Building in an Ashen Land: Historic Resource Study
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Russian Period (1760-1867)

AT THE TIME OF CONTACT with the Russians, the Katmai Native inhabitants were living in settlements along the coast at Katmai and Kukak, and in the interior, northwest of Katmai, around the eastern region of Naknek Lake, at the multi-villages that came to be known as the Savonoski settlements. By the mid-1780s, the Russian fur traders had incorporated the Alaska Peninsula Sugpiat/Alutiiq along Shelikof Strait and, a short time later, the interior Savonoski people into their fur hunting and trading network. The Russian-American Company (RAC) established a hunting and fur trading station at Katmai and constructed several buildings and structures, including a Russian Orthodox chapel. Katmai remained the significant RAC post along the Shelikof Strait coast throughout this period.

Russian Expansion into the Katmai Region

Beginning in the 1760s, the Russian fur hunters (promyshlenniki) moved eastward from the Aleutians into the Kodiak and upper Alaska Peninsula areas. The Russians were eager to incorporate the Native people, who lived on Kodiak Island and across Shelikof Strait, into their fur hunting and trading activities. The Russians knew little about the area except that the Sugpiat/Alutiiq people, like the Aleutian Islands people, were adept at catching sea otters. The pelts were lucrative trade items in China.

Grigorii I. Shelikhov, fur merchant and partner of the Shelikhov-Golikov Company (a precurser to the Russian-American Company), sought to establish a permanent settlement on Kodiak Island from which he could expand his fur hunting activity and the Russian colonization of America. Beginning in the 1760s, the Kodiak Islanders resisted the Russians through a series of armed conflicts that lasted for twenty years. [1] The Russians pushed ahead to establish posts at Karluk (1785) and Afognak (1786). By 1786, the Russians had subjugated the Native inhabitants into hunting for furs, and continued their expansion into the Alaska Peninsula and southcentral Alaska.

Initially, Russian parties that explored as far as Kamishak Bay in the winter of 1785-1786 reported no difficulties in carrying on their trading activities with the area Natives. [2] In May 1786, Shelikhov wrote to his chief manager about stationing crews across the strait from Kodiak Island on the Alaska Peninsula, "These men should be kept in artels [3] [crews] 20 at Katmak [Katmai] and 11 between Katmak and Kamyshak, closer to Katmak, in the village." The summer settlement of Kukak was most likely the other place to which he referred. [4] It took several years, however, for the Alaska Peninsula artels to be established. Up until the summer of 1791, the area inhabitants had succeeded in keeping the Russians from settling among them. [5] In the meantime, Shelikhov's outfit established Fort Alexandrovsk (1786) on the Kenai Peninsula. Shelikhov's fierce competitor, the Lebedev-Lastochkin fur trading company, established a post on the Kenai Peninsula that same year. Their rivalry resulted in hostilities breaking out on several occasions among the company hunters. Those hostilities involved the Natives who worked and traded with them.

This rivalry intensified until the late 1790s when Aleksandr Baranov, then chief director for the Shelikhov-Golikov Company's American interest, succeeded in overcoming rival Russian traders, notably the Lebedev-Lastochkin Company, for control of the fur trade. In 1789, Shelikhov-Golikov established its headquarters at Kodiak, which became the major fur depot for the region. With its permanent base at Kodiak, the company spread onto the mainland and beyond. In 1799, the Russian Czar, Paul I, authorized a charter that granted monopoly of the American fur trade to the newly formed Russian-American Company (RAC). Baranov later became head of the company and the RAC monopolized the Alaskan fur trade through the end of the Russian period.

