Of course Alaska's King Island had a long history before it entered the written record. During the Ice Age, when the land bridge connected Asia and America, the island's cliffs must have risen dramatically from the surrounding plain. Maybe it had a magical significance for the people who lived near it or passed it. Later the sea rose around it, cutting it off from the mainland. Later still, it became a platform from which people could harvest seals, walrus, polar bear, fish, and birds. The people who lived on it, or who traded or raided with it, certainly had an oral history and tradition.
But the written record begins in July 1732.
This Google map of the Bering Straits shows the key places in the story. On the left is Cape Dezhnev on the Russian mainland. The white line is the current U.S.-Russia boundary. There are two islands in the upper part of the picture astride the international boundary. Big Diomede is on the Russian side, Little Diomede is on the U.S. side. The point of mainland on the U.S. side is the end of the Seward Peninsula, culminating in Cape Prince of Wales. South of this Cape is a small island - King Island. To the southeast of King Island, just off the southern shore of Seward Peninsula is another small island - Sledge Island.
The Strait is only 55 miles wide; from each side you can sense the other. The people who lived on its shores were aware of each other and could get across in their umiaks.
Europeans began to learn about the Bering Sea, and the land beyond, in the 17th Century as the Russian Cossacks moved east into Siberia and came in contact with the native Chukchi and Siberian Eskimos.
By the late seventeenth century or early eighteenth, the Russians knew about the Bering Sea and Strait, and were aware that there was something big on the other side. One of the major Russian exploratory efforts, under the direction of Afanasii Shestakov, was authorized in 1727. The Russians intended to explore - and claim for Russia - islands off the Asian coast, and the "Great Land" on the other side of the Bering Sea. Things moved slowly on the Asian coast of the Bering Sea in the early eighteenth century. Shestakov himself was killed in a major battle with the the Chukchi in 1730. It wasn't until 1732 that the "Great Land" part of the project was implemented.
In late July 1732, the vessel Sv. Arkhangel Gavriil - the St. Gabriel the Archangel - left Kamchatka with a 39 man crew under the command of Mikhail Gvozdev. The St. Gabriel had been built a few years earlier for an expedition commanded by Vitus Bering. Gvozdev was ordered "to sail around Kamchatka Cape [in May 1732] to the mouth of the Anaduir and opposite Anadirski Cape to what is known as the Large Country, examine and count the islands there, and gather tribute from the Inhabitants" (quoted by Dorothy Ray- see the sources below). The St. Gabriel headed north along the Asian coast. By mid-August it had reached Cape Dezhnev.
The expedition reached the Diomedes on August 19. They were able to make a landing on Big Diomede, but were prevented from landing by Little Diomede by Chukchi resistance. From Big Diomede they saw, some 30 miles across the strait, "the Large Country."
Gvozdev reached the Alaskan coast on the 21st, and appear to have seen the Native community that is now Wales on the tip of the Seward Peninsula. Lydia Black describes this as "the first landfall made on Alaska by a Russian naval vessel." Winds prevented a landing and drove the St. Gabriel back out to sea. From Wales he headed southwest:
Leaving his anchorage off the Alaskan coast, Gvozdev proceeded "on a southwest course and by doing so came to the fourth island." King Island, as well as the Alaska mainland, was thus discovered by Europeans for the first time in 1732. One of the island inhabitants came to the Gabriel in "a leather boat which had room for but one man. He was dressed in a shirt of whale intestines which was fastened about the opening of the boat in such a manner that no water could enter even if a big wave should strike it. He told us that Chukchi [Eskimos] lived in the Large Country, where there were forests, streams, and animals. We had no opportunity of going ashore, and from the distance we could not tell whether all that he told us of the Large Country was true or not." On 22 August the Gabriel sailed from King Island, and on the twenty-eighth entered the mouth of the Kamchatka River. (Ray)
The Chukchi referred to are Americans; the "Large Country" is the American mainland. Gvozdev turned in a report and an incomplete log in February 1733, but the report didn't work its way back to St. Petersburg until 1738, and even then only arrived by accident. Dorothy Ray says in her account that "No one ever explained why government officials in [Russian Asia] were negligent in reporting to Saint Petersburg what surely would have been exciting news to Russia's scientific men and fur traders." Gvozdev was asked for a supplementary report in 1743. Here is the complete Russian text: Report of Gvozdev to Spanberg, April 20, 1743. I gather Gvozdev only referred to King Island as the "fourth island."
