Island History

Photo of four men.
Bundling sealskins, St. Paul Island, 1921.
Photo courtesy of the St. George Tanaq Corporation
(G Dallas Hanna collection, photography #36)

The following pages summarize the history of the Pribilof Islands, primarily from the perspective of the U.S. government’s involvement on the islands from 1867 to 1983. Reference materials pertaining to the history of the islands are voluminous. Readers should not consider this text or its source materials an exhaustive collection. Rather, readers might consider this text an indication of the importance and the depth of the history of the Pribilof Islands. The following pages are intended to pique the interest of readers and encourage them to further explore the history of these unique islands.

The Unangan

Several migrations of various tribes from eastern Asia crossed over the Bering Land Bridge into North America thousands of years ago (Laughlin, 1980, 10, 65, 75–78). One of these migrations included a people who would master the seas and come to dominate the islands that would eventually bear their name along the North Pacific Rim, the Aleutian Islands [Aleut: Unangan tanangin]. The inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands evolved a spoken language known as Unangam tunuu. As the population dispersed from east to west along the Aleutian Island Chain, they developed language dialects. Those Aleut people living among the eastern Aleutians, Umnak eastward (Bergsland, 1994, xvi), referred to themselves as Unangan (people of the seashore) and those living in the western Aleutians, Atka to Attu (Bergsland, 1994, xvi and 47), refer to themselves as Unangas. The singular form of the word “people” in Unangam Tunuu is Unangax. The Unangan and Unangas did not have a written language until the arrival of the Russians in the eighteenth century, and more specifically, due to the efforts of members of the Russian Orthodox Church led by Reverend Ivan (Ioann)Veniaminov. Veniaminov created an Aleut orthography using a modified Cyrillic alphabet.  According to noted Aleut linguist Knut Bergsland, Veniaminov created “the first tentative grammar and vocabulary of Eastern Aleut.” (Bergsland, 1994, viii) Then two Aleuts, Ivan Pan’kov, a chief of Tigalda, and Father Iakov Netsvetov worked with Veniaminov to translate several religious works into Aleut. A written Unangam Tunuu continued to evolve with the work of other Orthodox priests such as Innokenti Shayashnikov and Lavrentiy Salamatov (Bergsland, 1994, viii). The immediate and intimate participation by Aleuts themselves, and the willingness of Russian Orthodoxy to include Unangam Tunuu in the liturgy, are given significant credit for the rapid and devoted adoption of the faith by the Unangas and Unangan.

The Russian Period

During the eighteenth century, the lure of furs enticed the promyshlenniki, Russian fur hunters and traders, east across the expansive Russian frontier and into the Bering Sea. The Russian advance continued along the Aleutian Chain. While visiting the Aleutians, navigator Gavriil Loginovich Pribylov3 heard tales of the discovery of by Iggadaagix, the son of an Unangax [Unangam Tunuu: seasider or islander] toion [Russian] or chief from Unimak Island (Veniaminov 1984, 134–135). Caught in a fierce storm blowing out of the south, Iggadaagix found the misty islands and the summer home to the northern fur seal, Callorhinus ursinus (laaqudax).

At a time when the sea otter (Aleut word - chngatux) had been nearly exterminated for its fur, the fur seal became the source of speculation (Elliott 1976, 8; Riley 1967). For years, Russian navigators had been searching for the land of the fur seals. They had seen the seals swimming north through the passes of the Aleutian Chain in the spring, then back south in the fall. Impelled by the tale of Tanax Amix, Pribylov commanded the Sv. Georgii Pobedonosets (St. George the Victorious), a small sloop4 outfitted by merchants Lebedev-Lastochkin and Shelikhov, to search for the islands that now bear his name (Black 2004, 104). In June 1786 Pribylov followed the sounds of barking seals through the dense Bering Sea fog to discover an island he christened St. George Island or Sv. Georgii Ostrova [Russian] in honor of his ship, Sv. Georgii.5

A year later, forty miles to the north of St. George, a crew left by Pribylov to winter at Sv. Georgii and led by Efim Popov, landed on what he named St. Peter and St. Paul Island (later shortened to St. Paul Island; (Veniaminov 1984, 70–71). The island was named in honor of the Saints’ day on which the crew landed on the island. While Pribylov and his sailors found no vestige of human habitation on St. George Island, reconnaissance of St. Paul Island revealed the remains of a recent fire, scorched grass, a pipe, and a sword hilt handle, the origins of which remain a mystery (Elliott 1976, 9).

