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Excerpt: Southcentral Alaskans at first contact with the Cook expedition

  • Author: Aron Crowell
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published June 18, 2015

(Excerpted with permission from "The Cook Expedition and Russian Colonialism in Southern Alaska" in "Arctic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Search for the Northwest Passage," James K. Barnett and David Nicandri, eds., Anchorage Museum/University of Washington Press)

James Cook's transit along the southern Alaskan coast during his third and final world voyage occasioned a unique survey of indigenous peoples living on both sides of an encroaching colonial frontier. Journals and logs of the expedition from May and early June 1778 report British encounters with the Chugach (Sugpiat) of Prince William Sound (Cook's Sandwich Sound) and the Dena'ina of Cook Inlet, neither of whom had previously been in direct contact with any Western nation.

Prince William Sound, May 12-19, 1778

On May 12, the (ships) Resolution and Discovery anchored in a small cove (English Bay) in Port Etches on Hinchinbrook Island at the entrance to Prince William Sound, which (James) Cook named Sandwich Sound. The next day captains Cook and (Charles) Clerke sailed their vessels some thirty miles further into the sound to a more secure harbor at Snug Corner Cove, where the expedition remained until May 17.

Initial Chugach impressions of Cook's vessels, probably the first sailing ships they had seen (Bering's 1741 track was more than sixty miles to the south), have not been preserved in oral tradition. They may have been similar to those of the Kodiak Island Sugpiat, who thought the first Russian sailing ship was a "giant whale" but on closer inspection "a strange monster, never seen before, whose stench (of tar) made us sick." Cook's construal of the Chugach who approached his ships in Prince William Sound was framed both by the scientific tradition of the Enlightenment and by the strategic objectives of his voyage. He made special note of Chugach watercraft, which included one- and two-man kayaks as well as large, open boats ("angyaq" in the Sugpiaq/Sugcestun language). Constructed of sea mammal skins stretched over wooden frames, they carried ten to thirty paddlers and passengers. Referring to his copy of David Crantz's "History of Greenland" (1767), Cook observed that the Chugach "angyaq" was quite similar to the Greenland Inuit "umiaq" or "women's boat," except for its rounded bow, which bore "some resemblance to the head of a Whale." The Chugach kayaks were also like those of Greenland except for their split, upturned prows. Chugach clothing, hunting weapons, tattoos, and facial jewelry (including lip plugs or labrets) were also much as described by Crantz. From their physical appearance and material culture, it thus appeared that the residents of Prince William Sound had strong Arctic affinities and were not "of the same Nation" as the Nuu-chah-nulth people of Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, where the expedition had recently called. A distinct ethnic border had in fact been crossed between the Northwest Coast cultural region and the southernmost extension of the Inuit world. The suggestion of influence, if not direct intercourse, between Greenland and Prince William Sound fanned British hopes that the western end of the long-sought passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans had been found, although Cook refrained from endorsing this surmise. In any case, exploration of the inner Sound soon proved the conjecture wrong. Modern studies have demonstrated that the ancestral migrations and circumpolar influences that shaped Sugpiaq culture spread anciently along the Alaskan coast from Bering Strait, rather than directly from the eastern Arctic.

At Port Etches, the Chugach hailed the alien ships by spreading their arms wide, shouting out in their language, and holding aloft a white fur; at Snug Corner Cove wooden rods were raised, adorned with feathers or bird wings. Other early Russian and European vessels in southern Alaska reported similar greetings, and Cook was later saluted in this manner in Cook Inlet. Nathaniel Portlock, an officer on the Resolution who returned to trade at Prince William Sound in 1786, reported that the Chugach greeting spoken on these occasions was "lawle," meaning "friendship." This was probably from "ilali," "to make or be friends" in the Sugpiaq (Sugcestun) language, although Sarychev and Merck in 1790 heard the word as "cali" from Chugach people at Nuka Bay on the Kenai Peninsula. Similar words occur in other southern Alaskan coastal languages and dialects ("ilali" also occurs in Eastern Aleut and "idhadi" in Dena'ina), suggesting that the combination of word and gesture was an established regional overture to trade that was extended by custom to the first Western vessels.

Chugach visitors to the British ships eagerly sought to exchange furs for glass and metal goods. As George Dixon would observe on his voyage with Portlock in 1786, the trade was always directed by a single person of authority. At Snug Corner Cove these leaders were mostly men, but David Samwell also noted one "fair good looking woman very decently dressed & who seem'd to be the Chief of her party." One of the first to board the Resolution at Snug Corner Cove was a man of middle age dressed in a sea-otter parka and a woven spruce-root hat decorated with blue glass beads. Although not named in Cook's account, this might have been Sheenawa, chief of the Tatitlarmiut, who were "the most powerful tribe" in the Sound, according to Portlock. The principal Tatitlarmiut village of Kunin was located nearby, hidden by forest from the vantage point of Cook's vessels but revealed by smoke that rose from its houses.

