A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
An in-depth examination of a newly identified shipwreck in Alaska
On July 15, 2004, a mystery was finally put to rest when East Carolina University archaeologists identified the remains of a shipwreck that has been below Alaskan waters for 144 years. The identification of Kad'yak--the culmination of years of document compilation, translation from Russian, and proposal writing--was a triumph for those who worked on the discovery and recording of the vessel's remains. The find of Kad'yak is important scientifically, and it is so significant historically that it has already joined the National Register of Historic Places.
The 132-foot Russian American Company ship Kad'yak, a German-made vessel, was once a mighty three-masted freighter. In 1860, the ship was headed toward San Francisco from Woody Island in Kodiak, Alaska (Kodiak and Kad'yak come from the Alutiq word for island). It was carrying more than 350 tons of ice to San Francisco so that the gold miners could enjoy cold beverages. The ship never completed its journey, which would have taken two to three months. Along the way, it struck a rock and filled with water. The ship's crew survived, but the vessel was lost. The ice kept it afloat for three days, and the ship's "corpse" drifted six miles until it eventually sank to the bottom of Monk's Lagoon on Spruce Island.
The loss of this vessel spawned a fascinating local myth, especially among those of the Russian Orthodox faith. Illarion Archimandritof, the captain of Kad'yak, had promised the governor of Russian America that he would pay homage to Saint Herman. The saint was the most important Russian Orthodox missionary who had converted the Native Alaskans. Captain Archimandritof never kept his promise to go to Herman's chapel on the shore of Spruce Island. When Kad'yak sank, it was right in front of the chapel. To feed the mythological tradition even further, the mainmast's top and a yardarm remained above the surface, forming the shape of a cross. Even today, many locals, especially those of the village of Ouzinkie, where the chapel was located, see the sinking as an act of retribution by Father Herman, who had died in 1836.
Whether or not one believes that these coincidences were the results of divine intervention, we do indeed know that the wreck of Kad'yak is a physical reality and is near the spot of its demise as revealed in this legend. The modern story of Kad'yak and the events leading to its discovery and identification begins in the late 1970s, when Mike Yarborough, now an archaeological consultant in Anchorage, found references to it in archives while researching a shipwreck in Cold Bay. He and several others began to investigate the story and keep a file on the subject, eventually eliciting the help of Katherine Arndt of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, to translate Russian documents into English. For years, Yarborough's leads on the Kad'yak remained undeveloped, until a fortuitous meeting between Yarborough's wife and Bradley Stevens through their shared folk music hobby. Upon learning about the wreck, Stevens, an Alaska-based marine biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, took a great interest in the story, eventually gathering a volunteer team of divers who discovered the wreck in July of 2003. Only a year later a team of professional underwater archaeologists were brought in from East Carolina University who were able to identify the wreck for certain as the Kad'yak, thanks to an amazing find--a brass object that was possibly the hub of the ship's wheel. It was inscribed with the ship's name in Cyrillic, telling archaeologists that the site they had found was indeed the Kad'yak.
The remains of the ship are located 80 feet below the surface of the water and scattered across a few hundred yards. Most noteworthy, however, is its preservation. Before this summer's work on Kad'yak, which was primarily a survey rather than an excavation, many archaeologists thought that a wooden vessel would not be able to survive well in the rough Alaskan waters. However, upon finding the remains of the ship, it seems that the cold water and anaerobic conditions have helped to keep the ship from deteriorating.
Since the work on the ship was a survey, few artifacts were removed. Archaeologists recovered just a few brass items, which are easier to conserve than iron objects. On the bottom, however, they identified three anchors, a ballast pile, deck braces, two cannons, and copper sheathing that once covered the ship's wood. The artifacts that were removed are now being conserved in the lab facility of Alaska's department of archaeology being conserved. Dave McMahan, state archaeologist at the Alaskan Department of Natural Resources, hopes to work with the local museums of Kodiak Island to develop exhibits with artifacts from Kad'yak.
Continued work on the site will depend on funding, and grant proposals are being submitted. This summer, the project was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation. For now, McMahan is working to ensure the integrity of the shipwreck site. Recreational diving is currently restricted in the area, and the East Carolina University archaeologists have a special permit to be able to work on the site. Alaska's State Department is also relying upon the people of Ouzinkie, the nearest village on the site, to notify authorities if they see anything suspicious.
No matter what the future of the wreck holds, Kad'yak's identification brought a local myth alive and solved a long-standing mystery. The Kad'yak project has been the first official maritime work in Alaska, and all involved hope that it will continue next year, paving the way for further underwater archaeological work in our 49th state and teaching us more about the history of Russian Alaska and the Russian American Company.
Diana Michelle Fox, a classics major at the University of Chicago, is an intern with ARCHAEOLOGY.