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
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
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
the Alaskan Department of Natural Resources, hopes to work with the local
museums of Kodiak Island to develop exhibits with artifacts from
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.