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Harriman Expedition Retraced



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Community Profile: Gambell


Gambell is located on the northwest tip of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, less than 50 miles from Siberia. The small town sits a the base of Sevuokuk Mountain -- the peak rises 617 feet out of the lake-studded tundra. The island is wet, wind-blown and remote. Fewer than seven hundred people live in Gambell year-round. In the summer, tourists come for the birding, which is spectacular.


Gambell (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

Location: Lat. 63E 00' N, Long. 171E 45' W

Area: 11 square miles

Population: 653

Industry: Subsistence hunting, sale of crafts and archeological objects
Access: Air, water

Alaska Native Affiliation: Alaska/Siberia Yupik Eskimo

Alaska Native Regional Corporation: Bering Straits Native Corporation

Weather: Average summer temperatures range between 34 and 48 degrees Fahrenheit, winter between -2 and 10 degrees. Wind and fog are common. There is precipitation 300 days a year.

Historical Overview

  • St. Lawrence, an archeological treasure trove, shows evidence of having been inhabited by Yupik Eskimos for over 2,000 years.
  • The Yupik name for St. Lawrence Island is Seevookuk. On August 10th, 1728, Russia Explorer Vitus Bering named the island St Lawrence, in honor of the saint who is celebrated on that day.
  • At the time of first contact with Russians, the people of Seevookuk, far more numerous than they are today, were a thriving community, skilled in the harvesting of whales and seals.
  • The Russians introduced "firewater" -- a mixture of grain alcohol, water and syrup -- to the island, and alcohol became an unfortunate commodity for trade. Islanders were reported to have traded furs, craft and religious items, even women, for alcohol. Gambell is today a "dry" community, where the sale, import and possession of alcohol is banned.
  • In 1865, shortly after the American Civil War ended, the Confederate ship Shenandoah, its crew unaware that the war was over, captured 25 whaling boats on St. Lawrence.
  • The town was named for Presbyterian missionary, Vene Gambell, and his wife; the couple were lost at sea when their boat, the Jane Grey, disappeared in 1898.
  • Between 1878 and 1880, famine and diseases from the outside world killed 4,500 of the 5,000 people on the island.
  • In 1900, the Federal Government introduced reindeer to the island, and in 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt created a reindeer reservation there.

Harriman's Visit

  • The Elder docked south of St. Lawrence. C. Hart Merriam and the young Harriman daughters were among a group that paddled ashore, armed with guns, hoping to bag a polar bear. The day was foggy, and C. Hart Merriam and the two girls mistook two large, white arctic swans for polar bears. Merriam shot the swans. No one saw a polar bear.


  • The traditional subsistence whaling harvest is integral to both the economy an the culture of the island. Bowhead and gray whales are taken, along with seal, walrus and fish, and virtually every part of the animal is used for food and other purposes. Whales are hunted in walrus-hide boats.
  • The limited cash economy in Gambell is based on the sale of fox pelts, carved ivory and archeological items. Reindeer herds in the nearby community of Savoonga also provide some income. Tourism plays a small economic role in the summer months. There is no deepwater port to accommodate large cruise ships. There is also one airport with 4,500 feet of asphalt runway, but planes from the mainland are often diverted to other airports because of the weather.

Community Issues

  • As with many island communities, sanitation and water supply are a concern. The town's "washeteria," the water treatment facility, provides drinking water for some residents, but others must rely on private wells. About half the residents use chemical toilets, the other half private septic systems for waste management.

(View the Gambell daily log entry)




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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