Tlingit Management of the Klawock Salmon System

Note: This essay was first published in Pacific Fishing magazine. 

Last month, we learned of the connection between the Treaty of Cession in 1867 (through which the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia) and the establishment of Alaska’s first cannery in Klawock on Prince of Wales Island in 1878. Klawock proves to be a fascinating place to examine the ways that the indigenous salmon fishery and the commercial salmon industry came together in the early days of Alaska’s seafood industry.

Early visitors to the North Pacific Trading and Packing Co. remarked on the exceptional run of salmon at Klawock. “Fish run in the vicinity of Klawock in miraculous numbers, a catch of 7,000 at a time being no unusual thing,” noted one visitor in the late 1870s. The Klawock River was so prodigious partially due to the skilled management of the salmon system by the Tlingit Gaanaxadi clan. The Gaanaxadi clan owned a resource-rich area of Prince of Wales Island around Klawock, including the Klawock estuary and the abundant herring spawning grounds nearby. Looking at historic records, it is possible to see how the Gaanaxadi clan continued to assert their rights over the fishery and persist in managing the system during the first decades of commercial exploitation of the area.

North Pacific Trading and Packing Co at Klawock in 1898, courtesy NARA.

North Pacific Trading and Packing Co at Klawock in 1898, courtesy NARA.

The Tlingit had a sophisticated fisheries management structure in place in Southeast Alaska. This regime is better referred to as “engagement,” according to anthropologist Stephen Langdon, since management implies a hierarchical relationship. Tlingit fishing methods were based on a world view that perceived salmon as beings, similar to humans, who made choices, lived human-like existences at sea, and who would only return if they were treated honorably.

It was the job of the clan leaders known as héen s’aatí to determine who could fish, how the fish would be harvested, at what time, and how many. The héen s’aatí were on-the-ground fisheries managers who knew the river system and the run better than anybody else. Tlingit clans had well-developed notions of private property rights. Hunting grounds and salmon streams were viewed as clan property. The héen s’aatí determined who could access the fishing grounds.

Teqahaite was the héen s’aatí in the 1880s and 1890s in Klawock, and he is reported to be the “possessor of the largest and best canoes at Klawak [sic], and claims 2 or 3 of the best fishing streams in the vicinity,” according to the 1890 census. When the North Pacific Trading and Packing Co started canning at Klawock, it seems the cannery received permission from the héen s’aatí to harvest fish and paid for the privilege, as documented in a lease agreement between the cannery and Teqahaite in the Ketchikan Recording Office. Americans relied on deeds and legal documents to ascribe title, but the Tlingit installed petroglyphs, totems, and other monuments to indicate ownership of streams. Teqahaite followed the Euro-American and Tlingit protocols, both signing the lease and installing a marble monument next to the cannery with his name on it. This monument still stands today.

There were ritual actions that ensured the salmon would return--- such as returning the bones of salmon to their home river--- but it was the work and knowledge deployed to determine fishing location, intensity, timing, and gear that ensured escapement. The héen s’aatí would oversee the preparation of the fishing gear and modify the gear based on the natural features of a fishing spot, the intensity of the run, and observed escapement. “The Klawock estuary is a highly engineered landscape,” Steve Langdon explains. “The understanding that you cannot obstruct salmon going to their homes was absolutely a critical, moral foundation for Tlingit leadership.”

The Tlingit invented trolling, but most salmon fishing occurred where the most fish conglomerate: at the intertidal zone near salmon streams and within rivers. Fishing weirs were constructed of rocks or carved wooden stakes. The walls of the weirs were constructed so that at high tide salmon could easily access their home streams. As the tide ebbed, the weirs prevented some of the salmon from surging back to sea with the tide. These fish were trapped in pools constructed behind the weirs and harvested on the beach. To create another common type of fishing weir, women wove cedar mats which were staked near streams. These systems served as removable pens for the salmon. The Tlingit converted the tidelands of Southeast Alaska into a form of fishing gear that allowed for escapement. Today, both stone and stake weir systems are evident in the tidelands throughout Southeast Alaska and near Klawock.

After Alaska Purchase, the First Salmon Cannery Pops Up

Note: This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of Pacific Fishing.

“But this Treaty is the beginning… Our own Fisheries, now so considerable, were small in the beginning… Small beginnings, therefore, are no discouragement to me,” Senator Charles Sumner, Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, said to the US Senate on April 8, 1867, speaking of the potential of Alaska’s mostly-unknown fisheries.

Just the week before, Secretary of State William Seward negotiated the Treaty of Cession with Russian Ambassador Eduard de Stoeckl. The United States was about to purchase Alaska for $7.2 million, but the treaty required Senate approval. Sumner spoke to the Senate at length about the opportunities available to the United States if the body approved the acquisition of Russian America.

Sumner waxed about the otters, the timber, the potential for mines (gold had not been discovered in significant quantities in Alaska), but he ended with fisheries. He detailed the reports of European explorers who caught hundreds of halibut with limited effort, of large Native communities subsisting on salmon through the winter, of the newly pioneered cod grounds off the Aleutian Islands. He envisioned an Alaskan fishing industry that would feed growing domestic markets in California, that would export salted fish to majority Catholic nations in Latin America, and that would provide seafood to nascent Chinese and Japanese markets.

Sumner knew that Alaska Natives were exceptional seamen, and imagined a day that

“The beautiful baidar will give way to the fishing smack, the clipper, and the steamer. All things will be changed in form and proportion; but the original aptitude for the sea will remain. A practical race of intrepid navigators will swarm the coast, ready for any enterprise of business or patriotism. Commerce will find new arms; the country new defenders; the national flag new hands to bear it aloft.”

He concluded his speech, stating, “…the Fisheries, which, in waters superabundant with animal life beyond any of the globe, seem to promise a new commerce to the country.” The next day, the US Senate ratified the treaty. Alaska and its marine resources became American.

