In Darkest Alaska: Travel and Empire along the Inside Passage

In Darkest Alaska: Travel and Empire along the Inside Passage

In Darkest Alaska: Travel and Empire along the Inside Passage

In Darkest Alaska: Travel and Empire along the Inside Passage


'In Darkest Alaska' explores the popular images conjured by numerous traveller's tales, as well as their influences on the broader society. By portraying the territory as a 'Last West' ripe for American conquest, tourists helped pave the way for settlement and exploitation.


To the North, the crystal of non-knowledge,
A landscape to be invented

Octavio Paz

Alaska was an idea in the minds of Europeans long before they had touched its shores. It was a fantasy before it had a name. (Ages of indigenous names were as yet unknown.) Previous to its becoming an American territory, the north was a space to dream over. and at this beginning there was a map.

In 1648 the Russian Cossack Semyon Dezhnev sailed east from the mouth of the Kolyma River in the Asian Arctic through a strait later named after the Danish navigator Vitus Bering, returning with vague rumors of land to the east. Thousands of years earlier other explorers had traipsed across an exposed land bridge—Beringea—leading to the settlement of the new world. the more recent Russian visitors were not aware of these ancient journeys. But Chukchi natives knew well these waters, the land mass, and the people across the strait. Native reports of a continent to the east fueled dreams of the wealth in furs that might be had there. Other ventures followed. the Russians planned “to investigate the islands in the sea and the Great Land,” as their native informants had called it, or bolshaya zemlya—big land, as another Russian navigator suggested. On the map it remained simply “Incognita.”

Not until 1741 did the combined naval squadron of Bering, sailing for Russia, and Aleksei Chirikov make separate landfalls and confirm the rumors. Bering’s voyage ended with his death on a remote island beach off the coast of Kamchatka, but the survivors eventually surfaced with nearly a thousand valuable sea otter pelts. Chirikov returned safely, except for the loss, possibly at the hands of local Tlingit, of several crew members who disappeared after landing near present-day Sitka. This . . .

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