Graves continue to erode at historic St. Michael cemetery
A year after ex-typhoon Merbok, hit the region, an archaeologist has returned to St. Michael this month to help recover graves that were exposed due to erosion.
In the immediate aftermath of Merbok, the community of St. Michael reported impacts to housing and infrastructure to state authorities.
Among their concerns: human skeletal remains were newly exposed along the coast at the Old Russian Cemetery, which was likely established in the 19th century.
“There was erosion in recent years with the increase in storms, but when Merbok hit it was a bigger storm and it exposed more graves,” said Native of Village of St. Michael President Shirley Martin. “There are a good nine or so cemeteries on the island but that’s the one that’s being most affected since it’s on the coast.”
Archaeologist Tom Wolforth visited St. Michael in early October last year to assess the situation. Some coffins had already been washed away by the storm.
Wolforth, a cultural resource manager for the Alaska Army National Guard, was able to recover the coffins and remains of three people—and the partial remains of a fourth. The remains were wrapped and placed in the morgue so that the community could eventually rebury them.
But the erosion didn’t stop after Wolforth left, so he came back again this fall.
“I can’t say enough how much erosion has happened just in this last year,” Wolforth said. “As Mother Nature does that, more coffins fall down, more coffins smash open and more bones are scattered on the beach.”
When Wolforth came to St. Michael in 2022, he had little historical information about the area.
But over the last year, he has had more time to research old documents and journals. He found a dearth of historical information about the Old Russian Cemetery itself. It was first documented in 1906, but it likely had already been in use for decades before.
The area around St. Michael had long been inhabited by Yupik people, but Russia started leaving its footprint as it expanded its colonial outposts northward in Alaska during the 19th century.
The Russian-American Company built the Mikhailovskii Redoubt, a trading and supply post, there in 1833 and soon after erected a church.
Neither structure survives today.
The U.S. took over the site after it paid Russia $7.2 million for Alaska in 1867, and the Army set up a fort in St. Michael as stampeders passed through on their way to the Yukon gold lands. The U.S. government cut out an easement for the Russian Orthodox Church and the Old Russian Cemetery.
Today, the cemetery is still under the ownership of the Diocese of Sitka and Alaska, Orthodox Church in America, Inc., in Anchorage.
Wolforth’s prime mission was to appropriately handle the remains and make sure they could be reburied. He has been working closely with the tribe and the municipality to address their concerns. One concern, Martin said, was that these exposed remains could pose a risk of disease, especially if the dead had been buried during the time of the 1918 flu pandemic. But Wolforth assured them that if properly handled this shouldn’t be a problem.
Though discovery and analysis is not the purpose of his work in St. Michael, Wolforth was still able to make observations that offer some insight about the cemetery.
Of the three graves he documented last year, one belonged to a girl who was probably around 10- or 11-years-old when she died. She was dressed warmly, which suggests she was buried during cold months. Her clothing included things like a black sweater, a purple dress, leather shoes, and more. Some of the items hinted that she might have been buried during the late 19th century. Wolforth saw no obvious signs of trauma on her bones. Her coffin, which had a fine black cloth nailed to it, had fallen from the overhanging topsoil that crumbled to the beach soon after the storm.
Wolforth sometimes had to dodge falling clumps of earth while working.
Two other graves were exposed in that overhanging topsoil above.
A man’s coffin was partially sticking out, but also still covered by two feet of densely matted tundra. Wol-forth had to find an electric saw to dig through this tough vegetation. When he removed the coffin lid, he found that some parts of the man’s body were preserved, like the skin on his back and toes. Wolforth estimated he was probably between 40- and 60-years-old when he died.
Right next to the adult man’s grave, there was another coffin, smaller in size. Inside were the remains of a child who was likely under five-years-old alongside a golden ribbon and a silver cross, and a smaller wooden cross. The little one was wrapped in a black cotton blanket and had a pillow made of woven grass.
Wolforth also documented more ancient Alaska Native artifacts in the crumbling cliffside. Though no early chroniclers mention the existence of an Alaska Native settlement at the exact site of the cemetery, Wolforth saw ceramics, worked stone and worked wood that clearly attest to an earlier presence.
As Wolforth collects additional remains and grave items this year, questions remain about the identity of the people buried in the Old Russian Cemetery. The coffins and the metal cross grave markers that were found on the site don’t have names on them—or if they did, they’ve now eroded away,
“This is a very personal and intimate thing—we’re dealing with people, not history in general,” Wolforth said.
He is hoping that the Russian Orthodox Church might have some burial records, but he said he hasn’t made any breakthroughs there yet.
“It’s really unfortunate that we can’t track person by person,” Wolforth said. But he said he can at least give some details about the person’s sex, age at death, physical characteristics, culture and status.
This type of archaeological salvage work is unusual for Wolforth. He is often tasked with activities required by the National Historic Preservation Act. Usually that process is triggered when people want to build a road, a building or infrastructure that might disturb archaeological remains.
“That’s a process that’s well defined, and agencies know how to deal with it,” Wolforth said. “I’m not used to seeing Mother Nature ripping up burials. And nobody can say, ‘Hey, Mother Nature, you need to pay for this,’ or, ‘Hey, Mother Nature, there’s laws against you doing that.’”
A little improvisation was required to coordinate the effort. Because Merbok was behind so much of the damage, this year’s continued archaeological rescue work could be covered under emergency funds.
FEMA and Alaska’s state government both have public assistance programs that provide money to repair critical infrastructure after disasters.
Jeremy Zidek, a public information officer for the Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said that the state typically enters into a cost-share agreement for public assistance damages. Under such agreements, FEMA pays 75 percent and the state pays 25 percent. Zidek said it’s a little unclear in this case if the work at the Old Russian Cemetery is going to fall under FEMA’s program or if it’s something the state program will have to take care of.
“Our primary concern is to make sure that the remains are treated in a respectful manner and properly handled,” Zidek said.