The Katmai Artel

The RAC organized hunting crews and workers into artels or into the smaller odinochkas (one man posts). A baidarschchik (crew chief) headed each artel and passed along the manager's orders to their crews. [6] Shelikhov's instructions for constructing buildings and structures to support the artels included,

when possible build the company's buildings according to my plans. They must be made out of logs or in the form of dugouts where there is not enough timber. For native workers and for other natives who might come on business or for a visit, build special yurts [a driftwood hut or dugout dwelling] about 100 sazhen [approx. 700 feet] from the fort and the company's buildings. Always keep a two year supply of local food products in dry barabaras for Russians, native workers and hostages. Have a large and unheated barn in which to keep baidaras, baidarkas and dried fish. Have nets for each work crew, good wooden baidaras, and a supply of lavtaks [skins] for baidarkas. [7]

Katmai was a logical choice for the RAC to set up a post as the nearby Native population provided a source of labor for fur hunting activities. Katmai also had strong trading ties to the upper Naknek Lake area, including the Savonoski villages, and to the Bristol Bay region. [8] In the early 1800s, Davydov noted that "The baidarshchik in Kakmaisk [Katmai] receives by barter animal pelts from the North and from the hinterland of Aliaska." [9]

During the early 1790s, the Russians established a hunting party and trading post at Katmai which was considered an odinochka by 1794. [10] The post was active by 1795, when it was noted that "The hostages from Karluk, taken in pacifying the inhabitants are kept in the Katmai artel in Aliaksa." [11]

The RAC soon expanded Katmai into an artel that was located away from the coast, "up the river, between lakes, on a plain." [12] The RAC established its second artel along the Alaska Peninsula before 1799 at Sutkhum, located on Sutwik Island 130 miles southwest from Katmai. The posts were established because "A good situation, dependable weather, succulent grass and plenty of fish and land and marine animals persuaded Mr. Baranov to establish settlements in two places on Aliaska [Peninsula]." [13] For a length of time, Katmai reflected the type of buildings and structures constructed in some of the Kodiak artels. This was part of Shelikhov's plan to create an agricultural base in the region, as well as to gather furs. As an 1821 description makes clear,

Katmai artel on the south coast of the Alaska Peninsula. Two Russians. Rather good buildings: a house, barracks, warehouse, shop, barns, etc. Over 20 head of cattle. They did some fishing ("they prepared fish"), trapped sea otters, and bought from the natives furs of river beavers, foxes, deer, bears [14]

By the 1830s, the Katmai and Sutkhum posts were downsized. As Khlebnikov noted,

Cattle raising was established successfully in the Katmai artel, but it has been reduced due to a shortage of men. There are very many red foxes of very good quality. There are natives only near the Katmai artel. Company buildings in both places were originally extensive, but are now dilapidated...the following are on company maintenance: in Katmai - one Russian; in the two combined = Aleuts 10 males and two females and one Russian released from service. [15]

Other Settlements and Places

Throughout the Russian period and for several decades of the American period, settlements continued along the coast at Katmai, Kukak, and in the interior at Savonoski. There were additional settlements and seasonal camps, as has been indicated by documented visits, surveys, maps and the Alaska Russian Orthodox Church records.

The Russians continually sought out new sites as quickly as they depleted the fur resources. In 1786 Shelikhov instructed his chief manager at Kodiak to gather information about locations, resources, people, settlements, and Native place names in the region including the upper Alaska Peninsula. [16] The Russian hunters gained first hand experience about the Alaska Peninsula through hunting and trading expeditions. Decades later, trained Russian naval officers supplied accurate charts and maps.

During the 1780s, the Katmai coast received few non-Russian visitors. In 1786, however, Captain John Meares in his British trading ship Nootka sailed through Shelikof Strait. This voyage recorded new geographical knowledge about the area, including the fact that Kodiak Island was separated from the mainland by the strait. Meares also documented Russian fur trading taking place around Amalik Bay or Kaflia Bay. In this area, Meares' ship was met by a Russian in a canoe who told him that the Russians were established on Kodiak Island. [17]

During the 1790s, Baranov sent out various detachments of promyshlenniks on exploring ventures. One, the Medvednikov-Kashevarov 1797 expedition, confirmed the location of Iliamna Lake and the various portage routes across the Alaska Peninsula. [18] The Lebedev-Lastochkin Company, however, was already familiar with the area, having established an artel at Iliamna. [19]

