The U.S. bought Alaska in 1867, but it really didn't have much of a presence there, and especially not in more remote areas like the Bering Sea, for many years. The Treasury sent a revenue cutter into the Bering Sea in 1870, and again, nine years later, in 1879.
In 1880, the revenue cutter Thomas A. Corwin entered the Bering Sea under Captain Calvin Hooper. At Hooper's recommendation, regular annual cruises by revenue cutters were began in 1881. Hooper and the Corwin made the 1881 cruise.
In the late 19th Century these patrols were the face of the U.S. government in the Bering Sea. The cutters had a lot of jobs. They tried to interrupt the regional trade in liquor and rifles, investigated vessel disappearances, conducted search and rescue efforts, provided logistical support for the census, moved people around within the region, helped the shipwrecked get home, suppressed fur seal poaching, shipped reindeer from Siberia to the U.S., and carried out geographic and scientific research.
Science was important right from the start In 1881, John Muir was the cruise glaciologist. On a shore stop at the western Alaskan port of St. Michael, the Corwin picked up an employee of the U.S. Signal Service, the naturalist and ethnographer, Edward Nelson. The Coast Guard, a successor agency to the Revenue Service, dates its participation in oceanographic work from this trip. Captain Hooper, made several attempts to gather information about currents from the Bering Strait (Oceanography in the Coast Guard).
The Corwin in 1885.
The Corwin had left San Francisco on May4 and arrived at Unalaska in the Aleutians on May 17. Thereafter she performed various missions in the Bering Sea and Arctic, arriving at St. Michael in Norton Sound on July 4. She departed St. Michael on July 9 and sailed north and then west along the south side of the Seward Peninsula. She arrived at King Island on the morning of July 12.
Captain Hooper's report on the trip was published in 1884, and is available on the web (Report of the Cruise of the U.S. Revenue Steamer Thomas Corwin, in the Arctic Ocean, 1881, U.S. Government Printing Office):
...This island [King Island - Ben] has about the same area as Sledge Island, but is somewhat higher and more rugged in its outline. Like the latter, most of its inhabitants had gone to the mainland to trade and gather berries, as they are accustomed to do each year. The settlement is on the south side of the island on an extremely rugged slope over one hundred and fifty feet above the sea. The winter houses are excavated in the rocks, and the summer houses are made of walrus hide stretched on poles which are secured to the almost perpendicular cliffs by lashings and guys of walrus hide. Altogether it is a most remarkable place. The men are very expert with the kyack, which they use when killing seal and walrus. The kyack in use by them is probably the finest in the world. It is a marvel of speed, strength, and beauty. Near the village is a cave in the rocks in which a supply of meat is stored for winter use. We remained at this place some hours taking photographs, collecting ivory carvings, &c. The natives dispose of the carvings readily; in fact, being natural traders, they seldom refuse to sell anything they possess. Unfortunately, many of the best carvings had been taken along by the traveling parties, probably in hope of falling in with Mr. Nelson, who, by his long residence at Saint Michael's and frequent journeyings around the country, had become extensively known among them. His custom of buying these carvings, and many other things which were of no value except as specimens for a museum, pleased the natives very much, and to many to whom his name was not known, he was described as "the man who buys good-for-nothing things."
Leaving King's Island at 1.30, we shaped a course for Cape Prince of Wales, arriving at 4 p.m., and stopped off the settlement....
This was Hooper's second visit. He'd been to the island in 1880 and devoted a page of his 1880 report to the visit (Report of the Cruise of the U.S. Revenue-Steamer Corwin in the Arctic Ocean, Hooper, 1881).
John Muir's notes and letters were compiled by others and published in 1917, after his death, as The Cruise of the Corwin.
July 12. Reached King Island this morning about seven o'clock, and left at half-past ten. Reached Cape Prince of Wales about three in the afternoon and anchored. Left at six in the evening. Clear, bright day; water, pale green. Had a fine view of the Diomedes, Fairway Rock, King Island, Cape Prince of Wales, and the lofty mountains towards the head of the river that enters Golofnin Bay, all from one point of view. The King Island natives were away on the mainland, all save a few old or crippled men, and women and children.
Their town, of all that I have seen, is the most remarkably situated, on the face of a steep slope, almost a cliff, and presents a very strange appearance. Some fifty stone huts, scarcely visible at a short distance, like those of the Arizona cliff-dwellers, rise like heaps of stones among heaps of stones. These are the winter huts, and are entered by tunnels. The summer huts, large square boxes on stilts, are of skin [stretched over] large poles of driftwood. There is no way of landing save amid a mass of great wave-beaten boulders. In stormy times the King Islanders' excellent canoes have to be pitched off into the sea when a wave is about the recede. Two are tied together for safety in rough weather. These pairs live in any sea. A few Gray-headed old pairs came off with some odds and ends to trade.
Mr. Nelson and I went ashore to obtain photographs and sketches and to bargain for specimens of ivory carvings, etc. a busy trade developed on the roof of a house, the only level ground. Groups of merry boys went skipping nimbly from rock to rock, and busily guided us over the safest places. They showed us where between the huge boulders it was best to attempt a landing, which was difficult. Though the sea was nearly calm, a slight swell made a heavy surf. One hut rose above another like a village on Yosemite walls. The whole island is precipitous, so much so that it seems accessible only to murres, etc., which flock here in countless multitudes to breed.
