Dennis Griffin, with Oregon’s State Historic Preservation Office, has been combing the hillsides of Alaskan tundra looking for signs of life. He’s been exploring Hall and St. Matthews Islands, both are located off the coast of Alaska in the middle of the Bering Sea.
Trudging through typical wet, windy weather for St. Matthew Island, he recently found a fox tooth in a decaying jaw, chips of rock where someone made tools, pottery, a plate-size anvil stone and a yellowed walrus tusk cut with deep grooves.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Geophysical Institute estimates that Griffin has found artifacts left behind by Native people from around 1620. St. Matthew is more than 200 miles from the closest Alaska village, and Griffin was there trying to figure out why anyone lived there at all—the conditions are far from ideal.
It’s a pleasant enough place in summertime, but “in winter, survival in a sod-covered hut dug into the ground would be another matter. Even today, in late summer, a chilly wind flows unchecked over the hillside,” says Ned Rozell in a UAF press release. “It’s hard to imagine standing here when sea ice covers the ocean and snow blasts over the landscape.”
Griffin was led to St. Matthews by intuition and the words of Coquille tribal elder Don Ivy, who told him, “A good place to live is a good place to live.”
This led Griffin to a bluff on Hall Island where he unearthed spikes and nails he believes are of Russian origin, which reminded him of The seal-islands of Alaska, by Henry Wood Elliott.
Elliot visited Hall Island in 1874 and described parties of Russians and their Aleut slaves who spent the winter of 1810-1811 there. All but one of the Russians died of scurvy, but Elliot reported that all the Aleuts survived: “We found the ruins of the huts which had been occupied by this unfortunate and discomfited party of fur-hunters, who were landed there to secure polar bears in the depth of winter, when such ursine coats should be the finest.”
Griffin plans to spend time this winter trying to figure out more about those who chose to make Hall and St. Matthews Islands their temporary home.