The Aleutian Islands form a segment of the Circum-Pacific chain of volcanoes (often called the Ring of Fire) and represent a partially submerged continuation of Alaska's Aleutian Range. Most of the islands bear marks of volcanic origin; some volcanoes remain active. The shores are rocky and worn by the surf, and the approaches are dangerous; the land rises abruptly from the coasts to steep, bold mountains. The main navigational lanes through the chain are the Unimak, Umnak, Amukta, and Seguam passes.
Characterized by fairly uniform temperatures, high winds, heavy rainfall, and persistent fog, the Aleutians are practically devoid of trees but are covered with a luxuriant growth of grasses, sedges, and many flowering plants. The Aleutian Islands unit of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge covers 4,250 square miles (11,000 square km) and extends between Unimak (east) and Attu (west) islands. By regulating the numbers of wildlife (notably sea otters and seals), the refuge has eliminated the threat of starvation to the native Aleuts, who have always lived by fishing and hunting. The raising of blue foxes has furnished employment for many.
The main settlements are on Unalaska and Adak islands. The oldest and largest, settled 1760-75, is Unalaska, the former headquarters of a large U.S. Coast Guard fleet that patrolled the sealing grounds of the Pribilof Islands to the north. The next largest settlement, Adak Station, is the site of a naval station established in 1942. Shemya Station is/was the site of a U.S. Air Force installation. Attu is home to a Coast Guard contingency providing LORAN navaids.
In 1741 the Russians sent out Vitus Bering, a Dane, and Aleksey Chirikov, a Russian, on a voyage of discovery. After their ships parted in a storm, Chirikov discovered several of the eastern islands, while Bering discovered several of the western islands. Upon learning of the abundance of fur-bearing animals, Siberian hunters flocked to the Komandor Islands and gradually moved eastward across the Aleutians to the mainland. In this manner, Russia gained a foothold in North America but nearly caused the extinction of the Aleuts as a consequence of slaughter and enslavement. Russia sold the islands, along with the rest of Alaska, to the United States in 1867. A chart of the coast line was prepared by the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey office, and a stock of Blue Foxes were placed on several of the islands to provide the native Aleuts with a means of livelihood.
In 1942 the Japanese invaded and occupied Attu and Kiska islands, relocating and interning the inhabitants as prisoners of war in Japan. A year later, after 19 days of battle, the United States recaptured Attu. During the Cold War the military stations on the Aleutian Islands were vital links in the strategic defense of the North American continent. Pop. (1990) 11,942.
The Aleuts are native to the Aleutian Islands and western portion of the Alaska Peninsula of northwest North America. Aleuts speak three mutually intelligible dialects and are closely related to the Eskimo in language, race, and culture. The earliest people, the Paleo-Aleuts, arrived in the Aleutian Islands from the Alaskan mainland about 2000 BC. Other studies suggest the Aleuts inhabited this area for over 9,000 years.
The Aleuts hunted seals, sea otters, whales, sea lions, sometimes walrus, and, in some areas, caribou and bears. Fish, birds, and mollusks were also taken. One-man and two-man skin boats known as bidarkas, or kayaks, and large, open, skin boats (Eskimo umiaks) were used. Aleut women wove fine grass basketry; stone, bone, and ivory were also worked.
Ancient Aleut villages were situated on the seashore near fresh water, with a good landing for boats and in a position safe from surprise attack from other Aleuts or neighboring tribes. After the arrival of the Russians in the 18th and 19th centuries, internal warfare ceased, and villages were located at river mouths, where salmon were caught in the annual salmon runs. Villages were usually composed of related families. A chief might govern several villages or an island, but there was no chief over all Aleuts or even over several islands.
The Aleut population declined drastically under Russian domination. When the Russians first arrived, there were about 25,000 Aleuts, but by the end of the 20th century they numbered only about 2,000. By the 1830s their traditional way of life was disrupted, and only vestiges have survived.
For a very good presentation of the Aleut peoples leading up to and after WWII, you'll want to view the DVD "Aleut Story." Visit http://www.aleutstory.tv/ for additional information.
Last Updated: 04 January 2013
Originally published 5 April 2001