1884

Map 4-1. Historic Sites-Shifting Landscape. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Abbot Nicholas, the Russian Orthodox priest in residence at Kenai since 1845, died in 1867, the same year that the U.S. government purchased Alaska. With the abbot's death, the Kenai Mission lost its first missionary and priest at a time of transition and uncertainty. Village parishes experienced the same sense of loss. The transfer of Fort St. Nicholas [Fort Kenai] from Russian hands to the U.S. Army occurred in 1869 with little provision for the continuation of services to the villages. In 1870, the Americans abandoned the fort. The closing of Fort Kenai affected trade on the Kenai Peninsula and on Kodiak and Hinchinbrook islands.

The years after 1870, however, brought some positive changes. Once the Alaska Commercial Company (ACC) established itself in southcentral Alaska, a lucrative fur market resumed. In 1881, after years of neglect, the Kenai Mission reinstated a new priest. With this new appointment, a church presence returned to the villages in the Chugach region. These two actions triggered a brief period of prosperity on the outer coast in the late 1870s to early 1880s. When fur prices fell in the late 1880s and the economy of the outer Kenai Peninsula collapsed, the Russian Orthodox Church intervened. The church attempted to stabilize life in the villages, but its success in that endeavor was both incomplete and temporary.

Fur Trading After the Alaska Purchase

Like the Russians before them, the Americans depended on an economy tied to hunting and fur exports. The high price of fur on the American market encouraged Natives and Euro-Americans to hunt along the outer Kenai coast. Initially, the Americans carried out their business from the same stores and warehouses. The newly formed Alaska Commercial Company acquired the Russian trading post at Alexandrovsk (English Bay). The company hired Native crews to hunt between Seldovia and Nuchek. These two trade centers also supported Russian Orthodox parishes. As Golovin noted in his 1860 survey of the colony, the placement of Russian Orthodox churches was linked to economic centers. He wrote, "For the most part they have been built in areas where there are many Natives, or in places where the natives dispose of their furs." [2]

Both the Russian Orthodox Church and the rise of American fur companies reshaped village demographics on the Kenai Peninsula in the late 1800s. One observer remarked that "The moment you leave Sitka and steer northward, you enter the realm of the North American Commercial and the Alaska Commercial companies: Kodiak, Nuchek, Kenai, Unalaska, with a host of Native Settlements, are completely in their hands...." [3] Both the church and the commercial companies sought to centralize services in larger villages. The Kenai Mission strategically supported the establishment of local churches in villages that had the potential to serve neighboring areas. In addition, the Alaska Commercial and Western Fur companies, as well as smaller independent companies with regional stations, preferred to buy and warehouse fur pelts from crews of Native hunters that operated from one central location.

The availability of Native crews was critical to commercial success; by law only residents and Natives could hunt for furs in the new American territory. In a reactionary ruling of the new government, Section 6 of the Customs Act of July 1868 originally prohibited the killing of any fur-bearing animals within the waters or territory of Alaska. [4] Within two years, the Secretary of the Treasury revised the law to allow Alaska residents to hunt sea otter. [5] By 1879 only Alaska Natives, or whites with Native wives, had the legal right to hunt animals for furs. In yet another radical turnaround, the law changed again in 1893, banning the taking of pelts within territorial waters. The law also limited the use of larger ships–except Revenue Cutters–for transporting hunters. [6]

This succession of laws directly affected crews trying to reach distant hunting grounds and the villages where they traded. The larger ships replaced the smaller baidarkas and bidars, a practice that eventually led to dramatic changes in the use of coastal areas. Larger ships avoided the smaller coastal harbors and beach landing sites. They also had no need for temporary layover spots or shelters during storms. Hunters had fewer opportunities to visit the smaller coves and bays. In addition, as fewer boats traveled from village to village, communication decreased, as did populations.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002