1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Aleutian Islands

ALEUTIAN ISLANDS (possibly from Chukchi aliat, “island”), a chain of small islands situated in the Northern Pacific Ocean, and extending about 1200 m. westward from the extremity of the Alaskan peninsula toward the peninsula of Kamchatka; they constitute part of the District of Alaska, U.S.A. The islands, of which an alternative collective name is the Catherine Archipelago, comprise four groups—the Fox, Andreanof, Rat and Near islands. They are all included between 52° and 55° N. lat. and 172° E. and 163° W. long.

The axis of the archipelago near the mainland of Alaska has a S.W. trend, but near the 129th meridian its direction changes to the N.W. This change of direction corresponds to a curve in the line of volcanic fissures which have contributed their products to the building of the islands. Such curved chains are repeated about the Pacific Ocean in the Kurile Islands, the Japanese chain, the Philippines, &c. The general elevation is greatest in the eastern islands and least in the western. The island chain is really a western continuation of the Aleutian Range on the mainland.

The great majority of the islands bear evident marks of volcanic origin, and there are numerous volcanic cones on the north side of the chain, some of them active; many of the islands, however, are not wholly volcanic, but contain crystalline or sedimentary rocks, and also amber and beds of lignite. The coasts are rocky and surf-worn and the approaches are exceedingly dangerous, the land rising immediately from the coasts to steep, bold mountains.

The climate of the islands is oceanic, with moderate and fairly uniform temperatures and heavy rainfall. Fogs are almost constant. The summers are much cooler than on the mainland at Sitka (q.v.), but the winter temperature of the islands and of south-eastern Alaska is very nearly the same. The mean annual temperature for Unalaska, the most important island of the group, is about 38° F.; being about 30° for January and about 52° for August. The highest and lowest temperatures recorded on the islands are 78° and 5°. The average annual amount of rainfall is about 80 in., and Unalaska, with about 250 rainy days per year, is said to be the rainiest place within the territory of the United States. The growing season lasts about 135 days, from early in May till late in September, but agriculture is limited to the raising of a few vegetables. With the exception of some stunted willows the islands are practically destitute of trees, but are covered with a luxuriant growth of herbage, including grasses, sedges and many flowering plants. On the less mountainous islands the raising of sheep and reindeer is believed to be practicable. The principal occupations of the natives have always been fishing and hunting, and the women weave basketry of exquisite fineness. From the end of the 18th century the Russian fur traders had settlements here for the capture of the seal and the sea otter and the blue and the Arctic fox. Under the American régime seal fishing off the Aleutians save by the natives has never been legal, but the depletion of the Pribilof herd, the almost complete extinction of the sea otter, and the rapid decrease of the foxes and other fur animals, have threatened the Aleuts (as the natives are commonly called) with starvation. In recent years enterprising traders have raised foxes by culture and by especially protecting certain small islands, and this has furnished employment to whole communities of natives. Fish and sea-fowl are extremely abundant.

The natives are rather law in stature, but plump and well shaped, with short necks, swarthy faces, black eyes and long black hair. They are a branch of the Esquimauan family, but differ greatly from the Eskimo of the mainland in language, habits, disposition and mental ability. They were good fighters until they were cowed by the treatment of the Russians, who practically reduced them to slavery. Sporadic efforts to Christianize the Aleuts were made in the latter half of the 18th century, but little impression was made before the arrival in 1824 of Father Ivan Venyaminov, who in 1840 became the first Greek bishop of Alaska. While the missionaries of the Greek Church have nominally converted the natives to Christianity, white adventurers have more effectually converted them to various bad habits. In dress and mode of life they have adopted outwardly civilized customs. From the position of the Aleutian islands, stretching like a broken bridge from Asia to America, some enthologists have supposed that by means of them America was first peopled. Raised shore-lines, occasional earthquakes, and slow measurable elevation of the land about active volcanoes, indicate that elevation is now in progress, but the geological evidence shows no sign of former submergence of a connecting isthmus. There is granite at the core of the Shaler range of mountains in southern Unalaska.

It is stated that before the advent of the Russians there were 25,000 Aleuts on the archipelago, but that the barbarities of the traders eventually reduced the population to one-tenth of this number. The number of Aleuts in 1890 was reported as 968; the total population of the archipelago in 1900 was 2000.

The principal settlements are on the Unalaska Island. Of these Iliuliuk (also called Unalaska), the oldest, settled in 1760–1775, has a custom house, a Russian-Greek Church, and a Methodist Mission and orphanage, and is the headquarters for a considerable fleet of United States revenue cutters which patrol the sealing grounds of the Pribilofs; adjacent is Dutch Harbor (so named, it is said, because a Dutch vessel was the first to enter it), which is an important port for Bering Sea commerce. The volcano Makushin (5691 ft.) is visible from Iliuliuk, and the volcanic islets Bogoslof and Grewingk, which rose from the sea in 1796 and 1883 respectively, lie about 30 m. W. of the bay. The latter is still active; in 1906 a new cone rose between the two earlier islets, and in 1907 still another: these were nearly demolished by an explosive eruption on the 1st of September 1907. The population of Unalaska Island in 1900 was 575 Aleuts and 66 whites. The Commander Islands group near the Asiatic coast is geographically, but since the acquisition of the Russian possessions in America not politically, a part of the Aleutian system.

In 1741 the Russian government sent out Vitus Bering, a Dane, and Alexei Chirikov, a Russian, in the ships “Saint Peter” and “Saint Paul” on a voyage of discovery in the Northern Pacific. After the ships were separated by a storm, Chirikov discovered several eastern islands of the Aleutian group, and Bering discovered several of the western islands, finally being wrecked and losing his life on the island of the Commander group that now bears his name. The survivors of Bering’s party reached Kamchatka in a boat constructed from the wreckage of their ship, and reported that the islands were rich in fur-bearing animals. Siberian fur hunters at once flocked to the Commander Islands and gradually moved eastward across the Aleutian Islands to the mainland. In this manner Russia gained a foothold on the north-western coast of North America. The Aleutian Islands consequently belonged to Russia, until that country in 1867 transferred to the United States all its possessions in America. During his third and last voyage, in 1778, Captain James Cook surveyed the eastern portion of the Aleutian archipelago, accurately determined the position of some of the more important islands and corrected many errors of former navigators. Some preliminary surveys have been made by the United States government with a view to establishing a naval station on the island Kiska, in the western part of the Aleutian Chain.