Earthquakes and Alaska landscapes

Aleuts were eyewitnesses to how earthquakes formed islands in the Aleutian Chain, including Bogoslov, pictured here.
Aleuts were eyewitnesses to how earthquakes formed islands in the Aleutian Chain, including Bogoslov, pictured here.

Alaska’s earthquake history has been written on its landscape – its riverbeds, glaciers and mountains – in the centuries before and since man set foot on the Great Land.

Most of the early earthquake accounts are fragmentary. There are mentions of two in the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula as early as 1786 and 1788, when “the land was overflowed by a sea wave, and some lives were lost.”

Perhaps the earliest description that has come down to us, however, comes from a small spot in the Bering Sea that’s undergone greater changes of form than any other part of North America – a little jack-in-the-box island group whose continually changing shape and numbers have long been a puzzle to navigators.

It was early May 1796, when amid thunder, earthquake and steam a volcanic island emerged from the depths of the sea. Von Kotzebue, an early Russian explorer, was told about it by Krukov, a resident agent of the Russian American Co. Krukov, along with Native Aleuts of Umnak and Unalaska, saw the birth of the island because they were on the northernmost part of Umnak Island when the cataclysm occurred.

According to Krukov, on May 7 a storm came in from the northwest and a terrific roaring came back from mountains to the south. An island could be seen rising from the sea, and amid the shaking of the earth, stones were cast from it as far as Umnak, 30 miles away. At sunrise the earth stopped shaking, flames diminished and the newly risen island, shaped like a black cap, could be seen. The island grew in height and circumference, and smoke and steam continued to pour forth.

Even after eight years, Natives reported the water around the island was warm and the ground so hot no one could walk on it.
The Aleuts called the new island “Agashagok,” but since it had appeared on St. John’s Day in their calendar, the Russians called it “Joanna Bogoslova,” St. John the Theologian.

Bogoslov, the island born in the earthquake, continued to change throughout the years, and the Aleutians continued to shake. In 1884, Lt. Stoney, visiting the area in the ship Corwin, stated that many earthquake shocks could be felt even on the anchored schooner. As late as 1910 violent shocks hit Dutch Harbor, shocks probably associated with formation of new islands in the Bogoslov group.

16 comments on “Earthquakes and Alaska landscapes

  1. I always learn new things when I read your blog. Wow that would be pretty crazy to watch and feel the ground so hot…

  2. For sure, Marguerite – so glad you are enjoying these little tidbits of Alaska history!

  3. Thanks Laurel for the info. I felt many shakes up there and enjoyed hot springs outside of Nome a few years back. Do you have any info on the 1786 & 88 quakes?

  4. I have the 1778 and 1796 quakes in the Aleutians, Paul, in Volume 1. Tell me about the 1786 and 1788 earthquakes!

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