Aleut legend suggests the Aleuts knew and utilized the Seal Islands before the Russians discovered them. Aleuts referred to St. Paul Island variously in their own Unangam Tunuu (Aleut language), as Amix (Mother’s Brother) or Tanax Amix (Land of Mother’s Brother referring to St. Paul Island by itself; the term has also been applied to the combination of both islands); Tanaxsilgux, (the big made island); or Sampuulax (St. Paul Island). Currently, among some Aleuts, the preferred Aleut name for St. Paul Island is Tanax Amix. This name is also used when referring to both St. Paul and St. George.6

Following the discovery of the St. George and St. Paul Islands, Pribylov and his associates, and others who came after them, brought Aleuts from the Aleutian Chain to these islands for the purpose of harvesting and processing fur seals (Elliott 1976, 19). St. George and St. Paul Islands became the only inhabited islands of the Pribilof archipelago, which also includes the smaller Sea Lion Rock, Walrus Island, and Otter Island. The people of these islands are known as Unaagix (meaning outward or seaward people) reflecting the perspective of the Aleutian Islanders, known as Unangan/Unangas.

While the focus of this narrative is on the years following the United States’ purchase of Alaska, several events from the Russian period are noteworthy:

Following Pribylov’s discovery of St. George Island, the first villages on the island were located at Starry Ateel7 and Zapadni (Elliott 1976, 19). Pribylov and his associates also built barabaras or semi-subterranean sod homes (ulan) at Garden Cove (Elliott 1976, 19). The scattered settlements were later abandoned and consolidated at a location near the present day City of Saint George.

At least one year after the discovery of St. George Island, the first traders posted themselves on the north shore of St. Paul Island at or near “Maroonitch,” and at the head of Big Lake among the sand dunes. As competition grew, villages were established at Polovina and Zapadni (Elliott 1976, 19–20).

Unorganized contingents of Russian hunting companies harvested seals in the early years following Russian discovery of the Pribilof Islands. In 1799, an imperial ukase (proclamation or edict of the tsar) established the Russian-American Company and granted the company exclusive privileges of trade and occupation of northwestern America, lying north of latitude 55° (Black 2004, 255; Brooks 1967, 36; Tikhmenev 1978, 54–55; Okum 1951, 82, 94). Privileges included using hunting grounds, making discoveries, establishing settlements and fortifying them, and trading with nearby powers. The company’s board of directors appointed Aleksandr Baranov chief manager of the Russian-American company and which eventually (1812) included the settlement at Fort Ross in Spanish California.8

Circa 1800
The people on St. Paul Island all lived at Polovina and Zapadni, under the control of the Russian-American Company (Elliott 1976, 20).

The inordinate killing of previous years diminished the Pribilof Islands’ fur-seal population, causing the Russian-American Company’s board of directors to suspend hunting. The prohibition ended at St. George Island in 1808, and at St. Paul Island in 1810, but the yearly catch was limited to 8,000 to 10,000 pelts. Though not as abundant as before, there was a substantial increase in the number of seals returning to the islands during the suspension of hunting (Veniaminov 1984, 344–345).

The Russian government granted the Russian-American Company a second twenty-year charter, and issued an ukase extending the southern boundary of Russian influence (Black 2004, 256; Buchanan 1929, 19). The ukase of September 5, 1821, stated that pursuits of commerce, whaling, fishing, and all other industry of the northwest coast of America “beginning from the Bering Strait to the fifty-first degree of northern latitude; also from the Aleutian Islands to the eastern coast of Siberia…to 45º 50’ northern latitude, are exclusively granted to Russian subjects.” Further, it prohibited all foreign vessels from landing on the coast of islands belonging to Russia and from approaching within one hundred Italian miles.

Russian-American Company manager and scholar, Kiril. T. Khlebnikov recorded a total population of 96 Unaagin (Unangam Tunuu: residents of the Pribilof Islands) at St. George Island: 81 Aleut, 8 Russian, and 7 Creole. At St. Paul Island, Khlebnikov recorded 130 people: 108 Aleut, 13 Russian, and the remainder Creoles and Indians (Pierce 1994, 286–287). The Russian-American Company moved the Polovina settlement to the area of the present day City of Saint Paul, near what is now called Village Cove, where ships were more easily loaded and unloaded (Elliott 1976, 20).

