Open main menu

ALASKA, a territory belonging to the United States, formerly known as Russian America. It comprises all that portion of the North American continent lying W. of the 141st parallel of W. longitude, together with a narrow strip of land between the Pacific ocean and the British dominions, separated from the latter by a line drawn as follows: beginning at the southernmost point of Prince of Wales island, in lat. 54° 40' N., running thence N. along Portland channel to the point of the mainland where it strikes lat. 56° N., and from this point along the summits of the mountain range parallel to the coast, except where the distance of such summits from the ocean exceeds 10 marine leagues, to its intersection with the 141st meridian. Wherever the peaks are situated further inland than the distance specified, the line is drawn, parallel to the winding of the coast, at that distance from it. The territory also includes all the islands near the coast, and the whole of the Aleutian archipelago except Behring island and Copper island on the coast of Kamtchatka. In the dialect of the natives first encountered by the Russian explorers, the peninsula now known as Aliaska was called Al-áy-es-ka, the name having become changed through Alaksa and Alashka to its present form, from which last is derived the general territorial designation Alaska, which Dall asserts to be an English corruption never used by the Russians. The area of Alaska, including the islands, is 580,107 sq. m.; pop. in 1870, 29,097, of whom 26,843 were natives of the territory, 1,421 were half-breeds, 483 were Russians, and 350 were natives of the United States and foreigners not Russians. There are not more than 1,300 completely civilized inhabitants.—Sitka, or New Archangel, the capital of the territory and its only considerable town, is situated on a small but commodious harbor on Baranov island, in lat. 57° 3' N., lon. 135° 17' W. It was long the headquarters of the Russian-American fur company, though the natural centre of the fur trade is the island of Kadiak, S. of the Aliaska peninsula. At the time of the transfer of the territory to the United States in 1867, Sitka, although founded in the last century, was little better than a collection of log huts, about 100 in number, with a few superior buildings occupied by government officers. St. Paul, the principal settlement on Kadiak island, is the main depot of the seal fisheries, and is surrounded by the finest farming land in the territory. Next in importance as a settlement is Captain's Harbor, on the island of Unalashka, where is found the best anchorage in the Aleutian group. The remaining civilized places in Alaska consist for the most part of small trading posts scattered throughout the country, the principal of them being Fort Yukon, approximately in lat, 66° N., the most northerly station of the Hudson Bay company, which for some years paid the Russian-American fur company a royalty for the privilege of thus trading in their territory. Michaelovski, a station of the Russian company on Norton sound, in lat. 63° 28' N., and lon. 161° 44' W., is of considerable importance as affording the best harbor on the coast from which to forward goods into the Yukon valley.—The interior of Alaska has been but slightly explored, and our knowledge of the country is confined mainly to the islands, the coasts, and a few of the larger rivers. The entire coast line of the territory, without taking into account the smaller indentations, measures about 4,000 m. in length, and is bordered by three seas : the Arctic ocean on the N., Behring sea on the W., and the North Pacific on the S. The coast formation along the North Pacific differs entirely from that N. of the Aliaska peninsula. Point Barrow, a long arm of low sandy land projecting into the Arctic ocean, forms the most northerly cape in the territory. Between this point and Behring strait, the only considerable indentation of the coast is Kotzebue sound, with a maximum depth of 14 fathoms, and the shore is low and swampy except at Cape Lisburne, where the limestone rock rises to the height of 850 feet above the sea. Cape Prince of Wales, the E. boundary of Behring strait, is the most western land on the American continent, being situated in lat. 65° 33' N., lon. 167° 59' W., only 45 m. from East cape, the nearest part of Asia. It is a rocky and precipitous promontory. The nearest harbor is Port Clarence, a short distance S., where there is a safe anchorage in 10 fathoms of water, with a bottom of soft mud. Below this inlet the country becomes low and rolling, and is not very accessible from the ocean, even in the larger bays, on account of the shoals formed of alluvium brought down by the rivers, which is retained in Behring sea by the rocky barrier of the Aliaska peninsula. Norton sound is so shallow that vessels have been known to run aground there at the distance of a mile from the shore; but it affords a few harbors, as also does Bristol bay, which opens into the region N. of the same rugged and barren peninsula from which the name of the territory is derived. Stretching westward toward Kamtchatka lie the Aleutian islands, so called from the name Aleuts applied to their inhabitants by