Tatitlek, Prince William Sound

Tatitlek, Prince William Sound

by | Sep 11, 2021

Tatitlek is a small Chugach Alutiiq community located on the northeastern shore of Tatitlek Narrows across from Bligh Island and at the mouth of Boulder Bay on the eastern shore of Prince William Sound, about 24 miles (38 km) southwest of Valdez and 39 miles (63 km) northwest of Cordova, Alaska. Thomas Golding Gerdine, a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey who was in Alaska making topographic maps between 1898 and 1906, noted that the village formerly stood at the mouth of Gladhaugh Creek at the head of Virgin Bay, and it was moved to its present site in 1898. The move was precipitated by the development of the Ellamar Mine at Virgin Bay and facilitated by a connecting road. In 1907, the Chugach National Forest was created from a portion of forest reserve designated in 1892. The forest is a Pacific temperate rainforest that occupies a very narrow coastal strip between the ocean and the glaciated alpine zone. The dominant trees are Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and mountain hemlock.

Archeological diggings show that the Chugach Alutiiq people of Prince William Sound are a cultural mixture of Yup’ik, Athabaskan, and Aleut people who have inhabited the region for thousands of years. The Yup’ik people have had a strong influence on the Chugach dialect, known as Alutiiq. The Athabaskan people from the interior migrated down the Copper River for trading purposes. The Aleut people migrated eastward from the Aleutian chain and Kodiak Island. The Chugach people were well established when contact was first made with Europeans in the middle to late 18th century. The Chugach numbered about 500 to 700 people and were divided into eight independent bands at Nuchek, Shallow Water (Cordova), Sheep Bay, Gravina Bay, Tatitlek, Kiniklik, Chenega, and Montague Island. The first Europeans arrived in 1778 under the command of Captain James Cook. In 1792, the Russians establish Fort Constantine at Nuchek and quickly subjugated the local population into forced labor to hunt sea otters. To ensure the cooperation of male hunters, and minimize the possibility of reprisals, the Russians took children and women as hostages. Reports of this abuse resulted in the Imperial Charter of 1799 that directed the Russian American Company to sponsor the conversion of newly discovered people in Alaska into the Christian religion. The Russian Orthodox religion was introduced to Prince William Sound in 1795 by Hieromonk Juvenaly, who came to Alaska from Saint Petersburg as part of the first Russian Orthodox mission to America. According to the priest Ivan Veniaminov, in that year Juvenaly baptized 700 Chugach in Nuchek Lake. After the Alaska Purchase in 1867, Russian Orthodox priests continued to play a role in the lives of Prince William Sound Natives. During the 1890s, the church with the support of the Alaska Commercial Company ran a school at Nuchek and 30 students were enrolled in the fall of 1894. They were taught Russian, English, catechism, prayers in Slavonic and Alutiiq, arithmetic, and singing. In 1897, copper was discovered on Landlocked Bay and on Virgin Bay. The Virgin Bay deposit became known as the Ellamar mine that employed many people from Tatitlek. The first copper ore was shipped to a smelter in Tacoma in 1899 and regular shipments starting in 1904. In 1922, an influenza epidemic infected most of the Tatitlek population and killing almost half. In 1926, the Ellamar mine closed and many people living in Tatitlek moved to Valdez or Cordova to find work and as a result, the school was closed in 1929-30.

The first commercial salmon cannery opened sometime between 1887 and 1889 at Odiak near the site of present-day Cordova. Pink salmon were the first species targeted but eventually, the fishery in Prince William Sound expanded to include all species of salmon, as well as herring, clams, crab, and halibut. The force behind the development of commercial fisheries in Alaska was primarily the Alaska Packers Association, which was founded in San Francisco in 1892. By 1900, Alaska Packers owned most of the canneries in Alaska and accounted for 72 percent of the annual salmon pack. The company maintained a firm grasp on the industry by exploiting both workers and the fisheries. Fish traps were the principal means of catching salmon and by 1937, 41 fish traps were operating in Prince William Sound accounting for 71 percent of the total salmon catch. In 1940, a salmon cannery was built at Ellamar and operated intermittently until it burned down in 1952. In 1971, the Tatitlek Corporation, one of five Alaska Native Village Corporations within the geographic boundaries of the Chugach Alaska Corporation, was established by Congress under terms of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. In 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Bligh Reef, not far from Tatitlek, and spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the waters of Prince William Sound. Although currents carried most of the oil away from the village, the spill and its aftermath affected the already declining commercial and subsistence fisheries in the sound. Today, many Tatitlek families participate in commercial and subsistence herring, halibut, and hatchery augmented salmon fishing. Read more here and here. Explore more of Tatitlek and Prince William Sound here:

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