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    St. Lawrence Island

    Encyclopedia Arctica 12: Alaska, Geography and General

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    (Henry B. Collins, Jr.)




            St. Lawrence, the largest island in Bering Sea, lies about 150 miles

    south of Bering Strait. It is approximately 100 miles long, East to West,

    and has an average width of about 20 miles. Its western extremity is only

    40 miles from the Siberian coast, which is clearly visible in good weather;

    its eastern end is approximately 100 miles from the Alaskan mainland. The

    present population consists of 496 Eskimos belonging to the Yuit (Siberian)

    group, most of them living at Cambell (Sevuokuk) at the northwest end of

    the island and Sevungo Savoonga , 40 miles to the eastward. These are the remnants

    of a much larger population which was greatly reduced by a severe epidemic

    and famine which struck in the winter of 1878-79, killing hundreds of people

    then living in villages on all sides of the island. Since then the entire

    eastern end as well as most of the north and south coasts of the island have

    been uninhabited. The only white residents are the teachers at the two

    government schools, a missionary, and a few men at the weather station at


            High winds, fog and rain are prevalent in summer, a week or more of such

    weather usually being followed by several clear, calm, sunny days. Severe

    storms and heavy snowfalls occur in winter. The winter temperature averages

    [?] 7° Fahrenheit, and the summer 45°. For more than six months in the year

    the island is locked in ice which does not finally leave its shores until

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    EA-Alaska-Geography. Collins: St. Lawrence Island'

    late June or July.


    Physical Features

            The island is largely ov volcanic origin, though remnants of older

    sedimentary rocks of Tertiary age also occur at widely separated localities

    near the eastern and western ends. Much of the interior is rugged and

    mountainous but there are also extensive stretches of low, marshy ground

    covered with innumerable lakes and a network of small streams. Some of

    the peaks reach elevations of 1,500 to 2,000 fee t or more and are snow–

    capped throughout the year. The mountainous areas are confined for the

    most part to the eastern, north-central, and western sides, usually

    several miles back from the shore. Only at the southwest and northwest

    ends of do high rocky cliffs or steep talus slopes descend abruptly to

    the sea; elsewhere the shores are low rolling grasslands, sandy beaches,

    or low rocky banks.

            The central part of the north coast projects outward and the interior

    at this point is a mountainous area of scant vegetation, known as the

    Kukulgit, 20 miles or more in extent and covered with lava flows and

    Cinder cones. Mt. Atok, in the Kukulgit, is 2,070 feet high and two other

    nearby peaks are several hundred feet higher.

            Savoonga, an Eskimo village of about 150 population in 1948, estab–

    lished in 1910 as a reindeer camp and colony from Gambell, is near the

    middle of the north shore. Kukulik, a large deserted village, lies about

    3 1/2 miles east of Savoonga. Kukulik was one of a number of St. Lawrence

    villages which were depopulated in the 1878-79 epidemic. It now appears

    as a huge mound of refuse over 800 feet long, 135 feet wide and from 7 to

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    EA-Alaska-Geography. Collins: St. Lawrence Island

    23 feet high, the largest known kitchen midden in the Arctic. Otto W.

    Geist, of the University of Alaska, made intensive excavations at Kukulik

    from 1931 to 35 (Geist and Rainey, 1936).

            Four miles off the eastern end of St. Lawrence are the three small

    Panuk Islands. The northernmost and largest of these is half a mile long

    and some 200 yards wide. This small island is important archaeologically

    as the type locality of the Punuk culture, the intermediate stage of pre–

    historic Alaskan Eskimo culture discovered by Collins in 1927 (Collins,

    1928, 1929) and of the Okvik, a much older stage of culture discovered

    by Geist in 1931 (Geist in Geist and Rainey, 1936, pp. 327-8, and Rainey,


            At Cape Kialegak, 5 miles north of Southeast Cape, are two other

    abandoned Eskimo sites, the largest of them being a midden 18 feet high.