Chugach elders told the anthropologist Kaj Birket-Smith in the 1930s that the Tatitliarmiut were one of eight traditional local groups in Prince William Sound, each with its own headman and territory. Leaders of the richest villages dominated the region and reinforced their influence by hosting the annual Feast of the Dead, an important event of the winter ceremonial cycle. Sheenawa and other headmen built their wealth in large part through local and intersocietal trade, and exchanges with British, Spanish, and Russian vessels were an extension of this traditional role.

The source of blue, white, and green glass beads that some Chugach men and women already owned and wore was debated among the British, in particular since "not a Single bead" had been seen among the Nuu-chah-nulth. Samwell supposed that these had come from Russian traders to the west, and the varieties seen, including large, blue, wire-wound beads of Chinese manufacture, were in fact typical of Russian imports to the Aleutians. Given the distance from Prince William Sound to the Russian frontier in 1778, it is probable that the beads in Chugach possession had trickled eastward through Sugpiaq and Dena'ina middlemen. Glass beads seem to have been replacing the stone, shell, and bone varieties used before contact, and because of their rarity were regarded as emblems of status and wealth. The elite attached them to their ears and labrets, and "men of the first consequence" used them to decorate bentwood hunting hats and spruce-root hats, some topped with woven cylinders ("potlatch rings"), which signified the hosting of memorial feasts. White beads were used as well to decorate the rims and handles of utensils used during the winter ceremonies. It would seem that the Chugach were willing to trade substantial quantities of furs for just a few beads because of their rarity and high value in the local social context.

Cook and his officers noted that the Chugach men wore body armor made of wooden slats and carried iron or copper spears and fighting knives. Contrary to British interpretation at the time, these weapons did not come from Russian traders, who in fact sought to keep armaments of all kinds out of Native hands. Instead, they were the product of a centuries-old local tradition of metalworking. Natural copper nuggets were found in Prince William Sound (one location was Kanaualik, meaning "copper place," in Port Etches) or acquired in trade from Dene (Athabascan) groups who gathered them along the White and Copper rivers. Iron was obtained via long-distance indigenous trade routes to Siberia or gleaned from Asian vessels that drifted across the Pacific on the Japanese Current. Copper and iron were heated, hammered, and ground with abrasive stones to produce large, fluted blades. The Chugach were especially eager to acquire wrought iron bars ("toes") from the British because these were of a suitable size and shape for making knives.

Chugach armor and weapons were products of indigenous warfare traditions that had originated nearly a millennium earlier. Raids were launched against nearby villages and more distant groups, which for the Chugach included the Dena'ina, Tlingit, Eyak, and Kodiak Island Sugpiat. The objectives were to kill enemy fighters (often in reprisal for earlier attacks), loot valuables, and capture women and children for use as slaves. Raiding alternated with trading as determined by shifting enmities and alliances.

The aggressive side of this balance was exhibited toward the Cook expedition. Led by their chiefs, the Chugach made repeated attempts to steal unattended valuables from the two British vessels (even the ships' boats) and at one point boldly boarded the Discovery, threatened the crew with knives and spears, and took items that included the iron-clad rudder. When officers and sailors managed to regain the upper hand without bloodshed, the Chugach reverted to a more peaceable manner, suggesting that they had been testing British resolve. Cook noted that Chugach men were indifferent to the threat of British muskets and concluded that they had never seen one fired, an indication that face-to-face interaction with Russians had not yet occurred.

Cook Inlet, May 26-June 6, 1778

After leaving Prince William Sound, the expedition traveled west along the Kenai Peninsula. Because their course took them well offshore, they did not see the Sugpiaq villages that existed on this mountainous coast. Delayed by gales alternating with foggy weather and light winds, the ships tacked back and forth at the entrance to Cook Inlet for several days and sighted Cape Elizabeth, the Kodiak archipelago, the Barren Islands, and Cape Douglas. On May 27 the vessels entered the inlet and passed Kachemak Bay to the east and the low, wooded shorelines and the high peaks of the Alaska Range to the north and west. Over the next week Cook and Clerke explored up the inlet to its head, eventually realizing that the decreasing salinity of the water, regular tides, and the mountains closing in around the horizon meant that "we were in a large River and Not a Strait that would communicate with the Northern Seas."

