Coal Creek dredge in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve
Coal Creek Dredge,Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, C. Allen, NPS


Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve

Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve is situated in east-central Alaska and has as its eastern boundary the United States/Canada international border. The preserve extends westward from the Canadian border into interior Alaska to the end of the Yukon-Tanana Highlands. On the north is the Porcupine River and the Alaska Highway is the southern border. It was created as a preserve in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANCSA). The implementing language states that it:

"...shall be managed for the following purposes, among others: To maintain the environmental integrity of the entire Charley River basin, including streams, lakes, and other natural features, in its undeveloped natural condition for public benefit and scientific study; to protect habitat for, and populations of, fish and wildlife, including but not limited to the peregrine falcons and other raptorial birds, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, and wolves; and in a manner consistent with the foregoing, to protect and interpret historical sites and events associated with the gold rush on the Yukon river and the geological and paleontological history and cultural prehistory of the area."

As this language demonstrates, prehistoric and historical archaeological resources are significant in the preserve and require inventory, evaluation, protection, and interpretation.

This extensive area is readily accessible by boat and air. The Taylor Highway terminates in Eagle, a community of about 165 people, 12 river miles south of the preserve boundary. The Steese Highway terminates 161 miles east of Fairbanks at Circle, a community of about 80 people, 14 river miles north of the preserve.

Land Ownership

Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve encompasses approximately 2,527,000 acres, of which about 2,148,000 acres are federal land; most of the nonfederal land is held by Doyon Ltd., the Alaska Native regional corporation. Land is also held by the Eagle Village corporation and in Alaska Native allotments. There are about 4000 acres of mining claims and private lands.


Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve encompasses two nationally significant rivers. It contains a portion of the upper Yukon River valley, an area rich in historic, biotic, and geologic features, and the entire Charley River drainage, a National Wild and Scenic River. The Yukon River flows southeast-to-northwest through the preserve between valley walls that range from steep bluffs along high, upland benches to terraces representative of several stages of river downcutting. The preserve is within the Northern Plateau physiographic province. This province is comprised of a large wedge of intricately dissected uplands and alluvium-covered valleys. Upland areas in the southern portion of the preserve grade into a lowland belt. Major tributaries of the Yukon River include the Charley, Kandik, Seventymile, Tatonduk, and Nation rivers.

The Charley River, draining an area south of the Yukon, is the largest tributary within the preserve. For most of its length it is characterized by rugged uplands, becoming more rolling terrain near its confluence with the Yukon River. Topographic relief is varied within the preserve, ranging from 600 feet above sea level along the western boundary to more than 6000 feet in the headwaters area of the Charley River.

The area was subject to at least two major glacial advances during the Pleistocene -- the Illinoian and the less extensive Wisconsin. During both glaciations the ice coverage was confined mainly to the higher valley channels and cirque basins, leaving many areas ice-free. Several archeologists have suggested that these non-glaciated intermontane areas (also called refugia) were important occupation areas for the early human migrants, in that they afforded favorable habitat for many of the, important for subsistence, large terrestrial mammals such as the mammoth, bison, elk, and the more familiar bear, moose, sheep and caribou. During the Holocene, after the Wisconsin Glaciation, there were several climatic fluctuations ranging from the Hypsithermal, a warm climate period from 6000 to 4000 BP, to the Little Ice Age, from 1350 to 1850 of the Common Era (CE), that certainly affected life in the preserve area.

Pollen profiles from the middle Tanana River valley suggest that 16,000 years ago the vegetation in this area was principally a tundra-steppe biome characterized by grasses, sedges and Artemesia species. By 14,000 BP the climate had begun to change from cool and dry to moist and warmer. Spruce first appeared around 11,000 BP in lowland settings with forests gradually expanding into the uplands. A modern, boreal coniferous/deciduous forest (taiga) was present by 9000 BP. The present-day preserve is dominated by taiga (boreal) forest consisting of white and black spruce, and deciduous trees such as birch, cottonwood, poplar, and alder. In some areas there is also high brush, muskeg bog, or alpine tundra. A variety of fauna, including large and small mammals and birds, is present. Such animals as moose, caribou, grizzly, black bear, sheep, beaver and muskrat have inhabited the area since the end of the Pleistocene. Additionally, there have been annual summer runs of salmon in the middle Yukon River (king, silver and chum) that would have been and still are major sources of food to the local inhabitants.

Archeological Resources

Despite several survey projects in recent years, the archeological resources of the preserve are not very well known. There are 562 documented prehistoric and historic sites in the preserve (as of 2009) and numerous other known prehistoric resources that have been reported but not documented. However, enough is known that the archeological potential of the preserve, both for early and late sites, can be judged as very high. In addition, the potential for historical archeology is also very high. Because of the possible significance of the archeological resources in the preserve, they were specifically addressed in the implementing language of ANILCA.