    Excavation proved this to be another site of the Punuk culture (Collins,

    1929, 1930).

            The south shore of St. Lawrence, except at the east and west ends, is

    flat and relatively straight, and is bordered by a large lagoon which

    parallels the b r each for a distance of between 40 and 50 miles. The lagoon

    averages between 1/2 and 2 miles in width and is separated from the sea by

    a sand and gravel bar varying in width from 100 yards to 1/2 mile. The

    lagoon is fed by several south flowing streams which have their origin in

    a permanent snowbank which the Eskimos call Aneegulgit, lying along the

    south facing cliff of the rugged interior mountainous area known as the


            A few miles beyond the west [ ?] nd of the lagoon the shore of the island

    takes a southward turn, at Southwest Cape, and becomes high and rugged.

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    EA-Alaska-Geography. Collins. St. Lawrence Island

    From here around to West Cape the shore is precipitous, usually with no

    beach at all. The interior of the southwest part of the island is occu–

    pied by the Poovoot range of mountains, the highest peak of which, Poovuk–

    put, reaches an elevation of 1,670 feet (for description of the physiography

    of this and other parts of St. Lawrence Island, as well as notes on the

    geology, climate, fauna, and flora, see O.W. Geist and Roland Snodgrass

    in Geist and Rainey, 1936, pp.1-9, 331-34). A few Eskimo s families live

    at Powooiliak (Puguviliak), 1 1/2 miles east of Southwest Cape, the only

    settlement on the entire south shore.

            The west end of St. Lawrence, north of West Cape, is rolling grass

    land. Cape Mountain, with Northwest Cape (Cape Chibukak, or properly

    Sevuokuk) at its northwestern extremity, is a detached plateau which

    rises gradually from the tundra plain on the east and south and reaches

    the sea on the north side as a steep talus cliff 665 feet high. On the

    west a low spit of sand and gravel 1/2 mile wide extends from the foot of

    the plateau for a distance of 3/4 of a mile. At the far end of the spit

    is the Eskimo village of Gambell (Sevuokuk), the largest settlement on

    the island, with a population of around 400. The gravel spit has been

    built up by the action of shore currents, waves, and ice, and the stages

    of its formation may be traced in the series of parallel ridges, or old

    beach lines, extending westward from the plateau.

            Situated on the gravel plain are four old village sites, and on the

    lower slope of the plateau was found a fifth, buried site, unknown to the

    present Eskimos. These sites have had a unique role in Eskimo archaeology,

    yielding the first clear knowledge of the Old Bering Sea culture and of a

    long series of changes which had marked the development of Eskimo culture

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    EA-Alaska-Geography. Collins: St. Lawrence Island

    from that remote period to the present time (Collins, 1931-32-34-37; see

    also article "Old Sterling Sea and Punuk Cultures," herein).



            There are no trees on St. Lawrence. Driftwood, mostly from the Yukon,

    is abundant and provides the Eskimos with needed materials for building

    and for making boat frames, paddles, dishes, and other implements and

    utensils. Vegetation in the higher parts of the island is restricted

    largely to lichens and mosses, while in the lower rolling plains there

    is an abundant growth of dwarf willows, mosses, grasses, and flowering

    plants. In Tertiary time the island supported a markedly different as–

    semblage of plants, to judge from fossil remains found in coal-bearing

    sediments on the north coast (Knopf, 1910; Chaney, 1930). Plant remains

    from this deposit include sequoia, poplar, sycamore, and alder. The former

    occurrence here of trees which are now found only in a more southerly

    range, especially the sequoia or giant redwood, since its seeds are not

    viable in salt water, may be regarded as conclusive.evidence of the long

    postulated Tertiary land connection between America and Asia.



