The Alaska Humanities Forum is proud to support Bringing Aleutian History Home: the Lost Ledgers of the Alaska Commercial Company.
This new multimedia project by Anchorage-based journalist and historian J Pennelope Goforth preserves vital and fragile historical documents covering the Aleutian Islands fur trade in the late 1800s.
Goforth discovered them purely by chance in a Nordstrom shopping bag in a relative’s basement in Washington state.
Here’s the background:
Not long after the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, the Alaska Commercial Company, then a newly formed trading firm, launched extensive sea otter hunting operations in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands.
As the only government-sanctioned business in Alaska, the ACC became the de facto civil authority in the frontier territory. It carried the mail, maintained customs records and dispensed food and aid in hard times. ACC managers and agents also kept meticulous ledgers of business and correspondence. Historians prize these rare written chronicles of the early years of U.S.-controlled Alaska.
Unfortunately, most ACC records for the Aleutian Islands either burned in the company’s San Francisco headquarters after the great earthquake of 1906, or were lost during the World War II occupation of the islands.
In particular no records from ACC trading posts in now-abandoned villages like Tchernofski and Makushin were thought to have survived.
That was, until Goforth peered into the long-forgotten shopping bag while organizing materials in her family member’s basement. “I saw the tops of several black bound ledgers, onion skin [paper], and then smaller red marbled page markings,” she said.
Goforth had recently studied 19th century ACC records archived in the Alaska & Polar Regions Collections at the Rasmuson Library in Fairbanks. “Even before I reached a shaky hand in to pull them out, I knew what they were.”
She found six ledgers, 700 pages in all, spanning 1875-1897. They are filled with correspondence between ACC agents in the Aleutians and seal hunting ship captains, as well as detailed business records and notes on the everyday life of the Aleutian people, including births, deaths and marriages.
For example, accounts of the 1886 hunting season contained in one ledger both describe Aleut hunting strategies and give the names of more than 70 Aleut hunters along with their villages of origin.
The ledger pages are handwritten in English, with a few letters in Russian.
Bringing Aleutian History Home: the Lost Ledgers of the Alaska Commercial Company consists of DVDs containing high-resolution scans of all 700 pages, written transcriptions of each page that are keyword searchable, and guides to the ledger books written by Goforth.
“The quality [of the images] invites you right back to 1875; the aged brown of the ink on yellowed pages comes through so well along with odd creases and the crumbled edge of a well-used ledger,” said Goforth. “You won’t however have the slightly musty mildew-y 135-year-old smell that had me sneezing.”
Three-disc sets will be distributed to the Anchorage Museum, the University of Alaska, the Alaska State Historical Library, the Museum of the Aleutians, the City of Unalaska Library, and more than 20 other organizations and institutions throughout the state.
This year the Alaska Humanities Fourm supported the completion of the lost ledgers project with a $4,470 general grant. Goforth also received funding from the Alaska Commercial Company, the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, and National Endowment for the Humanities.