Story last updated at 2/20/2013 - 2:02 pm
My fellow Wrangellites who like to garden usually grow potatoes. Despite the cold and wet weather last summer, we grew red, white and Yukon gold potatoes. However, potatoes are nothing new in Southeast Alaska. It is said that Tlingit and Haida people had gardens more than 200 years ago, and potatoes were one of their most important crops.
According to Jim Gibson, a Canadian, Russian/American authority, it was the Haidas who seemed to have adjusted the most successfully to the changing commercial conditions and to have embraced the potato most enthusiastically. Ship captains as early as 1795 saw cleared spots of Haida land in British Colombia that appeared to be sowed.
It is controversial as to who first showed the Northwest Coast Natives about growing potatoes. One ship captain of a trading vessel asserted, in the mid-1820s, that the Haida were not taught potato growing by Euroamericans. Another Hudson's Bay Co (HBC) man in the mid-1830s insisted the vegetables were first given to the Natives by an American captain. Regardless, says Gibson, no one had to tell Haidas how to hawk potatoes!
The Tlingits began to cultivate potatoes in the mid-1820s, apparently later than the Tsimshians and Haidas. A Russian navigator reported from Sitka in 1827 that "the cultivation of potatoes and other vegetables, already widespread among tribes who live farther south, is now beginning to become popular here." By the 1840s, the Tlingits were selling potatoes in large quantities to the Russians.
Throughout the 1830s-1840s, the Haidas sold potatoes to American trading vessels and Hudson's Bay Company forts, particularly Fort Simpson near today's Prince Rupert. They also sold potatoes to the Hudson's Bay Company for its Fort Stikine in Wrangell.
In Hudson's Bay Company Fort Stikine journals, the entry for Thursday, Sept. 17, 1840, it is written: "We got little or no provisions now from the Indians. The day before yesterday, however, we traded a few potatoes..." On Oct. 8 of the same year, canoes from Kygarney (on maps as Kaigani at Cape Muzon, the southern tip of Dall Island) "arrived, from whom we traded 55 bags of potatoes at rather a dear rate, but we have none." On the 9th and 10th of October, the Chief Trader wrote "We have now traded in all about 100 bushel potatoes from the Kygarney Indians or rather the Chat-see-nay most of them being from that quarter [area]."
On Dec. 5 1840, a boat of Kygarney and Henagh Indians arrived. Henagh or Heny is the name of the Alaskan Haidas, in contrast to the Queen Charlotte Haidas. They came with potatoes and other things to trade. Another 36 bushels of potatoes were traded from the Kgarney on Dec. 19. The Natives continued to bring potatoes to the fort during January 1841, mostly by the Henyas. Some of the Stikine Natives also traded potatoes.
Many potatoes came from Prince Rupert and the Nass River Natives, who grew them to trade with the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Simpson. On the 18th of September 1941, the Fort Stikine trader gave to each of his men a gallon of potatoes, the first for the year. Each man was responsible for his own supplies and cooking. Again it was the Kygarney and Chat-see-nay who brought the potatoes to trade. A thousand bushels of potatoes were sent from the HBC Fort Durham, in Taku Inlet that had been purchased from the Natives of that area. The Natives knew how to store the potatoes so they did not freeze, and they traded 12 bushels in January. The men at Fort Stikine weren't so adept. There are entries in the fort log telling how men were sent to sort the potatoes for rotten ones to keep the rest from spoiling.
After the missionaries came to Alaska, the Haidas continued to grow potatoes in traditional patches. In 1880 Presbyterian missionary S. Hall Young left Wrangell to visit Howkan (on Long Island, West Coast of Prince of Wales Island). He could not find the most "influential chief" because he was at his potatoes farm a few miles away. Many references mention Native gardens some distance from the winter villages.
When Young visited Old Kassan in Polk Inlet on eastern Prince of Wales Island, he visited the ranch of Kiska and Kitkoon, two principal men of the village.
A number of years ago, Elizabeth Kunibe, at the University of Alaska Southeast, became interested in strains of potatoes growing in the village of (New) Kasaan, a Haida village. These are fingerling potatoes with a yellowish skin and lumpy shapes. She found these potatoes were related to varieties farther South. "They were not brought by the Russians or Europeans," says Kunibe, who sent samples to a plant geneticist to check the potatoes' DNA. "They had to come from Chile or Mexico,"
Spanish explorers such as Juan Perez in 1774 reached the Queen Charlotte Islands, Canada; Antonio Maria Bucareli in 1775 visited Sitka and Barcarli Bay on the west coast of Prince of Wales; and Don Jacinto Caamano in 1792 in southern Southeast. These ships stopped at Valpariso, Chile to provision for explorations to the North. They could easily have packed supplies of potatoes to feed the crew as they ventured North. Did they teach the local Haidas to grow potatoes to provide food? Each Spanish explorer undoubtedly planned to return another year. This could have started the custom of planting potatoes along trade routes of the North.
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.