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St. Lawrence Island: Encyclopedia Arctica 12: Alaska, Geography and General
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

St. Lawrence Island

(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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

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

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".)

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


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.

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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