the Russians. Unimak is the largest of these, and Unalashka of the greatest commercial importance. The celebrated fur seal group, named after Pribyloff, its discoverer, is situated in Behring sea, lat. 57° N., lon. 169° 30' "W., and consists of four small islands called respectively Walrus, Beaver, St. George, and St. Paul. Below Aliaska the coast becomes mountainous, with deep soundings close in shore. Between lon. 151° and 158° W. lies the Kadiak archipelago, including the large island of that name. Cook's inlet and Prince William sound, or Chugach gulf, are the principal arms of the sea on the North Pacific coast of the territory, until we reach the narrow strip of mainland S. of Mt. St. Elias, which is protected from the sea by the 1,100 islands of the Alexander archipelago, situated between Cross sound and Dixon's entrance. The almost innumerable channels between the islands of this vast series afford the finest inland navigation. Prince of Wales island is the largest member of the group, which also contains Baranov island, the site of Sitka.—The great river of Alaska is the Yukon, or Kwickpak, as it has erroneously been called by the Russians, from the name of one of its mouths. It rises in British Columbia, enters Alaska near the Arctic circle, and flows, with a general S. W. trend, across the entire width of the territory into Behring sea. Its length is more than 1,800 m., and it is over a mile broad at a point 600 m. above its delta. Its current varies in rapidity from 3 to 7 m. per hour, and in summer the river is navigable for light-draught steamers throughout three fourths of its length. Next to the Yukon in size is the Kuskoquim, which also flows into Behring sea, somewhat further S. It has been explored by the Russians some 600 m. above its mouth, and is a very crooked and moderately rapid stream, navigable for a considerable distance. The principal rivers of Alaska which flow into the North Pacific ocean are: the Copper river, which reaches the coast in lat. 60° N., lon. 145° W., and about which very little is known; the Chilkaht, a rapid stream, which enters Lynn channel W. of Cross sound, and the head waters of which approach so close to a tributary of the Yukon that a short portage affords the Indians easy communication between the two rivers; and, still further S., the Stikine or Francis river, forming the gateway to the gold region of British Columbia. Lakes are said to be numerous in the interior of the country.—Alaska is emphatically a country of volcanoes, there being no fewer than 61 volcanic peaks already known in the territory, though but 10 of these are in activity at present. The peninsula of Aliaska, and the Aleutian islands, which really constitute a continuation of it, are of volcanic origin, and the same is true of the islands along the coast of Behring sea. So far as known, all the mountains in the country of any considerable height are situated below lat. 65° N. There are three important mountain chains: the Coast or St. Elias range, the Rocky mountains, and the Alaskan range. In the Coast range, on the North Pacific, are the loftiest peaks and principal volcanoes. Of these Mt. St. Elias is the highest; its elevation is variously stated at from 16,000 to 17,850 feet, the latter estimate making it the highest mountain in North America. The summit of Mt. Fairweather, in the same chain, is 14,500 feet above the sea level. E. of the Yukon, the Rocky mountains extend along or near the 64th parallel to the basin of the Mackenzie river. The Alaskan range in the S. W. part of the territory is merely an offshoot of the Rocky mountains. There is a long line of low hills near the Arctic coast.—The climate of Alaska is by no means so inhospitable as that of corresponding latitudes on the eastern coast of North America. In regard both to climate and agriculture, the territory is naturally divisible into three regions: the Yukon district, comprising all the country N. of the Alaskan mountains; the Aleutian district, comprising the islands of that name and the peninsula; and the Sitka district, comprising the remainder of the territory. In the Yukon district the mean annual temperature is about 25° F., and the ground remains frozen to within two or three feet of the surface throughout the summer. The amount of rainfall is not accurately known. In winter the ice on the Yukon averages five feet in thickness, and where there is sufficient water it has been known to freeze to a deptb of nine feet. The summer is short, dry, and hot. May, June, and a part of July constitute the pleasant season; then the rainy weather begins, and lasts till October. The lowest temperature ever recorded in this region was -70° F. The climate of the Aleutian district is warmer, the mean annual temperature being from 36° to 40° F. In a series of observations made at Unalashka, extending over five years, the greatest cold experienced during that time was found to be the zero of Fahrenheit, while the highest temperature was 77°. The average annual rainfall is about 40 inches, distributed among 150 rainy days in each year. January, February, and June are the pleasantest months. A still warmer and moister climate is characteristic of the Sitka district. The town of Sitka is the rainiest place in the world outside of the tropics. From 60 to 90 inches of rain fall annually, and the number of rainy days in each year varies from a mininum of 190 to a maximum of 285. The mean annual temperature is 44.07°; but the average temperature in winter is proportionately much higher than in summer, being only a little below the freezing point; while the excessive rains in summer make that season unduly cold. Ice fit for consumption scarcely ever forms at Sitka.