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  History of Fairbanks, Alaska

Before Fairbanks was Founded 
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The first people to inhabit this great land are now known as Athabascan Indians. Their mythology contains many stories about man's creation and evolution on this continent. Throughout history, the Athabascans' respect for the animals has run through the fiber of their lives. Athabascans paid homage to the animal spirits to prevent them from leaving the land. Some animals were considered the masters and creators of the universe and were the subject of many legends.

Early day Athabascans led a nomadic lifestyle. They traveled in small family groups of clans, following the seasons in search of food. In the late fall and early winter they hunted the migrating caribou. The caribou were most important for their flesh and hides, which provided food, clothing and shelter.

Winter days and nights were spent surviving the cold and darkness. During this time of confinement, the history of the people was passed from generation to generation through stories and legends. In early spring, the people traveled to spring camps and the winter's supply of food was depleted. They hunted ducks, geese, muskrats and beaver on the lakes. The fresh food was a welcome change of diet. After long winters of separation and hardships, the tribes gathered to celebrate and discuss mutual concerns. Summers were busy in the fish camps along the rivers. Once the salmon runs began, fish were caught, smoked and stored for winter. The rivers were the lifeblood of the Athabascans, providing food and transportation. Each fall the tribes gathered berries and hunted waterfowl. After the snow had fallen, the men hunted hibernating bears.

As it was with the first Athabascans, the cycle was complete and began again. Such were the old ways and such are the new. From season to season, life is a never-ending cycle. The integrity of life is in this understanding. To an Athabascan, the only things that change are the ways of survival.

From the "Athabascan Circle" - Commissioned by Tanana Chiefs Conference.
Athabascan Circle
Athabascan Circle
Commisioned by the
Tanana Chiefs Conference.

Tanana Chiefs Conference, 1915
Tanana Chiefs Conference
The Exploration of the Tanana Valley 
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E.T. Barnette and Captain C.W. Adams, Felix Pedro and Thomas Gilmore, and the other merchants and miners who followed them to the riverbank town that grew up around Barnette's Cache, as it was known for a time, are easily among the more prominent of the first white men to explore and settle along the Chena River. But they were by no means the first men in the Tanana Valley. Archaeologists believe the forefathers of Interior Alaska's Athabascan people migrated from Asia across the Bering Land Bridge as long ago as 9,000 to 14,000 years. Theirs was the second of three migrations that may have come from Beringia. An earlier migration, before a period of intense cold and glaciation blocked the route across Alaska, brought the forefathers of many of the American Indian tribes. A later migration brought the people who became Alaska's coastal tribes of Aleuts and Eskimos.

The early Athabascans who settled in the Interior would have lived off the mammals that had also migrated from Beringia. The herds of giant mammoths, the horses, bison, tiaga antelope, and caribou were less numerous than they had been centuries earlier, their numbers cut back by the years of severe cold and increasing glaciation.

These early Athabascans would have had to be a highly mobile people, following the animals upon which they depended. Archaeologists know that their material goods were portable - probably, they lived in tents much of the year, perhaps settling into more substantial shelters during the winter. As the hunting and fishing varied from year to year, and as small groups split up and established new territories, gradually these people spread south. Archaeologists believe this migration of Athabascan forbears spread into central Canada and northern British Columbia. Later, they also moved farther south, to the Pacific Northwest, Great Plains, and American Southwest. By the time E.T. Barnette cached his goods along the Chena River, the Athabascan people had a history there thousands of years old.

Had the Athabascan people camped and fished on the site that was to become Barnette's Landing? Archaeologists would not be surprised were the answer to be yes. Fishing camps may have dotted the Chena, temporary stopovers for the wide-ranging tribes. A more permanent settlement on the University of Alaska campus - on a bluff overlooking the Tanana Valley - has been found and studied.

The harsh climate of Interior Alaska has not made the job of modern archaeology easy. Northern archaeologists say they have uncovered a tiny fraction of the amount of material used by a single band during one generation. And any one individual may have used dozens of camps, activity spots and trails during a single year - it could be hundreds during a lifetime.

The coming of the white traders, explorers and miners to the banks of the Chena was to mean a change for the Athabascan people. At a conference in Fairbanks in 1915, the Tanana Chiefs elected not to go on reservations. Judge James Wickersham had suggested they might set up a few reservations, but the Athabascan elders looked to their centuries of roaming over the vast Interior, hunting and gathering with the seasons, and decided their people could not live on plots of a few acres.

The story of Alaska's Native peoples' adaptation to the encroachment of white man could consume a whole volume. Suffice it to say here that it wasn't until 1924 that they were recognized as full-fledged citizens of the territory of Alaska. And in 1971, Congress recognized their claims to the land they had used for thousands of years with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Thus, the story of this spot on the river is rich with life. Stretching back eons. But only the general outline is known before Barnette's time. From his time forward we know many specifics.

ET Barnette
E.T. Barnette

Felix Pedro
Felix Pedro

Judge James Wickersham
Judge James Wickersham
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