A brief summary of the regional chronology will provide a context for this section. Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve is within the Interior cultural area for National Park Service properties in Alaska. Well-documented sites appear in the archeological record just prior to 11,000 BP. Component I, at Dry Creek, south of the preserve, exhibits a flake and core technology dated to about 11,100 BP and the Mesa site in the central Brooks Range has been re-evaluated recently as a lanceolate projectile point site dating to 11,500 BP. Other early assemblages, such as the lower stratigraphic levels at Onion Portage on the Kobuk River and Healy Lake just outside of DENA, exhibit a microblade and microcore technology which has been defined as the American Paleoarctic tradition (Figure 2) dating to 8000-10000 years ago. Subsumed under this general term is the Denali complex of Interior Alaska, including assemblages from the Campus and Donnelly Ridge archeological sites.

It has been suggested that fluted and lanceolate points appeared in the Arctic prior to 6000 BP, as a Paleoindian technology diffused or migrated northward. The dating is unsure, however, and these same type of artifacts have been placed as early as 11,500 BP and as recently as 4000 BP. The earlier tradition has been named the Northern Paleoindian tradition and the later one the Northern Plano Tradition.

Northern Archaic tradition archeological assemblages appear in the record next and seem to provide evidence of a technology adapted to living in the boreal forest. They have been dated to between 6000 to 4000 BP. Side-notched projectile points, sometimes occurring in association with a microcore and microblade technology, are the hallmark of this time period. Various interpretations of this phenomenon have been put forward. The side-notched points are similar to those of the Archaic cultures in the boreal forests south and east of the Arctic and it seems that this technology either diffused northward or was carried by migrating Archaic peoples.
About 4000 years ago, a new style of lithic tools, representing a new group of people, is discernable in the archeological record, including the record in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. The Arctic Small Tool tradition (ASTt ) people became the first pan-Arctic culture, spreading south as far as the Alaska Peninsula and east as far as Greenland and Hudson's Bay. This distinct toolkit, dominated by a microblade and burin lithic technology but lacking notched points, represented an adaptation to living in the arctic rather than the boreal forest. However, in Interior Alaska, in this same time period, notched points and a microcore and microblade blade industry seems to have been associated in many of the archeological assemblages. The microblade industry of the Interior was first conceived of as the Denali Complex , which originally was equated with the Paleoarctic tradition. Recent research has extended the possible dates of the Denali Complex to as late as 3000 BP, which throws the interpretation and integrity of this cultural construct into doubt.

Following this time period it becomes possible to discern in the archeological record the Athabaskan tradition, which can be definitely traced from 1500 BP to historic times. Due to the lack of a clear-cut archeological record (from a stratified site), researchers are not in agreement as to how far back into the past the people of the Athabaskan tradition, considered the direct ancestors of the Athabaskan peoples of modern times, can be accurately traced. Some sources have interpreted the archeological record as showing an in situ cultural development over the long-term and they consider the development of the recognizable Athabaskan cultural pattern to have begun with the warming climate and the consequent spread of the boreal forest that accompanied the arrival of the Northern Archaic tradition.

In contrast, other archeologists and linguists suggest that two distinct populations have lived in Alaska over a period of time. The earlier people, or "Amerinds", are thought to be the ancestral group for the Paleoindian cultures (such as the Clovis and Folsom cultures). The historically recognizable Athabaskan cultures are thought to represent a much later migration. Another possible theoretical thread is one that links the effects of a major volcanic eruption (represented archeologically as the White River ash) in the St. Elias Mountain Range, along the border between Alaska and the Yukon Province of Canada, at about 1890 BP, of causing the displacement of groups around Kluane and Aishihik lakes -- movement to the northwest and their appearance in the Brooks Range with Kavik points and tchi-thos and other generalized implements associated with the Athabaskan tradition. On linguistic evidence, Krauss (1973) has suggested that 3000 years may have elapsed since the numerous modern Athabaskan languages diverged from a common language that was present in Alaska.

The Klo-Kut archeological site, in the middle Porcupine River drainage near Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, provides the longest unbroken prehistoric record of Athabaskan occupation. The well-stratified context and preserved faunal remains reveals 1500 years of continuous occupation that culminates in a well-documented historic Athabaskan village component. Morlan (1976) characterizes the inhabitants of Klo-Kut as primarily caribou hunters, oriented primarily toward upland, treeless areas, and hypothesizes a similar lifeway for other northern Athabaskans during the late prehistoric period. Another site, EAG-139, which is located on the left bank of the Yukon River between Eagle and Eagle Village, represents a Han Athabaskan village that was occupied between 1880 and 1890 CE. Based on oral history and archeological data from the site, it appears that the Han families there focused on hunting large and small game, especially salmon and caribou.