The commercial salmon industry started soon after. Entrepreneurs salted fish in barrels at Karluk on Kodiak Island, in Karta Bay on Prince of Wales Island and elsewhere. But it was a Scottish entrepreneur named George Hamilton who claims the glory of founding what would become the first establishment to put out a can of salmon in Alaska.

Hamilton started a saltery at Klawock on Prince of Wales Island in 1869. He sold his concern to a California firm called Sisson, Wallace & Co and became a shareholder in the newly established North Pacific Trading & Packing Co.  In 1878, the first two canneries were built on Alaska’s shores. The North Pacific Trading and Packing Co. was established at “Hamilton’s Fishery” in Klawock, while the Cutting Packing Co. was built in Sitka. However, the Klawock cannery managed to process the first can of salmon, thus earning the distinction of being remembered as the first cannery in Alaska.

Fred Hamilton of Craig, the 96-year old grandson of the founder of Alaska's first cannery. Fred is also the oldest living Haida man. 

Fred Hamilton of Craig, the 96-year old grandson of the founder of Alaska's first cannery. Fred is also the oldest living Haida man. 

Little is recorded about the early American era of Alaska’s fishing history, and even less about George Hamilton. This summer I traveled to Prince of Wales Island in an attempt to track down new sources and old memories. There I met Fred Hamilton of Craig, Alaska. Fred is the 96 year old grandson of George Hamilton. Fred never met his grandfather, but recalled what he had heard of him. “He was a businessman. He did a lot of travelling. He built a sawmill here, along with a partner. They had a schooner here that delivered lumber.” Fred’s grandmother is a Haida woman named Maggie. Perhaps it is partly due to this family connection that many of the cannery workers at the North Pacific Trading & Packing Co. were Alaska Natives in the early years, when most other establishments relied on Chinese crews.

I asked Fred why Klawock was selected as the site for this early cannery. “They always looked for a good supply of water. And Klawock had a good supply. It’s a protected place, with a really good salmon stream there and a lake, with all species of fish except king salmon.” There were ample fishermen, as well; the cannery purchased salmon from local Natives.

At the time of the establishment of the Klawock cannery, eleven years had passed since Sumner’s speech and the subsequent Alaska Purchase. Alaska’s commercial salmon industry was tiny, but it was viable. It was Fred Hamilton’s grandparents who took the early steps to convert Charles Sumner’s vision for Alaska into reality.

Cocaine, Sex and the Dethroning of Shame: A Medellin Reflection

A black wedge of a museum is situated at the far end of a rectangular plaza in a neighborhood called Boston, in the city of Medellin, Colombia. Outside of the Museo de Memoria is written the following, serving as an introduction:

Seven statements to think of and feel:
We remember
We accept
We ignore
We believe
We resist
We build

Medellin was considered the most violent city on earth until relatively recently. These statements are for intellectual grappling, for emotional resilience, as Medellin residents heal, survive, and thrive following the decades of chaos.

I turn to these statements now as I conjure words to articulate the shift that occurred during the short ten days I was in Medellin. My world changed while I was there. My previously quieted stories found paper. And I am emboldened to share a terrifying experience that I would not have shared before now. I look at those statements and wrap myself in the resiliency of Medellin. I am fortified. 

We remember

“A grenade exploded right here, but nobody remembers,” said tour guide Pablo, pointing at a mural outside of a metro station in downtown Medellin. The mural depicted gold mines, railroad tracks, coffee plantations and the chronological development of the city. But missing from the mural is the industry for which Medellin is most associated in the minds of the world. Missing is the identity which Paisas--- those from Medellin--- are desperately trying to molt, the enterprise which pulled the pin in the grenade that nobody now recalls. Cocaine.

Pablo tells the group of tourists that no one remembers a single grenade when there are entire decades of atrocities to forget.

I was in Medellin to dance salsa, to get a sense of a region in Colombia that I had never visited, and because of a last minute, cheap mileage ticket. But unexpectedly, as Pablo uttered those words, the free tour that was to serve merely as my introduction to the city reminded me of something I don’t often recall.

As Pablo went on to describe the kidnappings, the explosions, the paramilitary and guerilla wars, I remembered that it was because of Colombian cocaine that I am Alaskan. It is because of Colombian cocaine that I was likely born.

We Accept

My dad was a drug dealer. Sure, he sometimes was a fisherman, and once he had an Afghan “rug” importing businesses, but all of these were side schemes that helped him either access drugs or launder money from drug sales. Heroin was his drug of choice, but it was cocaine that brought him to Kodiak, Alaska, around 1980. Then, when cocaine was king in Medellin, it was king crab that ruled the island of Kodiak, Alaska. And Joe Grantham, king of nothing but get-rich-quick schemes, saw an opening.

Shutup Joe Grantham, king of get-rich-quick schemes. 

Shutup Joe Grantham, king of get-rich-quick schemes. 

Kodiak and Medellin had little in common in the 1970s and early 80s aside from one key linkage: money. Kodiak in 1980 was a small town on a big island full of taxidermy king crabs hanging from the walls of smoky bars. Gold nuggets on thick watchbands, clasped with gold king crabs adored the flannel-clad wrists of young, bearded men. Plenty of those men couldn’t properly fold their wallets because of the quick wealth of king crab fishing shoved inside. Rusty trucks, crab pots stacked high on the back decks of boats, unpaved roads, go-go girls and strippers: this was the reprieve that Kodiak offered from rabid winter fishing in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. From 1979-1980, boats delivered over 14 million pounds of king crab to Kodiak’s docks. The town was rough, flush and wild from it all.

But the day that my parents’ best friend stepped off the barge on which he lived to dial my dad in Portland, there was something missing from Kodiak. There were young men, there was cash, but there was no blow, he reported. And he knew that my dad had just what Kodiak needed.

My dad had been dealing for over a decade by then. He started by selling in Eugene, Oregon and graduated to dispensing LSD and hash from a VW van in Europe in the late 1960s. After returning to the US, he established his Afghan “rug” import business with several associates, including his best friend from childhood named Jimmy Smack, a Cuban with a good connection, and a Vietnam vet who knocked around his slender, brunette wife. Her name was Pam, and she and my father fell in love.