—The interior of Alaska is well wooded. On the Pacific coast, dense forests of the Sitka spruce or white pine (abies Sitkensis) clothe the mountain sides both of the islands and the mainland, down to the very water's edge, producing timber of great size and unsurpassed quality. In the same region grows the yellow cedar (C. Nutkatenis), of great value for boat-building. Hemlock and the balsam fir are also found here. The Aleutian islands are wholly destitute of trees, there being no vegetation on them larger than a shrub. In the Yukon region, the wooded district recedes from the coast, but timber is abundant in the interior, the finest tree which occurs there being the valuable white spruce (abies alba). The birch (betula glandulosa) is also found, and furnishes the only hard wood in this part of the country. Alders, poplars, and several varieties of willow fringe the banks of all the larger streams.—The agricultural resources of Alaska are practically confined to the Aleutian and Sitka districts. The abundant growth of rich perennial grasses in the valley of the Yukon affords excellent fodder for cattle, but no grain has ever been raised there, and the only vegetables which have succeeded are radishes, turnips, and lettuce. The most fertile land is found at Cook's inlet, on Kadiak island, and among the Aleutians, where good oats, barley, and root crops can be raised without much difficulty. Whether the potato can ever be cultivated successfully in Alaska is doubtful. In the most favored farming districts the agricultural production can scarcely ever exceed the local demand.—Alaskan geology has been but imperfectly studied, and only a few of the leading facts are known. According to William H. Dall, the director of the scientific corps which explored the proposed route for the Russo-American telegraph line in 1866, the whole of the peninsular portion of Alaska W. of lon. 150° is gradually rising. Along the Pacific coast glaciers, some of them remarkable for their extent and grandeur, fill the principal mountain gorges, and terminate at the sea in magnificent masses of overhanging ice. The fact that these glaciers are gradually decreasing in size from year to year leads to the inference that the rigor of the climate is slowly mitigating. Hot and mineral springs are found near Sitka, on the Aleutian islands and the neighboring coast, and in other parts of the territory. In the Alexander archipelago fossils of the cretaceous period have been found, but the extent of the formation has not been ascertained. Clay slates and conglomerate occur near Sitka. Crystalline white marble of fine quality has been discovered on Lynn channel and in other portions of the archipelago. Thence northward to Mt. St. Elias granite and metamorphic rocks skirt the coast. In the Aleutian islands the tertiary formation is of considerable extent, and contains coal, lignite, and amber. The best deposit of tertiary coal, so far as known, is on Cook's inlet, where it occurs in two parallel layers, with an estimated thickness of from 18 inches to 7 feet. Gold and silver are found in Alaska in small quantities; and copper is frequently brought to the settlements by Indians dwelling on the Copper river, who sedulously conceal the locality of its origin. Cinnabar and iron have been found in very limited quantities. Of sulphur the volcanic districts of the territory afford an abundant supply. The fossils found in Alaska show that it was once the home of the elephant, the buffalo, and the horse. Bears are now the largest animals native to the country. Of these, the polar or white bear (ursus maritimus) is met with on the Arctic coast; the black bear (U. Americanus) in the woody districts of the Yukon; and the barren-ground bear (U. Richardsonii) in the far northeast. The grisly bear (U. horribilis) is also occasionally encountered. Of the other non-marine fur-bearing animals the principal are the fox, the beaver, the marten, the otter, the mink, the lynx, and the wolverene. On the coasts are found the fur seal, the main source of revenue in the territory; the sea lion, closely allied to the former; the sea otter, an animal of solitary habits living almost exclusively in the water; and the walrus, from which the natives obtain their ivory and oil. In the adjacent seas whales are abundant, and cod, herring, and halibut are found in prodigious numbers, at the proper seasons. A small fish called the ulikon, upward of a foot in length and of a silvery hue, is also very abundant along some parts of the coast, and is remarkable as being the fattest of all known fish. The various species of salmon which throng the Alaskan rivers occur in numbers so great as almost to exceed belief. The weak and injured fish which die after spawning time are sometimes thrown up along the river banks by the waves, to the depth of three or four feet. Immense quantities of salmon and other river fish are caught and dried. In summer, Alaska is the nesting place of myriads of migratory birds. Geese and ducks, swans, ospreys, eagles, and gulls arrive about the first of May from southern latitudes, and remain till early autumn, when they leave the country to the ptarmigan, the white hawk, and the arctic owl. The rich berries of the interior afford them excellent food. Here the nests of the canvas-back duck, so long sought for in vain in other regions, were first discovered. Mosquitoes abound during the summer months along the Yukon valley. Beetles and several varieties of butterfly are known to occur.