Historical Aspects

Direct contact with Euroamericans was made in 1847 with the establishment of Fort Yukon fur traders. The Han had been in indirect contact with the Russians to the west and the Hudson's Bay Company to the east prior to that. By 1873 a trader from Fort Yukon named Moses Mercier founded a trading post on Belle Island, opposite what was to become Eagle City. During the 1880s and 1890s, various trading outposts and settlements were founded in the territory of the Han and the acculturative pressures on them became very strong.

Gold had been known to be present in the Yukon Basin since the 1870s, even though the first major strike, on Fortymile Creek, did not occur until 1886. During the last half of the 19th century, prospectors and miners came in ever-increasing numbers. Circle City was founded as a mining camp in 1893. Other claims resulted in settlements at Seventymile in 1888 and at Mission Creek (Eagle) in 1895. In 1897 gold was discovered on the Klondike River in Canada and the "Klondike Stampede" was on. Literally tens of thousands of people poured into Han territory. Dawson, Eagle, and Circle became boomtowns. Between these major nodes, smaller settlements and outposts -- Nation, Miller's Camp, Biederman's, Slaven’s Cabin (Figure 3), Star City, and Woodchopper Roadhouse -- became hubs of activity. The Yukon River became the highway, connecting all of these places by riverboat. The effects on the region and its inhabitants were irreversible.

Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve contains a rich, varied series of significant historic sites. However, much of the historic record has not been verified in the field, especially as to location, extent, condition, time period, and status. The application of the methods and theory of historical archeology (Saleeby 2000) should be major components of such an inventory and evaluation. It should be noted that the historic resources (and their archeological components) of Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve are important not just for the gold rush story but for other themes as well. These include frontiers (e.g. Indian, trading, mining, military and missionary), the fur trade, aboriginal acculturation, 20th century mining and trapping, English-Russian-American and Canadian relationships, and international activities such as the telegraph, trails, steamboats and mail delivery.

Ethnographic Aspects

Most of the preserve area was inhabited by the Han group of Athabaskan Indians. One major ethnographic research effort, Osgood's 1932 work, was conducted with, this group. Acculturative changes had already had a great effect on the traditional culture and way of life. Han traditional accounts and oral history, historic narratives, and archeology are the main tools left to elucidate the late prehistoric and protohistoric life of the Han (Mishler and Simeone 2004). The northern fringe of the preserve was inhabited by another Athabaskan group, the,Gwich’in who spoke another Athabaskan language. The same need for research holds for that group as well.

There were three Han settlements, corresponding to three local bands. Farthest upriver was Nulato, near the mouth of the Klondike, opposite Fort Reliance. A middle band was located at Johnny's Village (Klat-ol-klin), or David's Camp, which is associated with the present-day Eagle Village. The third was Charley's Village (Tadush), located either at the mouth of, or across from the confluence with, the Kandik River. These villages served as base camps from which various subsistence efforts were launched. Families were quite mobile and boundaries shifted frequently. In general, the Han were opportunistic hunters and gatherers with a river-oriented winter settlement pattern (due to the presence of salmon and the use of rivers for transport). Well before European contact intergroup trade networks that reached from Siberia to Canada supplied the Athabaskan economy with a wide variety of resources that were not otherwise available. The Han were skilled traders, often acting as middlemen for other groups. These same trade networks eventually became the routes through which European trade goods first made their way into the Alaskan interior.

Since Osgood's observations were made after nearly 100 years of intensive European contact that had significantly altered the traditional patterns, it is possible that the standard view of Han culture as exclusively showing large communal population centers along the main rivers is mistaken. Until much more archeological inventory work is done, with the purpose of examining the late prehistoric and protohistoric record, this view will have to be accepted but treated with caution in interpreting past cultures in this area.



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More general information on this National Preserve is available at

Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve


Suggestions for further reading:

Anderson, Douglas D.
1984 Prehistory of North Alaska. In Arctic. edited by David Damas, pp. 94-105. Handbook of North American Indians, Vol.5. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Bever, Michael R. and Michael L. Kunz (editors)

2001 Between Two Worlds: Late Pleistocene Cultural and Technological Diversity in Eastern Beringia. Arctic Anthropology 38(2).

Brown, William
1988 Gaunt Beauty, Tenuous Life: The History of the Central Brooks Range. Historic Resources Study, National Park Service Alaska, Research/Resources Management Report. (republished in 2007 by University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks).