Gvozdev would have seen something like this photo as he approached (although this was taken in May and shows more snow and ice than there would have been in August):
By the 1770s the Russians had some information about the American side of the Bering Strait. Russian activity on the American side had been very limited - but a lot of information had been gathered from native sources on the Asian side. Much of it was summarized in a 1779 map prepared by Peter Pallas of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, using information obtained from Captain Cook's survey and collected from Asian-side sources by a Cossack, Ivan Kobelev. King Island appears on the map as "Ukipin."
The English explorer Captain Cook gave King Island - as distinct from the Native village on it - the name that stuck. In August 1778 Cook was working his way north through the Bering Sea to the Bering Strait in two sloops, the Resolution and Discovery, in compliance with instructions to look for the Northwest Passage. He had left the United Kingdom in July 1776, traveled south around Africa and across the South Pacific, discovered Hawaii, and then poked his way up the west coast of North America.
In early August he was working to the northwest along the southern coast of Seward Peninsula. On the 5th he had explored Sledge Island (naming it after a native sledge found there).
At three in the morning on August 6 he weighed anchor and sailed northwest. The wind was not good - weak and intermittent - and he made slow progress. At eight in the evening, because of shoal waters and poor visibility, he anchored about two leagues (lets say about six miles) off the mainland coast in about seven fathoms (42 feet) of water. During the day he had traveled about nine or ten leagues (about 27 or 30 miles) from Sledge Island. Shortly after dropping anchor the mists cleared. To the north he could see some high land. To the west, about eight or nine leagues away (24 to 27 miles) he could see a small island. He named it King's Island in honor of one of his officers, Lieutenant James King.
Cook didn't visit King Island. The next day he continued to the northwest, and reached the tip of Seward Peninsula on August 9. He named the cape at the end of Seward Peninsula, Cape Prince of Wales. After a detour to the Asian side of the Strait, Cook continued north into the Chukchi Sea and was eventually stopped by ice. From there the expedition headed south, returning to the Hawaiian Islands where Cook was killed in February 1779.
Lydia Black points out that Cook was naming geographical features in regions claimed by Russia. She says that the Russians received reports on his activities and discoveries fairly quickly. By 1780 - "before Cook's captains returned home and reported to their own admiralty" - Russian mapmakers had incorporated Cook's findings into draft charts.
On June 12, 1791, Ivan Kobelev (see above) finally became the first European to land on King Island. Kobelev, and another Russian agent, Nikolai Daurkin, set out from the Chukchi Peninsula for the Diomede Islands on June 4 in 17 Chukchi umiaks. This is the type of boat we're talking about - made from walrus skin stretched tightly over wooden frames:
They landed on Big Diomede on the 4th and on Little Diomede on the 10th. On June 11 they reached Cape Prince of Wales.
From there Kobelev hoped to explore to the south to find what he believed was a lost Russian settlement. However, ice kept him from entering the coastal waters where the settlement was supposed to be, and he turned his attention to what he thought of as "Ukipin." Here's Ray's summary of Kobelev's report. Kobelev and Daurkin were rivals and apparently Kobelev didn't say anything about Daurkin's participation in the expedition:
At sunrise on 12 June they rowed to King Island. When they saw that the islanders had spotted them in the sea, the Chukchi of Kobelev's party stopped their skin boats, donned "kuiaks" (Chukchi armor), and took spears and bows and arrows in hand, as in battle readiness. Kobelev asked them why they were preparing for war when they were not coming for war, and they explained that that was the custom of the King Islanders, who would meet them in just such a manner. As they approached the island, the inhabitants came down to the shore dressed in armor, with lances and bows in hand, and arrows on the strings; but after they landed they invited everyone to their dwellings.
