A Brief History of Barrow, Alaska

(Source: High Country News)

(Source: High Country News)

Barrow, Alaska is the northernmost community in North America, located north of the Arctic Circle where temperatures rarely climb over 50 degrees and sunlight is a rare sight. It is fascinating to think about what life is like for those who live in the city and a look at Barrow’s history may provide some insight. Let us take a trip back in time to find out how this city came to be what it is today.

What’s in a Name?

Barrow was originally known as Utqiagvik, although the origins of the name are still not clear. Some say it means ‘a place where snow owls are hunted’, while others say its name is derived from the native word for potato (oatkuk) which was once a main food source for the area. Utquiagvik was eventually replaced in 1826 with the more American sounding name of “Barrow” for Sir John Barrow, 2nd Secretary of the British Admiralty. In 2018, the city voted to return being called by its original name in an effort to retain its heritage.

The Early Years

Archaeological sites indicate there may have been habitation in Barrow as early on as 500 to 900 A.D. The first settlers where Inupiat Indians who survived by relying on marine mammal hunting, inland hunting and fishing. In 1732, Alaska was taken over by Russia when a Russian American company arrived to hunt for fur. After the Crimean War, the country was in need of money and they decided to sell the land to America. American ownership of Alaska became official in 1867 and thus, several developments would come to Barrow. These included the establishment of a meteorological and magnetic research station in 1881, The Cape Smythe Whaling and Trading station constructed in 1883, a Presbyterian church with was established in 1899 and a post office which opened in 1901. More recent developments include the exploration of the Naval Petroleum reserve which began in 1945, the establishment of the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in 1967 and the formation of the North Slope Borough in 1972. The North Slope Borough used millions of dollars to create roads, sanitation services, water, electricity and health and educational services to the area. The construction of the Prudhoe Bay Oil Fields and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline have also contributed to the city’s development.

(Source: Flickr)

(Source: Flickr)

Barrow Today

The city of Barrow is surrounded by water and can only be reached by water taxi or jet. Although still relatively isolated, the 4000 or so residents enjoy the schools, hotels, restaurants and churches that are now a part of their community. However, despite developments that have been made, the people still pay homage to their roots as hunting and other subsistence practices are still very much a part of their culture. Barrow, or Utqiagvik, offers an unforgettable experience to those who visit. Anyone who would want to find out what it’s like to be part of this unique culture and learn more about its history should put this city down on their bucket list as a travel destination as it will be one they will always remember.


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