My parents packed their bags and arrived in Kodiak. My dad carried tens of thousands of dollars in cocaine. Mom started cocktail waitressing and Dad bought a boat with his earnings. Two years later, the king crab fishery crashed, never again to recover. That same year I was born, and two years later my brother Gustav was born. My parents separated following Gustav’s birth. “Your dad chose drinking over our family,” my mom told me one day.

Even as a child I knew that my dad was a drug dealer; no one needed to tell me. For my seventh birthday he gave me a gold, diamond and amethyst ring. I never valued it, since I knew it belonged to somebody else. I knew what cocaine was, though I don’t remember seeing it and could only articulate that it was snorted and made people talkative. I preferred to spend time with my dad when he was doing drugs rather than drinking. When he was drinking, he was homeless and lived in the plaza in downtown Kodiak. Mom would barely let me and Gus see him. Sometimes he would get sober long enough so that Mom let us spend the day with him. Dumpster diving constituted our visitation.

But when my dad was high, he was quicker, more present. He told enthralling stories and was completely delusional about his exploits, living up to his nickname of Shutup Joe. I was scared of the potential of this manic energy. It was during this time that I saw a handgun tucked in the back waistband of his pants when he stood up to leave. It was around then that he came to our door, blood pouring from his head. Mom made him sit in the mini-van as she tended to his wounds. She wouldn’t let us kids see him. She kept returning to the house to empty an aluminum salad bowl of bloody water and red-stained washcloths.

We Ignore

When I was twelve years old, my dad was arrested for selling cocaine and heroin. I sobbed onto my mom’s sleeve the evening when she told me. I wasn’t sad that he was arrested; I was mortified to be publically outed as the daughter of a drug dealer.

“In Medellin, we live with the stigma of the drug war and we are doing all that we can to move past it,” Pablo tells the group at the end of the tour. We were standing in Parque San Antonio, near an obliterated bronze sculpture of a bird. In 1995, a still-unknown group hid a bomb in a Francisco Botero statue and detonated it during a public concert. Twenty nine people were killed.

Parque San Antonio, Medellin

Parque San Antonio, Medellin

Medellin is a different place now, an epicenter of innovation, art, and culture within Colombia. I walk the streets of the posh El Poblado neighborhood at night without concern for my safety. And many Paisas want more than anything for their city’s reputation as the most violent on the planet to be forgotten.

I understood this in my gut. It’s through forgetting- or better, avoiding active remembering- that I’ve maintained my cheery disposition and optimism that borders on naivety, regardless of the losses I sustained in my young life. Survival sometimes relies on a short memory.

We Resist

Three nights before I was to leave Medellin, I opened my eyes to the night-filled room and a saw a hunched figure at the foot of my bed. At first I thought it was a remnant of my dream, persisting as my brain yawned awake. Was it a child, folded over in the shadows? Yet the figure’s mass solidified rather than dispersed as I became conscious. Then the being shifted. It became clear, sat up straight. It was not the visual aftertaste of a nightmare, it was not a child.

It was a man.

A hoarse holler came from my solar plexus as the man shuffled his hands near his groin, rose up from the ground, and slunk out of my bedroom like a shadow in the rising sun. He uttered but one word, “Pardon.”

A cocker spaniel puppy came into my bedroom the moment that the man left.  He whimpered and trotted out as I scrambled to lock the door behind them both. The puppy really lived in that house. It was not a dream. That man really broke into my room in the middle of the night. That really was Manuel, the son of my host, masturbating at the foot of my bed.

I stared in terror at the locked door for the rest of the night. I can’t remember ever being so frightened.

When I summoned the courage to open my bedroom door the next day, Johana, mother of Manuel, was waiting for me. She was crying, ashamed, horrified at what had happened. She told me that Manuel had a foot fetish and had done this before, to other women. That he was seeking psychological help, that she pleaded with him to practice strict self-control. She told me she had been raped when she was young, and she knew the fear that I must be feeling.

Manuel never touched me, but he violated me. He objectified me. He gave me a glimpse of the kind of terror that too many women feel too often.

I left the apartment and took an elevator to the ground floor. The sight of the quiet doorman brought my heart into my throat. I crossed the street and the man carrying a box of gum and candy bars made my hands tremble. For the first time in my life, every man that I saw seemed a potent threat to my safety and the autonomy of my body, of my being.

The view from my bedroom. 

The view from my bedroom. 

By the time I had walked the 10 or so blocks to the Poblado Metro Station, I was no longer uneasy in the presence of men, but something remained. Like a whiff of a pheromone, or a heart-flutter, or a subtle shift in temperature--- a quiet yet perceptible difference from the conditions before.

I thought of my previous experiences with sexual and physical violence. I remembered the domestic abuse I witnessed as a child. I recall fleeing our home late one night after my dad choked my mom, her profile slipping from light into shadow as we drove to where we would be safe.

I thought of the summer that I turned sixteen. I was working as a salmon fisherman at a remote setnet site. A crazy crewmember who was in his 50s told all he could at the end of the season that my mom had pimped me out to him, that we spent the season having sex. Other men threatened to kill him to avenge my honor, but no one went to the police. No one offered me help. It was a delusion, but one that many believed. They believed it so strongly that a man I grew up calling uncle looked at me across the Christmas dinner table and called me a “little whore.” My voice was ignored. My shame was deep even though I did nothing at all.

I thought of the times that men persisted and persisted even though I said no and no and no.

The very next night, I watched as Donald Trump was named president. I sobbed into my pillow. I felt a second dose of the fear from the evening before. A man who brags about accosting women will be president. A man who had demonstrated he does not believe in consent will lead the nation. A man who, through his words and actions, condones sexual predation like what I had just experienced soon will have the largest pulpit in the world.