The United States’ Management of the Pribilof Islands

The Purchase of the Alaska Territory

The United States acquired the Pribilof Islands when it purchased Alaska for $7.2 million in 1867. Russia ceded to the United States all the territory and dominion it then possessed on the North American continent and adjacent islands. The geographical boundaries of the ceded territory as set forth in the treaty were as follows:

The eastern limit is the line of demarcation between the Russian and British possessions in North America, as established by the convention between Russia and Great Britain, of February 28–16, [sic] 1825, and described in Articles III and IV of said convention... The western limit within which the territories and dominion conveyed, are contained, passes through a point in Behring’s straits on the parallel of sixty-five degrees thirty minutes north latitude, at its intersection by the meridian which passes midway between the islands of Krasenstern, or Ignalook, and the island of Ratmanoff, or Noonarbook, and proceeds due north, without limitation, into the same Frozen ocean. The same western limit, beginning at the same initial point, proceeds thence in a course nearly southwest through Behring’s straits and Behring’s sea, so as to pass midway between the northwest point of the island of St. Lawrence and the southeast point of Cape Choukotski, to the meridian of one hundred and seventy-two west longitude; thence, from the intersection of that meridian, in a southwesterly direction, so as to pass midway between the island of Attou [sic] and the Copper island of the Kormandorski couplet or group in the North Pacific ocean, to the meridian of one hundred and ninety-three degrees west longitude, so as to include in the territory conveyed the whole of the Aleutian islands east of that meridian.9

The Pribilof Islands fur-seal industry was considered by some a motivating factor in the United States’ purchase of Alaska. In preparation of the speech that convinced Congress to purchase Russian America, Senator Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, invested heavily in researching the facts about the history of Russian America, the financial benefits of the purchase, and geographical and environmental descriptions of the country. His speech covered the climate, Native populations, and natural resources. While Sumner’s speech noted the fur seal, it made no specific mention of the Pribilof Islands.10 Others would comment more specifically, “This island [St. Paul], though comparatively small, is one of the most, if not the most, important of all late possessions of Russia America…I cannot but regard this point of more intrinsic value for a steady revenue than any other in the whole territory.”11 This industry alone quickly repaid the U.S. Government the purchase price of Alaska. The net revenue to the government was $6,020,152 from 1870 to 1889 and $3,453,844 from 1890 to 1909 (Osgood et al. 1915, 25).

The Military on the Pribilof Islands

The U.S. Army deployed troops to the Pribilof Islands in 1869 to support Treasury Department Officers of the U.S Revenue Marine Service, customs agents, and special agents. Their combined roles aimed primarily at the protection of the Aleut Natives, but these men were also to ensure the fur seals were harvested solely for Native subsistence. The troops and agents failed in that regard and at least 60,000 seals were killed at the urging of the few sealing agents permitted on the islands. The Revenue Marine and Army troops departed the Pribilof Islands in late 1870. The Revenue Marine Service would return in 1877 to protect the islands from pirates and pelagic sealers (discussed further later), who focused their attentions on killing fur seals for their peltry. Revenue Marine Service patrols would last into the early twentieth century.

In 1911 and 1912, the U.S. Navy established radio stations on St. Paul and St. George Islands, respectively. The Navy left St. George Island in 1924, and transferred the St. Paul radio operations to the Bureau of Fisheries on August 10, 1937. The transfer agreement required the Bureau to maintain the communications capability between St. Paul and the naval radio station at Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

In 1942, during World War II, the U.S. Army occupied St. Paul Island and to a lesser extent, St. George Island. Aleuts were evacuated from both islands and interned at Funter Bay in Southeast Alaska.

The U.S. Coast Guard set up a Long Range Aid to Navigation (LORAN) station at St. Paul’s Southwest Point in 1943. The Coast Guard constructed the current LORAN station on St. Paul near the airport in 1960. On St. George, the Coast Guard operated a LORAN facility from 1944 to 1946.

Generally, the military’s activities did little to improve the islands’ infrastructure. Unfortunately, Aleuts mostly remembered the military for actions that resulted in their homes being ransacked during WWII, and for what are termed formerly used defense sites (FUDS), which contain hazardous waste and/or debris.

Treasury Agents on the Pribilof Islands

Photo of tall white towers near shore.
The Naval Radio Station on St. Paul Island (NARA).