Clark, D. W. and A. M. Clark
1993 Batza Tena, Trail to Obsidian: Archeology at an Alaskan Obsidian Source. Archaeological Survey of Canada, Mercury Series Paper 147. Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull, Quebec.

Cook, John P. and Robert McKennan
1970 The Athapaskan Tradition. A View From Healy Lake in the Yukon-Tanana Upland. Paper presented at the 10th annual meeting of the Northeastern Anthropological Association, Ottawa.

Damas, David (editor)
1984 Arctic. Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 5. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

Dixon E. James
2007 Archeology and Cultural History of Beringia. In Press, National Park Service Alaska, Anchorage.

Dixon, E. James, C.M. Lee, W.F. Manley, R.A. Warden, and W.E. Hansen
2007 The Frozen Past of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Alaska Park Science 6(1):25-29.

Dixon, E. James, W. Manby, and C.M. Lee
2005 The Emerging Archeology of Glaciers and Ice Patches: Examples from Alaska’s Wrangell--St. Elias National Park and Preserve.American Antiquity 70(1):129-143.

Dumond, Don E.
2009 Archeology of Arctic and Subarctic Canada . InArcheology in America: An Encyclopedia: Vol.4, West Coast and Arctic/Subarctic, edited by F. McManamon, L.S. Cordell, K.G Lightfoot, and G.R. Milner, pp. 249- 252. Greenwood Press, Westport.

Easton, N.A., G. MacKay, P.B. Young, P. Schnurr, and D.R. Yesner
2008 Nenana In Canada--Emergent Evidence of the Pleistocene Transition of Yukon’s Southwest Beringia as Revealedby the Little John Site (KDVO-6) and Related Regional Survey. Paper presented at the 73rd Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archeology, Vancouver.

Goebel, T. and I. Buvit (editors)
2009 From the Yenisei to the Yukon: Interpreting Lithic Assemblages in Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene Beringia.In Press, Texas A&MUniversity Press, College Station.

Griffin, Kristen and E. Richard Chesmore
1988 An Overview and Assessment of Prehistoric Archaeological Resources, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, Alaska. Research/Resources Management Report AR-15. National Park Service, Alaska

Helm, June (editor)
1981 Subarctic. Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 6. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

Holmes, C.E.
2008 The Taiga Period: Holocene Archeology of the Northern Boreal Forest, Alaska. Alaska Journal of Anthropology 6(1-2):69- 81.

2009 The Beringian and Transitional Periods in Alaska: Technology of the East Beringian Tradition as Viewed from Swan Point. In From the Yenisei to the Yukon: Interpreting Lithic Assemblages in Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene Beringia, edited by T. Goebel and I. Buvit. In Press, Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

Krauss, Michael and Victor Golla
1980 Alaska Native Languages: Past, Present, and Future. Alaska Native Language Center Research Papers 4. University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

1981 Northern Athapaskan Languages. In Subarctic. edited by June Helm.

McManamon, F.P., L.S. Cordell, K.G. Lightfoot, and G.P. Milner (editors)
2009 Archeology in America: An Encyclopedia: Vol.4, West Coast and Arctic/Subarctic. Greenwood Press, Westport.

Mishler, Craig and William E. Simeone
2004 Han: People of the River. University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks.

Mobley, Charles M.
1991 The Campus Site: A Prehistoric Camp at Fairbanks, Alaska. University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks.

Powers, Roger, Dale Guthrie, and John Hoffecker

1983 Dry Creek, Archeology and Paleoecology of a Late Pleistocene Alaskan Hunting Camp. Report submitted to the National Park Service, Anchorage. Contract CX-9000-7-0074.

Rasic, Jeffrey T.
2003 Ancient Hunters of the Western Brooks Range: Integrating Research and Cultural Resource Management. Alaska Park Science 2: 21-25. National Park Service Alaska, Anchorage.

2006 Excavations at the Hungry Fox Site, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Alaska Park Science 5(2):30- 37.

Saleeby, Becky
2000 The Quest for Gold. An Overview of the National Park Service Cultural Resources Mining Inventory and Monitoring Program (CRMIM). National Park Service-Alaska Research/Resources Report ARRC/CRR-2000/37.

Schoenberg, Kenneth M.
1985 The Archeology of Kurupa Lake. Research/Resources Management Report AR/RCR-10. National Park Service Alaska, Anchorage.

Webb, Melody
1985 The Last Frontier. The University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

West, F. H.
1996 American Beginnings, the Prehistory and Palaeoecology of Beringia. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Wilson, Aaron K. and Jeffrey Rasic
2008 Northern Archaic Settlement and Subsistence Patterns at Agiak Lake, Brooks Range, Alaska. Arctic Anthropology 45(2):28-145.

Last Updated: January 16, 2014