Haunted Alaska: The Mystery of Chirikof Island

1945 photo of Army radio range on Chirikof Island (Kodiak Military History Museum)

Ghosts of prisoners said to haunt site of former Russian penal colony

Off the southern coast of Alaska lies the Kodiak Archipelago, a group of islands comprising over 5,000 square miles of land. Much of this land is forested and teeming with wildlife, and several of the islands are populated. At the extreme southern tip of the archipelago lies an anomaly-- a treeless, barren wasteland surrounded by treacherous seas. This desolate place is Chirikof Island, and it strikes the imagination as being the ideal place to strand blood-thirsty criminals until Mother Nature metes out her own brand of justice.

It is perhaps for this very reason that Chirikof Island was said to be the site of a 19th century Russian penal colony. Though some historians refute this idea, the legend of the lost Russian penal colony still survives to this day. And, according to legend-- and numerous eyewitness accounts-- the island is haunted by the ghosts of long-dead criminals  and exiles.

One of the first authors to write about Chirikof Island was Henry Wood Elliott, whose 1886 book "Our Arctic Province: Alaska and the Seal Islands", contains a detailed history of the islands of the Kodiak Archipelago. It was Elliott who popularized the idea of a Russian exile camp on Chirikof Island, though some historians blame the author for telling tall tales. Captain Arthur Morris, who served as the administrator of Alaska during the time of Elliott's travels, once stated: “Don’t believe a word Elliott says except about fur seals.”

Because of Morris' condemnation, few scholars took the author's claims seriously, which is unfortunate; while history might not have been Elliott's forte, the author was meticulous in his research when it came to the flora and fauna of the Alaskan islands and the customs of the native people.  Elliott was regarded as such an expert on these matters that, in 1911, he co-authored (along with Secretary of State John Hay) the first international treaty dedicated to wildlife conservation. This put him squarely in the company of men like John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, George Perkins Marsh and other prominent naturalists of the era.

So why would Henry Wood Elliott lie about the dark history of Chirikof Island?

Since Elliott's passion in life was conservation and the protection of species such as the fur seal, it's conceivable that he merely wanted to "spook" would-be hunters and poachers away from the island-- something akin to a late 19th century Scooby-Doo ploy. However, the fact that numerous credible witnesses, many of whom were ostensibly part of the fur seal trade themselves, came back from Chirikof Island with hair-raising tales of the supernatural seems to rebut this explanation.

And then there's the known and documented history of the island; in 1799 the tsar of Russia awarded the Russian-American Company a charter to manage the heretofore unpopulated island. The Russian-American Company established a small colony there, complete with a Russian Orthodox church. After most of the seals had been slaughtered the village fell into ruin; by 1867, when the Russian Empire sold Alaska to the United States, it was abandoned and remained so until 1887, when an American company established a fox breeding farm on Chirikof.

The treeless landscape of Chirikof Island

Fiendish Torture Too Horrible to Mention

Captain E.L. West of the Corwin was an experienced skipper who knew the Alaskan islands like the back of his hand. While in Seattle in April of 1908, he related his own experiences with Chirikof Island to a reporter from the Seattle Times.

"There is one island in Alaskan waters on which the foot of man, white or red, is never placed. Chirikof Island, south of the Semedi Group, is inhabited beyond doubt by the spirits of former Russian exiles, and they will permit no intrusion of their haunts by earthly inhabitants," he stated.
"The Aleut Indians, who are the most intelligent of their race, realize this fact, and neither love nor money can induce them to step foot on the island or go near it in their canoes or boats. Years ago, before Alaska was purchased, Russia made use of the island as a prison for her criminal exiles. Murderers, thieves and other convicts of the worse class were shipped there under life sentences."
According to Capt. West, the inhumanity of their keepers grew as time went on, until they became more cruel than the convicts they were guarding. "And as the exiles were there for life," the captain continued, "there was no incentive to keep them alive."

West went on to state that the guards devised unique ways to exterminate the convicts, in the interest of saving the Russian government money. The convicts were always fettered with a heavy ball and chain, and one of the favorite means of execution was to bury them alive by covering all but the head. Instead of suffocating, the convict would die of starvation.

"On still nights the pitiful shrieks and cries of anguish from the dying men tortured the ocean air for miles around," the captain added. "A few white men have had the temerity to set foot on the bleak shores of Chirikof, but they quickly left there with shattered nerves, vowing never to return. They bring skeletons of men with chain and ball bound to the ankle and wrist bones. Other skeletons are to be found there with the ribs broken... others with the skull, forehead or jaws crushed into an indistinguishable mass. There are on every hand evidences of the terrible brutality of the fiendish keepers to the helpless men in their charge-- some of them too horrible to mention."

Years earlier, Capt. West was in Goss' general store at Kodiak Island when he met a Scotsman named Philip Graham. West told him about the legend of Chirikov Island, and Graham, being an adventurer, was skeptical. A few days later the Scotsman hired a fishing schooner to take him to the island and to help him build a cabin. The crew departed and came back ten days later with provisions, only to find Graham in the icy water, swimming at full speed to meet the boat. He was so desperate to get off the island that he left all his possessions behind, and later made out an affidavit swearing to his experiences on Chirikov.

What the Scotsman Saw on the Island

According to Graham's affidavit, every night in bed he was tormented by the tramping of feet, accompanied by the rattle of chains. One night he was awakened by a ghastly sound, which he described as the sound of human flesh being beaten mercilessly by a club. Next he heard the sound of pebbles and loose earth being shoveled. He swore that he heard no moans or screams during his time on the island. But he did see things that caused his blood to run cold.