The first map that combined the earliest Russian knowledge about the upper Alaska Peninsula is dated 1802. The map shows Katmai along with an illegible name at the location marked on modern maps as Kaguyak. [20]

Kukak Village, although not identified on the above map, was known by the Russians and singled out in the 1795 and 1804 censuses. [21] In 1806, the first ship stopped at Kukak Bay's "inner" harbor. Dr. Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff, a German physician and naturalist with Rezanov's voyage, visited inhabitants from the "Village of Toujajak." Although it is not clear if "Toujajak" was Kukak Village or a separate seasonal camp, Langsdorff provided a description of his visit to the "native summer huts" located on the northeastern shore of the bay:

The inhabitants gave us a very friendly reception in their small earthen-covered hut with grass growing all over the outside and an entrance that was so low and narrow that we could only crawl in hunched over. Everyone sat around a fire burning in the middle of the hut. A kettle of fish was hanging over it. Several small salmon, spitted upon sticks stuck in the earth around the fire, were being roasted.Opposite the door, the floor was covered with fine, dry wood shavings and several clean seal skins, where we were asked to sit. [22]

By the early 1800s, the RAC sent expeditions across the Aleutian Range and into the interior. The Savonoski people, who lived in the multivillage community located just east of Naknek Lake, were in contact with the Russian traders at least by 1807, when a marriage was registered that year for a Russian promyshlennyi from the "Severnovskoe settlement." [23]

sea otters
Above: Sketch of shoreline with sea otters by Georg Langsdorff, ca. 1805. As part of Rezanov's voyage, Langsdorff visited Kukak Bay inhabitants in 1806. Bancroft Library.

The Savonoski people also had several seasonal camps in the area, as twentieth century archeological investigations show habitation sites used at least seasonally during the Russian period near Savonoski River, Grosvenor, and Coville lakes as well as at Brooks River. Most of these sites continued to be used in the Early American period, some even after the 1912 volcanic eruption. [24]

Petr Korsakovskiy's 1818 expedition, from Kodiak to Katmai, across the Alaska Peninsula and into the Iliamna region, highlighted the RAC's need for information about Alaska's southwest interior. Korsakovskiy's expedition resulted in the RAC establishing Alexandrovski Redoubt (1818-1846) at the mouth of the Nushagak River. During the Russian time period, the Aglurmiut village of Paugvik, located at the mouth of the Naknek River, was the primary settlement in the area. [25]

In 1818, the RAC's Katmai jurisdiction probably included six settlements located on the upper Alaska Peninsula: two Savonoski settlements, Katmai, Kukak, Naushkak and Ugashek (the latter located over 100 miles southwest of Katmai and outside of today's park boundaries). The Katmai jurisdiction inventory for that year listed a total population of 837 people. [26] Little is known about Naushkak: the settlement is mentioned in the Alaska Russian Orthodox Church Records, it was located north of Kukak (possibly near Cape Nukshak) and it is believed to have been occupied on a permanent or seasonal basis into the 1850s. [27]

Between 1827 and 1836 the shoreline of the entire Alaska Peninsula was carefully surveyed. Ivan F. Vasiliev's 1831-32 surveys charted the coast from Cape Douglas south to Chignik Bay. From these surveys, Vasiliev reported the Native designation "Kukak" for an "Eskimo" village located four miles southwest of Langsdorff's "Toujajak Village." Vasiliev also provided the name "Kaflia" and reported the name "Akulogak" for Naknek Lake. [28]

In 1827 Captain A.J. von Krusenstern did not personally visit the Katmai region, but he compiled names from other maps that included "Katmay" (Katmai), "Baie Katmay (Katmai Bay), "P[orte] Aiou (Hallo Bay), C[ap] Noughchack (Cape Nukshak), and C[ap] Ighiack (Cape Ugyak). Captain Feodor Petroviche Lutke's 1836 chart included place names of "Kaiayakak" (Kaguyak) and Swikshak Bay, as well as Naknek Lake and Naknek River. [29]

