Archeology in Wrangell-St. Elias

Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve contains an important grouping of Athabascan prehistoric and historic archeological sites. The sites include numerous villages, camps, and hunting sites of these people, as well as the remains of other cultural groups such as the Tlingit and Eyak Indians, and the Chugach Eskimos. Important sites include Taral, Cross Creek, and Batzulnetas. In addition to aboriginal sites, the park and preserve also contains historic ruins and structures representing the periods of exploration, mining, transportation, etc. The primary values of the cultural sites lie in the contribution they can make to our understanding of human interaction with the park environment over time, aboriginal culture change, and adaptation, the results of culture contact between native and Euroamerican groups, and the development of Alaska after contact. The sites represent a continuum spanning from the prehistoric period to the historic period, including historical times.

Available archeological data, historical and professional accounts attest to the fact that all of the major drainages within and bordering the park and preserve are rich in archeological values, and the site potential of upland areas away from the drainages is good. In actuality, very little of the unit has seen the type of basic work needed to locate and evaluate archeological resources. Recorded park prehistoric and ethnographic sites now number ten prehistoric sites and forty-three ethnographic sites. Historic sites and structures mostly associated with mining, which, of course, have associated historical archeological values, number over 100. The Cultural Resources Mining Inventory and Monitoring Project have inventoried these sites.

Prehistoric Resources

What we know of the park's cultural chronology is that it mirrors facets of Western Subarctic, Interior Alaska, and northern Northwest Coast prehistory. Early remains found in Alaska represent occupations by more than one ancient culture for the period 8000-15,000 years ago. Although it is not yet clear which ancestral groups began the lineages that led to the historic Athabascan and northern Northwest Coast inhabitants, it is likely that these antecedent strands cross-cut and intertwined with each other over the landscape over time.

Early sites in the Interior, including Healy Lake, Dry Creek, and Swan Point give us dates of around 11,000 BP. Variously called the Northern Paleo-Indian tradition, the Nenana Complex, or the Northern Cordilleran tradition, it is unclear the exact relationship between these archeological components. In general, they seem to represent groups of "Amerind" (non-Eskimo) people related to the "fluted point" cultures of Clovis, Folsom, Plano, and Agate Basin that flourished in North America south of the great ice sheets about 11,000 BP. A few researchers see the ancestral Athabascan strand in these cultures.

The next cultural entity that can be clearly distinguished in the archeological records of Alaska is the people of the Paleoarctic tradition. Paleoarctic occupations in Alaska cluster around 10,000 BP time range. Local sites that appear to contain Paleoarctic, or the related Paleomarine, component includes Ground Hog Bay on the Gulf of Alaska coast, Hidden Falls on Baranof Island, and Chuck Lake on Heceta Island. Dry Creek in the Nenana Valley and Aishihik Lake in the southwest Yukon also have assemblages attributable to the Paleoarctic. Interestingly enough, microblade technology, a hallmark of the Paleoarctic tradition, persisted in the WRST area longer than in the arctic. Some occurrences of microblades have been dated to as late as 2200 BP on the northern Northwest Coast and in nearby inland areas. Microblade technology remained extant until 2000 years ago in such areas as southwest MacKenzie River in western Canada. This phenomenon, sometimes called the Northwest Microblade tradition, seems to have microblades mixed in a lithic assemblage that also includes lanceolate and side-notched projectile points.

However, to add to the confusion, another widespread archeological tradition appeared across Alaska around 6000 BP. Characterized by side-notched projectile points, large unifacially flaked knives and unifacially flaked endscrapers, the Northern Archaic tradition seems to have its origins in the Archaic cultures of the boreal forests south and east of Alaska instead of Siberia. Assemblages that contain side-notched points usually often found with microblades as well. This has led to some controversy over exactly what and who does the Northern Archaic tradition represent, how it arrived in Alaska, and what eventually happened to the bearers of this tradition. This is a significant issue for WRST because several scholars trace the origins of the Athabascans to this time and this archeological tradition.

The definitive development of the Northern Athabascan culture dates back to about 1500 BP. From then to contact with Europeans in southern Alaska, the ancestors of historic Athabascan groups inhabited the region and the final development of their traditional cultures occurred. The lack of definitive sites has made it difficult to push this tradition further back than 1500 BP with the Klo-Kut site, on the middle Porcupine River drainage north of the park and preserve, providing the longest unbroken record of an Athabascan cultural pattern. Numerous documented sites representing the later Athabascan tradition, dating to about 800 BP are located along the western boundary of the park and preserve. One of the earliest sites, from around 700 BP is GUL-077, which consists of cache pits and an associated late winter camp situated along the lower Gulkana River. Excavations at the site yielded artifacts made from native copper, bone and antler, and lithics. Major excavations at Dakah De'nin's Village, a site situated along the Copper River near Chitina, are from the protohistoric period. Directly across the river, at Taral, investigations have revealed an historic period occupation.

