Saltery Cove, Skowl Arm

Saltery Cove, Skowl Arm

by | Oct 5, 2021

Saltery Cove is an embayment that extends southeast for 1.5 miles (2.4 km) off Skowl Arm on the east coast of Prince of Wales Island, about 26 miles (42 km) west of Ketchikan and 10 miles (16 km) south-southeast of the Organized Village of Kasaan, Alaska. The entrance to Skowl Arm is near the mouth of Kasaan Bay and extends west into Prince of Wales Island for 6.5 miles (10.5 km) to Polk Inlet. Skowl Arm was named by maritime fur traders around 1880 after the well-known Chief Sqa’oal, better known as Chief Skowl, of the Kaigani Haida, who inhabited a village on the north shore of the bay. The Kaigani are Haida people who migrated from Haida Gwaii in the early 1700s and lived north of Dixon Entrance, a body of water that separates the islands of Southeast Alaska from British Columbia. The Haida and their northern neighbors, the Tlingit, were among the most aggressive Northwest Coast people. It appears, however, that the Haida and Tlingit negotiated the Kaigani move to southern Prince of Wales Island peacefully and incorporated each other into their social structures despite linguistic differences. Chief Skowl was of the Kaigani Haida, whose wealth and enormous stature made him one of the most powerful on the coast. He was the chief of the original Kasaan village, located on the north shore of Skowl Arm across from Saltery Cove. The community had seven house chiefs, among them Son-I-Hat, and one village chief, Chief Skowl. The village had numerous totem poles in front of the houses that were aligned parallel to the beach. In the 1870s and 1880s, several epidemics killed many of the residents including Chief Skowl, who died of smallpox during the winter of 1882-1883. Soon afterward, most of the villagers moved to a new village on Kasaan Bay, which today is known as the Organized Village of Kasaan.

The historical villages of the Kaigani Haida were almost always on the seashore with the houses generally in one long line and all facing the sea. The houses were almost square, measuring perhaps 40 or 50 feet (12-15 m) on each side and sunk several feet into the ground. On entering the house, there was a platform several feet wide running around the four sides, and a step down to a second platform surrounding a central square of dirt that contained a fireplace. People would eat around this hearth. The upper platform was for lounging, visiting, and sleeping. There each person of the household had his or her own place, marked by boxes containing the person’s treasures and the household’s food along the wall. There was but one doorway and no windows in a Haida house. Outside the house, at the middle of the front, stood a huge carved post of wood or totem forming the doorway for the house with a hole cut in the lower part of the pole for the entrance. The villages often had three kinds of carved posts. The first was a death post. The Haida usually burned their dead, however, if the person had been important, a display was made of the body. It was dressed in the finest clothing, and all their treasures were placed around the body. People came for some days to see the riches. After the body had been burned, the ashes were gathered and put into a box, which was placed in a cavity hollowed out in the lower part of the death post. At the top of the death post was a cross board on which was carved or painted the totem of the dead man. The second kind of carved post was the commemorative post, put up to celebrate some important event. Chief Skowl once erected a great post near his house to commemorate the failure of the Russian Orthodox missionaries to convert his village to Christianity. When the last missionary had gone, he put it up to recall their failure and to ridicule their religion. At the top was an eagle, below it was a man with his right hand lifted and pointing to the sky, below it was an angel, then a priest with his hands crossed upon his breast, then an eagle, and lastly a trader. The third type of caved post was a totem pole. These were taller, more carefully made, and more elaborately carved than the others. They were placed in front of the houses to act as a doorway. The carvings on these posts refer to the people living in the house. In one Haida totem pole, there was a brown bear at the top which was the totem of the man of the house sitting on top of four potlatch rings, then came the great raven, then the hunter, and finally a bear which was the totem of the woman of the house.

After the Alaska Purchase in 1867, salmon fishing became highly profitable in Alaska because of the sheer abundance of fish that could be caught and processed cheaply at remote and relatively primitive facilities, and salteries proliferated along the coast. Salting fish is an ancient method to preserve food with dry edible salt. Salting is used because most bacteria, fungi, and other potentially pathogenic organisms cannot survive in a highly saline environment due to the hypertonic nature of salt. Any living cell in such an environment will become dehydrated through osmosis and die or become temporarily inactivated. Fine-grained salts were more expensive but also absorbed moisture faster than coarse salt. Salmon salteries were usually an enterprise requiring little capital expenses. A cooper, with a handful of tools, could go into the woods and fall a few trees to make barrels. Hoops to hold the barrels together, salt and fishing gear were shipped from Seattle. The fish, usually sockeye salmon, were caught with fish traps, seines from skiffs, or from weirs at the mouth of a salmon stream. Wooden vats, usually in a rough wooden building on pilings over the water, held the fish in salt until they were processed sufficiently to be packed into barrels. The salmon saltery was usually built over the water so that tidal currents would carry away the waste. The market for salted fish was limited, and to be consumed the salt would first need to be soaked from the fish. This limited market spurred the development of salmon canneries which quickly replaced the many salteries along the coast. To continue making a profit, more than one saltery operator engaged in smuggling contraband in the barrels of salted fish. The contraband was most often alcohol and opium. Opium was smuggled from British Columbia to a saltery where it was packed in barrels and stored beside identical barrels of salt fish in the packinghouse. At the first opportunity, it was taken aboard a steamer and sent to Puget Sound for distribution. Read more here and here. See a short video on the old village of Kasaan here. Explore more of Saltery Cove and Skowl Bay here:

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