We Build

I needed to clear my head. It was my last day in Medellin. I needed a walk. I stopped in Plaza Lleras and tried to be present to my environment, to soak up the happy bits of Colombia that ensorcelled me during my first trip to the country two years before. I stood still in the plaza, watching a man paint lips onto a saxophone player on his canvass, when two women in shin-length skirts approached me.

“Are you alright? Are you lost?” The taller asked, noting my distraught face.

I told her I was not lost, just scared for my country and for the world. She handed me a Watchtower and assured me that the prophecies were coming true. The end times were near. The Kingdom of God was just around the bend, and when that moment came, God will replace corrupt politicians.

“I want to work for the good of the planet and humanity now, not wait for some imagined future,” I told them, walking away with a shaking chin.

And then I recalled Pablo, my tour guide of the week before, telling us travelers about the election of 1990 in Colombia. Three of the four presidential candidates were assassinated.

The fear that hovered in my solar plexus was real, but it was relative. If Paisas can walk the streets of their city, trod on sidewalks once splattered with blood and gather on street corners that were the sites of massacres just a decade ago, I could handle my fear. I too can turn it into strength.

A short film in the Museo de Memoria depicted resilience. A spot of ink was dropped on a tab of paper and submerged in water.  “My life is attacked, but I can transform wounds into love, hope, courage,” read the narration as the ink blot spread upwards, turning into a slender flame, “and turn tragedy into a vital force.”

I can convert the terror I felt from two nights before and my outrage about the election into righteous anger. The fire of that anger will turn into embers of empathy and resilience.

Those words- empathy and resilience- are not quiet words. They are not passive words. They are bold, they are wise. They are feminine. I understand that by sharing my story, I can hold space for those who do not speak. Perhaps I can give strength to those who do not speak.  It was when Pablo shared the story of the drug war in Medellin that I received the courage to share my story, as the daughter of a drug dealer and addict, as the recent victim of sexual aggression, and a lifelong victim of misogyny and rape culture.

In Medellin, I realized that the city’s violent past is my past. The city’s drug problems were my family’s drug problems.  When Medellin was the most violent place in the world, it also ruled the worlds of hundreds of thousands of families affected by coke, crack, and the fruitless war on drugs. We are all Medellin.

Likewise, the fear that I experienced the other night as a man made me a part of his sexual fantasy without my consent, the shame that I felt when those who claimed to love me treated me like a harlot as a sixteen year old, these are experiences that women (and some men) around the world share. We are united as victims of patriarchy.

But the potential of our resiliency is boundless. It will transform our world. 

Inventing the King Crab Fishery

Lines, hooks, and pots. Using these tools, humans have wrested food from the water for countless generations. Yet innovations in fishing techniques and fishing tools pervade the industry, especially in the rare moments when new fisheries are executed. Take the new Gulf of Alaska black cod pot fishery, which inaugurated just this year. Fishermen across Alaska are sharing secrets and exchanging hints as they learn to tempt black cod into pots and longline with something other than hooks as they embark on a new era in their fishery.

Just as these black cod pot fishermen are making it up as they go along, the king crab fishery was another venture that was invented as it was executed. The first commercial king crab fishing happened in Seldovia in 1920. It took several more decades for the fishery to gain any traction, but when it did, it happened quickly. Kodiak emerged as the epicenter of the king crab fishery. In 1950, fishermen delivered 64,882 pounds of king crab to Kodiak, but in 1966, that number had grown to 90,750,000. 

The Kodiak Maritime Museum’s oral history project, “When Crab Was King,” records the development of the king crab industry as the fishermen recall it, including innovations in gear and techniques. Interview subjects note that early king crab pots were patterned after dungeness pots. They were round and about six feet in diameter. These early wooden pots were made of netting manufactured for salmon seines and fish trap wire.  They would last for just a season. Early crabbers also used tangle nets and trawl gear to wrangle king crab from the bottom of the ocean. Tangle nets were prohibited after 1955, and trawls were outlawed for crab fishing in 1961.

In one oral history, Nick Szabo relates, “A lot of this stuff got started up in Seldovia, because a lot of the guys that pioneered the king crab fishery that later moved [to Kodiak] came from Seldovia.” A new kind of tunnel for king crab pots is one such invention credited to Seldovia fishermen.  Early pots had a vertical tunnel and a trigger, but fishermen noted that the king crab would back out of the pots once they hit the trigger. Szabo reports that Seldovia fishermen invented the angular tunnel, from which the crab could not escape as easily.

By the 1960s, rectangular steel pots had replaced the round pots, because fishermen figured the shape maximized the use of deck space, as compared to stacked round pots. This in turn increased the fishing capacity of the boat. Smaller boats had six foot by six foot pots, while larger boats had seven foot by seven foot, and the largest vessels produced eight foot by eight foot pots. Szabo recounts that, “…When the crab fishery started declining, then it started to back off to the six by [six] and seven by [seven] because they were easier to handle. The eight by [eight pots] were awful heavy and they were sort of cumbersome to handle on deck… Someone would try something different and then, you know, other people would copy it if it was successful.”

Wayne Baker recalls the different styles of crab fishing. “When we first got up here there was an Oregon way to fish, and there was a Ballard way to fish and how to do things. The Oregon guys would bundle their lines outside their pots and do it like they were longlining, like they did dungie pots... A lot of extra work, but we didn't know it at the time.” When Baker headed out west, he learned the Ballard style, for which, “everybody boxed up all the line because there are shorter shots, because it is shallower out in the Bering Sea. And you just throw everything in the pots. It's cleaner. That's the way that everyone does things now, we all got a little bit smarter.”

There were no sorting tables, and when it came time to empty the pots, they “just dumped all the crab down on the deck and chase[d] them around like chickens. We would get done and there would be crab scattered around the whole length of the deck,” Baker recalls. Later, he saw a photo of his brother crabbing. “They were using the shrimp totes. They would dump their crab into these shrimp totes. And it was like a revelation. It was like, holy cow that is the greatest idea that we ever saw!” His skipper hollered at Baker the first time Baker dumped crab into a tote, but saw that this simple innovation saved time and energy. “Back then we ran six, eight [pots an hour]. If you ran ten, twelve pots an hour you were going good… Now we run eighteen, twenty pots an hour pretty steady,” Baker notes.

