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Westernmost point of US has interesting history

October 13, 2018

If you’d asked me yesterday which was the most westerly part of the United States, I’d have said Hawaii. After all, it’s out there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean nearly 2,500 miles from California. I’d have been wrong, though. The most westerly state in the union is, in fact, Alaska — the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to be exact.

Take a look at a map. You’ll see that the state of Alaska is almost square except for a long “tail” of islands stretching southwest out into the area where the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet.

The major center of population in the islands is Unalaska, situated on the island of the same name. There are fewer than 5,000 people living there, many of them employed in the town’s Dutch Harbor. This is home to the most productive fishery in America and is the port from which the TV show “The Deadliest Catch” is filmed.

The islands have a long history of human occupation. They may have been part of the land bridge that once connected the Americas with Siberia and the first permanent inhabitants we know about were called the Aleuts. These people have been living there for at least 9,000 years and it was they who named the long line of islands “Ounalashka.” Over centuries they developed a complex society with around a thousand people living in about 24 scattered villages.

The first contact with outsiders was with Russians and, in the year 1759, Stepan Glotov led a group of fur traders to the islands. For over three years the two groups traded peacefully. But then something happened and the Aleuts attacked the Russians. In the ensuing fight, four of the Russian ships were burned and about 175 of their hunters and traders were killed. In retaliation, the Russians mounted a punitive expedition and many of the natives were massacred.

The Russians then established a permanent fur trading post at Unalaska and this was later absorbed into the Russian state-sponsored Russian-American Company, organized to encourage exploration, trade and settlement. This post was visited by the British explorer James Cook, famous for his voyages to Australia and New Zealand, in 1778, and by two Spanish explorers, Esteban Jose Martnez and Gonzalo Lopez de Haro, 10 years later. The Spaniards visited several of the islands and actually laid claim to Unalaska for Spain, naming it Puerto de Dona Marie Luisa Teresa but this claim was never followed up.

The Russians continued to trade and settle the island and in 1825 the first Christian church was built at Unalaska by a Russian Orthodox priest who, with the help of the local people, developed a written Aleut language and translated the scriptures. Even today many of the inhabitants are of the Russian Orthodox faith and a lot still have Russian surnames.

Ten years after the church was built, the native population, which had little natural immunity, was decimated by epidemics of whooping cough, measles and chickenpox, which brought their numbers down to fewer than 400.

Russia did little to develop the settlement and, in 1867 they became concerned that the Alaskan territories might be seized by Great Britain, so they sold the area, including the Aleutian Islands, to the United States.

America moved into the town of Unalaska and its port, Dutch Harbor, and by 1880 there was a Methodist church, clinic and orphanage there. The main industry came from the sea but, at the end of the century, the harbor enjoyed a boom when it was used as a coaling station by ships attracted to the Alaskan gold rush.

The increased shipping brought trade to the island but it also brought further epidemics, including the Spanish Flu pandemic, which hit at the end of World War I. Two years later the census recorded only 299 people living on the island.

By 1938, it was clear that there would eventually be a confrontation between the United States and Japan and the Navy Board ordered the fortification of Dutch Harbor. Work began in 1940 and consisted of shore batteries and an air base. They were just in time. On 3rd June, 1942 Unalaska was attacked by aircraft from two Japanese aircraft carriers and a few days later Japanese soldiers occupied Kiska and Attu, the two westernmost islands of the chain.

This was the first invasion of U.S. territory since the war of 1812 and it brought an influx of people to the islands. Some 145,000 U.S. and Canadian troops were eventually deployed to retake the two occupied islands. It was not an easy task. The Japanese were tenacious and, after several bloody battles, the campaign ended on May 29, 1943, when they suddenly made a suicide charge at the aptly named Massacre Bay on Attu Island. U.S. casualties amounted to nearly 4,000 killed, wounded and missing, the Japanese lost many more but they evacuated their remaining troops from Kiska Island three months later and the occupation of the Aleutians was over.

There was a dark side to this victory. After the air raids on Dutch Harbor the US authorities evacuated most of the native population and interred them in temporary camps, where a lot of them died. When the survivors returned to their homes after the war they found many of them had been looted and/or burned.

Today the population of Unalaska is higher than it has been for centuries. More than 400 fishing vessels from many different

countries make port there to land around 10 percent of the total fish caught in the whole of the United States. McDonalds make their Filet-O-Fish exclusively from pollack landed at Dutch Harbor and, as I said earlier, the “Deadliest Catch” program is made here. The area is famous for its crabs and the waste products from fish are used to make biodiesel that powers much of the island’s industry.

In addition to the fishing industry, the islands* cliffs are home to more seabirds than in the rest of America altogether. These attract bird watchers from all over the world and hiking the islands rugged trails is becoming popular.

Conditions on Unalaska are harsh, the wind howls, it can get very cold. But despite this, America’s westernmost point is still going strong.

Derek Coleman Is a part-time writer who Is a native of England and who now lives In Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tall-derek@hotmail.com.

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