Alaska Subsistence
A National Park Service Management History
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Chapter 1:

C. The Lure of Gold and the Non-Native Population Influx

Slowly, the appearance of new business opportunities began to debunk the old stereotypes. On the Pribilof Islands, for example, the harvesting of fur seals proved so profitable that within a few years the U.S. Treasury had been repaid Alaska's $7.2 million purchase price. Of more wide-ranging importance was the discovery of gold, in August 1880, along Gastineau Channel in southeastern Alaska, and by 1882 Juneau and nearby Douglas were thriving gold camps. Word soon leaked out that gold prospects lay on the far side of Chilkoot Pass, and in 1880 a group of prospectors obtained permission from the Chilkat Indians to gain access over the Chilkoot Trail. The wide-ranging prospectors, before long, found gold in paying quantities in various parts of the Yukon River drainage, and word of those discoveries brought a heightened level of prospecting activity. By 1895 a major gold camp had been located at Fortymile, just east of the Canada-U.S. border, and at Circle, 208 miles downstream from Fortymile. And everywhere the prospectors ventured, they impacted the local Native populations: by hunting, by tree cutting, and by providing Natives with wage-based jobs in mines or wood camps.

The year 1896 witnessed the first of three gold strikes that transformed the north country. The Klondike gold discovery, in August of that year, brought tens of thousands of Argonauts from the far corners of the world to the Yukon and Klondike river valleys, primarily in 1897 and 1898. No sooner had that rush begun to fade than gold was discovered on the Seward Peninsula, and tens of thousands more rushed to Nome and other nearby gold camps. Finally, a major gold strike took place in the Interior of Alaska in August 1902, and by 1905 Fairbanks was a full-blown gold camp.

These strikes, and other discoveries made in their wake, transformed Alaska demographically. By 1900, for example, the U.S. Census claimed that Alaska had more white than Native inhabitants, although the number of whites and Natives remained fairly similar as late as the eve of World War II. [7] (See Table 1-1, page 5) More important to Native lifeways, however, the scattered distribution of gold camps meant that prospectors (and to a lesser extent other non-Natives) were interacting with Natives throughout the territory. Non-Natives, it appeared, were thrusting themselves into economic enterprises in the most remote corners of the territory, and everywhere they went they began to impact the Natives' long-established lifeways.

Table 1-1. Population of Alaska and Selected Areas, 1890-2000

Native Native
% of
as %
# Non-
% Non-

189032,0528,52123,53173.4%00 1,253404.0%480000.0%
190063,59236,55527,03742.5%00 1,8644593.6%728000.0%
191064,35639,02525,33139.4%03,541 1,6441,61310.6%1,69267700.0%
192055,03628,47826,55848.3%1,8561,155 3,0582,45815.5%1,85171500.0%
192959,27829,29529,98350.6%2,2772,101 4,0433,79620.6%2,42587600.0%
193972,52440,06632,45844.8%3,4953,455 5,7294,69524.0%3,0022,36600.0%
1950128,64394,78033,86326.3%11,2545,771 5,9565,30522.0%4,6993,53411,2548.7%
1960226,167183,64545,52218.8%44,23713,311 6,7976,48331.3%9,0535,18866,62229.5%
1970302,853252,24850,60516.7%102,99430,618 13,55610,04151.9%15,8366,509148,41040,0%
1980401,851337,74864,10316.0%174,43153,983 19,52811,31664.5%25,28217,816231,60557.6%
1990550,043464,34585,69815.6%226,33877,720 26,75113,828,62.7%40,80239,683312,03256.7%
2000626,932528,88998,04315.6%260,28382,840 30,71114,07061.9%49,69159,322349,37755.7%


(a) — includes Anchorage Borough (1970), Municipality of Anchorage (1980 through 2000).

(b) — includes Fairbanks North Star Borough (1970 through 2000).

(c) — includes Greater Juneau Borough (1970 through 1990), Juneau City and Borough (2000).

