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Refuge notebook: Trapper cabins tell the story of Kenai settlement

Posted: June 20, 2013 - 3:56pm  |  Updated: June 21, 2013 - 9:46am
Photo courtesy Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Tree-rings indicate that the Gruska (or Grushka) Lake cabin, on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, dates to 1925.  Peter Kalifornsky wrote in 1991 that he stayed in the cabin in 1927 while trapping on the Swanson River.
Photo courtesy Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Tree-rings indicate that the Gruska (or Grushka) Lake cabin, on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, dates to 1925. Peter Kalifornsky wrote in 1991 that he stayed in the cabin in 1927 while trapping on the Swanson River.

Fur traders, gold prospectors, big game hunters, commercial fishermen and homesteaders all ventured onto the Kenai Peninsula during the 19th century. This broad range of economic interests resulted in intensive canvassing of Peninsula resources, and yet comparatively little is known about settlement dynamics beyond the establishment of key towns and places.

The partial survival of nearly 100 trapper cabins and mining structures throughout the Peninsula, however, provides opportunities for understanding these frontier processes and livelihoods in greater detail. During the summer of 2009, I began an ambitious project to use dendrochronology (tree ring analysis) to determine construction dates for all of the wooden structures found on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge from which wood samples could be successfully extracted. Several cabins had already been dated using this method by refuge ecologist Dr. Edward Berg (see previous Refuge Notebooks).

Tree-ring samples from 55 structures were analyzed with construction dates estimated for 42 of them. This dendrochronological approach was then coupled with the ethnohistoric research conducted by refuge historian Gary Titus to become my master’s thesis at the University of Alaska Anchorage. I was able to use the resulting spatial and temporal distribution of construction dates to examine the nature of EuroAmerican settlement patterns on the Peninsula.

During the Russian Period (1799-1867), fur trade was established along the Aleutian archipelago. Kodiak Island became an important settlement even as Kasilof and Kenai became trade centers on the Peninsula. The construction of personal trapping cabins here became logical because, by the beginning of the American Period (1867-1895), the Alaska Commercial Company was making fur trapping a viable income for people who lived on the Peninsula. Correspondingly, a number of cabins date to circa 1870. The oldest cabin I examined was the Sholin Brothers’ cabin on the Fox River, which dated to 1868.

Thousands of peopled passed through the area during the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush. Based on tree-ring dates, it appears that people were also moving from the south and settling on the shores of Tustumena Lake in the following two decades, particularly with the official start of homesteading in 1915. There were no roads yet on the peninsula, and settlers had to hike overland through boreal wilderness or use waterways for transportation, but resources were abundant here.

The 1920s was also the period of fox farming and the beginning of commercial fishing on the Peninsula. The flurry of cabin building about this time could also be an indication that not everyone left after the Gold Rush. It is possible that people were building in the hopes of homesteading but none of the cabins I analyzed had homestead claims filed for them. Gary Titus, refuge historian, reports that the 1925 Gruska Lake cabin shown in the photo, although used by Peter Kalifornsky for trapping, was actually built and used by George Oskolkoff as late as 1936.

Many of the cabins I examined were constructed during the Great Depression. Perhaps people were willing to travel to the Far North to make a better life for themselves and their families during this time. The spatial distribution of cabins constructed during this time shows that people were also taking advantage of the Skilak Lake-Kenai River system. Perhaps people needed to run their trap lines in the interior of the peninsula for better returns. It may also reflect a resurgence of trapping following the decline of furbearing animals and the corresponding drop in fur prices in the early 1900s. It is apparent that the community of Tustumena Lake was growing at this time.

The spatial and temporal patterns in cabin construction from the 1890s to the 1930s reflect corresponding shifts in landscape use. Originally focused on lakeshore settlement, growing populations not only pushed northward but began to utilize first river shore and then more remote cabin sites. This process may reflect the intensified land use for trapping, hunting and fishing and a migration of population into remote areas. Many of the cabins in remote locations were probably used only seasonally and not as year-round residences.

By the 1950s, the Kenai Peninsula was becoming more populated. The now-completed Sterling Highway made the peninsula more accessible and opened it to further settlement. People were still forming communities at “optimal resource acquisition” locations and building near water sources. The waterways were once the only transportation routes but, as the road system emerged, people chose building sites nearby. By this time, new regulations had been put into place to prohibit new cabin construction on the refuge.

EuroAmerican settlement on the Kenai Peninsula was found to be a combination of northward migration coupled with the occupation of increasingly remote areas. Dendrochronology was able to identify peaks in settlement population while providing greater precision to the ethnographic record by defining dates that were previously listed as “early 1930s” or “around 1940”. It is amazing what tree rings from old (and sometimes dilapidated) cabins can tell us about our collective past.

 

Tiffany Curtis was enrolled in the Student Temporary Employment Program at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge while completing her thesis at UAA. She now works as an archaeology technician for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage. You can find more information about the refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

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