Captain Charles Bryant, special agent of the U.S. Treasury Department, wrote in 1869 that the late Russian company’s buildings were situated on the southwest peninsula of St. Paul Island and comprised three dwellings, one storehouse for goods, and one large warehouse for salting and storing skins.12 He indicated these structures were all built out of wood and were very much out of repair when their transfer took place. The Native village was grouped about the company’s buildings and comprised some forty huts on St. Paul and about half as many on St. George. The huts were built of turf and thatched with grass. Each had two to three apartments. The inner one, generally no larger than 15 ft. by 12 ft., housed the family—often ten to fifteen persons. The houses were built partly underground, thus they lacked light and ventilation. “Parties doing business on the islands” constructed several new buildings during the summer of 1868. Henry Wood Elliott worked on the Pribilofs a few years later, 1872–73, and observed that families on the islands lived in frame dwellings, lined with tarred paper, painted, and furnished with a stove and outhouse (Elliott 1976, 20). He wrote that eighty families or houses existed on St. Paul, and twenty to twenty-four families or houses and eight other structures existed on St. George. St. Paul Island had a hospital, and both St. Paul and St. George had schools and churches.

Photo of old painting of man and dog near shore with town in the distance.
Henry Wood Elliott’s painting of St. Paul Village, July 17, 1872 (Elliott 1873).

The U.S. government realized soon after its purchase that it must protect the fur seals of the Pribilof Islands from reckless slaughter; a number of independent parties had begun sealing on the islands. New England natives such as Hayward M. Hutchinson and Captain Ebenezer Morgan, representing Williams & Haven of New London, Connecticut, were among those who took an interest in commercial sealing on the islands.13 On March 3, 1869, Congress passed a resolution declaring St. Paul and St. George Islands a special reservation for government purposes.14A year later, an act of Congress authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to lease exclusive rights to take seals on the islands, with the stipulation that no females be taken.15 The secretary granted the first twenty-year lease to the Alaska Commercial Company (Riley 1967). The lessee paid rent to the United States Treasury16 and provided, free of charge, housing and schooling for the Natives (Elliott 1976, 24).

Additional legislation in 1874 authorized the Secretary to establish harvest quotas and determine the months in which seals could be taken.17 The same year, the Anti-Monopoly Association of the Pacific Coast signed a resolution in San Francisco demanding abolition of the lease system, deliverance of Natives, and equal rights for all American citizens to trade.18 Nonetheless, the leasing system continued, and the government granted a second twenty-year lease to the North American Commercial Company in 1890 (Riley 1967). After the expiration of the second twenty-year lease in May 1910, the federal government assumed full responsibility for the administration and management of the fur-seal industry on the Pribilof Islands. At that time the northern fur-seal herd was at its lowest ebb since the Russians nearly exterminated the herds during the early 1800s. The Fur-Seal Treaty of 1911 ended the slaughter that decimated the northern fur-seal herd by bringing an end to pelagic sealing. The government continued to administer the Pribilof Islands and manage the fur-seal industry until 1983.

Pelagic Sealing

In 1869, the U.S. Government asserted authority over the taking of northern fur seals not only on the Pribilof Islands but also in the Bering Sea. Pelagic sealing began with Native Americans, including the Quileutes and Makahs off the Washington Territory, and the Nuu-chah-nulths, Haida, and Tsimshians off of British Columbia (Murray 1988, 17–19). Later, the lucrative value of fur-seal pelts inspired a breed of entrepreneurial whites to take up pelagic sealing in the U.S. Government's imposed off limits to foreign vessels in of the Bering Sea under its policy of mare clausum or "closed sea."

When commercial pelagic sealing first occurred in the Bering Sea is uncertain. Piratical sealers assailed the Pribilof Islands at least four times from 1874–1876. In 1877, the government responded by sending the Revenue Cutter Rush to patrol the area. Some accounts suggest that the pelagic sealing venture into the Bering Sea started in 1880 with Captain Kathgard who is credited with taking nearly 500 seals (Townsend 1899; Scheffer et al. 1984, 8). Other sources give credit to the Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, brothers Daniel (Dan) and Alexander (Alex) McLean (Busch 1985, 141; Howay 1914; Jupp 1967).19 Howay stated, “In 1883, the sealing schooners for the first time entered that water [Bering Sea]. It is claimed that the first sealer to enter was the American City of San Diego, in command Capt. Daniel McLean the original character of Jack London’s Sea Wolf” (Busch 1985, 140–141). But author Peter Murray (1988, 25) contends that in 1882, the Victoria, B.C. schooners Triumph and San Diego skippered by Captains William Douglas and James Carthcut, respectively, were the first to seal off shore, in the open waters of the Bering; Carthcut purportedly hired the McLean brothers as navigator and boat-puller. Pelagic sealing between 1884 and 1911 was particularly devastating to the fur-seal herd, which reduced it to about 200,000 by 1911, down from around 2.5 million in the 1870s. The killing of female seals at sea also resulted in the death of their unborn pups and the starvation of their newborn pups on shore. This needless slaughter comprised 60 to 80% of the take (Baker et al. 1970). The true waste of pelagic sealing resulted when many of the killed seals sank before they could be retrieved at sea (Fur-Seal Arbitration; Baker et al. 1970; Riley 1967). American, Canadian, and Japanese sealers in the North Pacific practiced pelagic sealing without regard to the age, sex, or number of seals taken. Records of pelagic seal takes vary widely among authors (cf. Busch 1985, 146–147), but according to Riley (1967), the recorded annual pelagic take of seals peaked at 61,838 in 1894.