Changes Brought to the Katmai Settlements

The Russian-American Company's fur hunting and trading practices and the Russian Orthodox Church's (ROC) mission activities brought different influences to the Katmai region inhabitants. The RAC initially incorporated the Native people into their fur trading activities primarily through coercive means. The Sugpiat/Alutiiq people were considered "dependent" and had to work directly for the RAC in the sea otter hunting and trading activities. The promyshlenniki used the same methods of conscripting labor and holding hostages as they had with the Aleutian people to force the Sugpiat/Alutiiq to gather the sea otter furs. The Savonoski people had less contact and were considered "semi-dependent," meaning that their relationship with the Russians traders was more independent. [30]

As part of the Russian system's relationship with its "dependents", the RAC selected community leaders called toions from among the Sugpiat/Alutiiq. The toions had limited authority over certain community and public matters and were expected to be good examples in living their lives according to the ROC dictates. [31] The RAC also required dependents to get permission to visit neighboring islands, thereby controlling the movement of the coastal Katmai people throughout this time.

The RAC Kodiak District organized, provided provisions of food, clothing, and boats, and sent out large sea otter hunting parties during the summer. Under the eye of the Russian overseer, groups of hunters dispersed to their assigned hunting areas where they established base camps and set up temporary shelters of driftwood to store their food and equipment. In a traditional hunting process, the hunters worked together using their baidarkas to encircle the sea otter and used their dart weapons to kill it. The Sugpiat/Alutiiq hunters were part of the sea otter hunting parties that operated along the coast from Kamishak Bay to the Sutkhum odinochka (at or near Sutwik Island). [32] They also joined up with larger contingents, such as the 1805 trek to Nuchek. Some were taken as far away as Sitka, and a few all the way to present-day Fort Ross in California. [33]

The Russian Orthodox Church was the other influential, and to some degree, stabilizing factor in the lives of the Native people. In 1794 the first ROC missionaries arrived and began baptizing the Alutiiq people on Kodiak Island. Within two years, the first church was built on Kodiak and the missionaries took their religious activities to the Alaska Peninsula, Aleutians, Kenai Peninsula and Yakutat. During the winter of 1797, it was noted that ".Aliaksans came to Kadiak and were baptized." [34] During the first half of the 1800s, the ROC Kodiak parish included the Shelikof Strait and Savonoski settlements.

Certain individuals, including the missionaries, criticized the RAC for its ill treatment of the Native people, which included the practice of taking hunters far away from their homes, and the subsequent depopulation. Langsdorff noted in his 1806 visit to the Kukak area,

most of the young people having been carried away to Sitcha [Sitka] to hunt sea-otters. Of a thousand men who formerly lived in this spot, scarcely more than forty remained, and the whole peninsula of Alaksa they said was depopulated in the same proportion. [35]

The system of forcing Natives into hunting relaxed somewhat after 1818 when Baranov left and new management policies were instituted. The early RAC administration had also often come into conflict with the ROC mission. Greater support for the ROC activities was mandated in the RAC company charters of 1821 and 1844, including provisions that required the company to provide full economic assistance and support to the Church. [36]

Conditions for the Native people at Kodiak do not appear to have improved by the 1830s at which time Ferdinand Wrangell (Chief Manager of RAC from 1830 to 1835) made these observations at Kodiak, which can probably be applied for the Alaska Peninsula,

From spring to autumn all the men able to work are sent off by the company to hunt sea otters and birds. From the autumn until spring they are occupied in land hunting fox and otter, and although this measure is essential for the survival of the company, the islanders gain little through this. By excessively low prices paid them for their produce and fairly high prices for the goods in which they are paid, they are unable to clothe themselves and their families with what is absolutely necessary. they are obliged to purchase both their parkas and kamleias from the company or else earn them in some other way. [37]