The ragtag fleet was composed of old military scows, pocket seiners, and more. Vessels purpose-built for crab fishing didn’t leave the shipyard until the 1960s, and even then, didn’t predominate within the fleet until later. The boats were not designed to accommodate tanks full of water and crab with thousands of pounds of pots stacked on the back deck. This meant that disaster struck quickly and frequently. Marcy Jones, namesake and former co-owner of the Marcy J, recalls that there was no requirement for boats to carry life rafts, and survival suits were yet to be invented. She had seen crab biologist Guy Powell sporting a wetsuit, and bought one for her husband, Harold, to bring out fishing with him, “And he was the first person, so far as I know, in the whole fishing industry that had any kind of a suit to put on to stay warm in case something happened.”

While crab fishermen made up the fishery as they went along, marine architects worked to design boats designed for the fishery, the Coast Guard, insurance companies, and boat owners collaborated to improve safety, and seafood processors came up with new ways to preserve and market the catch. The king crab fishery, like the new black cod pot fishery, proves yet again that necessity is the mother of invention.

Aleutian Villagers in Southeast Canneries during World War II

This article was initially published in Pacific Fishing. 

Seventy five years ago, the United States entered World War II, leading to transformations that shaped the entire Pacific Coast but particularly impacted Alaska. Nearly six months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Japanese sent fighter planes to bomb the significantly less balmy Pacific islands of Kiska, Attu, and Unalaska. In early June of 1942, the village and military base at Dutch Harbor/ Unalaska were attacked and the islands of Kiska and Attu were invaded and wrested from American control. Attu villagers became Japanese prisoners of war and the Axis forces had a foothold on American soil.

The panicked military, Alaska territorial government, and Department of Interior determined to evacuate civilians who were 1/8 Native or more from the Aleutians. General Simon B. Buckner ordered the evacuation. Nine villages on the islands of Akutan, Atka, Umnak, St. George, St. Paul and Unalaska were hastily evacuated, precipitating one of the greatest injustices in modern Alaska history.

The military torched the homes and church at Atka and gave the residents one hour to leave. The USAT Delarof arrived at St. Paul on June 15 and departed the next day to St. George with the entire village on board. No more than one suitcase per person was allowed, and no one knew where the villagers were headed, not even the captain of the vessel.

The priest at St. Paul, Father Michael Lestenkof, recalled packing, stating, “For myself, I did not take anything except I took apart my five horse Johnson and put every part I can into one suitcase, except for the bracket and shaft, [which] was tied out on the outside of a suitcase, as I would make more use out of my motor than clothing.”

Villagers from the Pribilof Islands, on board the Delarof, en route to Southeast Alaska. Image courtesy NARA.

Villagers from the Pribilof Islands, on board the Delarof, en route to Southeast Alaska. Image courtesy NARA.

It was only when the boat was underway that a destination was determined. The evacuees would be kept at abandoned camps and canneries in Southeast Alaska. Quarters and provisions aboard the Delarof were poor. A baby girl was born on board and promptly contracted pneumonia. She was buried at sea near Kodiak Island, just the first of many who were to die from preventable illnesses over the next two years.

US Fish and Wildlife Service and other Department of the Interior employees were sent to assess the conditions of the derelict canneries and camps that were to soon house the 881 displaced villagers. The old herring plant at Killisnoo, an old mine and cannery at Funter Bay on Admiralty Island, an abandoned cannery at Burnett Inlet southwest of Wrangell, and Ward Lake Civilian Conservation Corps camp near Ketchikan were in varying states of decrepitude.

The canneries were constructed for just summer time use and had no insulation, indoor plumbing or heating stoves. At Funter Bay, just a single outhouse was built over the beach. In addition to lacking the basic infrastructure required for winter-time occupation, the sites had been abandoned years before and were either in need of serious repairs or actively rotting away.

The Delarof arrived at Funter Bay six days after leaving the Pribilofs. Five hundred and sixty people disembarked with little food, bedding, tools, or anything beyond that which they stuffed in one suitcase. The villagers arrived at the former complex of the Thlinket Packing Company. The cannery processed its first pack of salmon in 1902. It was sold to the Alaska Pacific Salmon Corporation in 1926 and then sold to P.E. Harris Co. It hadn’t operated since 1931. The government leased the abandoned cannery from P.E. Harris to be used for the “duration village,” as the relocation sites were termed.

The Pribilof residents got to work, fortifying structures, cleaning out the Chinese bunkhouse to turn it into the communal kitchen, and attempting to wire the buildings for electricity. But winter came quicker than building supplies, tools, and proper provisions, including ample blankets, soap, and more. The children were sent to the Wrangell Institute for school, which was difficult for the families, but at least meant that the kids had proper medical care and enough food.

Aleut/ Unangan children at an unnamed Southeast Alaska cannery. Image courtesy NARA.

Aleut/ Unangan children at an unnamed Southeast Alaska cannery. Image courtesy NARA.

In the spring of 1943, US Fish and Wildlife officials informed those at Funter Bay that the men were to be sent back to the Pribilofs, but just for the annual fur seal harvest. During the forced relocation, the government continued to profit by selling the Unangan-harvested fur seal pelts to furriers. The Unangan hunters were falsely told the fur was needed for military uniforms, in order to coerce them to return.

Only in 1945, two years after American forces had retaken Attu and Kiska, were the Aleutian villagers permitted to return home. Yet at the Funter Bay cannery alone, 32 had died, mostly from pneumonia and tuberculosis. In total, seventy four people died while in Southeast Alaska, nearly one in ten of those who were evacuated.