—The natives of Alaska may properly be classed into two divisions: the Esquimaux and kindred tribes, and the Indians. To the first belong the inhabitants of the Aleutian islands, and the Innuits, who are settled on the islands along the coast from Behring strait to Mt. St. Elias. Their intercourse with the Russians has deprived the Aleuts of all their national characteristics; but they are as yet by no means civilized, though many of them profess the Christianity of the Greek church. Hunting the fur seal and sea otter is their principal occupation. Of the Indians, the Co-Yukon is the largest tribe on the Yukon river. They dwell during the winter in underground huts, and are greatly feared by the surrounding natives of other tribes, on account of their fiercer nature and superior prowess.—The fisheries and the fur trade are the leading industries of the territory. In 1870 the product of the fishery, in salted codfish alone, was 10,612,000 lbs. The taking of fur seals, which is for the most part restricted to the Pribyloff islands, is now regulated by act of congress, the privilege being under rental to a corporation at $55,000 per annum. The yield has been much diminished by the unwise and indiscriminate slaughter permitted in past years, but under the present regulations a steady production of 100,000 skins per annum can probably be secured. In 1869, 85,901 seals were taken on St. George's and St. Paul's. The average annual yield of the sea-otter skins is 1,300, and they are worth $100 each. In 1867-'8 furs to the amount of $100,000 were produced by the Yukon district, and the average product is not less than $75,000 worth per annum. The total annual yield of furs from the rest of the continental portion of Alaska does not exceed $10,000 in value. There is a small trade in ice with California, and timber is exported in limited quantities. A large proportion of the whale oil and bone taken by the Behring sea whaling fleets is derived from Alaskan waters.—Russia acquired her American possessions by virtue of the right of discovery. On July 18, 1741, Vitus Behring, the celebrated Russian explorer, discovered the rocky range of mountains, the crowning peak of which is Mt. St. Elias. Subsequently, and during the same voyage, he visited many of the Aleutian islands, until finally he was overtaken by death at that which bears his name. In 1778 Captain Cook, the English navigator, explored the Alaskan coast, and sailed far up into the bay now known as Cook's inlet, in hopes that it would prove the northern passage homeward to Great Britain. Numerous Russian commercial expeditions visited the new region, and in 1783 a trading establishment was opened on the island of Kadiak. Similar enterprises followed in other localities; and in 1799 the Russian-American fur company was organized under sanction of the emperor Paul, by a consolidation of all the companies then existing in the territory. This corporation was granted the exclusive right of hunting and fishing in the American dominion of the czar. It established a line of forts and trading posts along the coast from Norton sound southward, with occasional stations further inland, and after Sitka was founded the headquarters were removed from Kadiak to that place. The country was ruled by the company, the chief director of which exercised absolute sway throughout the colony till 1862, when, the charter having expired, the government declined to renew it, in consequence of the abuses which had grown up. The company, however, continued in control by permission of the home authorities. In 1865-'7 the territory was explored by a scientific corps sent out from the United States to select a route for the Russo-American telegraph line, a project which was abandoned in consequence of the successful laying of the Atlantic cables. Negotiations were begun in 1867 for the purchase of the country by the United States; $7,200,000 was the price agreed to be paid, and the treaty was ratified by the senate on May 20 of the same year. On Oct. 18 Brig. Gen. Lovell H. Rousseau of the United States army, having been appointed commissioner for that purpose, formally took possession of the territory in the name of the United States. Alaska constitutes a military and collection district, with headquarters at Sitka.—See “Travels and Adventures in Alaska,” by Frederick Whymper (London, 1869), and “Alaska and its Resources,” by W. H. Dall (Boston, 1870).


AmCyc Alaska.jpg