U.S. ponders the peninsula after buying Alaska


For the Clarion

After the purchase, adventurous Yankees headed to Alaska. No sooner had the flags changed in Sitka than traders, soldiers and real-estate speculators began aggressively exploring the town and taking possession.

Despite the flurry of activity, fall and winter shipping conditions deterred most from heading north until the spring of 1868. It appears that the first U.S. agents reached the Kenai Peninsula that year. In the interim, Nuchek and St. Nicholas (as the Americans called the Kenai Peninsula site) remained in the hands of the Russian American Company (RAC) managers until U.S. representatives could relieve them of their duties.

In what is now Kenai, that post manager was Vladimir Stafeev. A colorful character born in Estonia, he had been the local manager since 1864. Stafeev married a Dena’ina woman, Evgenia Myshakova, and stayed in Alaska after it changed hands. Starting May 1, 1868, he worked for Hutchinson, Kohl &Co., which bought out the RAC holdings. Stafeev’s new employers hired James Wilson to work alongside him to handle English-speaking clients.

The first government officials visited that June, on the Revenue Cutter “Wayanda.” The captain, J. W. White, later submitted a report to Congress detailing his observations.

On June 4 the “Wayanda” entered Cook Inlet. White explored the coal resources, both the abandoned mine at Port Graham and the bluffs across the water at a place he called Port Kenay – confusing the local geography with later dire consequences. He also visited Kasitsna and “Chee-slock-noo,” both near modern Seldovia.

Continuing north, he reached what he called the “Kakny river” and spent two days exploring the vicinity. He sent a small boat up the river, where it penetrated about 10 miles before the water became too shallow. He described the Fort St. Nicholas settlement as having four fort buildings, two blockhouses, an enclosure, a trading post and church property.

White thought land along the coast from Anchor Point to Fort St. Nicholas looked like it had good timber and agricultural potential. And of course he noticed the fish.

“Salmon are found in great numbers, of superior quality, and very large; some were taken at Fort St. Nicholas weighing 100 pounds each,” he wrote.

On his way out, he stopped at Fort Alexander, now Nanwalek. He found it superior to Fort Constantine in Prince William Sound. He praised Nanwalek’s people for their hospitality and homes, which he described as clean and well kept.

Later White concluded that from the Copper River to Kodiak, including all the Kenai Peninsula, there were only about 800 Natives living in small villages. “They are all very friendly and perfectly inoffensive,” he wrote.

The second detailed U.S. report about the area dates from 1869. It was written by General George P. Ihrie. He sent it to his colleague, Vincent Colyer, the United States Special Indian Commissioner sent to Alaska to assess the condition and potential of its “Indians.”

Unlike White, Ihrie called the main river the Kenai, and his ship anchored there on Sept. 30. He, too, noted the salmon but, while praising their size, declared them less flavorful than those of the Columbia River. Still, he called the country a fisherman’s paradise.

Ihrie encountered “superb” weather, and Cook Inlet’s scenery, especially the volcanos on its western rim, riveted his attention.

“Dined with the officers on wild geese and ptarmigan, in which Alaska abounds, and were shown the skin of a monster brown bear, just killed by the Kenai Indians,” he wrote. “…Looking to the west you behold a perfect nest of sleeping volcanoes of all heights and sizes, with glaciers of cerulean blue ice melting among them. Grand sight, this chaos! Americans can no longer have a good excuse for going to Europe sight-seeing. A summer’s trip to Alaska, from say 1st of June to 1st of October, will be more interesting than a dozen trips to the Alps or Himalayas.”

Ihrie was less impressed with the buildings the Russians left to the U.S. officials, and concluded that Stafeev had swindled them by giving the good ones to Hutchinson, Kohl &Co. while leaving the Army with “very old log hovels.” On a happier note, he visited the village about a mile away – Shk’ituk’t, near the current senior center.

“These Indians are like all the others in Alaska, semi-civilized, peaceful, docile, friendly, and anxious and willing to work. Justice, kind treatment, and prompt payment for services rendered will, in the course of time, change them to law-abiding and good citizens,” he wrote.

On Oct. 6, 1869, Ihrie departed, saying, “We bid adieu to Kenai, which is the most desirable place to live at, I’ve yet seen in Alaska.”

This is the 13th in a series about Kenai Peninsula history in observance of the 150th anniversary of the US purchase of Alaska, linked to our local history conference this week in Soldotna. The conference is sold out, but its associated book fair on Saturday at Kenai Peninsula College is free and open to all.

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