Area History



A significant number of archaeological sites have been found within the refuge, mostly along waterbodies at prime hunting and fishing locations. Archaeologists believe that the Yukon Flats likely formed part of the corridor that American Indians traveled more than 10,000 years ago to access North America from the Bering Land Bridge. The Native people of the Yukon Flats are primarily Gwich’in Athabascans who were historically nomadic, wandering the landscape to subsist off of seasonally abundant fish, wildlife, and plants. In the spring and summer, ducks, geese, muskrats, and fish provide sustenance, while moose and caribou are the primary source of meat in the winter months. 

Environmental and Cultural Overview of the Yukon Flats Region

Fur Trapping and Gold

In 1838, Russian fur traders arrived in eastern Alaska but only made it as far as Nulato, 350 miles downriver of the refuge. In 1845, John Bell became the first Anglo to reach Yukon Flats. Two years later, he established Alaska’s first English-speaking community, Fort Yukon, as a fur trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Company. During peak production, Fort Yukon exported as many as 8,000 marten pelts each year, making it the Hudson’s Bay Company’s most important fur producer west of the Rocky Mountains. With the introduction of trapping for European fur traders, the subsistence lifestyle of local natives changed to incorporate wage labor such as cutting wood for steamboats and freight hauling. After the U. S. purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, Hudson’s Bay Company was forced to relocate to Canadian soil, and the Alaska Commercial Company assumed operations in Fort Yukon. Fort Yukon still stands today and is the most populous community inside the refuge boundary. 

Gold was discovered on Birch Creek in 1893, and the community of Circle rapidly expanded to a population of more than 1,000 people during the boom that followed. Although news of gold elsewhere eventually lured miners away, trapping continued to expand due to high fur prices. Fort Yukon was the most important fur center in Alaska in the 1920s until low fur prices in the 1940s decimated the industry.

Proposed Hydroelectric Project at Rampart Canyon

During the late 1950s, a major hydroelectric dam project was proposed for the Yukon River at Rampart Canyon, about 85 miles downriver from the refuge. That dam, if constructed, would have flooded the entire Yukon Flats and the villages within it, creating a lake larger than Lake Erie. Environmental organizations, hunters, Alaska Native groups, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took a firm stand against this proposed project. In order to illustrate the importance of the Yukon Flats to national waterfowl populations, biologists conducted extensive waterfowl banding efforts. The results of these efforts showed that birds breeding at the Yukon Flats  overwintered throughout the entire United States , supplementing each of the four North American flyways. The final report stated that “Nowhere in the history of water development in North America have the fish and wildlife losses anticipated to result from a single project been so overwhelming.” As a result, official protection of the Yukon Flats by the federal government began in 1978 with the designation of the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Monument.

Rampart Dam

      Map of the giant reservoir that would have been created with the construction of the Rampart Dam.