Kobelev said that King Island was a very small but lofty island, and the village was built on large knolls on the hillside. The dwellings were the same as on Big Diomede. There were about 70 males and adolescents, and 100 females and young children. The males had their lower lips cut in Big Diomede islander fashion. The men had six or eight wives. The language was the same as on Big Diomede and among the "pedestrian Chukchi" (i.e., Eskimos) who lived near East Cape. They had no chiefs over them. The people are sea animals, whale, walrus, and seals, and wore clothing made of "deer" skin, which they got from the mainland.
Kobelev was treated with great friendliness and was told, through an interpreter, to walk through the settlement and look at everything. They began to trade the same day. The King Islanders bartered marten parkas, foxes, wolves, wolverines, otters, lynxes, and deer (caribou) bedding, which were obtained from the American mainland. The Russians bartered spears, knives, hatchets, palmas (long knives with a wide, one-sided blade attached to a long handle), iron pots, various trade beads, and glass beads.
On the island he found ten Americans who lived on the Kheuveren River (that is, in the village of Kauwerek on the Kuzitrin River). They had come the year before in three skin boats to trade. The Americans treated him amicably and with kindness. Through an interpreter, they said they had heard his name long ago when he had first visited the Diomedes (in 1779). The American's talked a lot, but Kobelev could not persuade the interpreters to translate a single statement other than they had heard his name long ago. Finally, the interpreters no longer stood near Kobelev and the Kauwerak people in order to avoid translating.
To show "a big and lasting friendship," the Americans stroked their faces and chests, and then Kobelev's face and chest. They pointed to their land and pulled on his clothes, apparently inviting him to visit them. When he spoke Russian, they pointed to their tongue with their finger and to their land. They crossed themselves surreptitiously, Kobelev said, when his companions joined him, and waved toward their land. He concluded that these actions indicated that Russian-speaking people lived across the strait, although we know that they must have been attempting to tell him something quite different because there was no Russian settlement there. Kobelev decided that the Chukchi who had brought him did not translate his conversations with the Americans for fear their commerce across the strait would suffer if the Russians became friendly with the Americans. (But if the men with Kobelev were actually Chukchi, and not Eskimo - as the name Chukchi often meant at that time - it would partly explain why there was little translating of the American Eskimo conversations.) Kobelev wrote that a mainland Eskimo, who had heard on Little Diomede Island that he was to be on the Chukchi Peninsula for a year, had gone to East Cape to see him the summer before (in 1790) but was killed by the Siberians. (According to Chernenko, the Chukchi were protecting their trade monopoly.)
On 14 June Kobelev left King Island, and the departure was similar to the "welcoming"; both sides were armed.
Kobelev's "Americans" are American Eskimos. The "cuts in the lower lips" refer to lower lip piercings with ivory or stone labrets inserted. Kobelev says the houses were like those on Big Diomede Island. On Big Diomede:
They lived in wooded dwellings covered with stone and sod. The entrance-exit was made underground, about four sazhens (twenty-eight feet) long, but some had a hole cut in the floor, which also served as the entrance. In the ceiling there was a small window covered with skin peeled from the whale's liver. The wood in their houses was fir and cottonwood that had drifted from America. They burned oil for cooking in the winter. (Ray)
It's not clear to me if Daurkin was with Kobelev when he arrived at King Island, or whether they separated before reaching that point.
Sources: Dorothy Jean Ray's The Eskimos of Bering Strait, 1650-1898, and Lydia Black's Russians in Alaska, 1732-1867 for the Gvozdev expedition. Richard Hough's The Last Voyage of Captain James Cook and Cook et al., A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Undertaken, by the Command of His Majesty, for Making Discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere, to Determine the Position and Extent of the West Side of North America; Its Distance from Asia; and the Practicability of a Northern Passage to Europe, for Cook's visit. Ray and Black for Kobelev. I've also looked at L.A. Goldenberg's Gvozdev: The Russian Discovery of Alaska in 1732, translated by James L. Smith and published by Anchorage's White Stone Press in 1990. In 2000, the White Stone Press also published Russians in the Bering Strait 1648-1791, by M.I. Belov and translated by Katerina Solovjova.
For more posts on King Island: King Island.