For over 7,500 years, the Kodiak region has been home to the Alutiiq people. The Alutiiq created technology, art, and a way of life adapted to Kodiak’s environment.
Beginning in the 1740s, Russian fur traders followed fur bearing animals along the chain of islands that stretch from Siberia to Kodiak’s doorstep. For 20 years, the Alutiiq fought off Russian trespassers, until the 1784 arrival of fur merchant Grigorii Shelikhov. Shelikov’s men crushed the Alutiiq warriors at the Alutiiq fort of Refuge Rock. Hundreds of Alutiiq people lost their lives. To learn more about Kodiak’s first peoples and their continued history, culture and language, please visit the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository at www.alutiiqmuseum.org
Shelikhov built the first Russian settlement in Alaska at Three Saints Bay, on the south end of the island. In 1792, the settlement was moved north to a new location christened Pavlovskaia Gavan or St. Paul’s Harbor, the present site of the City of Kodiak. In 1799, his company became the Russian-American Company and Kodiak became the first capital of Russian America. Between 1805 and 1808, the Russian-American Company built a new magazin, a warehouse or store, just one of about 50 buildings in the settlement. This spruce log structure is now the oldest building in Alaska and the home of the Kodiak Historical Society and Baranov Museum.
The Russian-American Company controlled trade and governed Alaska until the US purchased Alaska in 1867. Kodiak went from being on the eastern edge of Russia to the western frontier of the USA. The Russian-American Company sold its property to the Alaska Commercial Company, including the magazin. The Alaska Commercial Company was the most important business in Alaska. It controlled the fur trade, had trading stores, delivered mail, and financed salmon canneries “out the westward,” as Kodiak, the Alaska Peninsula, and the Aleutian Chain were known. Americans and new immigrants from Scandinavia, Asia, and elsewhere came to Kodiak for our marine resources. To learn more about Kodiak’s martime history, please visit the Kodiak Maritime Museum at www.kodiakmaritimemuseum.org
In 1911, W.J. Erskine purchased the magazin and much of the property in Kodiak from the Alaska Commercial Company. For the next 30 years, he was one of the premiere businessmen of Kodiak and his family made the magazin their home and the center of Kodiak’s social life.
Kodiak’s central location in the North Pacific caused the military to turn Kodiak into the headquarters of the Aleutian Campaign during WWII. Blackouts, price controls, and travel restrictions changed residents’ lives as Kodiak became an active military zone. Entertainment exploded around town. Dances were held nightly and Hollywood stars performed for the troops. At these events, many Kodiak women met their future husbands. By the war’s end, there were weekly weddings and baby showers in addition to dances. To learn more about Kodiak’s military history, please visit the Kodiak Military History Museum at www.kadiak.org
The magazin was sold in 1948. It was leased to the Gilbreath family and then to DeWitt and Wanda Fields, who made it a home for their family and turned it into the Govenor’s Mansion Rooming House. Kodiak Island villagers often stayed at the rooming house, as did cannery workers at Kodiak’s first crab canneries. For the first time, Kodiak had year-round commercial fishing and processing work opportunities.
On the evening of March 27, 1964, the Fields family was preparing for a birthday picnic when the magazin began shaking. The shaking lasted over four minutes as a 9.2 earthquake struck Alaska. The Fields family joined most of Kodiak in dashing up Pillar Mountain, behind town. Tsunami waters came close to the porch, but never reached the building. Downtown Kodiak was not so lucky. Large areas were washed away. The villages of Afognak, Kaguyak, and Old Harbor were destroyed. Villagers from Afognak and Kaguyak had to leave their homes behind forever.
Following the 1964 earthquake and tsunami, Kodiak quickly rebuilt its fishing fleet. Kodiak was the “King Crab Capital of the World” and money poured into town. After the collapse of the king crab industry, Kodiak fishermen continued to pioneer new fisheries, including shrimp, pollock, and others. Boats and canneries were busy year round, turning Kodiak into one of the largest fishing ports in the USA.
Kodiak is an international crossroads. Our location and natural resources have attracted people from all over the world. Our unique location, resources and history all contribute to the community we have today. The Kodiak Historical Society is proud to preserve, share, and be supported by Kodiak’s history and community.