Returning home was bittersweet. The village of Atka had been totally destroyed by the military, and the homes and churches within the other villages had been vandalized or worse by US military troops. The villages of Biorka, Kashega, and Makushin were never resettled. President Roosevelt authorized no more than $12 per person to assist in resettlement. 

The Aleut Restitution Act of 1988 acknowledged that only an Act of Congress could help remedy these injustices. A community trust was established to assist in cultural preservation, education, and for elder services. Those evacuees who were still living received $12,000 each. Today few buildings remain at the old canneries and camps that housed the Unangan villagers, but the Aleut cemetery at Funter Bay continues to be maintained.

Salmon, Not Whales, at the Orca Cannery in Cordova

Note: This was originally published in Pacific Fishing magazine. 

Salmon made the human geography of much of coastal Alaska. For Native Alaskans, salmon runs spawned fish camps and villages. When the US purchased Alaska, white newcomers established salteries and canneries at these traditional fishing places. Some of these processing plants grew into year round villages, which then turned into towns. Cordova is one such town.

In 1889, the Pacific Steam Whaling Company constructed the Orca Cannery on the Odiak Slough in present-day Cordova, which was then called Eyak. In 1895, the cannery relocated four miles north.

Eyak was renamed Cordova in 1906, when Copper River and Northwestern Railway moved in to the old Odiak cannery buildings and started building a railroad from Cordova to the Kennicott mine. The town became a supply and transport center for the productive copper mine, but from its very beginning, Cordova has been a fishing town.

Label from the collection of Karen Hofstad. 

Label from the collection of Karen Hofstad. 

Orca seems a curious name for a cannery, and the Pacific Steam Whaling Company is an even stranger moniker for a salmon business. While no whales were canned at Orca, these names are indicative of what first brought the business to Alaska. The Pacific Steam Whaling Co. started in San Francisco in 1883, financed by men who made their money during the California Gold Rush. The company used steamships to hunt for bowhead whales in the Pacific. Pacific Steam’s whaling fleet is attributed with discovering the whaling grounds off Herschel Island.

But by the late 1880s, the whaling industry was in serious decline due to overhunting. The company turned its attention towards another Alaska-based, aquatic resource and founded the Orca cannery near Cordova. In Prince William Sound, enough people moved to Orca cannery from the village of Nuchek to turn Orca into the major port within the Sound.  The company too expanded, and within a decade, Pacific Steam either built or bought additional canneries in Nushagak, Chignik, Hunter Bay on Prince of Wales Island, Kenai and Uyak Bay on Kodiak Island. It also operated a facility on the Copper River Delta.

In 1901, the Pacific Steam Whaling Company sold its canneries to Pacific Packing and Navigation Company, a brand new enterprise that purchased 18 canneries in Alaska and 7 in Puget Sound during the first year of its existence. With such production capacity, it rivaled the Alaska Packers Association. APA took note of this and slashed the price for canned pink salmon. Most of Pacific Packing’s canneries were in pink salmon country (Southeast Alaska), while APA dominated the land of sockeyes to the north and west. Sockeyes and the APA won the battle. With only one salmon season under its belt, Pacific Packing folded and retreated to bankruptcy. Northwestern Fisheries, Inc. purchased many of the canneries, including Orca. Subsequent owners were Pacific American Fisheries and New England Fish Co.

Cordova grew into a substantial town (by Alaska standards). There was no road that connected the cannery to town, just a weekly boat trip. The isolation doesn’t indicate that it was a boring place though. Alice Reyser, originally from Cordova but now a Kodiak resident, worked at Orca in the early 1960s and recalls with a smile her time at the cannery. At the NEFCO plant, Reyser usually worked on the reformer, the machine that converted flat cans into cylinders. But one day, she was moved to the sealer, which places the lids on the cans. While the machine slowly worked, she pulled a bobby pin from her hair and scratched “Write me,” with her address onto the surface of several of the lids.  Much to her surprise, she received a letter in the mail from a man in North Carolina nearly a year later.

The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 caused uplift in Prince William Sound, meaning that the land around Cordova shot upwards, drying out clam beds and reconfiguring much of the coastline. Suddenly, land existed where before it did not, and Orca could be connected to Cordova by a road. Chugach Alaska Fisheries was the last company to process salmon at Orca. It closed soon after the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Today, Orca cannery is the Orca Adventure Lodge. A banya (or sauna) on site is made from an old fish trap watchman’s cabin and guests gather for meals within the old mess hall.

Fishing and Processing for the American War Effort

Note: This originally appeared in Pacific Fishing magazine. 

The US entered World War I in April of 1917. The Pacific seafood industry outlined a plan to boost wartime production. The industry proposed the intensive development of existing fisheries, enhanced production capacity through new facilities, the promotion of new fish products, and “waiving protective restrictions in the present emergency” (i.e. ignoring conservation).

The Great War occurred during the Progressive Era, a time in which science, efficiency, expertise and bureaucracy were highly valued across the nation. Hundreds of new federal agencies were created to handle all aspects of life on the home front and to direct the nation’s efforts to supporting troops overseas while still providing for those in the states.

The industry worked very closely with the Bureau of Fisheries to advance the plan. The Bureau got to work promoting mackerel, herring, grayfish and sablefish to boost consumption of these less popular species while attempting to wean the American public from beef and pork--- protein sources that were destined to feed troops. The Bureau strongly discouraged the sale of fresh salmon, preferring that all salmon be canned for use overseas. Even preferable to canning was salting, since there was a shortage of tin. The Bureau of Fisheries promoted “Meatless Tuesdays,” sang the praise of whale meat, and encouraged packers to can grayfish, even though it was soon discovered that it turned rancid in a can. For the duration of the war, the Bureau of Fisheries tried its mightiest to boost seafood consumption across the nation.   

The War Eagle label was printed for cans of reds in Fairhaven, but was used for cans of pinks after Fairhaven was absorbed into Bellingham. From the collection of Karen Hofstad.

The War Eagle label was printed for cans of reds in Fairhaven, but was used for cans of pinks after Fairhaven was absorbed into Bellingham. From the collection of Karen Hofstad.

