Archeology in Wrangell-St. Elias

Ahtna winter pit homes
Ahtna winter settlement

Illustration by Eric S. Carlson

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve encompasses 13.2 million acres of vast mountainous terrain, characterized by ice capped peaks, massive glaciers and extensive icefields. This remote landscape, while seemingly uninhabitable, has a remarkable and extensive history of human inhabitance. A comprehensive cultural chronology of the prehistory of WRST has not been developed as the majority of the park has not yet been systematically surveyed. It is clear, however, that people have had an intimate knowledge of the landscape and accompanying resources for over 14,000 years as obsidian from Wiki Peak, located in the northeastern corner of the park, is present in some of the earliest archaeological deposits in Alaska. Recent archeological investigations of Glacial Lake Atna shorelines in the park have resulted in the identification of numerous prehistoric sites, with one, a subsurface hearth feature, dating to over 12,000 years B.P.

These early inhabitants were mobile hunter-gatherers living in small bands and moving seasonally throughout the landscape in search of game, plants and other resources that the vast mountainous region had to offer. Once salmon proliferated the Copper River drainage, people began to harvest this seasonally dependent resource. Rather than continuously moving across the landscape, people began to reside in semi-permanent winter villages located along salmon inhabited streams of the Copper River, where subterranean caches of dried salmon were stored for winter consumption. Historically, four Alaska Native groups resided in areas located within the boundaries of WRST and include the Ahtna, Upper Tanana, Eyak and Tlingit. Today, descendants of these groups still call the area home and continue to live from the land and practice traditional subsistence activities.

Russian military explorers and traders began to explore the region during the late eighteenth century and were the first Europeans to make contact with the local indigenous people. After the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867, American explorers, miners, trappers, and surveyors quickly moved into the area to explore the newly acquired territory. In 1885 Lt. Henry Allen led an expedition up the Copper River through Ahtna territory. Allen’s success with the expedition was credited to the Ahtna and Chief Nicolai of Taral who helped him and his party travel safely throughout the interior. It was during this trip that Nicolai showed Allen the location of rich copper deposits that local inhabitants used and traded. These copper deposits, and the discovery of gold in the region, resulted in an increased EuroAmerican presence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Several mining booms occurred, including the discovery of copper in the Chitina River basin and gold in the Chisana River drainage. This led to the development of the Kennecott Mines, the richest copper lode in the world. By 1911 the Copper River Northwestern Railway was established to facilitate the mining operation, leading from the costal town of Cordova to the mines above McCarthy. The railroad facilitated rapid settlement of the area, with not only prospectors rushing into the area in hope of making it rich, but also homesteaders, trappers, hunters and other people seeking to find adventure in the Wrangell Mountains and Copper River Basin.

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    Last updated: May 19, 2021

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    Mailing Address:

    Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve
    PO Box 439
    Mile 106.8 Richardson Highway

    Copper Center, AK 99573


    907 822-5234

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