One night, after being awakened by the same mysterious sounds, he worked up his courage and stepped outside the cabin. He was drawn by the moonlight to a shallow pool of stagnant water, and, much to his astonishment, saw what appeared to be an upturned human skull. The sight was too much for Graham to bear. He ran back to his cabin, only to discover that he had been locked out.

He looked out across the island; in the moonlight he saw the dim outlines of skeletons marching in lock step. He saw other skeletons twisting their bony frames as though writhing in agony, and the sound of bones cracking permeated the night air. From the ground he caught glimpses of skulls with the necks stretched backwards, their mouths gaping open. The visions caused Graham to lose consciousness. He awoke late the next day, and refused to venture outside his cabin from that night forward.

Is the Island Cursed?

Today, the only inhabitants of Chirikof Island are hundreds of feral cattle, living ghosts of failed business enterprises. The Wikipedia entry on Chirikof Island incorrectly states that the beef industry on Chirikof began in 1925, when an Iowa farmer named Jack McCord launched an ill-fated venture known as the Chirikof Cattle Company.

In reality, the Chirikof cattle industry goes back to 1891, when a bull and three cows were shipped to the island to form a dairy herd for the fur farm operated by the Semidi Propagation Company, which was established three years earlier. The fur farm failed and the cattle were abandoned. Without natural predators, the herd grew to several hundred within a few decades. In 1931 a Montana rancher named Axel Olsen won a contract to round up and slaughter the cattle. Forty years of feral living had turned the animals into creatures with long curly hair and stringy, inedible meat.

One has to wonder why none of the natives ventured to Chirikof during these forty years in order to obtain these valuable cowhides. It would appear to any reasonable person that Chirikof was cursed.

History supports this theory. Olsen was just one of dozens of businessmen to lose money on the island, along with Jack McCord and the founders of the fur farm. McCord abandoned his dream in 1950, his fortune wiped out by scores of inexplicable shipwrecks and plane crashes that beseiged his project. In 1939 McCord and five of his men were marooned for a month on Tuginak Island after their boat, Swan, wrecked en route to Chirikof. In 1945, Louis "Bud" Thompson and Jake Gottcher departed from Chirikof Island in a plane after inspecting McCord's cattle. They never returned home, and it wasn't until 1985 when the wreckage of their plane, along with badly-decomposed human remains, were found 200 miles away in the wilderness of Kodiak Island.

Another businessman obtained a loan in 1983 and imported 600 heads of new cattle to the island. Once again, the venture was a dismal failure.

The Mad Cows of Chirikof Island

Kay Barker

Another strange story pertaining to the island is the story told by Kay Barker, an ambitious West Virginia girl who earned her fortune raising foxes on nearby Ushagat Island in the 1930s. Journalist Lloyd Weir published a profile of Barker in 1938 in which Barker stated that she only feared for her life but once in the islands of Alaska, during a trip to Chirikof Island with an Aleut companion named Mesha.

"Mesha and I had gone to the island to take pictures," said Barker. "We soon spotted a small herd but they ran as we approached. However, we found they had gone for the 'army', which advanced in charge of a big white bull... I was busy taking pictures as they got near and circled around us. Suddenly, as though at a signal from the white bull, they charged. Mesha grabbed me by the arm and we ran to the shore where we had a boat waiting." According to Barker, the feral animals were so enraged that they plunged into the water and began swimming in pursuit of the trespassers. Barker was lucky to escape Chirikof with her life.

Others who visited the island weren't so lucky. In 1908 four fur trappers were marooned on the island and later perished. The schooner, St. Paul, was dispatched to Chirikof to rescue the men. The ship never reached the island; it disappeared without a trace. A small steamer was then stocked with provisions and dispatched to rescue the marooned trappers, but a short distance at sea she became disabled and was forced to return to port at Squaw Harbor.

It is a little strange that so many scholars and historians, including the late Dr. Lydia Black, have gone out of their way to refute the idea that a Russian penal colony once existed on Chirikof Island, in spite of overwhelming physical evidence. A 1950 article from an Alaskan newspaper makes mention of the penal colony's graveyard on the island, while human bones have turned up as recently as 1981, when two cattlemen from Oregon, Thomas Cornelius and Ron Winkle, discovered two skeletons on Chirikof. The bones, described as being "green and very deteriorated" were approximately 200 years old.

"We've been told there was archaeological work done on the island in the '60s and that it had been a Russian penal colony," stated Sgt. William Nickel of the Alaska State Police in 1981. "There are quite a few graves there and bones have been found before, and it looks like that's where these came from."

Vancouver Daily World, June 8, 1923. Page 12.
The Call-Leader (Elwood, Indiana), July 20, 1931. Page 7.
Danville (Va.) Bee, Dec. 4, 1950. Page 24.
Montana Standard, Jan. 30, 1938. Page 51.
The Ligonier (Pa.) Echo, Aug. 21, 1918. Page 7.
Pittsburgh Press, April 17, 1908. Page 3.
The Jennings (La.) Daily Times-Record, Aug. 12, 1908. Page 7.
Daily Sitka (Ak.) Sentinel, Sept. 22, 1981. Page 3.
Daily Sitka (Ak.) Sentinel, July 30, 1985. Page 6.