Photo of fleet of small boats.
Part of the sealing fleet at Unalaska, July, 1896 (Jordan 1899, 629).

Pelagic sealing and jurisdiction over fur seals on the high seas fueled national and international controversy for more than two decades (Buchanan 1929; Baker et al. 1970; Riley 1967). International Fur-Seal Arbitrations held in Paris in 1893 generated sixteen volumes entitled the Fur-Seal Arbitration: Proceedings of the Tribunal of Arbitration at Paris published by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1895. The Tribunal made determinations concerning the jurisdictional right of the United States in the waters of the Bering Sea, and restricted pelagic sealing within sixty miles of the Pribilof Islands. The restriction, however, was difficult to enforce and the seal herd continued to decline in numbers.

In 1911,20  the signing of the Convention between the United States and Other Powers [Great Britain, Japan, and Russia] Providing for the Preservation and Protection of Fur Seals (Treaty Series, No. 564),21 popularly referred to as the Fur-Seal Treaty of 1911 or the North Pacific Fur-Seal Treaty, effectively put an end to the commercial incentive behind pelagic sealing. As the first international treaty for wildlife conservation, the convention represented “a major victory for the conservation of natural resources, a signal triumph for diplomacy…, and a landmark in the history of international cooperation” (Deconde and Rappaport 1969). It prohibited pelagic sealing by citizens of the signatory nations, except by aborigines using primitive weapons, and set out the agreement by which the signatory nations would share the land-based seal harvest.

In 1912, when David Starr Jordan and George A. Clark took the first complete northern fur-seal census, they estimated a population of 215,900 seals on the Pribilof Islands (Baker et al. 1970). At the time of the purchase of Alaska, including the Seal Islands, it was estimated that two to five million animals comprised the seal herd (Riley 1967; Osgood et al. 1915, 21). To allow for the recovery of the severely depleted seal population, an Act of Congress approved on August 24, 1912, prohibited the killing of fur seals anywhere within U.S. jurisdiction in Alaska for five years beginning in 1913 (Riley 1967). In reality, commercial sealing on the Pribilofs ceased when the government took control in 1910, resulting in a moratorium lasting eight years (1910–1917). A census of fur seals in 1923 estimated 600,000 at the Pribilof Islands (Hanna 2008, 59). The only other interruption of commercial fur-sealing operations under U.S. Government oversight occurred during World War II (1942–1943).

World War II and the Aleut Fight for Self-Determination

Japan gave official notice of its intentions to abrogate the 1911 Convention on October 23, 1940, and on October 23, 1941, terminated the convention (Austin and Wilke 1950, 25), just two months before its attack on Pearl Harbor. On June 3 and 4, 1942, the Japanese bombed Unalaska Island in the Aleutian Chain. They invaded the islands of Kiska and Attu three days later. On June 14, the residents of the Pribilof Islands were ordered to evacuate. The U.S. Army Transport, Delarof, resettled the people of St. Paul to a dilapidated cannery, and the people of St. George to a run-down gold mine camp along the shores of Funter Bay, Admiralty Island, in Southeast Alaska. The Pribilovians remained in the dismal, unsanitary, and cramped conditions, suffering from preventable diseases and malnutrition for two years. Generally, World War II internees were forced to remain in camps until the war ended in 1945. Some Pribilovians, however, returned to St. Paul and St. George Islands in 1943 to harvest fur seals, and most of the Pribilovians were allowed to return home in 1944. Upon returning, they discovered many of their homes had been ransacked by American soldiers and their valuable possessions, abandoned in the rush to evacuate, had been stolen or damaged. More than four decades would pass before the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands Restitution Act would recognize the unfair treatment of the Pribilovians during World War II.

The struggle for the right of self-determination by the Pribilof Islands' Aleuts
(Unaagin) persisted for more than thirty years. The Pribilof Islands became a voting precinct in 1948. In 1950, St. Paul Island formed a Community Council and in 1960 the government began a transition program to phase out its administrative responsibilities while the community built up their capacity to assume all public service. Finally, in 1983, the Unaagin broke their bondage to the government as the federal government withdrew all its administrative responsibilities from the Pribilof Islands. The Pribilof Aleuts achieved full responsibility over their own destiny and ownership of the majority of land at St. George and St. Paul Islands.

