Refuge History - 1800s


Conserving Seals
The Russians ban taking of seals on their breeding islands in the Pribilofs as a conservation measure as the animals become fewer. The ban is lifted in 1808.

Names Keep Changing
An island in Tlingit territory in Southeast Alaska, that would later become part of the refuge, is renamed "Saint Lazaria" by navigator and mapmaker Ivan Filipovich Vasilev who lived nearby in Sitka, capital of Russian America.

When Foxes Come, Birds Go
20 years after Russian fur promoters introduced arctic foxes on Atka Island in the central Aleutians, local Aleuts complain that foxes have driven away birds and now they must travel to other islands for feathers and bird skins to make their traditional clothing. On Attu, site of the first known introduction of foxes in the Aleutians, the Aleuts turn to making clothing from fish skins.

Flowers Tell a Story
Adelbert von Chamisso, naturalist with Otto von Kotzebue’s second round-the-world voyage, collects plants at every Alaska landfall. For more than 100 years the herbarium he compiled from the voyage is the principal source of knowledge about the flora of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. An island named for Chamisso is part of the Alaska Maritime Refuge.

Missionaries at Work
Father Ioann Veniaminof arrives in the Aleutian Islands to spread the Word of God through the Russian Orthodox Church. He remains in Unalaska for 20 years, ministering to the local Aleut/Unangan people, ordaining Native priests, and creating an alphabet to preserve the Unangan language.

United States and Britain Sign on for Trade
Russia signs two conventions with the United States and Britain allowing foreign ships to trade in Russian territory including Alaska. This opens the door for fierce competition by other traders such as the Hudson’s Bay Company, halting further expansion by Russians into North America.

Thar She Blows!
Bowhead whales, rich in oil and plates of baleen, are first harvested by newcomers to the North Pacific and Arctic waters. In the next few years, more than 500 New England whaling ships set sail for these new whaling grounds. The slow-moving docile beasts are easily captured, rendering 100 barrels of oil per whale. The most prosperous whaling year is 1852 with 2,682 bowhead whales harvested. By 1855 bowheads are near extinction.

Last shots of Civil War fired here
In the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia on June 22 through 29, the Confederate Navy raider CSS Shenandoah captures and burns 25 Yankee whaling ships in the last offensive action of the Civil War - two and a half months after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

Russians Sell Alaska
Alaska changes hands. Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft wrote "... this vast area of land, belonging by right to neither, was transferred from one European race to the offshoot of another."


Russia sells its claims on the land of Russian America and the vessels of the Russian American Company to the United States of America for $7,200,000. The territory is named Alaska, based on a derivative of the Unangan term Alaxaxaq meaning "land east of the Aleutians." American traders, fishers, trappers, and prospectors become the next wave of settlers.

First Wildlife Reservation in USA
Congress creates the Pribilof Islands Reservation (including St. Paul, St. George, Walrus and Otter islands) to protect fur seals on their main breeding grounds. The American government will use these animals as a cash crop until 1983.

Reporting on Wildlife Resources
Scientist William Healy Dall surveys the Aleutians and observes that on islands such as Attu and Atka where foxes had been introduced, birds nest on offshore rocks and islets and only in inaccessible locations. On fox-free islands, those same kinds of birds nest on banks and hillsides of the main islands and avoid the offshore inlets. Birds are "bold and fearless" on fox-free islands.

Studying Fur Seals and Polar Bears
Henry Wood Elliott, scientist studying northern fur seals on the Pribilof Islands, took a special sailing trip north 230 miles to view the polar bears that live year-round on St. Matthew Island. Earlier reports "did not cause us to be equal to the sight we saw, for we met bears, yea hundreds of them." Elliott and his party surveyed the island for nine days and were never out of sight of bears. He estimated 250 to 300 bears.

A Struggling Culture
After nearly a century and a half under foreign control, a combination of disputes, forced labor, and disease reduce the Unangan to only two traditional settlements in the western and central Aleutians - Chichagof Harbor on Attu Island and Nazan Bay on Atka Island.

Bogoslof Volcano Awakens Again
Fire Island ("new Bogoslof") rose from the depths of the Bering Sea and remained steaming for about 10 years. It was periodically joined to Bogoslof by sandy spits and changed shape from cone to table top by 1895.

No More Walrus on Walrus Island
The last walrus that used Walrus Island in the Pribilof Islands is shot. After decimating the whales, foreign traders harvest other marine mammals including walruses. The Ice-laden waters of the Chukchi Sea provide some safety for remaining walruses and seals.

One Small Conservation Step
President Harrison proclaims Afognak Island and surrounding waters a Forest and Fish Culture Reservation to protect salmon, other fish and wildlife, and forest resources. Those offshore islets and waters are part of today’s Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, one of the few refuges that includes marine waters.

Americans Stock Islands with Foxes
Americans escalate the introduction of foxes to Alaskan islands to establish fox farming businesses. From now until the 1930s blue arctic and red foxes are released to fend for themselves on more than 450 islands from the Aleutians to Southeast Alaska. Foxes survive on ground-nesting native birds until those bird populations are devastated.

Unique Island Polar Bears Gone
Eager to see and hunt the polar bears that live year-round on St. Matthew Island, the Harriman Expedition, with John Muir aboard, lands there. No bears are found, only their deep-worn trails and bones. Polar bears are never again seen there in summer.

In 1909 St. Matthew and neighboring Hall and Pinnacle islands will be named among the first wildlife refuges in Alaska by President Theodore Roosevelt and are now part of Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.