            The indigenous mammalian fauna of St. Lawrence Island includes a

    few species; the arctic fox, Alopex lagopus ; ground squirrel, Citellus

    lyratus; meadow mouse, Microtus innuitus innuitus; red-backed mouse,

    Clethrionomys albiventer ; shrew, Sorex jacksoni ; and lemming, Dicrostonyx

    exsul. Polar bears frequently reach the island in the winter over the ice,

    and since 1910 there have been reindeer which the Government introduced

    for the use of the Eskimos. The waters surrounding the island abound in

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    EA-Alaska-Geography. Collins: St. Lawrence Island

    sea mammals — hair seals, walrus, and whales — the principal food source

    of the Eskimos. God, tom cod, and sculpin are also abundant. These and

    occasionally salmon from some of the larger streams are the only fish

    utilized by the Eskimos.

            St. Lawrence is particularly rich in bird life. Only ravens, hawks,

    and the snowy owl remain throughout the year, but during the summer months

    there are countless numbers of migratory birds, many of which breed on the

    inland marshes or the rocky cliffs along the shore. Friedmann and Murie,

    describing the avifauna of St. Lawrence mostly on the basis of skins

    collected by O. W. Geist, H. B. Collins, and Paul Silook, and of bones from

    the middens excavated by Collins, list about 120 species as occurring on

    the island, the families represented being loons; albatrosses; shearwaters,

    fulmars; petrels; cormorants; ducks, geese, and swans; hawks, eagles,

    gyrfalcons; cranes; plovers, dotterels, and turnstones; curlews, sandpipers,

    godwits, and ruffs; phalaropes; jaegers; gulls, kittiwakes, and terns;

    murres, guillemots, auklets, puffins; cuckoos; owls; barn swallows; ravens;

    wagtails, pipits; redpolls, longspurs and snow buntings (Friedmann, 1932-34;

    Murie, 1936).


    Discovery and Early History

            St. Lawrence Island was discovered and named by Bering on his first

    expedition [ ?] on August 10, 1728 (August 11, new style). It was

    thus the first recorded discovery of land by the Russians in what is now

    the Territory of Alaska. It seems unlikely, however, that Bering was the

    first European to have seen St. Lawrence. The Cossack, Simeon Deshnev,

    must have passed close by it in 1648 when he followed the coast from Bering

    Strait down to the Anadyr, and in later years, but still before the time of

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    Bering, a number of expeditions had been sent out from the Kolyma and the

    Anadyr to collect tribute from the Shukchis. That some knowledge of St.

    Lawrence Island had been gained by Bering's predecessors would appear from

    the following statement by the historian Gerhard Frederick Müller in a

    passage describing manuscripts he discovered in the Archives of Yakutsk

    in 1736:

            "Another map which I got at Jakutzk...furnished us with

    some more Accounts. It represents a two-fold Noss; the farthermost

    towards the North East, which, from the nation of the Tschutschi, is

    commonly called Tschukotskoi Noss ... The other, which lies South

    from this, though it is far enough from the River Anadia, is called...

    Anadirskoi Noss [ ?] ... In a large Gulph between Tschukotskoy

    and Anadirskoi Noss lies an Island, which is said to be inhabited by

    the Tschuktschi , and another over against Anadirskoi Noss, the one

    farther from the Continent than the other; which are described in

    the following Manner; 'To the first Island is half a Day's Voyage;

    upon it lives a People whom the Tschuktschi call Achjuchaljat ; these

    speak their own Language, wear Cloaths of Duckskins, and live by

    catching of Sea-Horse and Whales; and, as the Island is without

    Forests, they boil their Provisions with Train Oil. The second is two

    Day's Voyage Distance from the first; the Inhabitants are called,

    in the Tschuktschi Language Peekeli . They have Teeth set in through

    their Cheeks; they live in fortified Places, and are also cloathed

    with Duckskins.' I am of Opinion, that the Situation here given to

    this Island is a Mistake, and that it must be looked for over-against

    Tschukotskoi Noss . (Müller, 1761, p.xxii.)