Economists and bureaucrats sent out lengthy questionnaires to seafood companies to ascertain the real costs of doing business, in compliance with the new Food Control Act. From this information, the federal government determined the price that both company and independent fishermen would receive for their fish during the 1918 season. Company fishermen received 25 cents per pound for sockeyes, while independent fishermen received 30 cents per pound. The economists also set the price that processors could charge for the fish: $7 for a case of red salmon.

As 1918 progressed, canners were required to reserve an increasing amount of that year’s pack for the federal government. At the beginning of the year, the industry figured that the government would want 25% of the pack. But the amount destined for federal use soared from an initial call of 60% of the production to the entire year’s output of one pound cans of sockeyes. The government purchased well over $40 million in canned salmon alone.

The government, thus, became a guaranteed market for salmon, which in turn encouraged investors to build new canneries. New cannery development was particularly intense in Southeast, most likely because there was a guaranteed market for pink salmon. In just Southeast Alaska, thirteen new canneries were established in 1918. Moreover, since the British and European herring producers were engaged in a literal fight for their lives, the number of herring salteries ballooned in Alaska. Scotch cured herring was a popular product at the time, and the most serious of producers brought Scottish lassies north to pack the herring in barrels. Port Walter in Southeast Alaska became a factor in herring fishing and processing.

With such an impressive growth in promotion, production, and products, Pacific Fisherman foolishly opined that “it is safe to predict that there will never again be a surplus over the market’s needs.” But even before the war had ended, Bureau of Fisheries agents reported on the lackadaisical growth of the fresh fish market in San Francisco. The agency reported that no matter how cheap the product, consumers seemed to have reached their personal peaks of seafood consumption. As for salted herring, the quality of the product was not uniformly good. After the war ended, many salteries closed down as consumers again could purchase authentic Scotch cured herring.

The Armistice of November 11, 1918 ended the war. Pacific Fisherman claimed that “the world war has been to a great extent a war of canned foods.” Never before had canned salmon reached so many worldwide consumers, particularly pink salmon. Moreover, the Bureau of Fisheries had just engaged in its largest marketing campaign to promote domestic seafood consumption. But with the end of hostilities, the major purchaser of the product, the federal government, no longer needed so many fish. And although the industry lobbied for limiting conservation and creating new production facilities at the beginning of the war, by the end of the war many had reversed their opinions.

“Conditions in Puget Sound for the last two seasons have strongly emphasized the danger of overfishing, and the more intensive fishing operations in Southeast Alaska during the same period have given rise to general alarm,” reported Pacific Fisherman. Some of the brand new canneries in Southeast quickly announced they wouldn’t be operating the coming summer, not for conservation purposes per se, but because they anticipated oversupply.

World War I grew global markets for seafood, introduced American consumers to new seafood products, and resulted in many new processing plants in Alaska. It was certainly a catalyst for change within the industry.


The Pacific Seafood Industry Responds to World War I, Part One

Note: This article was originally published in Pacific Fishing

This April marks the 100-year anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I. The war had started in Europe in 1914, when the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo.

The Great War scrambled the geopolitical world, created and extinguished countries, and sent Northwest woodsmen to the forest to log for the war effort. The Pacific Coast seafood industry also played a part, as the industry endeavored to not just survive, but thrive, through the conflict.

Several months after the battle began in Europe, the Association of Alaska Salmon Canners and the Puget Sound Salmon Canners Association jointly published a promotional booklet called “Canned Salmon, the Ideal Army and Navy Ration.” They paired this with a Bureau of Fisheries bulletin with the yawn-inducing title of “Canned Salmon, Cheaper than Meats, and Why” and promptly sent the marketing materials to foreign embassies and militaries around the world.

Although the initial response to the mailing seemed tepid, within the next couple of years canned salmon was an essential food for overseas troops and European civilians. Eventually, canned salmon became part of the so-called “iron rations,” which fed troops who were on the go or at battle – the WWI version of today’s MREs.

An advertisement printed in Pacific Fisherrman in 1918, showing troops eating their "iron rations."

An advertisement printed in Pacific Fisherrman in 1918, showing troops eating their "iron rations."

The trade magazine Pacific Fisherman claimed: “Reports from the front show that the fish ration is greatly enjoyed by the soldiers; and the progress of recent fighting would certainly not indicate any loss of vitality on the part of the British troops.”

At the onset of the war, canners knew that the shelf stability of their product made it an exceptional option for feeding servicemen. It wasn’t until the realities of 20th century warfare were known that canners could also claim that “canned food fills every military requirement – it is portable, imperishable, and gas-proof.”

In the spring of 1917, the United States entered the war. Several factors contributed to the declaration of war, including the interception of a telegram in which Germany enticed Mexico to join the fight in exchange for the return of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to Mexican control if Germany was the victor.

Immigrants and foreign nationals rushed to prove their allegiance to the United States, including those who were within the fishing industry. Pacific Fisherman reported that a good number of the Puget Sound purse seiners were “Southern Slav,” who hailed from the part of Austria-Hungary that today corresponds to Croatia. This meant the seiners were from an enemy nation. They held a meeting where as “practical proof of their loyalty the purse seiners passed a resolution … offering the use of the 400 boats of their fleet for naval use.” Later, these purse seiners created their own association and demonstrated their support of the American war effort by buying $3,000 in war bonds.

The number of foreign-born individuals engaged in the seafood industry at the time was very high. Most processing workers were from Asia, and many fishermen were recent European immigrants. Alaska’s entire white population was nearly a third foreign-born.

The United States had an insignificant standing military at the time, so a draft was authorized. Not everyone was eager to enroll in the selective service. In November 1918, Pacific Fisherman reported that “a number of fishermen” were among those who had started the naturalization process but then “renounced their intention to become American citizens in order to escape military service.” Washington State Fish Commissioner L.H. Darwin told his deputies to seize the boats and gear of any fishermen found to have done this.

