Skip to main Content

Looking for clues to an ancient massacre in the Aleutians

  • Author: Jim Paulin
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 5, 2014

Scientists hope to find proof in the Aleutians this summer of a Russian massacre of rebellious Aleuts about 250 years ago, archaeologist Dixie West of the University of Kansas said last week at the Museum of the Aleutians in Unalasksa.

West is the leader of a team of archaeologists, geologists and biologists who will spend the next two summers on Chuginadak and Carlisle islands in the Islands of Four Mountains, studying the impacts of climate change and human settlement, and searching for Russian bullets from the 1700s.

The archaeologists are looking for fresh proof that suppressing uprisings in occupied territories has been going on long before Russian president Vladimir Putin's maneuvers in the Ukraine this year.

West wants to confirm reports of the massacre, as told years later to Russian Orthodox priest Ivan Veniaminov while in Unalaska in the 1800s. Most of the occupants were killed, and survivors were moved to Umnak Island. Following the massacre, the islands were never permanently resettled, she said.

The top layer of artifacts should reveal any signs of a fight, like bullets and various metal artifacts, she said. Aleuts revolted against mistreatment by Russian fur traders on various islands including Unalaska in 1761-62, and in 1764 the Russians returned and retaliated, according to Veniaminov in his book "Notes on the Islands of the Unalaska District."

A Russian ship captain named Stepan Glotov was responsible, according to the translated version published in 1984 by the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Limestone Press.

West and colleague Virginia Hatfield are looking forward to breaking new ground on the two islands where few archaeologists have gone before.

"Everything we find will be major," West said.

"It's only been briefly touched by BIA archaeologists," said Hatfield, referring to a federal Bureau of Indian Affairs expedition in 1991.

The biologists will look for evidence of climate change in the past 10,000 years, and the geologists will study volcanic eruption history, while the archaeologists will analyze materials gathered from prehistoric village sites.

West emphasized that the scientists will only study village housing areas, and not burial sites. She denounced the archaeologists who removed mummified human skeletons from caves in the 1930s on the Islands of Four Mountains.

West said she has spent 20 years working in the western Aleutians, the area of the island chain with fewer people.

"I am very, very confident that the eastern Aleutians were always more populous than the western Aleutian Islands," she said.

West also announced that scientists may have found a new way to determine when humans first arrived on an uninhabited island, by the absence of signs of bird poop. That's based on paleobiological research on Shemya in the western Aleutians, where soil nitrogen levels in peat bogs drop off in an "abrupt change" around 3,500 years ago.

That's when humans would have arrived from the eastern Aleutians and overhunted a local bird, the least auklet, nesting in holes in the ground and easy pickings for local people collecting bird eggs.

Thus, the drop in a bird population would have led to a decline in nitrogen-rich bird droppings or guano on the tiny island 4 miles wide and 1.5 miles across and presently the site of a U.S. Air Force Base.

"When you get rid of your nitrogen producers, your nitrogen drops," West said.

The Four Mountains science team includes geologists Breayn McInnes of Central Washington University, and Kirsten Nicolaysen of Whitman College, of Walla Walla, Wash.

The project is funded with various grants, most notably $425,000 from the National Science Foundation for expenses including a Homer-based fishing boat, the Maritime Maid, which will house the scientists and shuttle them to the islands from Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.

West praised the cooperation of The Aleut Corp. She said a major archaeological site was discovered on Adak by Vincent Tutiakoff of Unalaska, an Aleut Corp. board member.

The project will go for the next three years, with the final year devoted mostly to analyzing the materials offsite, said West, who said she plans maximum outreach to keep the public informed of the scientists' findings.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.