            Müller is undoubtedly correct in supposing that the second island lay

    to the north of the first, for the reference is evidently to Diomede Island,

    whose inhabitants, unlike those of St. Lawrence, wear labrets of walrus ivory

    and whose villages of stone houses, built into the steep hillside, might

    well be described as "fortified places." Peekeli" (Peekit) is the Chukchi

    name for the Eskimos at East Cape on the Siberian shore just opposite

    Diomede Island. As to the first island, a journey of two days from the second,

    this could only have been St. Lawrence, for the word "Achjuchaljat," the name

    given the inhabitants, is clearly synonymous with "Eiwhue'lit," the term

    by which the Chukchi still refer to the St. Lawrence Eskimos.

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    EA-Alaska-Geography. Collins: St. Lawrence Island

            In 1778 Capt. James Cook had a distant view of St. Lawrence Island

    from the eastward and named it Anderson's Island after Dr. William Anderson,

    surgeon on the Discovery . Later in the same year, approaching more closely,

    Cook named the eastern part of the island Clerk's Island, after Captain

    Clark of the Discovery , not suspecting its connection with the St. Lawrence

    Island, discovered by Bering, or the supposed Anderson's Island. On this

    occasion Cook also observed the small islands now known as Punuk, off the

    eastern end of St. Lawrence.

            St. Lawrence was next visited in 1791 by Commodore Joseph Billings,

    in command of an exploring and surveying expedition sent out by the Empress

    of Russia. Billings himself published no account of the expedition, and that

    by Martin Sauer, Billing's secretary, contains nothing of particular interest

    concerning the island.

            The first circumstantial account of St. Lawrence Island and its people

    is that given by Kotzebue, who sailed around the western end of the island

    in July 1816 and the eastern end in August 1817. On July 27, 1816, Kotzebue

    landed on the southwestern end of the island and spent some time visiting

    with the Eskimos in their tents. He was received with great friendliness

    and in his report gave an interesting and valuable description of the people

    there, as well as at Sevuokuk (Tschibocko), the present village of Gembell,

    and at Cape Kialegak (Kealegach) on the opposite end of the island where he

    stopped on July 10, 1817.

            Lieutenant Shishmareff, who accompanied Kotzebue, surveyed parts of the

    shore line of St. Lawrence in 1816 and 1817. In 1821 he returned to Alaska

    in command of the ship Good Intent and completed the survey of the Stl Law–

    rence coast.

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    EA-Alaska-Geography. Collins: St. Lawrence Island


    Later Explorations

            In 1848 the first whaling ship passed through Bering Strait, to be

    followed the next year by a large fleet of vessels. Though the whalers

    frequently stopped at St. Lawrence, the next recorded visit to the island

    was in 1880. In that year Capt. C. L. Hooper, in command of the U.S. Revenue

    Steamer Corwin, stopped At. St. Lawrence to investigate reports of starva–

    tion of large numbers of Eskimos during the winter of 1878-79. Capt.

    Hooper has given a vivid description of the distressing conditions he found

    (Hooper, 1881). Village after village was found deserted, with the dead

    lying unburied in and around the houses. Hooper estimated the number of

    dead at over 400, half of them at Gambell, at the northwest end of the

    island. However, the entire eastern end of the island had been depopulated,

    and as Hooper had not stopped at the large villages there nor at the southwest

    end where the mortality had also been heavy, the number of deaths undoubtedly

    greatly exceeded his estimate, the total reaching probably around 1,000.

    Hooper himself, and others who have followed him, assert that liquor was

    directly responsible for the famine. It is claimed that the Eskimos had

    bought whiskey and rum from the whalers and traders, had gone on a prolonged

    spree and failed to lay in a supply of walrus meat when the game was avail–

    able. A period of bad weather followed, and being unable to obtain walrus

    and seal, on which they depended primarily for food, they had succumbed to

    hunger during the following winter. While liquor may have been a contri–

    buting factor in some cases, its importance has undoubtedly been exagerated,

    for it is inconceivable that the general mortality which occurred, affecting

    every village on the island, could be attributed to such a cause. Liquor

    was nothing new to these people; they had been getting it for years from

    the whalers and traders. Nor is it true that the food animals are available

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    EA-Alaska-Geography. Collins: St. Lawrence Island

    only during a few weeks of the year as Hooper intimated. On the whole

    it seems likely that the deaths were caused primarily by an epidemic

    which struck the island while the Eskimos at some places were already

    in a weakened condition from lack of food. The present Eskimos deny

    that liquor and resultant starvation was responsible, pointing out that

    meat had been found in the caches at some of the villages where all of

    the people had died.

