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Island History
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.

Photo of tall white towers near shore.

The Naval Radio Station on St. Paul Island (NARA).

Treasury Agents on the Pribilof Islands

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

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).

Photo of man stenciling labels on rows of barrels.

Stenciling barrels of seal skins awaiting shipment in 1946 ( NARA ).

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.

The Unangan

The Russian Period

Aleut Management and Ownership of the Pribilof Islands

Seal Islands Historic District National Historic Landmark

Literary Contributions


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NOAA created this product in partial fulfillment of a memorandum of agreement between it and the Alaska State Historic Preservation Officer.
Last update July 15, 2008