Gardening in the Aleutian Islands during the Russian Period

Author: Douglas Veltre | Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, University of Alaska Anchorage |

(This material is largely based on “Gardening in Colonial Russian America: Archaeological and Ethnohistorical Perspectives from the Aleut Region, Alaska,” by Douglas Veltre, published in 2011 in Ethnoarchaeology 3(2):119-138.)

Russian fur hunters entered the Aleutian Islands region shortly after the 1741 voyages of Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikof.  Over the decades that followed, Russians extended their activities ever farther eastward and southward, so that by the early 1800s their presence extended to southeastern Alaska.  The early fur-hunting voyages were often of several years’ duration, with ships remaining in Aleutian waters until they had amassed a profitable number of sea otter, fur seal, and other furs.

Though the number of Russians in Alaska never exceeded about 800 at any one time, the Russian colonial period was a devastating time for many Alaska Native people, including Unangax^ (Aleuts).  As much as 90 percent of their population was lost through hostilities, introduced diseases, and accidental deaths.  In addition, traditional patterns of kinship, leadership, subsistence, technology, and religion were profoundly altered.

In 1974, I began three seasons of field research on the effects of the eighteenth century Russian arrival on the Unangax^ of Atka Island, in the central Aleutian Islands (Figure 1).  My primary focus was to investigate the archaeological visibility of contact: the changes in material culture, settlement use, food remains, etc. that could be taken as signs of the arrival of Russians in the region.  To supplement the archaeological findings and gain further insights on the contact period, I also researched Russian period documents and conducted oral history interviews with Unangax^ in Atka.

Veltre Fig 1

Figure 1: Korovinski and the village of Atka.  (Detail of a USGS map.)

Initial examination of several sites on the eastern portion of the island led to more intensive mapping, testing, and excavation at the site of Korovinski, on the Bering Sea coast, some 16 km (10 miles) from today’s village of Atka. Well known to today’s residents of Atka village through oral history, personal travel to the area, and written historical documentation, Korovinski was one of the ancestral villages to today’s village of Atka, which was formed around 1870.  Interestingly, it is one of the few old settlements in the state to be identified on modern USGS maps as a “site.”

Veltre Fig 2

Figure 2: The Korovinski site area, looking east-northeast.  Korovin Lagoon is to the left, Korovin Bay to the right.

As my archaeological investigation was to show, Korovinski was the locale of a large pre-Russian Unangax^ village from about 2,000 to 500 years ago, at which time a major volcanic eruption sent its occupants elsewhere.  It was not until the middle of the Russian period, around 1820, that Korovinski was again occupied, this time by both Russians and Unangax^.  The settlement served as the westernmost office of the Russian-American Company, having jurisdiction from the central Aleutians to Kamchatka.  Remains of well over 80 structures (including houses, a barn, warehouses, and a church) are dispersed over both the western and eastern low-lying spits at the mouth of Korovin Lagoon (Figure 3).  In the years after Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, Korovinski residents moved to today’s village of Atka.

Of particular interest at Korovinski are extensive garden plots (Figures 4-6) defined by sod walls about 1 m (3.3 feet) high.  Inside these walls, individual plots are often clearly furrowed.  Probably built to keep out domestic animals, such as the cattle and goats that Russians brought to the Aleutians, the walls could also have served to mark the ownership of the crops: those belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Russian-American Company, and so on.  Altogether, the various garden plots on both the Korovinski spit and the eastern spit cover an area of just over 19,000 m2 (1.9 hectares or 4.7 acres).

Veltre Fig 3

Figure 3: The locations of cultural remains at Korovinski.


Veltre Fig 4

Figure 4: Garden plots at the end of the main (western) Korovinski spit. Low altitude oblique photograph, looking west.

Veltre Fig 5

Figure 5: Detail of Korovinski spit gardens, with furrows visible in several of the plots. Low altitude photograph, looking down.

Veltre Fig 6

Figure 6: Gardens and surface depressions on the eastern spit at Korovinski. (Aerial photograph by AERO-METRIC, Inc., Alaska Division, Roll 26B, Frame 22, May 12, 1986.)

While it is not possible to say with certainty that all of the garden plots on both spits were planted at the same time, I think it is likely that most were.  Estimates of the gardens’ productivity are difficult to state with precision; nevertheless, contemporary yield figures for Alaskan potatoes suggests that the Korovinski gardens might have produced from about 11,700 to 85,800 kilograms (25,800 to 190,000 pounds) annually.  As the Korovinski gardens were the largest in the Aleutian Islands region, it is likely that the Russian-American Company shipped some of the Korovinski potatoes elsewhere in the region to help support its fur-hunting endeavors.

During the Russian period, potatoes were fairly widely cultivated in the Aleutian Islands region and elsewhere in Alaska, but usually in relatively small plots that have been lost to time.  The Korovinski gardens are unusual because of their size as well as the fact that they have not been destroyed by subsequent development of the area.  Another example of surviving gardens plots is in Unalaska, on the property of the Russian Orthodox Church.  A view from 1840s by the artist Voznesenskii clearly shows gardens adjacent to the church (Figure 7).  The low furrows from this plot remain today as faint reminders of the Russian era (Figure 8).

Veltre Fig 7

Figure 7: Gardens in Unalaska in 1843 by Voznesenskii (from Pavel Golovin, The End of Russian America, Oregon Historical Society, 1979, p. 125).


Veltre Fig 8

Figure 8: Gardens furrows in the church yard in Unalaska today.


6 thoughts on “Gardening in the Aleutian Islands during the Russian Period

  1. I found this to be very interesting. I have read about some of the fur collecting activities during the Russian period, but this research provides additional information concerning that period. Thank you.

    • Generally, potatoes and other root crops, like radishes and turnips, were grown, as they did fairly well in the cool Aleutian summer.

    • I’d never heard of fruit walls before; they’re a fascinating way to store heat. However, I don’t think that the much lower sod walls of the Korovinski gardens would have been capable of acting as effective heat sinks, especially given the low solar radiation of the Aleutians. In addition, unlike the fruit walls, most of the potatoes at Korovinski were grown in rows well away from the walls themselves.

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