            In 1881 the Corwin again touched at St. Lawrence, and the naturalists

    E. W. Nelson and John Muir, who were accompanying Capt. Hooper went ashore

    at several places. It was on this trip that Nelson obtained the large

    collection of ethnological material from the Island which is partially

    described by him in the 18th Annual Report of the Bureau of American


            In 1894 a school was established at Sevuokuk, the large village at

    the northwestern end of the island. The first teachers, Mr. and Mrs. V. C.

    Gambell, were drowned in 1898 while returning after a year's leave of

    absence. Thereafter the village was [ ?] called Gambell in their honor.

    Mr. Gambell left an interesting account of their experiences called "The

    Schoolhouse Farthest West." One of the later teachers, W. F. Doty, also

    published a short account of the St. Lawrence Eskimos which contains

    considerable information of ethnological value (Doty, 1900).

            The first anthropological work on St. Lawrence was conducted by

    Dr. Riley D. Moore, who spent the summer of 1912 at Gambell making an–

    thropometrical studies of the Eskimos and collecting ethnological and

    skeletal material for the Smithsonian Institution. Moore's paper (1923)

    presents valuable data on the social life of the people. The fullest

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    EA-Alaska-Geography. Collins: St. Lawrence Island

    account of the life and customs of these Eskimos is that given by Otto

    W. Geist, who lived for many months on the island between 1926 and 1935.

    (Geist and Rainey, 1936, pp. 10-81.) In addition, Geist's excavations

    in the upper sections of the great kitchen midden, Kukulik, (Geist and

    Rainey, pp. 85-134, Plates 6-40) yielded an enormous quantity of recent

    material, which together with E.W. Nelson's collections of 1881 (Nelson,

    1899) provides a comprehensive picture of the material culture of the

    St. Lawrence Eskimos.

            The physical type of the St. Lawrence islanders has been described

    by Hrdlicčka, on the basis of measurements on the living made by Moore and

    Collins, and of extensive collections of skeletal material by Moore, Collins,

    and Geist (Hrdlicčka, 1936, 1942).

            St. Lawrence Island is probably richer in archaeological remains than

    any other Alaskan locality. With an abundance of seal, walrus, whale, and

    other food animals available, the island has always supported a large

    Eskimo population from the time, well over 1,000 years ago, when the first

    migrants came to its shores from nearby Siberia. Numerous abandoned village

    sites, many of them kitchen-middens of great size, are found along the

    coasts on the north, east, and west sides of the island. Excavations in

    these middens have revealed successive stages of cultures which are an

    important part of the framework of Eskimo archaeology. (See articles "Old

    Bering Sea and Punuk Cultures".)

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    1. Bogoras, Waldemar. "The Eskimo of Siberia," Mem.Amer.Mus.Nat.Hist .

    vol .12, pp.417-56, 1910.

    2. Chaney, Ralph W. "A sequoia forest of Tertiary age on St. Lawrence

    Island," Science , vol .72, pp.653-54, Dec.26, 1930.

    3. Collins, Henry B., Jr. "The ancient Eskimo culture of Northwestern

    Alaska," Explorations and field-work Smithsonian Inst. 1928,

    pp.141-50, 1929.

    4. ----. "Prehistoric art of the Alaskan Eskimo," Smithsonian Misc.

    Coll ., vol . 81, no.14, Nov.14, pp.1-52, 1929.

    5. ----. "Prehistoric Eskimo culture in Alaska," Explorations and

    field-work. Smithsonian Inst. 1929, pp.147-56, 1930.