Treaties and Laws: End of Commercial Sealing

Photo of man stenciling labels on rows of barrels.
Stenciling barrels of seal skins awaiting shipment in 1946 (NARA).

From 1942 to 1957, a provisional agreement between Canada and the United States protected the seals and reserved 20% of the skins for Canada (Baker et al. 1970). In February 1957, the governments of Canada, Japan, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the United States entered into the Interim Convention on Conservation of North Pacific Fur Seals. The Fur-Seal Act of 1966 (Public Law No. 89–702) put into effect the international convention domestically (Baker et al. 1970).

When the United States Senate refused to ratify an extension to the 1957 Interim Convention on Conservation of North Pacific Fur Seals in 1984, commercial sealing ceased at the Pribilof Islands. The convention governed seal harvests, but without the convention the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA) took precedence over the management and protection of the northern fur seal, as well as other marine mammals found within the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone. The MMPA made it illegal to harvest or import any marine mammal. This left the Aleuts in need of a new livelihood. The end of the fur-seal industry also meant that the United States government would return control of the islands to the Aleuts. This transfer of responsibility created challenges for both the Aleuts and the U.S. government.

Aleut Self-Determination

After the expiration of the 1957 Interim Convention on Conservation of the North Pacific Fur Seals, in 1984, the fur-seal industry collapsed and Pribilovians initially struggled with what to do next. The Aleut communities quickly adapted to profiting from their location within the world’s most productive natural fishery. The king and snow crab fisheries boomed in the 1990s and the Pribilof Islands benefited from it through the installation of fish processing facilities, support of fuel and provisions, and from portions of State tax revenues on fishery landings. Overfishing by the crab fishing industry served to redirect the Pribilof Islands Aleuts towards a robust halibut fisheryi n the late 1990's. The halibut fishery shows signs of decline in the early 21st century due in part due to sea temperature anomalies and fishing pressure, but resource managers predict continued good harvests. Prior to the end of the first decade in the third millennium, the Pribilof Islands still benefit from their location in the world’s richest fishing grounds. Rising energy costs and distance from markets challenge local efforts to eke out an existence that relies almost exclusively on waning rich biological resources.

Government Administration Ends

As mentioned in the Introduction, a long line of federal agencies administered the Pribilof Islands between 1867 and 1984. In 1970, President Nixon authorized the formation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, under the Department of Commerce). NOAA became the agency responsible for protecting most marine mammals, including Callorhinus ursinus, the northern fur seal. In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (see Document Library) directed the federal government to transfer title of traditional Native lands to Alaskan Native Americans. By 1984 more than 95% of the land at St. George and St. Paul Islands came under the ownership of the Native Aleut inhabitants. NOAA, as the former land managing agency of these Pribilof Islands, became the agency responsible for restoring the environmental integrity compromised by the former fur-seal industry.

Aleut Management and Ownership of the Pribilof Islands

In 1950, a corporate charter, constitution, and bylaws for the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, Alaska, were ratified in accordance with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Still, the federal government retained ownership of land on St. Paul Island as a special reservation. Exercising its new rights, the Aleut Community of St. Paul filed a petition with the Indian Claims Commission.22 The petition alleged, among other things, that the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island exclusively occupied St. Paul Island and had exclusive possession of the entire island (with the exception of some buildings and improvements that had been the property of the Russian Government or the Russian-American Company) at the time the United States assumed sovereignty over the island; the United States and its lessees increasingly disregarded the possessory rights of the Aleut Community of St. Paul. The Fur-Seal Act of 1966 (Public Law No. 89-702) authorized the Secretary of the Interior to set apart land on St. Paul Island for the establishment of a town site, which would include land to be conveyed to individual Natives. This provision was contingent on the establishment of a viable self-governing community capable of providing municipal services (e.g., the incorporation of a St. Paul municipality). Ultimately, it was the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA, Public Law No. 92-203) that set the stage for the return of Alaska Native lands to indigenous populations. It authorized Alaska Natives to select and receive title to forty-four million acres of land and to receive $962,000,000 in cash as settlement of their aboriginal claim to land in the state.

