According to some, it’s the remotest place in Alaska: a wind-whipped rock in the middle of the wild Bering Sea. Located hundreds of miles from the mainland, St. Matthew Island won’t be making it as a holiday destination any time soon. But over the years, a succession of brave souls have attempted to conquer its bleak and jagged shores. From the ancestors of today’s Inuit to U.S. Army personnel on the fringes of World War II, none of them have stayed for long. So, what is it about this lonely place that has sent people packing?
Even in today’s connected world, a trip to St. Matthew involves a 24-hour boat ride from St. Paul in Alaska’s Pribilof Islands. As a result, visitors are typically few and far between. But those who do make it here find a desolate and lonely place – populated only by seabirds and singing voles.
Though history tells us that St. Matthew hasn’t always been this way. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that humans built shelters here as far back as the 17th century. And at one point, the island was home to thousands of reindeer roaming wild across the landscape. But now everything is dull and lifeless. So, what happened?
Known as the island that could not be conquered, St. Matthew has stubbornly resisted the humans and animals that have attempted to make it their home. Dozens have landed here over the centuries, yet all have either perished or fled. What is it about this place, then, that makes it so ill-equipped for survival?
Now, you might be forgiven to thinking that the United States is not exactly heaving with uninhabited islands. But actually, there are a number of outcrops on American soil that remain devoid of human life – even as the population grows larger than ever before. Some of them – such as St. Matthew – exist in far-flung places, though others are surprisingly close to home.
On the remote end of the spectrum, for example, there are places like Howland Island. This is a tiny, 640-acre spit of land located approximately halfway between Australia and the U.S. It was there, back in the 1930s, that the famous aviator Amelia Earhart planned to stop off on her ill-fated flight around the world. But of course, she never arrived.
At the other end of the scale are places like High Island – an uninhabited outcrop improbably located in the Bronx. Over the years, it has served as both a quarry and a holiday resort. But since the 1960s the island has been used to house radio towers. And even though New York City is famous for its lack of housing, this tiny kingdom has remained eerily empty for decades.
Of course, there are many reasons for an island to remain uninhabited – ranging from an inhospitable landscape to environmental concerns and even turbulent political scenarios. But in places such as St. Matthew, their remote location poses the main challenge for anyone looking to set up home. And life is rarely easy even in places where settlements have managed to survive.
Take the archipelago of Tristan da Cunha, for example, which is widely considered to contain the most remote inhabited islands on our planet. Ever since the 19th century, a small population of hardy settlers have lived here – in a spot more than 1,500 miles off the coast of South Africa. But with no air strip and only around one boat per month, there are plenty of challenges associated with living in such an isolated place.
Some 6,500 miles to the east – on Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific – the 50-odd inhabitants face similar struggles on a day to day basis. Back in 1790 crew of the British ship H.M.S. Bounty staged a mutiny against their captain after becoming disillusioned with their lives at sea. Eventually, they settled, and some of their descendants remain there to this day.
But Like Tristan da Cunha, the Pitcairn Islands are cut off from the outside world and are served only by the occasional cargo ship. That isolation has also bred discontent over the years, with most of the early settlers descending into violence and alcoholism. Now, life here is calmer, although scandals still occasionally rock the tight-knit community.
But according to experts, life on Pitcairn could be coming to an end. In order to counteract the aging population, the government has been advertising for new residents. But none have come forward. And if this continues, the community could fizzle out by the end of the 21st century. Still, that would mean an inhabited run of some 250 years – far longer than any settlers have lasted on St. Matthew.
As many of you know, the Bering Sea is a deep icy body of water that divides the Americas and Eurasia. It is also home to a number of remote and bleak-looking islands. And none more so than St. Matthew – a 138-square mile outcrop located some 250 miles off the coast of Alaska. So it is clearly off the beaten track, yet it is hardly the most far-flung place on planet Earth. Furthermore, if people can make places such as Tristan da Cunha and Pitcairn suitable for human habitation, why has nobody managed to settle here?
Today, the landscape of St. Matthew is littered with the relics of groups who have tried and failed to tame this wild island. In one place, a writer for Hakai Magazine called Sarah Gilman found old metal barrels which have been left to rust – slowly disintegrating like strange skeletons along the shore. In another, she saw a single pole marking the site where a military navigation facility once stood.
Off the southern coast of St. Matthew, the jagged Pinnacle Rock juts out of the Bering Sea – a challenging obstacle to the few vessels that make it this far from land. To the north stands a tiny speck of land called Hall Island, where walruses congregate when the sea ice melts. Altogether, then, it is a dramatic landscape. Although it’s perhaps not one immediately suited to human life.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from trying over the years, and the evidence of these attempts is still there to see. In the south-west corner of the island, Gilman came across the foundations of temporary huts which litter the landscape, along with a solitary toilet long abandoned by those who brought it here. And on the northern side, the remains of a much older settlement can be found.
Around 400 years ago, it’s believed, members of the prehistoric Thule culture attempted to construct a pit house on this wild stretch of coast. But even a people so hardy that they gave birth to the modern Inuits could not withstand life on St. Matthew. So why did they leave this place behind and settle on different shores?
Russian navy lieutenant Ivan Synd believed that he was the first to set foot on St. Matthew’s largest island upon landing there in 1766. In fact, he was so sure of his discovery that he gave the island its name after the biblical apostle. But that didn’t stop the English explorer Captain James Cook from making a similar claim when he arrived there 12 years later.
In fact, neither of these men were the first to discover St. Matthew. As it turned out, at least one group of ambitious would-be settlers arrived on these bleak shores as early as the 17th century. But who were these early adventurers, and what brought them to this island of all places?
