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3 Historical Background
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Wainwright and The North Slope

In 1848, about 900 vessels had been hunting whales south of the Bering Strait, when the Superior , under Captain Thomas Roys, became the first whaling vessel to push through the Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean. The Superiors success touched off a rush to the Arctic Ocean the next year (Bockstoce 1978). Nonnative whalers engaged in these early activities intermarried with the Inupiat, and today many Wainwright people trace their ancestry to nonnative whalers of this period.

Demand for whale oil and other by-products, such as baleen for corsets, continued for another seventy years. Because outcroppings of coal occur near what is now Wainwright, mines were opened in the late 1880s, and natives located there to mine


the coal, which was used by the steam whalers that plied the arctic seas. The natives also began hunting, selling the meat as a commodity, to supply the whalers with food.

As late as 1881, there were at least five Inupiat settlements within a twenty-five mile radius of the Kuuk Lagoon (Murdoch 1892: 44). The inhabitants of these settlements migrated from the coast to the interior or from the interior to the coast during the seasonal changes. So there were local native populations from which laborers could be drawn to assist whaling operations, and those populations could also be educated and converted to Christianity by Christian missionaries.

Jackson sought to introduce education, Christianity, and economic self-sufficiency to Wainwrighters much as he, or his agents, had to villagers in Gambell and Unalakleet. In 1904, nearly two decades after the first disruptions from nonnative contact, the village of Wainwright became more formalized when Jackson had the federal government build a schoolhouse there (Milan 1964).

Jackson also introduced a reindeer herd into the region in 1904 (Jackson 1904). From the five or so settlements around Wainwright, Jackson enlisted the Kuugmiut people (from the environs of the Kuuk River and the coasts around Wainwright) and the Utuggagmiut (from the area around Icy Cape and the Utukok River, to the east and south of Wainwright) to manage the herd (Ivie and Schneider 1979: 76; Schneider and Libby 1979; Brostad 1975).

In 1918, Arthur James Allen, working as an agent of the H. B. Liebs Corporation, set up a whaling station and trading post at Wainwright, even though the baleen market had crumbled eleven years earlier (Gusey 1983: 75). Apparently, Allen was able to find a market because his crew operated into the 1940s, long after commercial whaling was dead and trading interests had refocused on fur trapping.

As the importance of whaling decreased in the first decade of the twentieth century, the importance of fur trading increased, only to decline during the Great Depression. But for two or three decades, it was common practice for trading posts to be operated as cooperative ventures between whites and Inupiat (Schneider and Libby 1979: 44).


The population of Wainwright rose and fell over the period from 1890 to 1970, enjoying the booms and busts of whaling, coal mining, reindeer herding, trapping, and trading fox pelts. Only Christianity and the education system endured. As figure 4 demonstrates, the population was under 100 through 1920, even though a reindeer station had been established at Wainwright in 1904. But with the expansion of the school in the early 1920s, the population grew from the immigration of families that came from small villages scattered along the Kuuk and Icy Cape regions.

A peak of 392 residents was reached in a census taken by the school in 1940. The population, including three whites, hovered in the 350 to 390 range throughout the 1940s but dropped dramatically in the late 1940s and early 1950s as about one-third of the population moved to Barrow. Recovery from the mid-1950s was slow, and by 1970, the population was still only 80 percent of what it had been in 1940.

The benefits made available to North Slope natives with the passage of ANCSA, the development of the oil pipeline, and the creation of the North Slope Borough's taxing authority occasioned an aggregate population increase of 54 percent over the following thirteen years. These population dynamics are similar to those for Gambell and Unalakleet, as we have seen.

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