A better overall view, perhaps, is by reviewing the archeological cultural sequence for the Aishihik-Kluane area of the southwest Yukon, adjacent to the park and preserve. Like other archeological work in the area, conclusions are based on a small sample, which needs much more investigations to prove or disprove. The sequence is divided into four cultural phases:

--- the Little Arm phase is the earliest, approximately 8000-4500 years in age

--- the Taye Lake phase designates the advent of the Northern Archaic tradition in the area around 4500 BP and seems to persist until about 1600 years ago.

--- the Aishihik phase, dating from 1600 to ca. 150 years ago, represents late prehistoric culture prior to the introduction of European goods.

--- the Bennett Lake phase, dates from the nineteenth century to the early twentieth, and designates protohistoric native Athabascan culture (Ahtna and Southern Tutchone)

The major trend identified in the Aishihik-Kluane sequence is the long, ca. 3500 year, persistence of the Little Arm phase. The appearance of Taye Lake technology abruptly followed, which persisted for thousands of years. Whether the Taye Lake phase represents the advent of Athabascan cultural antecedents is a major research question for this region.

The Malaspina Forelands and Icy Bay area of the park and preserve falls within the culture area of the northern Northwest Coast. Historically the territory of the Tlingit and Eyak native groups, the prehistory of this area shows distinctive differences from that of the Athabascan Interior. The oldest archeological complexes, from the Ground Hog Bay site and the Hidden Falls site both of which, are just south of the Malaspina Forelands, belong to the Paleomarine tradition. This tradition, dating from around 8000 years ago, is a coastal correlate of the Paleoarctic tradition. Some researchers see a Transitional Period from around 6500-5000 years age during which the technological changes occurred that formed the basis for early Northwest Coast culture. However, this hypothesis is not yet been substantiated.

Davis places the advent of developing Northwest Coast culture at 4600 BP, as the Component II materials at Hidden Falls represent it. Davis also defines a Middle Phase with a temporal span of 3000-1300 years ago in which the use of coastal resources continued and intensified. The Late Phase from 1300 BP up to contact time showed changes in the development of larger structures, the introduction of native copper culture tools, the appearance of iron in a few tools, new harpoon forms, and stone bowls and lamps. These remains indicate increased population and complex social organization.

The type of assemblage found in the Late Phase component of Hidden Falls is very consistent with the historic Eyak people who occupied the coast to the west of Icy Bay. Prior to historic contact, the Eyak, whose language seems related to the Haida further south on the Northwest Coast, occupied areas to the south and east, adjacent to the Haida. Sometime between 500-1500 years ago, the Tlingit expanded into this area, wedging between the Haida and the Eyak, displacing them from the Yakutat Bay area.

Historic Resources

Historic sites with archeological aspects to them are common in Wrangell St. Elias. The Copper River, the only water route across the Chugach Mountains in south-central Alaska, has been a major access corridor to the Copper River basin and the Wrangell Mountains since prehistoric times. Coastal and Interior aboriginal groups apparently engaged in at least limited trade. Copper had served as a Native trade item for at least 1400 years prior to European contact. Early explorers beginning with Bering in 1741 found copper implements along the coast by. An early awareness of the source of the copper happened in the English name for the river. History records few penetrations up the Copper River by Russian and American traders and explorers in the first three quarters of the 19th century, although a Russian trader, Klimowski, established a short-lived trading post near present-day Chitina about 1819. In 1885, Lieutenant Henry Allen ascended the river and explored the upper Copper River area before crossing the Alaska Range to the Tanana River drainage. He produced the first published map of the Copper River basin and named Mount Drum, Mount Sanford, and Mount Blackburn. Allen also explored up the Chitina River and named the Chitistone River.

Because of the 1898 Gold Rush to the Yukon, exploration up the Copper River and its tributaries began in 1898 with a large influx of prospectors and the Ambercrombie expedition of 1899. By 1900, the major copper deposits of Kennecott had been located. By 1911, railroad tracks of the Copper River and Northwestern had reached from Cordova to the mines above McCarthy. The richest copper lode in the world was mined until 1938 when the ore dried up. By then, the access provided by the railroad (and the railroad bed after the tracks were salvaged) had opened up the area to gold mining, homesteading, fur trapping and hunting activities. Over 725 mining claims or abandoned mining areas exist in the park today. Most of these areas have archeological potential as historical sites.


Additional Resources

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    Last updated: January 3, 2020

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