Fossil Bluffs is on the northeast shore of Halleck Harbor near the northern entrance of Saginaw Bay on Kuiu Island, about 42 miles (68 km) southeast of Sitka and 17 miles (27 km) southwest of Kake, Alaska. The local name for the shoreline cliffs was recorded in 1948 by the U.S. Geological Survey and refers to the abundant spiriferid and productid brachiopod fossils found in the bedrock of the Pybus Formation that formed during the Permian period. On Kuiu Island, the rock formation is predominantly light gray dolomitic limestone, with some light gray chert that dominates the lower 50 to 100 feet (15-30 m) of the formation on the north side of Halleck Harbor. Both limestone and chert weather to white, and the unit forms prominent white cliffs. Halleck Harbor was named in 1869 by U.S Navy Commander Richard W. Meade of the USS Saginaw for Major General Henry W. Halleck who from 1865 to 1869 was in command of the Military Division of the Pacific. In 1867, Russian America was purchased by the United States, and William H. Seward, possibly with input from Halleck and Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, applied the Aleut word ‘Alaska’, meaning ‘great country or land’, to the acquired territory.
The USS Saginaw was a sidewheel sloop-of-war launched at Mare Island in 1859. During the American Civil War, Saginaw was attached to the Pacific Squadron and operated along the U.S. west coast to prevent Confederate activity. In 1866, Saginaw was in Puget Sound to support settlers in the Pacific Northwest and assisted the Western Union Company in laying a cable that brought the first telegraphic service to the region. Following the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the U.S. Army came to Alaska to serve as the civil law enforcement entity for the Department of Alaska, and Saginaw was dispatched to begin exploring and charting the Alaskan coast. Trouble ensued when the U.S. authorities used common law to mete out justice, disregarding the traditional indigenous law of the Indigenous Tlingit people. Americans generally characterized the Tlingit legal framework as based on ‘revenge’, but it was more complex and involved ‘peace ceremonies’ which included compensation in either goods or human lives. These cultural differences led to a dark period in Southeast Alaska that came to be collectively known as the Kake War.
Prior to the conflict, two European American trappers were killed by Tlingit warriors from Kake in retribution for two Kake that were killed while departing Sitka by canoe. Sitka was the site of a standoff between the Army and Tlingit after the army demanded the surrender of Chief Colchika who was involved in an earlier altercation at Fort Sitka. Saginaw was sent to subdue the Kake Tlingit, and in February 1869, proceeded to destroy villages at Fossil Bluffs, Hamilton Bay, and Security Bay. Although the Kake evacuated the villages in advance of the attacks, soldiers burned winter food stores that, according to tribal oral accounts, led to the starvation and suffering of many people. The Kake Tlingit did not rebuild the destroyed villages, instead, the people dispersed to other communities including the present-day community of Kake. Later in 1869, Saginaw was assigned to Midway Atoll to support dredging operations. In 1870, while approaching Kure Atoll, Saginaw struck an outlying reef and was subsequently wrecked in the surf. In 2003, the wreck of Saginaw was discovered and remains under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command. In 2019, the name for Saginaw Bay was changed to the Tlingit name Skanáx̱ Bay. Read more here and here. Explore more of Fossil Bluffs and Saginaw Bay here: