Refuge History - Pre - 1800

. . . Beginning 

A World without People

Volcanoes push up from the sea. Ocean levels fluctuate. Animals arrive and adapt to dynamic marine conditions as they find niches along the forming continent’s miles of coastline.

10,000 BC to 1,000 BC
Coming into the Country

Ancestors of today’s Alaska Native peoples settle along the coast, taking advantage of the abundant marine resources. They adapt their traditional customs to the environment in which they live.

First Sighting of Northwest America by Europeans

Rusians Gvozdev and Fedorov in the ship St. Gabriel sail through today’s Bering Strait and around the Diomede and King islands. They seek fur-bearing animals but see none. A King Island Native paddles his kayak out to their ship and in sign language tells of furs on the mainland. It is September, however, and the crew is low on food and the St. Gabriel is leaking, the ship returns to Kamchatka without sighting mainland Alaska. A trip report and map remain unpublished until 1743. 

Land to Mother Russia’s East

Separated in a storm, both Vitus Bering and Russian expedition partner Aleksei Chirikov sight mainland America within 36 hours of each other – Chirikov first on 15 July in southeast Alaska and then Bering saw the Wrangel-St. Elias mountains from the Gulf of Alaska. The voyage is successful for some and fatal for others.

Wildlife Proves Arrival in New World

Naturalist Georg Steller on Bering’s ship is the first to record Alaska’s wildlife, confirming that they had indeed arrived in a new country. He documents previously unknown species, many of which bear his name today – including Steller’s jay and Steller sea lion. 

Surviving on Sea Cows, Seabirds

Almost home to Kamchatka (Russia), Vitus Bering’s ship wrecks on an island west of the Aleutians. Bering and many of his men die before winter is over. Meat of a gentle manatee (Steller’s sea cow) and seabirds such as spectacled cormorant help remaining crew survive.

Return Home with a Wealth of Sea Otter Furs

Expedition survivors and the crew of the partner ship captained by Aleksei Chirikov return to Russia with sea otter pelts – and spark a fur rush similar to later gold rushes. 

Bad Blood between Newcomers and Natives

The first wave of Russian fur traders (promyshleniki) lands in the western Aleutian Islands, forcing the Aleut Natives to hunt sea otters for them. On Agattu, Michael Nevodchikov and his crew encounter 100 Aleuts and shoot one Aleut man in the hand. The Russians sail next to Attu where they kill 17 Aleut men. Later explorers are attacked by Aleut to the east in the Rat Island group. These encounters foretell the tense relationship between newcomers and Natives that lasts for more than a century. 

Russians Introduce First Foxes

To sweeten the lucrative fur market, Russian trader Andreian Tolstykh captures arctic blue foxes on the Commander Islands of Russia and releases them on Attu – the first of many introductions of non-native land mammals to the remote Aleutian Islands. Foxes feast on the abundant seabirds that evolved without defenses against such voracious predators. 

Extinction is Forever

The 25-foot-long Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) disappears from the earth, wiped out by Russian mariners a mere 27 years after its discovery by the Bering expedition. Naturalist Georg Steller provides the only written account of this cousin to the manatee: "They munch along the shore just like land animals with slow, steady movement forward."

The newcomers took 100 years to wipe out another Bering Sea species described by Steller, the flightless spectacled cormorant. 

Cook’s Voyage

Captain James Cook and crew explore Alaska’s coastline as far as the Bering Strait in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. Other explorers follow over the next several decades, braving harsh climate and racing ahead of treacherous ice conditions of the Arctic. Many coastal features bear the names of explorers, naturalists, traders, and their sponsors – Chirikof and Chamisso islands, and Cook Inlet. 


Rats escape from a sinking Japanese fishing boat on the western Aleutian Island later named "Rat Island." This incident begins a series of "rat spills" that proved more deadly than oil spills to island-nesting birds – rats crawl into nesting burrows and along narrow cliff ledges, stealing eggs and killing chicks and adults. Rats continue to plague refuge bird life today. 

Fur Seal Nursery Invaded

Gavrill Pribylov, Russian navigator, discovers a treasure chest of new furs – the pupping beaches of millions of northern fur seals. He names the pair of seal islands for the ships that first land on each, St. George and St. Paul. 

Slaves of the Harvest

Wanting to cash in on this new fur source, Pribylov relocates 137 Aleuts from Atka and Unalaska to the uninhabited "Pribilof Islands" to harvest the fur seals by the thousands "for the glory of Russia." This begins two centuries of slavery for these uprooted Alaska Natives.

Back in the Aleutians, the local Aleut/Unangan have declined in population from an estimated 16,000 when the Russians first arrived to less than 1,900. The newcomers had yet to spread their influence to Tlingit, Haida, Inupiat and Yup’ik peoples. 

Mapping Islands in Southeast Alaska

In 1787 George Dixon, who earlier sailed with Captain James Cook, returned to Southeast Alaska on a trading voyage and mapped the islands he passed. What would become the farthest south island in the refuge, visited by local Kaigani Haida people for collecting seabird eggs, Dixon called Forrester after his ship’s steward. The mist-filled air along the coast probably suggested the name Hazy that Dixon gave to the sheer pinnacle he saw in Tlingit territory farther north, now also part of the refuge. 

An Island of White Bears!

The first recorded expedition to stop at remote St. Matthew and Hall islands see several polar bears in mid-July. They "swam round the ship while we were at anchor, and three of them made many attempts to get up the ship’s side" wrote the expedition historian. 

An Island is Born

A glowing ash cloud obscures the horizon as the ground quakes in the eastern Aleutians. When the cloud clears, Natives see a new island "shaped like a black pointed cap." Twice the volcano hurls rocks as far as Umnak Island – 30 miles. The island continues to grow. When Native hunters visit the new island – Bogoslof – eight years later, they find the water warm and the ground still too hot for walking. 

Fur Tally

Since their arrival, Russian fur traders have exported a total of more than 400,000 fur seals, 96,000 sea otters, and 102,000 fox pelts from the Pribilof and Aleutian islands and Kodiak.

First Monopoly

Russia grants the Russian America Company the first of several consecutive charters for a 20 year monopoly to manage the trading business and settlements in what is now Alaska.