    6. ----. "Ancient culture of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska," Explorations

    and field-work Smithsonian Inst. 1930, pp. 135-44, 1931.

    7. ----. "Archaeological investigations in northern Alaska," Explora–

    tions and field-work Smithsonian Inst.
    1931, pp. 103-112, 1932-a.

    8. ----. "Prehistoric Eskimo culture on St. Lawrence Island," Geogr.

    Rev ., vol .22, no.1, pp.107-19, January, 1932b.

    9. ----. "Archaeology of the Bering Sea region," Smithsonian Rep . 1933,

    pp.453-68, 1935.

    10. ----. "Archaeology of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska," Smithsonian Misc.

    Coll. vol .96, no.1, pp.xi, 1-431, 1937.

    11. Doty, W.F. "The Eskimo on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska," 9th Ann.

    Rep. on Introduction of Domestic Reindeer into Alaska, by

    Sheldon Jackson, pp.186-223, 1900.

    12. Friedmann, Herbert. "The birds of St. Lawrence Island, Bering Sea,"

    Proc. U.S. Nat.Mus ., vol .80, art.12, pp.1-31, 1932.

    13. ----. "Bird bones from Eskimo ruins on St. Lawrence Island, Bering

    Sea," Journ. Wash. Acad. Sci., vol.24, no.2, pp.83-96, Feb.15,


    14. Gambell, V.C. "The schoolhouse farthest west," Woman's Board of Home

    Missions of the Presbyterian Church, 156 Fifth Ave., New York

    Reprinted from Youth's Companion, no date.

    15. Geist, Otto Wm., and Rainey, Froelich G. "Archaeological excavations

    at Kukulik, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska," Vol .2, Misc.Publ.,

    Univ. Alaska, U.S. Dept. Interior, May 19, 1936 (issued in

    April 1937). pp.1-391, 1936.

    013      |      Vol_XII-0260                                                                                                                  
    EA-Alaska-Geography. Collins: St. Lawrence Island

    16. Hooper C. L. "Report on the cruise of the U.S. Revenue-Steamer Corwin

    in the Arctic Ocean," Washington, 1881.

    17. Hrdlicčka, Alesš. "Anthropological survey in Alaska," 46th Ann.Rep.

    Bur.Amer. Ethnol, pp.21-374, 1930.

    18. ----. "Catalog of human crania in the U.S. National Museeum," Eskimo

    in general," Proc. U.S. National Museum, vol.91, pp.169-429,


    19. Knopf, Adolph. "The probable Tertiary land connection between Asia

    and North America," Univ.Celif. Publ., Bull. Dept.Geol .,

    vol.5, no.28, May 1910.

    20. Kotzebue, Otto von. "A voyage of discovery into the South Sea and

    Beering Straits," London, 3 vol. 1821.

    21. Moore, Riley D. "Social life of Eskimo of St. Lawrence Island,

    Amer. Anthrop ., n.s. vol. 25, no.3, 1923.

    22. Müller, G.F. "Voyages from Asia to America" ... by S. (G.F.) Müller.

    Translated by Thomas Jefferys. London, 1761.

    23. Murie, Olaus J. "The Birds of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska," In

    Geist and Rainey , 1936, pp.361-76.

    24. Nelson, E.W. "The Eskimo about Bering Strait," 18th Ann.Rep.Bur.Amer .

    Ethnol ., pt. 1, 1899.

    25. Rainey, Froelich G. "Eskimo chronology," Proc.Nat.Acad.Sci ., vol.22,

    no.6, pp.357-62, June, 1936.

    26. ----. "Eskimo prehistory: The Okvik site on the Funuk Islands."

    Anthrop.Papers Amer.Mus.Natl .Hist. vol.37, pt.4, pp.459-569,


    27. Snodgrass, Roland. "Notes on geography and geology of St. Lawrence

    Island, Alaska," In Geist and Raney , 1936, pp.331-334.


    Henry B. Collins, Jr.

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