The Aleut Corporation was one of thirteen Alaska Native regional corporations established pursuant to ANCSA. Under the umbrella of The Aleut Corporation, Aleut Natives formed village corporations. The Tanadgusix Corporation (TDX) became the St. Paul Island village corporation, and the St. George Tanaq Corporation became the St. George Island village corporation. Aleuts became the owners of the major portion of the Pribilof Islands. The Aleut Corporation gained ownership of the subsurface estate on much of St. Paul and St. George Islands. The village corporations received most of the islands’ surface estate. The U.S. Government retained certain portions of the Pribilof Islands, including those associated with the commercial fur-sealing operations. Section 3(e) of ANCSA directed that the government retain “the smallest practicable tract …enclosing land actually used in connection with the administration of any Federal installation.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Tanadgusix Corporation, and the St. George Tanaq Corporation signed a memorandum of understanding regarding Pribilof Islands land selections on December 22, 1976. Under the memorandum of understanding and consistent with Section 3(e) of ANCSA, NOAA identified government withdrawals of land used to support its interests in commercial fur sealing, including infrastructure maintenance, marine mammal management, navigation, and weather forecasting on the Pribilof Islands.

The Aleut community of St. Paul Island incorporated as a fourth-class city on June 29, 1971 (Phyllis Swetzof 2006, pers. comm.) and assumed responsibility to provide public services. In 1972, it became a second-class Alaska municipality in conformance with revised state legislation. Effective September 1, 1976, the City of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island changed its name to the City of Saint Paul. The City of Saint George was incorporated as a second-class Alaskan city on September 13, 1983.

In 1981, the United States, acting through the Secretary of the Interior, entered into an agreement with the Tanadgusix Corporation, the St. George Tanaq Corporation, and The Aleut Corporation to acquire lands on the Pribilof Islands for the establishment of the Pribilof Islands Subunit of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The Secretary of the Interior agreed to pay $5,200,000 as compensation for the acquisition of such lands and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act selection rights relinquished by the Tanadgusix Corporation and the St. George Tanaq Corporation. The lands conveyed to the United States included specified shoreline from mean high tide to a point 150 feet inland from the top edge of the cliffs as well as other lands on St. Paul and St. George Islands, and the entireties of Walrus and Otter Islands.

The North Pacific Fur-Seal Commission, established under the 1957 Interim Convention on Conservation of the North Pacific Fur Seals, declared St. George Island a “control area” for biological research in 1973, prompted by declining seal populations (Mobley 1993; Federal Register 38(147):206000). This ended the commercial harvests on St. George. The U.S. Government transferred commercial fur-sealing operations to Native entities on St. Paul Island a decade later pursuant to the Fur-Seal Act Amendments of 1983 (Public Law No. 98–129). The Tanadgusix Corporation conducted its first and last commercial fur-seal harvest in 1984. On October 14, 1984, the commercial sealing industry ended with the expiration of the convention. Since 1985, fur seals on the Pribilofs have been taken for Native subsistence only, as currently governed by regulations found in 50 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) part 216, subpart F under the authority of the Fur-Seal Act of 1983 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Very few pelts are retained for handicrafts.

As directed in Section 205 of the Fur-Seal Act Amendment of 1983, NOAA worked with local entities to draft and approve an agreement known as Transfer of Property on the Pribilof Islands: Descriptions, Terms and Conditions, or the Transfer of Property Agreement. The Aleut Community Council of St. Paul, the Tanadgusix Corporation, the City of Saint Paul, the Aleut community of St. George, the St. George Tanaq Corporation, and the City of Saint George were signatories. The agreement described federal government land conveyances, the recipients, the terms, and the Pribilof lands the government was to retain. Each signatory received land under this agreement. In the late 1980s, NOAA transferred the hotel, cottages, and property on St. George Island previously connected with commercial fur-sealing operations, excluding the sealing plant and rookeries, to the St. George Tanaq Corporation and the City of Saint George. On St. Paul Island, NOAA transferred dwellings occupied by island inhabitants but retained other ANCSA Section 3 (e) withdrawal lands pending environmental restoration.

It has been said that the Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands were “slaves of the harvest.” On June 9, 1978, the Aleut Tribe and the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island filed a lawsuit known as the “Corned Beef Case” against the United States. The Indian Claims Commission determined that the U.S. Government was obligated to provide fair compensation and sufficient goods and services to the Pribilof Aleuts for the years 1870–1946.23 The plaintiffs won a judgment in the amount of $11,239,604, less allowable gratuitous offsets. A decade later, the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands Restitution Act, Title II of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (Public Law No. 100–383), offered additional recognition of, and compensation for, unfair treatment of the Pribilof Aleuts. It declared that: (1) the Aleut civilian residents of certain islands who were relocated during World War II remained relocated long after any potential danger had passed; (2) the United States failed to provide reasonable care for the Aleuts, resulting in illness, disease, and death, and failed to protect Aleut personal and community property; (3) the United States did not compensate the Aleuts adequately; and (4) there was no remedy for injustices suffered by the Aleuts except an Act of Congress.

