Kasaan is a small community on the north shore of Kasaan Bay and the southern shore of the Kasaan Peninsula, on the east coast of Prince of Wales Island, about 65 miles (105 km) south of Wrangell and 33 miles (53 km) west-northwest of Ketchikan, Alaska. Kasaan is the northernmost village of the Kaigani Haida, although the name is from the Tlingit ‘Kasa’aan’ meaning ‘beautiful town’. Traditional Haida territory spans the current international boundary between Canada and Alaska, with the heartland in British Columbia known as Haida Gwaii meaning ‘island of the people’. The Haida have occupied present-day Southeast Alaska since migrating from Haida Gwaii in the 18th century before contact with Europeans. In the late 1700s, European and American ships engaged in the maritime fur trade began regularly visiting and trading with the Haida at a site called Kaigani on Long Island at the southern tip of Prince of Wales Island. These Kaigani Haida would travel to the trading site from permanent villages further north such as Howkan on the west coast of Long Island, Sukkwan at the northern end of Sukkwan Island, Klinkwan at the mouth of Hunter Bay, and Old Kasaan on Skowl Arm. This trade brought wealth, but also European diseases. The first smallpox epidemic hit Kasaan in 1794, and again in the Pacific Northwest epidemic of 1862 when the disease killed over 70% of all Haida people. Today the Kaigani Haida live mainly in Kasaan, formally called The Organized Village of Kasaan, and in Hydaburg.
The copper deposits of the Kasaan Peninsula were known to the Russian fur traders, but the first documented claim was staked after the Alaska Purchase in 1867 by Charles Vincent Baranovich. Baranovich was a European immigrant who took part in the California Gold Rush of 1849 and later went north to British Columbia for the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush in 1858 and the Cariboo Gold Rush of early 1860. He likely entered Russian America by descending the Stikine River in a canoe. By 1861, he was running the schooner Langley transporting freight from Victoria to trading posts along the coast of British Columbia and Alaska. In 1865, Baranovich was able to secure one of only 21 coveted Russian American Company trading permits and started a trading post on Kasaan Bay. He was married for many years to a daughter of Chief Skowl, the powerful Haida leader in the Kasaan area at that time. As a result of this marriage, he was able to obtain from his father-in-law the fishing rights on one of the best streams and used a native fish trap to school the salmon in the creek so they could be easily caught. Baranovich built a small saltery in Kasaan which became a salmon cannery in 1902 and operated sporadically until 1953. In 1867, Baronovich first saw outcroppings of an ore vein while canoeing nearly a mile out in Kasaan Bay. By paddling his canoe in the direction of the vein’s strike, he found copper showings on the beach which led him to discover and stake the first lode claim in Alaska which he called the Copper Queen. Most of the production and development occurred from about 1900 to 1918, especially from 1905 to 1907, when copper prices soared. At least 14 claims were worked on the Kasaan Peninsula including Salt Chuck, Palmer Cove, Copper Center, Brown and Metzdorf, Haida, It Mine, Poorman, Conner Queen, Uncle Sam, Rich Hill, Pelaska, Mount Andrew, Mamie, and Stevenstown Mines. A smelter was built at Hadley on Clarence Strait to process the ore of the Kasaan Peninsula. After World War I, copper supply exceeded demand, prices fell, and there has been no further copper production since 1918. However, because of the intense and widespread mineralization on the peninsula, the area has repeatedly been re-examined for copper, iron, gold, and more recently for cobalt, uranium, nickel, arsenic, antimony, and molybdenum.
In the late 1800s, Old Kasaan on the north shore of Skowl Bay, had seven house chiefs, among them Son-I-Hat, and one village chief, the famous Chief Skowl. The town had numerous totem poles in front of the houses that were in a line along the beach. In general, totem poles tell clan stories and history or serve as monuments to adorn graves or to hold the dead and their possessions. Chief Skowl died of smallpox during the winter of 1882-1883. In 1893, Chief Son-I-Hat decided to move the village from Skowl Arm to Kasaan Bay, prompted by the promise of jobs and a school associated with the development of copper mining and a cannery. Chief Son-I-Hat had his clan’s Whale House, which was built around 1880, and a totem pole moved to the new village. The house was large and rectangular with cedar planks set vertically along the sides and a planked gable roof held up by massive decorated corner posts and equally massive round ridge beams. Inside, the floor was dug for two or more levels of benches. The inside also had two platforms for sitting and sleeping. The house faced the water, and usually would be in a single line with other houses along the beach because of the limited availability of flat land in Southeast Alaska. Each house had an entrance pole incorporated in the front facade or standing a short distance in front of the house. Son-I-Hat died in 1904, and the Whale House at Kasaan fell into disrepair. In 1938, a Civilian Conservation Corps project funded by the New Deal restored the house, entrance totem, and several house posts. Eight totems were also moved from Old Kasaan to Kasaan and arranged to create a park called Chief Son-I-Hat’s Whale House and Totems Historic District. Today, this historical area includes the house, totem poles, two cemeteries, and a trail to commemorate the Kaigani Haida people, their art, and their lifestyle in Southeast Alaska during the early 1900s. Read more here and here. Explore more of Kasaan here: