History Of Nulato
Nulato, Alaska 99765 is little known beyond interior Alaska except perhaps during the running of the world famous Iditarod dogsled races. In even number years the race follows a northern route to Nome and mushers pass through Nulato. The name of the Athabascan Indian village on the Yukon River means “dog salmon camp,” modified to express “in the shelter of the bluff.” It is home today to a population of about 340, almost wholly Athabascan. For such a small town, Nulato has some fascinating stories to tell.
Not only was Nulato an important fish camp along that stretch of the Yukon River for centuries before the arrival of Western explorers and traders, Nulato was also an ancient trading center for commerce between Alaska’s Athabascan Indians and the Inupiat Eskimos. So its location was a natural for a Russian fur-trading post during the years that the Tsar owned Alaska . It is also one of only two of Alaska ‘s villages – Kaltag being the other – that celebrates the Stickdance, a ceremony also important among some tribes in the Southwestern United States.
One of the town’s historical claim to renown is that in 1851 a Russian trading post at Nulato was the site of a bloody massacre by neighboring Koyukuk Indians, who according to some stories – slaughtered everyone in the village, Indian and white. In several accounts of the attack, the victims included the Russian trader as well as 13 members of a visiting British search party who had followed the Yukon River to Nulato hoping to hear word of a famous English explorer who had gone missing several years before. When the marauding Koyukuks left Nulato, only two little children had managed to survive. Half a century later they told their stories to avid listeners.
Nulato is also known as the home of several distinguished dog mushers, particularly Fred and Joe Stickman, who were colorful competitors and winners of dogsled races in the earlier years of that sport, when mushers were predominantly Native Alaskans. Today only the races themselves survive in a village age of snow machines and ATV’s.
The ninety or so families in today’s Nulato have radio and TV, water and sewer, and heat their homes with a combination of wood and oil stoves. The people of Nulato have no taxis or car rentals but they have half a dozen air carriers at their service. Well into the 20th century their transportation was by dogsleds in the winter and by boat from late May to the first of October on the Yukon River, Alaska ‘s once-great transportation corridor.
It’s hard now to comprehend the volume of traffic that coursed up and down Alaska ‘s coastlines and the Yukon River in the early 20th century. Records show that by 1900, during the peak of the Alaska Gold Rush, there were 46 steam boats in operation on the Yukon. Two steamers a day would stop at Nulato to buy firewood for their boilers. The town’s new post office, opened in 1897, was a popular stop en route up or downriver.
The mighty Yukon reaches the Bering Sea as a broad, braided twist of uncertain channels meandering through its marshy flatland delta. It was no place for larger, deep–hulled river vessels to navigate. So travelers arriving in Alaska via the Bering Sea, sailed northward some distance and came ashore at the Yup’ik Eskimo village of St. Michael on Norton Sound, then trekked eastward overland to catch a river boat at one of the deeper-water landings along the river, like Nulato.
A Russian fur trader named Malakov reportedly arrived in the fish camp town of Nulato as far back as 1839 and saw the trading potential of the little village. He saw the coastal Eskimos come to this Indian town, offering seal and whale oil, tobacco and copper spearheads in trade. Malakov noticed that the spearheads bore the imprint of a forge in Irkutsk, which the visiting Eskimos must have received during barter with Chukchi Natives. The Nulato Indians also welcomed the new trade with Malakov and he traveled back out to St. Michael with 350 beaver pelts.
Nulato would fall prey to a number of the white man’s epidemics during the periods of Western contact for the next century. It was in 1839 that Nulato was swept by an epidemic of smallpox – possibly carried in by Malakov or even the Eskimo neighbors. The deadly disease struck hard and left survivors in grief. Then in 1851, only twelve years later, came the Nulato massacre in which the village was almost wiped out. Before then a Russian fur trader named Darabin, reportedly a heavy drinker, had settled in Nulato and built a permanent and fortified trading post for himself – fortified only to protect his trade goods, himself and his private stock.
The Nulato massacre happened on a dark Sunday, Feb. 16, 1851, when fires were lighted for a traditional Nulato potlatch. Weaving the varied but sketchy details into the story from a number of sources, it seems that a party of the villagers had gone north to hunt and would be gone for several days, leaving the village with fewer men than usual. But preparations continued under way for the traditional potlatch ceremonies.
There were unusual visitors in town as well, staying for the night with trader Darabin at the trading post. They reportedly were twelve seamen led by a British naval officer, a Lt. Barnard, of the vessel HMS Enterprise, commanded by Capt. Richard Collinson. The ship was waiting for them at St. Michael. The men had come upriver on a search mission, hoping to find word of the fate of any survivors of famous explorer Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition of 1845-47. Natives reportedly had told the visiting British ship of strange white men seen just upriver, possibly at Nulato. The British guests were disappointed to learn from the Russian trader that the “sighting” was apparently just rumor. So they accepted the trader’s hospitality before setting out on the cold journey back to their ship.
The men were probably talking together inside the trading post, enjoying the heat of the fire and a hot beverage, when the smoke began belching into the room. A marauding band of Koyukuk Indians from farther upriver, said to be led by a fanatical shaman, had stuffed bundles of grass in the trading post’s chimney to smoke out the trader and his guests. Soon the acrid smoke was blinding and choking the men who bolted for the door, only to find bedlam in the village. The Russian trader was killed with an arrow. Some sources say that some British seamen were able to escape. Other sources say they were all picked off by arrows as they fled the smoke-filled log building, and died with the rest of the people of Nulato. Trade goods were stolen and fire later set to the entire village.
The story was kept alive by the memories of the only survivors of the massacre. The story goes that only two people had escaped death, a boy and girl who had hidden under the overturned canoes pulled ashore and stored in the snow next to the trading post awaiting spring and the breakup of the Yukon River. They fled unnoticed into the woods when the fires were set. As elders at the turn of the 20th century, and speaking only their native tongue, the two old-timers told their (translated) stories to younger people to be integrated into the stories of the past. In the archives of the University of Alaska’s museum at Fairbanks is a handwritten letter about the massacre written by an American fur trader who heard the story from one of the survivors back about 1906.
The returning hunting party must have found unspeakable horror in their village. The location of the massacre is below today’s newer Nulato and is said to be simply a curious grassy mound. The village gradually regained population, although it suffered, along with other Native Alaskan villages, through a killing epidemic of measles in 1900, the deadly flu epidemic of 1918, and the equally devastating tuberculosis epidemics into the 1950’s that killed so many Alaska Natives and whites alike.
Tragedy did not end with the 1851 massacre, however. Bad luck dogged Nulato for years to come. Census figures for 1880 counted 169 residents in the village. Then a significant gold rush in the area in 1884 increased the population. To serve the region, the Catholic Church was sending missionaries to organize schools for the Yukon villages. A priest named Father Charles John Seghers was among the missionaries who traveled from village to village. His heart led him to Nulato in 1877 where he recognized the potential of the community’s location. He hoped to build a central mission there.
A year later he sailed south in an effort to raise church support for a permanent central mission and school to be built at Nulato. He was surprised to learn on his arrival in Vancouver, B.C. that he had been appointed as Archbishop of Oregon City, the posting to begin in 1880. He bowed to the will of God and postponed his mission plans, but he petitioned the Pope to be allowed to return to Alaska and his missionary post. His petition was granted.
In 1886 he set sail for Dyea at the head of Lynn Canal, where he and his traveling companion, a hired man named Charles Fuller, would scale the Chilkoot Pass, and once reaching the Yukon, they would canoe downriver to Nulato. The approaching winter, however, set in early and hard that year. Miles before their destination the Yukon began to freeze, making progress tedious. The priest’s cheerful good spirits and pleasure in nearing Nulato in spite of the hardships apparently wore on his companion’s nerves. It was an arduous trip and Fuller gradually lost his mind, literally.
Almost there, just 23 miles northeast of Nulato that cold November night, the two men rested, expecting to reach Nulato the following day. But the next morning a by-now-insane Fuller awakened the priest and then shot him through the heart, records relate. They were near a rock promontory that is now named in the cleric’s honor as “Bishop’s Rock,” a landmark along the Yukon . Fuller took Father Segher’s body across to St. Michael where the men of the Alaska Commercial (AC Co.) arranged for its burial at that Norton Sound village. Fuller was held for authorities and taken to Alaska ‘s capital of Sitka for trial. It is said that Fuller was tried, found insane and later set free. Somewhere there are documents that tell the official story.
Father Seghers’ body was later exhumed and taken to Victoria B.C. where it lies now in St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Father Seghers has been honored by being known today as The Apostle of Alaska. The mission school he envisioned was built in Nulato in 1887, the year after his death. It was named Our Lady of the Snows Church.
Although much has changed in the vast reaches of Alaska, many things change very little. Time in remote Alaska is measured by season and daylight rather than by the clock. Distance is measured by the calendar rather than the mile. Space in Alaska is so vast it requires no modifiers. Nulato lays claim to the fact that the second raising of the Stars and Stripes in Alaska – after the flag of the United States was raised on the flagpole at Sitka on Oct. 18, 1867 – was at Nulato in 1883.
The little village now has telephones and computers. But it also has retained the tradition of the Stickdance, considered the most honorable and remarkable of the Athabascan Indian culture, practiced in Alaska and among some tribes in the Southwestern United States. The event rotates each March between Nulato and neighboring Kaltag, a dance honoring the departed and helping families deal with grief and loss of loved ones. A decorated spruce stick is used during the dance and potlatch. It symbolizes the souls of the deceased – a final farewell to a loved one and the cleansing relief of closure. Nulato has had much experience with loss and grief, a remarkable community.
(This History of Nulato reprinted with permission of June Allen. The Nulato Tribal Council only edited Ms. Allen’s account and authentication of the account is not certified by the Nulato Tribal Council because of other versions recorded.)
Nulato is located on the west bank of the Yukon River in the Nulato Hills. The village is situated 35 air miles west of Galena and 310 air miles west of Fairbanks. Its municipal boundaries encompass approximately 46.5 square miles. Native lands are bordered on the southeast by the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge. The village is located within the boundaries of Doyon, Ltd.
The Nulato residents are primarily Koyukon Athabascan Indians; with a traditional subsistence lifestyle. Nulato was the trading site between Koyukon Athabascans and Inupiaq Eskimos from the Kobuk area, which is west and north of Nulato. Western contact increased rapidly after the 1830’s. In 1839, a Russian explorer named Malakhov established a trading post in Nulato. That same year the first of several smallpox outbreaks afflicted the Indians. The trading post was burnt down by the Indians but was rebuilt in 1841 by the Russian American Company. In 1851, the Koyukuk Indians, located north of Nulato, attacked the Nulato Indian Village at dawn. It is not completely known why the Koyukuk Indians attacked Nulato, but local lore suggests that an Indian girl of one tribe coveted by the other tribe was one of the motives.
By 1870, missionary activists were coming to Nulato and the surrounding region. Many Indians moved to Nulato after a Roman Catholic Mission and school was built there in 1887. Once again, epidemics began to cripple the community especially after the start of the Yukon-Koyukuk gold rush in 1884. In 1897, a post office was established and by 1901, a telegraph line had been constructed, linking Nulato with the surrounding communities. Nulato continued to flourish as a steamboat supply point even after a large number of the gold prospectors left the Yukon area in 1906.
Nulato was incorporated as a second class city in 1963. Nulato is recognized by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, and is a member of the Yukon-Koyukuk Subregion of the Tanana Chiefs Conference (an ANCSA Regional Non-Profit Corporation). In the late 1970’s, the community decided to develop a new townsite in the hills just west of the old townsite. Moving from a flood plain area was the primary motive for the new development. Ice jams and stream overflows cause flooding in the old townsite about every two to three years. In 1978, a health clinic was established at the new townsite and in 1981, large scale housing construction began.
Today, the population of Nulato is 340 residents per the Alaska Department of Community and Regional Affairs’ Community Profile. Of these residents, 96.9% are Koyukon Athabascan Indians. The potential work force, age 16 years and older, is listed at 198 persons. Of this work force, 55% to 78% are perpetually unemployed. Most of the employment is government funded. Seasonal employment such as BLM emergency fire fighting positions, and short-term projects are important sources of cash and these sources are annually questionable. The occasional Capital Improvement project which is usually local hire, brings income to a selected few, but these are generally short-term jobs. Future local employment and economic opportunities will remain virtually unchanged unless long-range economic development goals are met and sustained.
Residential homes are built of both log and frame construction with fuel oil and/or wood stove heat sources. Facilities in the community include a church, two stores, a community hall, a health clinic, a head start facility, a school, a post office, a teen center, an adult center, a lodge, two laundromats, a city garage, a state garage, and a National Guard armory. The local school provides the students with a K-12th grade educational curriculum. A Head Start program is also offered in the community. Higher education is offered through the University Extension Regional Learning Center based in Fairbanks. Classes are held in the local school and are usually by audio-conference.
As to cost of living, Nulato is one of the highest areas within the State of Alaska. It is estimated that it costs approximately 55% higher to live in Nulato than it does in the urban areas of Fairbanks and Anchorage. These in turn are higher than “Lower 48” states. (E.g. Fairbanks is 28% higher than “Lower 48” cities per ACCRA – Association of Chambers of Commerce Research Agency). Transportation from Nulato to Fairbanks is about $360.00 round-trip. Fuel is $3.25 per gallon of gas and $2.25 per gallon of heating oil. Food prices are marked up accordingly due to high costs of freight and profit margins.
The Nulato Tribal Council is represented by a seven (7) member traditional council, and is recognized by the federal government as the official tribal governing body for the village of Nulato. The council is entrusted with the health, safety, and welfare of the community members.