The sheltered waters around Seldovia have been home to Native people for thousands of years. While there is no written history of these ancient people, archeological studies have unearthed bone and bone tools; the remains of fish and animals that people ate and home sites and graves.
The Seldovia area was a meeting and trading place for the Kodiak Koniaqs, the Aleuts from the Aleutians, the Chugach people from Prince William Sound, and the Tanaina Kenaitze people of the Cook Inlet.
They traveled over land and across the sea to make their home in Kachemak Bay. Speaking Sugpiaq, Aleut and Dena’ina, they traded goods, ideas and regional traditions. This confluence of cultures gave rise to a tradition of subsistence from the sea and land that continues to this day.
Around the turn of the century, a cluster of homes known as Barabaras existed at the head of Seldovia Bay. Known as the Old Village, only the remains of the Barabaras’ rectangular pits exist today.
The Fur Rush
Russian traders who sailed the Arctic coast first came to the Aleutian Islands in the 1740s. Reports of abundant furs brought about the Fur Rush, which began in 1742.
Russian influence later extended to the southern Kenai Peninsula where sea otter stocks were abundant. As Russians, and later Americans, moved in to exploit the otter, Native people were pressed into service for the fur companies. Men were forced to leave their homes to hunt furs. Consequently, Native families suffered separation and food shortages.
Russian Orthodox Missionaries exerted tremendous influence over Native people but they also showed respect for the culture and traditions as they introduced the Orthodox faith.
Orthodox missionaries learned the Aleut language and helped the Aleuts to develop a written record of their language. The Orthodox faith was blended with traditional Aleut values and beliefs and was an integral part of daily life for the Seldovian congregation. Social life centered around church holidays and festive celebrations that are still observed on Christmas and Easter.
As hunting pressure led to the decline of the wild, fur-bearing animals, the breeding of foxes in pens or on islands became popular. Fox were introduced to Yukon and Hesketh Islands where they foraged the beaches for mussels and other shellfish. In the 1920s, many Seldovians were involved in fox farms that dotted the south shore of Kachemak Bay. With the Depression in 1932, the demand and price for furs dropped and most men got out of the business.
Seldovia was one of the few Cook Inlet ports to remain open to navigation through the winter. With the discovery of gold in the interior, thousands of prospectors from the lower 48 boarded steamers bound for Seldovia. From there they traveled on small inlet steamers to the gold fields in the Upper Cook Inlet.
Railroad construction and other development brought even more shipping business to Seldovia. The Cook Inlet Transportation Company met ocean-going steamers at Seldovia and carried men, livestock and freight north to Inlet ports. In 1926, construction of the Anderson Dock allowed large ocean-going steamers to tie up making Seldovia a hub of shipping in Southcentral Alaska.
In the 1920s, a bountiful herring fishery attracted herring fleets from the Pacific Northwest and California to the Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay. Two herring salteries were built in Seldovia and old sailing ships were converted to floating salteries. The need for more labor brought scores of Scottish and Scandanavian “herring chokers” and fishermen to work in the salteries.
Over time, concentrations of rotting fish discarded by the salteries killed the vegetation necessary for spawning herring. The herring fishery declined and by the 1930s was closed. Many men who came to Seldovia for the herring fishery stayed on to fish salmon, halibut and crab. They married Native women and established families that are still the backbone of the town.