Afognak Village, Marmot Bay

Afognak Village, Marmot Bay

by | Apr 19, 2022

Afognak is the site of a historical village that was abandoned following the 1964 tsunami, situated at the head of Marmot Bay on the southeast coast of Afognak Island in the Kodiak Archipelago, about 122 miles (196 km) south-southwest of Homer and 20 miles (32 km) northwest of Kodiak, Alaska. The community consisted of an amalgamation of settlements including Rutkovsky or Russian Town and Nasqualek or Aleut Town which extended for about 0.75 miles (1.2 km) in a single row of widely scattered dwellings along a gravel beach ridge. The beach gravel is derived from the principal bedrock of this area called the Kodiak Formation, an accretionary wedge of slate and greywacke that formed in a deep marine trench as turbidite deposits during the Late Cretaceous and then were heated and partially metamorphosed as they were accreted to the edge of the continental margin. Late Pleistocene glaciation over most of the archipelago scoured much of Afognak Island to bedrock. Deglaciation of the islands and the adjacent Alaska Peninsula about 11,000 years ago exposed the landscape seen today. Erosion of the rock in the surf zone created wave-cut bedrock terraces and coarse well-rounded particles that waves move onshore and alongshore creating gravel beaches. Storm-associated high tides and waves built gravel berms several meters above sea level. The deposition of coarse gravel at high tide levels is facilitated by the rapid percolation of the backwash into the highly permeable beach substrate. Post-glacial isostatic uplift and sea-level changes during the mid and late Holocene raised these beaches and beach-berm complexes at many places along the coast. These beach deposits are well-drained and provided one of the few widespread geologic settings suitable for human habitation.

The first evidence of humans in the Kodiak Archipelago appears in the archaeological record about 7,500 years ago. These people were a well-adapted maritime culture who subsisted primarily by hunting marine mammals, birds and fish. Their way of life, termed the Ocean Bay Tradition, continued with minor changes until about 4,000 years ago when there was a dramatic shift in subsistence to an emphasis on fishing. Netsinkers and ground slate ulus first appear in archaeological sites of this age, signaling a shift to mass capture technologies and substantial long-term food storage. Within this new lifestyle, termed the Kachemak tradition that lasted from 4,000 to 1,000 years ago, people lived in large villages comprising single-roomed, semi-subterranean houses. They begin to signal social identity by wearing labrets indicating the formation of corporate groups. Some archaeological sites from the end of the Kachemak tradition period also yield intricately carved artwork, evidence of elaborate burial practices, an expanded inventory of tools, and a variety of exotic trade goods. The cultural changes that mark the end of the Kachemak tradition and the emergence of the Koniag tradition were dramatic. Large, multi-roomed houses with interior storage and cooking features replaced the much smaller and simpler dwellings of the Kachemak people, and a dramatic increase in feasting and ritual is evident. At the time of European contact, a village of 105 inhabitants named Nasqualek, meaning round or bulging and likely refers to the shape of the long beach, was located on Marmot Bay. The location allowed the residents to follow the natural cycle of mammal and fish movements. Whale hunting was an important source of food and the Alutiiq method of whaling was with poison-tipped spears. The whales died and drifted ashore after they were struck. Harbor seals, supplemented by porpoise and sea lions, which also are abundant in Marmot Bay, supplied most of the meat, oil, and hides. Seals were harpooned from kayaks or at shore haul-outs after being attracted within range by a decoy. Seals also were entangled in large nets and were clubbed at haul-outs. Of equal importance was the summertime focus on the salmon fishery at the mouth of the Afognak River. During peak years sockeye salmon began to arrive by the end of April, followed by other species over the course of the summer and fall. The site of Nasqualek is characteristic of main or winter villages. It is located close to the outer bay, near resource areas, and away from the isolated, sometimes frozen, heads of bays.

Russians first met the inhabitants of Afognak in 1784 when fur company records recount the dealings between Grigory Shelikhov and Afognak Islanders. A village or house is shown on a 1786 map near the location of Nasqualek known as Aleut Town to the Russians. By 1802, there was a one-man trading post or odinochka near the village. Most of the early houses in Aleut Town were Alutiiq semi-subterranean sod homes. In 1830, a new settlement was established about 1 mile (1.6 km) south of Nasqualek called Rutkovsky and also known as Russian Village. This community was the home of Russian-American Company retirees and their families. The pensioners were typically Russian men married to Alutiiq women. They lived in a row of log houses behind the beach, harvested and raised their own food, and sold any surplus. In the 19th century the community grew, especially following the 1838 smallpox epidemic when an influx of survivors moved from neighboring villages. The two communities were separated by a marshy area and a set of social and economic distinctions that persisted into the 20th century. Russian Town was more affluent, and its residents were afforded a higher social standing than their neighbors. In reality, most of the people in both communities had both Russian and Alutiiq ancestry, and many families were related. Despite tensions between the two groups, many Alutiiq learned Russian and converted to Russian Orthodoxy and gradually the village of Afognak developed as the two settlements merged. In 1867, the Alaska Purchase transferred the territory from Russia to the United States and soon schools that only taught in English were established in regions where no one spoke the language. By 1900, much of the younger community was trilingual, speaking Alutiiq, Russian, and English. The fishing boom in the late 1800s and early 1900s started many salmon canneries in Alaska but the wasteful fishing practices caused tensions with the Alutiiq who wanted to keep their subsistence fishing lifestyle. In 1912, Afognak was covered by 3 feet (1 m) of ash when Mount Katmai erupted, and on March 27, 1964, the Alaska earthquake generated a tsunami that destroyed Afognak Village. A new community was constructed on the northeast coast of Kodiak Island called Port Lions in honor of the Lions Club that helped relocate the village. The former residents of Afognak moved permanently in December 1964. Read more here and here. Explore more of Afognak here:

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This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

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