(d) — includes Ketchikan Gateway Borough (1970 through 2000).

(e) — includes Kenai census district (1910-20); Kenai, Seldovia, and Seward census districts (1929-39); Homer, Seldovia, Seward, and a portion of the Anchorage census district (1950); Kenai-Cook Inlet and Seward election districts (1960); Kenai Peninsula Borough plus Seward Census Division (1970), and Kenai Peninsula Borough (1980 through 2000).

(f) — includes Cook Inlet census district (1910); Cook Inlet and part of Knik census districts (1920); Talkeetna, Wasilla, and part of Anchorage census districts (1930); Palmer, Talkeetna, Wasilla, and part of Anchorage census districts (1940); Palmer, Talkeetna, and Wasilla census districts (1950); Palmer-Wasilla-Talkeetna election district (1960), and Matanuska-Susitna Borough (1970 through 2000).

(g) — Non-rural population and percentages are based on the populations of individual cities, towns, and identified unincorporated areas—not boroughs—that total 7,000 people or more.

Along the coast, similar impacts were taking place because of the booming salmon-canning industry. After its founding in 1878, the industry quickly grew along Alaska's shoreline, and by the mid-1890s more than 50 canneries dotted the coast between Southeastern Alaska and Bristol Bay. Wherever the canneries were built, the lifestyles of local Native populations were transformed. This transformation took place for two reasons: some succumbed to the lure of fishing and cannery jobs, while others, all too often, were affected because of the depletion of the fisheries resource.

The federal government was by no means a passive player in the transformation of the Natives' culture. In 1884, as part of the first Organic Act, language was inserted to "make needful and proper provision for the education of children of school age in the Territory of Alaska, without reference to race." The implication of racial equality was mostly honored in the breach; for every town that had a substantial white population, the Bureau of Education operated separate white and Native schools. That separation was enhanced in 1905 when Congress passed the Nelson Act, which authorized whites living in any "camp, village, or settlement" to petition for their own school district; this act, in a short time, left the Bureau of Education as almost the sole educator of Alaska's Natives. The per-capita funding of Bureau of Education schools was typically far poorer than in white schools, and as time went on, the funding gap became more pronounced. [8]

More appropriate to this study, however, was the Bureau's policies toward its educational facilities. One policy, similar to a long-established practice of the Bureau of Indian Affairs outside of Alaska, and also that of the many religious denominations that had been educating Alaska Natives since the 1880s, was that the most efficient way to educate Native children was to remove them from their households. As part of the prevalent assimilationist policy, parents typically signed away their daughters until age 18 and their sons until age 21; some children went to village day schools, while others headed off to remote boarding schools. Both venues adopted a similar regime; Natives were asked to aspire to white values and were required to speak English to the exclusion of all other tongues. Under this system, most Natives were educated poorly at the various village day schools. Only a select few went to high schools, either in the larger towns or outside of Alaska. The policy of the Bureau of Education and its post-1930 successor, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to establish schools in some Native villages but not others played a major role in the centralization of Native villages. [9]

Prior to the white man's coming, Alaska Natives had a diversity of residential patterns. Some lived in year-round villages; some had primary residences in villages, but headed out to summertime fish camps or carried out other itinerant activities; and still other Natives were so dependent upon seasonal migration patterns that no home was considered more permanent than any other. But intrinsic to Europeans was the concept of commercialization, and the Natives' participation in that concept—sometimes in a voluntary fashion, at other times enforced—demanded an increased reliance on permanent villages and a reduction in the number of those villages. The imposition of the Russian Orthodox Church, and other Christian denominations during the post-1867 period, reemphasized these patterns. As a result of these processes, most Alaska Natives were settled in permanent villages by the late 1930s. But some Natives continued to follow an itinerant lifestyle, and in a number of instances—such as at Anaktuvuk Pass, Lime Village, and Sleetmute—permanent settlement did not take place until several years after the conclusion of World War II. [10]

Map 1-3. Federal Lands in Alaska, 1968.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 14-Mar-2003