Today, St. George and St. Paul Islands each function under three distinct non-federal entities: a municipal government, a tribal government or traditional council, and a village corporation. NOAA continues to manage the fur seals through co-management agreements with the islands’ tribal governments. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the islands’ extensive bird rookeries.

Seal Islands Historic District National Historic Landmark

On June 13, 1962, the Seal Islands became one of fifteen sites in Alaska to become eligible for the Registry of National Landmarks under provisions of the Historic Sites Act of 1935. 24 This Act “declared that it is a national policy to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings, and objects of national significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States.” Section 462 (b) of this Act empowered the Secretary of the Interior through the National Parks Service to “Make a survey of historic and archaeologic sites, buildings, and objects for the purpose of determining which possess exceptional value as commemorating or illustrating the history of the United States.”25 The Historic Sites Act of 1935, subsequently amended eight times, became known as the National Historic Preservation Act. On September 27, 1966, the National Parks Service presented a bronze plaque to Mr. C. Howard Baltzo, Program Director for the Marine Mammal Resources Program, to commemorate the Fur Seal Rookeries of the Pribilof Islands of Alaska as a Registered National Historic Landmark.26 The plaque was installed at St. Paul Island. In 2008, three non-contiguous units, two on St. Paul Island and one on St. George Island, comprise the National Historic Landmark. The combined units cover about 14% of the land area of the two islands. Designated by the Secretary of the Interior and administered by the National Park Service, National Historic Landmarks are nationally significant historic places possessing exceptional value in commemorating or illustrating the heritage of the United States (36 Code of Federal Regulations Part 65). National Historic Landmarks may be objects, structures, buildings, sites, or districts, as is the case with the Seal Islands Historic District. The Seal Islands Historic District includes the locations of archeological resources, historic seal rookeries and killing grounds, settlement areas, and commercial processing structures on St. Paul and St. George Islands.

Map of St. George.
Map of Saint George Island historically significant areas (NOAA)
Click on the image to view a larger map.
Map of St. George.
Map of Saint George Island historically significant areas (NOAA)
Click on the image to view a larger map.

On St. George Island, the Seal Islands Historic District includes the structures listed below.

Photo of Plaque designating the Fur Seal Rookeries as a historic landmark.
National Historic Landmark plaque (NARA).

St. George Buildings of Potential Historic Significance but not on the National Historic Landmark Nomination:

Photo of plaque on rock.
A bronze plaque dedicating the Seal Islands National Historic Landmark was attached to a rock above Kitovi Rookery, Lukanin Bay, St. Paul Island in 1966 by Pribilof Islands Program Director, Howard Baltzo.

On St. Paul Island, the Seal Islands Historic District includes the structures listed below.

Photo of rock where missing plaque was placed.
Sometime prior to 2008, the plaque was removed and its whereabouts remains unknown to island officials.

St. Paul Buildings of Potential Historic Significance but not on the National Historic Landmark Nomination:

The National Register of Historic Places
The U.S. Department of the Interior included the Church of the Holy Great Martyr Saint George the Victorious Orthodox Church on St. George Island and the Church of the Holy Apostles Saints Peter and Paul Church on St. Paul Island in the National Register of Historic Places on June 6, 1980. The National Register of Historic Places, administered by the National Park Service, is the official federal list of objects, structures, buildings, sites, and districts significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering, and culture. All National Historic Landmarks are included in the National Register; thus, the National Register also lists the Seal Islands Historic District.

Literary Contributions

The Pribilof Islands and the northern fur-seal industry, including pelagic sealing, contributed greatly to the literary imaginations of numerous authors. Some significant works include The Sea Wolf by Jack London, with a film of the same title starring Edward G. Robinson; The Far Call by Edison Marshall; Matka and Kotik by David Starr Jordan; Libby and Seloe by Betty John; The World in His Arms by Rex Beach, with a film of the same title starring Gregory Peck, Anne Blythe, and Anthony Quinn; a poem, The White Seal by Rudyard Kipling; and a musical composition The Beaches of Lukannon by Percy Aldridge Granger. Walt Disney Productions won the first Oscar for “Best Short Subject” in 1949 with its natural history documentary entitled Seal Island. This film began Disney’s legendary sojourn into natural history filmmaking.

Photo of a group of men on shore with a boat.
Cast and crew of the movie The World in His Arms (NARA).