Photo from Captain Hooper's report in 1884. I assume this is one of the photos taken by Nelson. Click on it to see a larger version. The picture doesn't show the winter dugout housing, but it does show how steep the site was, and gives a sense of how the stilt housing appeared.
Nelson (from The Eskimo About Bering Strait (USGPO, 1900):
King Island, in Bering strait, is a rugged mass of granite rising sheer from the water for hundreds of fee on three sides, and on the fourth side, where the village is located, it is very difficult to make a landing. In July, 1881, the Corwin anchored a few hundred yards off the shore; the rugged granite walls rose in sharp, serrated, angular slopes almost perpendicularly from the edge of the water to the village and thence upward to the high crest. Along the edge of the water great granite boulders added to the difficulty of landing, thence up to the village a broken path zigzagged sharply up the jagged slope. From the vessel the village presented the appearance of a cluster of cliff-swallows' nests on the face of the island, the entrances to the houses looking like rounded black holes among the granite bowlders used for their walls. As the anchor chain went rattling out, the people who had been watching us from the houses, gave a loud shout and ran down to the water, leaping from rock to rock and looking like pigmies, so dwarfed were they by the gigantic background.
The winter houses at this place were made by excavating the loose rocks, thus forming a deep niche in the steep slope, and by walling up the front and sides with stones placed over a driftwood framework. Access to these houses was gained by a long, arched stone passageway, which sloped from the outer entrance in and up to a hole in the plank floor. The inside of the living rooms were arranged with plank floor and benches, just as on Sledge island, but there were no outer storerooms or cooking rooms in the passageway. Driftwood was abundant there, but the principal material used for covering the houses was broken granite.
The summer houses were remarkable structures; they were square inclosures, made wholley of tanned walrus hide, with a slightly arched roof of walrus skins drawn snugly over the wooden framework and lashed firmly in place. The houses were elevated and held in place by a framework which consisted of two main poles standing upright with the bases fastened among the rocks and connected by a wooden crossbar lased to them 10 or 20 feet from the ground. From this crossbar other bars extended on a level back to the slope of the hill, where they were made fast. The floor was of roughly hewed planks, and at the back rested against the face of the hill. From the hillside a plank extended to one of the corners of the house, and a little plank walk passed thence around the side of the house to the front, being railed by a pole lashed, at about the height of a man's hand, to uprights set in the rocks. On the seaward side was a circular opening, which served as a combined door and window. Figure 84 represents one of these summer houses.
In some of these houses one corner was walled off from the room with walrus hide as a square inclosure to serve as a sleeping room. In one of the houses the entire rear half was walled across and again subdivided by a walrus skin partition, forming two sleeping rooms, entrance to which was given by a round hole cut in the skin. Each of these inner rooms served for a family, and contained their bedding and various small possessions, the longer outer room being a general sitting and work room and a receptacle for dried fish and other stores. The translucent walrus hides rendered these houses very light, and they were kept quite clean. In summer fresh meat and fish were kept in a great cleft in the cliff close to the landing place, and accessible only from the water. There were various elevated frameworks here for storing the boats.
A couple of notes that reflect my ignorance more than anything else (treat this as thinking out loud for topics to investigate for future posts):
The first Russian visitors in the late 18th Century appear to mention the "winter" houses, but not the "summer" houses (King Island Enters History, Ben Muse, March 10, 2008). The houses on the stilts are so striking that if they had been there in the late 18th Century you'd think the Russians would have said something.
By the mid-Twentieth Century the people are living in the stilted housing in the winter as well as the summer. In the 1950s dugout community club houses were still in use, but not - apparently - dugout housing. Father Louis Renner dates the emergence of the stilted summer houses to the second half of the nineteenth century (Pioneer Missionary to the Bering Strait Eskimos: Bellarmine LaFortune, S.J., 1979). Moreover - as later pictures make clear, sometime after this 1881 visit the islanders substituted wood planks for walrus skins as construction material for their houses.
If I've got this right, what drove the evolution in house construction over this period. There are several key changes: (a) introduction of stilted summer housing; (b) abandonment of the use of dugout housing in the winter; (b) change in construction materials for stilted housing from walrus over poles to plank walls.
The construction of the walrus hide summer houses, with walrus hides stretched tightly over a wooden frame, sounds like an adaptation of unimak construction methods. In fact, King Islanders would use their umiaks as housing while they were traveling; they would simply pull the umiak on shore and turn it over to provide at least one wall and a roof. The idea of providing a level floor for the house with stilts rather than moving rocks looks like a novel insight. There also must have been some thought given to insulation when the stilted housing began to be used in the winter.
Was the idea of stilts a new one, or was there a change in the availability of the long, strong poles needed for construction? The later evolution from walrus hide to wood may be explicable in terms of the development of the regional economy, which would have reduced the relative price of wood planks as a building material, and increased cash incomes available to the islanders.
Notes: The opening paragraphs on the revenue cutters are based on Dorothy Ray's The Eskimos of Bering Strait, 1650-1898. Closing paragraphs on the evolution of housing revised on April 22 2008.
There are more King Island posts here: King Island.