Throughout the 1800s, the Katmai villages experienced depopulation as did other settlements throughout the region. Below are population figures to give an idea of changes that occurred during the Russian period. [38]

1792On Alaska Peninsula
814 (439 M; 375 F)
1800On Alaska Peninsula
209 (119 M; 90 F)
1818Katmai Jurisdiction
837 (386 M; 451 F)
(the jurisdiction probably included these six settlements: two at Savonoski plus Katmai, Kukak, Naushkak, and Ugashek)

1821On Alaska Peninsula
838 (386 M; 452 F)
1825On Alaska Peninsula
190 (99 M; 91 F)
239 (222 "Aleut"; 17 creole)
(this figure may be for the Katmai jurisdiction)

Additional figures for the Savonoski settlements [39], comes from the Alaska Russian Orthodox Church records:

185099 (48 M; 51 F)

Population loss can be attributed to the extreme hunting conditions, subsequent family and community hardships, hunting accidents, and the numerous epidemics that occurred on both sides of the Aleutian Range. Respiratory epidemics occurred throughout Alaska during the 1800s including the Kodiak area. The devastating smallpox epidemic of 1835-1840 reached the Shelikof Strait settlements during 1837-38. Some success at stopping the epidemic was achieved on the Alaska Peninsula by the Katmai baidarschchik Ivan Kostylev. Kostylev and two others managed to vaccinate 243 people from the villages, all of whom survived; 27 people, the ones who had refused to be vaccinated, died. [40] During the years of 1853, 1860, 1859, and 1863 coughing and respiratory epidemics were reported for villages around Naknek Lake. [41]

Following the losses brought on by the epidemics, the Russian-American Company Chief Manager and governor of Russian America, Arvid A. Etholen, consolidated villages on Kodiak Island during the early 1840s. This activity did not occur along the Katmai coast unless it happened on an informal basis. Katmai continued to be the primary fur trading post and population center on the Alaska Peninsula into the early American period. In 1845, the Russians identified Katmai as one of five depots in the Kodiak district for stocking supplies for hunting parties and for trade. [42]

Northeast of Katmai along the coast, Kukak and Naushkak were occupied to at least 1843. These settlements, however, may have been remnant populations following the smallpox epidemic. Since there is so little mention of Naushkak and Kukak in the historical records, it is likely that these places were used on an intermittent, seasonal basis through the Russian period. [43]

The Russian-American Company Builds the First Chapel

The only chapel built on the upper Alaska Peninsula during the Russian period was at Katmai. In 1843, RAC manager Ioann Kostylev built the first chapel. This building was replaced with a new chapel eleven years later. [44]

The RAC Chief Manager Etolin provided instructions about the settlements building chapels:

To Toion who are to become starshinas [elders/church readers] in Aleut settlements in the Kodiak Department. The starshina must be firm in having the Aleut men and women fulfill their Christian obligations and carry out all tasks assigned to them by the priest. Toward this end, each settlement is to try to build a chapel, through its own effort, where the priest can conduct worship services when he visits. They should build the chapel when time and circumstances permit, after the settlement has been organized and put into order. [45]

Russian Orthodox Church activities continued with at least periodic visits to Katmai and Savonoski settlements during the 1840s. At Savonoski, the priest would hold services in a tent, as a chapel was not built there until 1877. During 1841 the Kodiak mission recorded a visit to the peninsula with 57 baptisms at Katmai and 46 baptisms in the Savonoski settlements. [46] In the early 1840s, the ROC reorganized its Kodiak Mission, creating the Nushagak and Kenai missions. In 1844 the Savonoski settlements and records were transferred to the Nushagak mission, where a small chapel had been constructed in 1832 and its first missionary assigned in 1842. [47] The Savonoski settlements continued to be served by the Nushagak mission until 1912. The Shelikof Strait villages remained under the Kodiak Mission until they were transferred to the Afognak Mission in 1896.

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Last Updated: 22-Oct-2002