During the ten days spent exploring "Cook's River," the British traded on several occasions with men in kayaks and with parties of men, women, and children in large skin-covered boats. Clothing, beads, and iron from the ships were exchanged for various furs (sea otter, marten, marmot, hare, and Arctic ground squirrel) as well as fresh and dried salmon and halibut. Cook committed fewer details of these encounters to his journal than in Prince William Sound, but observed that the watercraft, clothing, personal ornaments, and weapons of the people appeared similar in most respects to those of the Chugach.

However, his conclusion that "all of the people we have met in this River are of the same Nation as those who Inhabit Sandwich Sound ... both in their persons and Language" was incorrect. Although some Sugpiat then lived at Nanwalek near Kachemak Bay and others from Prince William Sound or the outer Kenai coast could have been seen in the inlet, most or all of the individuals whom the British encountered would have been Dena'ina Athabascans. Dena'ina villages lined both sides of the inlet, from Kachemak Bay to Turnagain Arm on the east and from Tuxedni Bay to Kustatan, Tyonek and Knik on the west, and it was people from these communities who came out to trade with the ships. Cook did not perceive their distinctive cultural identity because Dena'ina who had migrated to the shores of Cook Inlet some centuries before had adopted many elements of Sugpiaq culture, including skin boats, weapons designed for hunting sea mammals, and waterproof clothing made of seal intestines.

Dena'ina interactions with Cook survive in oral tradition, including a story related by Simeon Chickalusion about a Tyonek man who traded with a strange ship that was like "a giant bird with great white wings" and who acquired the uniform of a British sailor. A vocabulary list collected from Native visitors to the Resolution by the expedition surgeon, William Anderson, includes words in both the upper and lower Cook Inlet dialects of the Dena'ina language. Dena'ina identity is also indicated by items that the people carried, including iron and copper knives with spiral ends "like the head of a fiddle" and a caribou skin quiver decorated with dyed porcupine quills purchased from one of the visitors.

After confirming that Knik and Turnagain arms were tidally treacherous dead ends rather than openings to the continental interior, and having decided to depart the inlet for explorations further west, Cook sent Lieutenant James King ashore with two armed boats to display the flag and to "take possession of the Country and River in his Majesty's name."

The party was instructed to bury a bottle containing English coins and a piece of parchment inscribed with the date as well as the names of the captains and ships. King landed at "Point Possession" on the southwest side of the entrance to Turnagain Arm, across from present-day Anchorage. The group was greeted on shore by as many as forty Dena'ina men, probably residents of nearby Ch'aghalnikt (Point Possession Village). The encounter began with peaceful trading, but when the British finished the claiming ceremony and climbed a nearby hill to survey the country, the Dena'ina men became alarmed and donned armor and weapons that they had hidden nearby. During the tense confrontation that followed, the British shot a dog to demonstrate the deadly power of their firearms. The Dena'ina men quickly withdrew, and King felt certain that they had never previously seen a musket fired. Dena'ina actions toward the British at Point Possession were similar to Chugach behavior at Snug Corner Cove, a mixture of amity and aggression that reflected regional patterns of shifting intersocietal relations.

One Dena'ina oral tradition about the Cook expedition refers specifically to the incident concerning the dog. The late Fedosia Sacaloff narrated that the First Underwater People (so called because their ships seemed to emerge from underwater as they breasted the horizon) traded at Kustatan, bringing sewing needles and scissors. The Underwater People shot a dog, a small but memorable incident that links the British and Dena'ina narratives.

Like the Chugach, the Dena'ina wore glass beads but did not show signs of direct contact with Russian traders. Cook concluded that the beads had been obtained through neighbors with whom the Russians traded directly, and wrote that "I will be bold to say that the Russians were never amongst these people, nor carry on any commerce with them, for if they did they would hardly be clothed in such valuable skins as those of the Sea beaver (sea otter); the Russians would find some means or other to get them all from them."

Cook was correct about limited Russian penetration of the Gulf of Alaska at the time of his voyage, for in 1778 the nearest Russian outpost was Potap Zaikov's on Unimak Island, hundreds of miles to the west. The approximate state of Russian cartographic knowledge at the time is shown on a 1782 chart by Zaikov, which depicts the Aleutian Island chain and Kodiak Island but gives no indication of Cook Inlet.

Observations by the Cook expedition of indigenous peoples and Russian fur traders in southern Alaska hold significant ethnohistoric value, due in large part to the timing and trajectory of the voyage. The vessels first passed through what was then the faint eastern penumbra of Russian influence at Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet, where no direct Western contact had previously occurred and where Alaska Native societies remained free and independent. It continued into the heart of Russian colonial occupation in the eastern Aleutians, where control over the indigenous inhabitants had been brutally and effectively established. Over the course of just a few months in 1778, the expedition bore witness to Alaska Native peoples at the expanding edge of the capitalist world-system, and to the social and cultural transformations that they were undergoing or about to begin.

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