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Harriman Expedition Retraced



The 1899 Expedition
The 1899


Original Participants

Brief Chronology

Science Aboard the Elder
Aboard the

History of Exploration
Exploration &

Development Along Alaska's Coast
Growth Along Alaska's Coast

Alaska Native Communities


Growth and Development Along Alaska's Coast:
1745 to 1900

Alaska, with its official nickname "Last Frontier," is indeed our wildest state. The climate is extreme, the topography largely inhospitable to agriculture, and much of the interior accessible only to the most intrepid hikers and bush pilots. Still, Alaska is far from being an untouched wilderness today, and, in fact, was not pristine even a century ago. When the Harriman Expedition arrived in 1899, it found much evidence of industry, commerce, and resource development. The following time line tracks this development from the early days of the fur trade up to the arrival of the George W. Elder in 1899.

Russian fur traders advanced eastward along the Aleutian Archipelago in search of market fur.
Click here to read more about sea otters in Alaska.

British Captain James Hanna secured a cargo of five hundred sea otter pelts from Aleut hunters, and sparked British interest in the Alaskan fur trade.

The Russian American Company was chartered to oversee the fur trade, and to serve as the governing body for the Alaskan region.

A single prime adult female sea otter pelt sold for as much as one thousand rubles, an amount that equaled the total annual salary of three Russian fur traders.

Three hundred Aleut men, women and children from Unalaska were sent to the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. The Aleuts established permanent sealing communities in the Pribilofs.

Russia and the United States signed a treaty allowing for open trade along the Alaskan Coast.

Norway rats, carried on Russian ships, infested islands on the Aleutian chain.
Click here to read about the dangers of "rat spill.

A packet boat arrived in New York harbor carrying one hundred and five bags of gold, the fortune of British mineralogist James Smithson. Smithson had never set a foot on North American soil, but his gift of gold to the United States established the Smithsonian Institution, and resulted in ethnographic collection efforts and a market for Native objects and art. Click here to learn more about the collection and return of Alaska Native artifacts.


Totem at Cape Fox Village, Alaska, photographed by Edward Curtis.
Click image for a larger view

The effect of long-term Russian settlement at Sitka was seen in the booming Kolosh bazaar, where Tlingits potatoes, venison and halibut were exchanged for Russian flour, rice, molasses, tobacco and vodka.

The American whaler, Superior, sailed through the Bering Strait and, realizing an excellent catch along Alaska's Arctic coast, spawned the Arctic whaling industry.

As the fur trade dwindled, the Russian American Company expanded into other areas of commerce, including whaling, coal, and ice for refrigeration. Ice proved to be the only profitable product.

Gold was discovered at Telegraph Creek at the Stikine River.

The Russian American Telegraph Expedition surveyed Alaska with the hope of laying trans-Alaskan, trans-Siberian telegraph wire to connect North America and Europe.

The United States purchased Alaska from the Russian government for $7.2 million. The U.S. Army became the governing authority for the territory.
Click here to read U.S. and British newspaper responses to the sale.

The first salmon cannery was established at Old Sitka.

The U.S. Treasury Department became the governing body for Alaska.

The U.S. Navy succeeded the Treasury Department.

A major gold strike at Juneau brought a flurry of speculators and investors to the area. The Juneau - Douglas Mines became the largest employer in Alaska.

Juneau, Alaska 1899

Juneau, Alaska, 1899.
Click image for a larger view

The Organic Act, passed by the United States Congress, established a rudimentary form of civil government in Alaska, and theoretically protected Alaska Native lands from exploitation by outsiders. In fact, the law provided little protection from fishing, timber and mining interests, and Tlingit chiefs in the Southeast reported those commercial fisheries were "taking away fish by shiploads," thereby threatening their livelihoods.
Click here to read about Alaska Native subsistence practices today.

Lt. Frederick Schwatka attempted to ascend Mt. St. Elias during an expedition sponsored and publicized by The New York Times. Expeditions like this one served to keep Alaska in the public's eye.

The first oil claims were staked in Cook Inlet, and Sheldon Jackson introduced reindeer into Alaska in an attempt to develop a herding economy. Large corporate salmon canneries appeared about this time.

The U.S. Census Bureau announced that, in 1890, ten commercial establishments in Alaska reported a total of eighty-six employees, a combined payroll of $22,773, and capital and equipment worth $105,727. By way of contrast, Texas had more than 5268 establishments listed with the Census Bureau, with 39,475 employees, wages of $18,586,338, and capital holdings of forty eight-million dollars.

The U.S. Geological Survey conducted a mineral survey of the Yukon.

The Yukon gold rush began, and the population of Alaska began to swell.

gold rush

A party of gold miners near Skagway on the White Pass Trail, 1897.
Click image for a larger view

A major gold strike in Nome triggered another influx of prospectors.

The Harriman Alaska Expedition surveyed coastal Alaska.

The Spencer Expedition mapped the copper district of Alaska, and the first exploratory oil well was drilled in Cook Inlet. Twenty thousand gold prospectors arrived at Nome Beach. Alaska's capital was moved from Sitka to Juneau. The White Pass and Yukon Railroads were completed.




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