Aleutian Islands

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The Aleutian Islands (possibly from Chukchi aliat, ``island) are a chain of small islands situated in the Northern Pacific Ocean, and extending about 1200 miles westward from the extremity of the Alaskan peninsula toward the peninsula of Kamchatka. The eastern half of the archipelago is part of the state of Alaska, and usually considered as being in the Alaskan Bush; the western half is in Siberia. The dividing line is between Big Diomede and Little Diomede islands.

The islands, of which an alternative collective name is the Catherine Archipelago, comprise four groups--the Fox, Andreanof, Rat and Near Islands. They are all located between 52 degrees and 55 degrees North latitude and 172 degrees East and 163 degrees West longitude.

The axis of the archipelago near the mainland of Alaska has a southwest trend, but near the 129th meridian its direction changes to the northwest. This change of direction corresponds to a curve in the line of volcanic fissures which have contributed their products to the building of the islands. Such curved chains are repeated about the Pacific Ocean in the Kurile Islands, the Japanese chain, the Philippines. All these island arcs are at the edge of the Pacific Plate; the Aleutians lie between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. The general elevation is greatest in the eastern islands and least in the western. The island chain is really a western continuation of the Aleutian Range on the mainland.

The great majority of the islands bear evident marks of volcanic origin, and there are numerous volcanic cones on the north side of the chain, some of them active; many of the islands, however, are not wholly volcanic, but contain crystalline or sedimentary rocks, and also amber and beds of lignite. The coasts are rocky and surf-worn and the approaches are exceedingly dangerous, the land rising immediately from the coasts to steep, bold mountains.

The climate of the islands is oceanic, with moderate and fairly uniform temperatures and heavy rainfall. Fogs are almost constant. The summers are much cooler than on the mainland at Sitka, but the winter temperature of the islands and of southeastern Alaska is very nearly the same. The mean annual temperature for Unalaska, the most important island of the group, is about 38 degrees Fahrenheit, being about 30 degrees for January and about 52 degrees for August. The highest and lowest temperatures recorded on the islands are 78 degrees and 5 degrees, respectively. The average annual amount of rainfall is about 80 in., and Unalaska, with about 250 rainy days per year, is said to be the rainiest place within the territory of the United States.

The growing season lasts about 135 days, from early in May till late in September, but agriculture is limited to the raising of a few vegetables. With the exception of some stunted willows the islands are practically destitute of trees, but are covered with a luxuriant growth of herbage, including grasses, sedges and many flowering plants. On the less mountainous islands the raising of sheep and reindeer is believed to be practicable.

The principal occupations of the natives have always been fishing and hunting, and the women weave basketry of exquisite fineness. From the end of the 18th century the Russian fur traders had settlements here for the capture of the seal and the sea otter and the blue and the Arctic fox. Under the American regime seal fishing off the Aleutians save by the natives has never been legal, but the depletion of the Pribilof herd, the almost complete extinction of the sea otter, and the rapid decrease of the foxes and other fur animals have threatened the Aleuts (as the natives are commonly called) with starvation. For several decades, enterprising traders have raised foxes by culture and by especially protecting certain small islands, and this has furnished employment to whole communities of natives. Fish and sea-fowl are extremely abundant.

The natives are rather low in stature with black eyes and long black hair. They are a branch of the Eskimo family, but differ greatly from the Inuit of the mainland in language abd culture. They were good fighters until they were cowed by the treatment of the Russians, who effectively reduced them to slavery. Sporadic efforts to Christianize the Aleuts were made in the latter half of the 18th century, but little impression was made before the arrival in 1824 of Father Ivan Venyaminov, who in 1840 became the first Greek Orthodox bishop of Alaska. While the missionaries of the Greek Church have nominally converted the natives to Christianity, white adventurers have more effectually converted them to various bad habits. In dress and mode of life they have adopted many Western customs.

Because of the location of the islands, stretching like a broken bridge from Asia to America, most anthropologists believe they were the route of the first human occupants of the Americas, probably via a now-submerged [[Bering land bridge]] during the most recent Ice Age. The earliest known evidence of human occupation in the Americas is much further south, in New Mexico and Peru; the early human sites in Alaska have probably been submerged by rising waters during the current interglacial period.

The principal settlements are on Unalaska island. Of these Iliuliuk (also called Unalaska), the oldest, settled in 1760-1775, has a customs house, a Russian-Greek church, and a Methodist mission and orphanage, and is the headquarters for a considerable fleet of United States revenue cutters which patrol the sealing grounds of the Pribilofs; adjacent is Dutch Harbor (so named, it is said, because a Dutch vessel was the first to enter it), which is an important port for Bering Sea commerce.

The volcano Makushin (5691 ft.) is visible from Iliuliuk, and the volcanic islets Bogoslof and Grewingk, which rose from the sea in 1796 and 1883 respectively, lie about 30 miles west of the bay. The latter is still active; in 1906 a new cone rose between the two earlier islets, and in 1907 still another: these were nearly demolished by an explosive eruption on the 1st of September 1907.

The population of Unalaska Island in 1900 was 575 Aleuts and 66 whites. The Commander Islands group near the Asiatic coast is geographically a part of the Aleutian system.


It is stated that before the advent of the Russians there were 25,000 Aleuts on the archipelago, but that the barbarities of the traders and foregin diseases eventually reduced the population to one-tenth of this number.

In 1741 the Russian government sent out Vitus Bering, a Dane, and Alexei Chirikov, a Russian, in the ships "Saint Peter" and "Saint Paul" on a voyage of discovery in the Northern Pacific. After the ships were separated by a storm, Chirikov discovered several eastern islands of the Aleutian group, and Bering discovered several of the western islands, finally being wrecked and losing his life on the island of the Commander group that now bears his name. The survivors of Bering's party reached Kamchatka in a boat constructed from the wreckage of their ship, and reported that the islands were rich in fur-bearing animals.

During his third and last voyage, in 1778, Captain James Cook surveyed the eastern portion of the Aleutian archipelago, accurately determined the position of some of the more important islands and corrected many errors of former navigators.

Siberian fur hunters flocked to the Commander Islands and gradually moved eastward across the Aleutian Islands to the mainland. In this manner Russia gained a foothold on the north-western coast of North America. The Aleutian Islands consequently belonged to Russia, until that country transferred all its possessions in America to the United States in 1867.

During the Second World War, the Aleutian islands were the only area of the United States to be occupied by Japanese forces. The Japanese pulled out upon surrender, however, and were never more than a token garrison.

Initial text from 1911 encyclopedia; has had some updating, revision, and Wikifying, but more is needed, especially on post-1945 history. Needs updating and revision