From the collection of Karen Hofstad. 

From the collection of Karen Hofstad. 

Hyper-patriotism characterized the United States during the war. Civil liberties were slashed. Anti-sedition laws made even uttering unpatriotic statements illegal. It is in this context that the seafood industry calculated its response to the war. Support for the American war effort was both patriotic and opportunistic on the part of the seafood industry. Pacific Fisherman assured readers and the federal government that “the fisheries of the country stand ready to take up whatever burden may be assigned to them.” Industry leaders were most dedicated to upping production, which was not just good for their profits, but also the objectiveof the Food Administration.

Secretary of Commerce William C. Redfield appealed to American businesses, writing, “The production of food is a vital and present duty resting on every man and woman who can help it along. Without food workmen cannot work, nor can armies fight. The food supply of the country must be increased.”

Food was needed for the American and European troops and citizens, and while it was not feasible to markedly increase the amount of U.S. livestock, the waters of the Pacific promised a cornucopia to ease wartime food insecurity. How did the seafood industry intend to feed the nation, now that the United States was embroiled in war? Check back next month to find out.

New Trash Cans Tell Old Story of Kodiak's First Cannery

Note: This article was originally published in Pacific Fishing

The downtowns of Petersburg and Kodiak both got a splash of historic color last spring, thanks to the efforts of Bruce Schactler, a Kodiak fisherman, and Karen Hofstad, a collector of fisheries objects and ephemera in Petersburg. Both communities joined the likes of Anacortes and Astoria to feature their fisheries history on trash cans. Old salmon can labels from local processing operations are wrapped around the trash cans and both delight the eye- a butterfly here, an old sailor there- and honor the communities’ maritime legacies.

One of the featured labels tickles my historian heart more than the others. Sitting next to the Orpheum Theater in downtown Kodiak is the Alaska Packers Association’s Horseshoe Brand. Examining this label, we can glean a lot about the earliest years of the North Pacific commercial salmon fishery and Early American Alaska, the era that corresponds to the first decades of US ownership.

Examining the label, note the letters that are woven together within the horseshoe: KP Co. The Horseshoe Brand was originally packed by the Karluk Packing Co., the first cannery to be established on Kodiak Island, back in 1882. The history of the Karluk Packing Co. not only brings us back to the infancy of the commercial salmon fishery in Alaska, it drags us clear back to 1868, a few months after the Treaty of Cession finalized the United States’ purchase of Russian America. Then, the US Army administered Alaska as Indian country, establishing forts in Sitka, Wrangell, Kenai, St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs and at Kodiak.

Meanwhile, as the Army attempted to get a sense of the massive territory they were to oversee, businessmen were quickly jockeying to control trade in Alaska. A representative of the business that purchased the assets of the Russian-American Company arrived in Kodiak before the Army had a chance to establish Fort Kodiak. This company became the Alaska Commercial Company. Charles Hirsch served as one of the company’s earliest managers in Kodiak. His future partner, Oliver Smith, wasn’t even supposed to be in Kodiak. Smith was a soldier destined to Fort Kenay [Kenai], but the Torrent, the boat delivering the soldiers and their supplies to the former Russian fort, wrecked in Cook Inlet before they could hang the Stars and Stripes there. The detachment was rescued and brought to Kodiak, where Company G became their unsuspecting hosts until the supplies required for Fort Kenay could be requisitioned.

Although it was an unlucky beginning to his Alaska story, Smith’s prospects improved. He was discharged from the Army but quickly returned to Alaska and started working under Hirsch in AC’s Kodiak office. The horseshoe symbol first appears in historic letterhead and invoices in the 1870s. By then, Smith had become a ship’s captain and together with his now-partner, Hirsch, had started a salt salmon enterprise at the mouth of the Karluk River, calling it Smith, Hirsch and Co. The address of Smith and Hirsch’s concern tells us they had access to wealthy investors: 310 Sansome Street, San Francisco, the same address as the Alaska Commerical Company. (To be fair, this was the address for all Kodiak and Alaska Peninsula residents who received mail from outside the region for years. Mail was shipped via AC’s San Francisco headquarters.)

Letterhead from Smith, Hirsch and Co., before the company became Karluk Packing Co. Note the horseshoe on the left. This letter comes from the Alaska Commercial Company Records at University of Alaska Fairbanks Rasmuson Library's Alaska and Polar Collection. 

Letterhead from Smith, Hirsch and Co., before the company became Karluk Packing Co. Note the horseshoe on the left. This letter comes from the Alaska Commercial Company Records at University of Alaska Fairbanks Rasmuson Library's Alaska and Polar Collection. 

In 1882, Smith, Hirsch and Co. reorganized as the Karluk Packing Co. and shipped the building materials, tin, tools and skilled Chinese tinsmiths to Karluk. From then on, most of their salmon was destined for cans, not barrels. One side of the tri-partite label pictures a jumping salmon, proudly advertising that there are “Karluk Red Salmon” within the can. The Kodiak commercial seafood industry thus had a foothold.

Karluk salmon were caught in beach seines, a fact that the label’s epinomious horseshoe might be hinting at. Oral tradition holds that horses were used to haul in beach seines at Karluk in the early years of the commercial salmon fishery. Imagine the condition of the horses once they arrived at the Karluk Spit, after spending around two weeks aboard cramped sailing ship heading north from California. It could be the horses were actually shipped from Astoria, the horse seining capital of the salmon fishery. In Astoria, fishermen replaced ploughs with seines, harnessing draft horses to haul in gargantuan Columbia River Chinooks. This certainly made the agricultural overtones within “harvesting the sea” more than allegorical.

When creating their Horseshoe Brand label, who knows if Smith and Hirsch were honoring the work of their fishing horses or merely hoping that the horseshoe would bring the fledgling enterprise a measure of luck. It seems to have accomplished the latter, since when the Karluk Packing Co. joined the Alaska Packers Association in 1893, the cannery had packed more salmon than any other in Alaska up to that point.