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Pribilof Islands (Saint Paul and Saint George Islands)

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Located 250 miles north of the Aleutian Chain in the southern Bering Sea, the Pribilofs are four small islands, treeless and windswept, that have received unique treatment from the U.S. government. On one edge of each of the two occupied islands of the Pribilofs, buildings cluster together to form a town. The large wooden buildings (with some prebuilt additions) of the sealing industry are closest to the waterfront, and the houses are farthest away, up a hillside. Between them, churches, stores, community halls, and garages denote the center of town. The government-built houses are small, identical in appearance, neatly lining the streets, which are covered with a volcanic material called scoria. Their bungalow-like size and appearance indicate their 1920s construction date. In Saint Paul, the larger of the towns, the houses are concrete, often covered with new wooden siding; they face the same direction, looking downhill with their backs to the wind and water. In Saint George, the houses face each other across the streets. In both towns, the Russian Orthodox churches are the most visible structures; set in picket-fenced churchyards in the middle of town, they are built on a larger scale, with a distinctive shape and identifying cross.

Both the Russians and the Americans exploited the wealth of the fur trade in the Pribilof Islands, so the islands were a highly prized and specially administered resource. When the Russians recognized that the Pribilofs were a significant breeding ground of the northern fur seal (attracting 85 percent of the fur seal population), they settled the two larger islands with a group of Aleuts, taken from Atka and Unalaska in the Aleutians. Supervised by a handful of Russians, these Aleuts engaged in the harvest of the fur seal beginning in 1786. The Russian American Company, which obtained a trade monopoly for all of Alaska in 1799, took nearly one million furs from the Pribilofs in three years, devastating the seal population.

After Russian America was acquired by the United States, the United States granted a monopoly on the fur seals on the Pribilofs to the Alaska Commercial Company from 1870 to 1890 and to the North American Commercial Company from 1890 to 1910. In addition to paying a flat rate, the companies also paid the government a percentage of the take. The Pribilof Islands were extremely profitable for the government and its lessee; the company harvested $2.5 million of seals annually, and the government received $9.6 million during the first twenty years. The Alaska Commercial Company was also required to provide for the Aleut inhabitants; to this end, it replaced the barabaras with small, wood-framed houses in neat rows. By 1890 there were ninety-three of these houses on Saint Paul, and twenty-one on Saint George.

The population of fur seals was not inexhaustible, however; several attempts at conservation had been undertaken by the Russians, and during the United States' tenure the government put an annual ceiling on the number of furs. By the turn of the century, pelagic sealing had also taken its toll, and in 1910 the entire fur seal population was estimated at 130,000. Sealing was completely halted, and the U.S. government took over administration of the islands.

When sealing commenced again in the 1920s, the United States reconstructed all of the houses on both islands. Finding the two-room houses far too small, the government built three-, four- and five-room houses. At this time, all of the government-occupied buildings were also rebuilt; those occupied by government officials are generally larger than the Native dwellings. Buildings to shelter fur processing are large, wood, gable-roofed buildings, and the exteriors give little clue of the industry that went on inside.

Today, fur sealing has been halted; there is no market, worldwide, for the furs. Each year the Aleuts undertake a small subsistence harvest. The government no longer administers the islands but has turned them over to the Aleuts, who are attempting to diversify the economy. The inhabited portions of both islands have been designated a National Historic Landmark as the primary site of the world's fur seal industry.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Alison K. Hoagland

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