ALEUTIAN ISLANDS. Formerly called the Catherine Archipelago, the Aleutian Islands comprise some 150 mostly volcanic islands extending twelve thousand miles west of the Alaskan Peninsula; the four island groups are a continuation of the continental Aleutian mountain range. They separate the Bering Sea from the Pacific Ocean and are the boundary between the Eurasian and Pacific tectonic plates. When sea levels were low, as during the various ice ages, the islands provided a land bridge between Asia and Alaska, although the first migrants to America probably crossed the then-dry Bering Strait. The native people, Aleuts, numbered around sixteen thousand when encountered by the Russian-sponsored expedition of Alexey Chirikov and Vitus Bering in 1741. From 1799 the Russian-American Fur Company controlled the region and encouraged the proliferation of fur trapping. Aleut populations declined as a consequence of slavery, disease, and massacres (as with the Carib peoples of the Caribbean Islands). Further exploitation by Britain and the United States followed the exploratory voyages of James Cook, George Vancouver, Alexander Mackenzie, Robert Gray, and John Kendrick. The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 and by 1900 Unalaska had become a shipping port for gold from mainland Nome during Alaska's gold rush. It was not until 1893 that an arbitration court in Paris reconciled controversial hunting rights claims in the Bering Sea by declaring it open. Intensive seal hunting continued until 1911, when the United States, Canada, Russia, and Japan agreed upon formal protection; the Japanese withdrew from the agreement in 1941.
The strategic value of these fog-bound, inhospitable islands for the United States lies in their proximity to Russia's Far East and Japan. Vulnerability to Japan was evident during World War II when it bombed the U.S. naval base at Dutch Harbor in 1942 and later occupied the undefended islands of Attu, Kiska, and Agattu. These actions were an unsuccessful ploy to deflect the U.S. Pacific Fleet from Japan's primary objective of capturing the Midway Islands in the mid-Pacific. Japan's reinforcement attempts in the Aleutians in 1943 were thwarted by U.S.
counterattacks from military bases on Adak and Amchitka. The recapture of Attu involved eighteen days of combat with many casualties; Kiska was regained after the Japanese had withdrawn 5,183 troops by surface ships.
After World War II a U.S. coastguard fleet was stationed at Unalaska Island to patrol the sealing grounds and, after 1956, to enforce a convention on seal protection agreed upon by the United States, Canada, Japan, and the Soviet Union. Amchitka, because of its remoteness, was used for underground nuclear tests in 1965, 1969, and 1971. The island is also part of the Distant Early Warning Network constructed between 1950 and 1961, and has sites associated with the Relocatable Over the Horizon Radar that was established between 1986 and 1993. In the early 2000s, the majority of the mostly treeless islands comprise the Aleutian National Wildlife Reserve; hunting and fishing remain the primary occupations of the approximately ten thousand Aleuts, although sheep and reindeer are also husbanded. The islands are home to re-search stations and military bases.
"Aleutian Islands." Available at http://www.Encylopedia.com.
U.S. Department of Energy. Office of Environmental Management. "Amchitka Island." Available at http://www.em.doe.gov.