Back in 1957 a discovery was made on St. Matthew. Experts found a single pit house dug into the rock, which was believed to be from the 1650s. At the time, not much was recorded about the dwelling, although pottery in the area suggested that it was connected with the Thule culture. And as such, it predated Synd and Cook’s claims by over a century.
The ancestors of today’s Inuit people, the Thule emerged in what is now Alaska around 1000 A.D. And within a few hundred years, their reach had expanded across parts of Canada and into Greenland. But around the time that the dwelling on St. Matthew was built, the environmental impact of the Little Ice Age had begun to devastate their communities.
In the midst of this upheaval, it appears, a party of Thule arrived on St. Matthew. Faced with the uninviting terrain, they dug a pit house in which to take shelter from the worst of the elements. But according to archeologists, they do not appear to have built a hearth – suggesting that the dwelling was only used for a short period of time.
If the experts are to be believed, there is more evidence to support the hypothesis that the Thule did not stay on St. Matthew for long. Around the site, archeologists discovered only a scattering of artifacts – not the rich layer that would typically accompany an established settlement. But why would anyone go to all the trouble of reaching this remote island, and then simply turn around and leave?
The answer, fascinatingly, could be found in the legends told by the Unangan people, who inhabit the Pribilof and Aleutian Islands south of St. Matthew. Apparently, their oral histories tell of lost explorers who found themselves stranded on foreign islands. And with the ocean raging around them, they were forced to make camp in this new place until the way home became accessible once more.
According to archeologist Dennis Griffin – who has been conducting work in the region since the early 2000s – these stories could reflect the reality of what happened on St. Matthew. Stranded on the island, the party of Thule might have needed to wait for the sea ice to melt in order to sail away, he told Hakai Magazine. Or, conversely, they may have arrived in summer and bided their time until the ocean froze – enabling them to simply walk home.
Either way, the Thule would have needed to construct a temporary dwelling on St. Matthew. But Griffin believes that the pit house discovered in 1957 was only lived in for a matter of months. And while others might have tried to settle on the island over the following centuries, no evidence of their efforts now remains.
In fact, St. Matthew could well have remained uninhabited until 1809, when a group of both Unangan and Russian hunters attempted to make a camp on the island. By that time, it was a popular habitat of polar bears, and the men hoped to harvest their valuable fur. But like the Thule before them, they did not last long.
So, what happened? Reports vary as to what it was exactly that drove the hunters off of St. Matthew. According to some, the party lost their food source as sea creatures migrated away from the island – leaving them to starve. But others claim that the Russians succumbed to scurvy while the Unangans managed to adapt to a limited diet.
Another explanation is that the polar bears – the very animals that the party were trying to hunt – ended up being so ferocious that the men fled in fear. But while this certainly has a degree of poetic justice to it, no one can be sure why this group abandoned St. Matthew. What we do know, however, is that by the time the American naturalist and painter Henry Elliot arrived in 1874, he found the island teeming with the creatures.
Yet this begs the question: why are there no polar bears on St. Matthew today? By the time that the Harriman Expedition from Seattle arrived in 1899, there was not a single bear to be found. Just like the island’s human settlers, it seems, they had abruptly disappeared. And although there is some debate over exactly what happened, experts believe that hunters were likely to blame.
Starved of entertainment during long periods at sea, some Canadian and American crews turned to hunting the polar bears on St. Matthew for sport, according to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. And with that, they rendered the island a death trap – even for the animals best adapted to deal with its challenges. So, what hope did anyone else have of surviving this brutal place?
Seventeen years after the Harriman Expedition – in 1916 – the ship Great Bear got caught in the mist and crashed on Pinnacle Rock. At first, the survivors who made it to shore must have been grateful that St. Matthew’s bear population had petered out. But as they waited to be rescued, the harsh conditions on the island began to take their toll.
To begin with, things probably looked fairly hopeful. One man managed to build a makeshift transmitter device to send out an SOS message from St. Matthew. But before long, he realized that the sodden atmosphere of the island was hampering his efforts. And as the weeks passed with no sign of rescue, the men came to blows over what limited resources they had left.
After 18 days, the crew of the Great Bear were eventually rescued and escaped St. Matthew for good. But less than 30 years later, another group of reluctant settlers arrived on the island. This time they were American servicemen, and the struggles of World War II had reached even this remote place.
The Allies’ ships and planes were fighting in the Pacific Ocean to the south of the Bering Sea. And a long-range navigation (LORAN) site was established on St. Matthew to help them find their way in these distant waters. But life was tough for the unfortunate souls chosen to man the station.
According to Hakai Magazine, St. Matthew was a veritable hellscape of deep snow, ten-day blizzards and rainstorms that frequently turned the ground to mud. When the time came to build the military site, it took hundreds of bags of cement to construct steady foundations on the battered terrain. Unfortunately, once men were living on the island, things didn’t get any easier.
While stationed on St. Matthew, servicemen were completely cut off from the outside world. In fact, their only communication was by mail – air-dropped at a location miles from the base. And in order to retrieve it, they needed to mount a complex operation involving several different crews and a toboggan full of supplies.
Yet not everyone on St. Matthew survived the war, according to the publication. One day, for example, a crew of five men disappeared while running an errand by boat on what appeared to be calm seas. But one thing that they were not short on was food, after an enterprising coast guard introduced a wild reindeer population to the island.
After the war was over, the men left St. Matthew – the last to stay on the island for any length of time. And in their absence, the reindeer thrived. So much so, in fact, that a biologist visiting the island in 1963 counted as many as 6,000, according to Hakai Magazine. But like all life on this lonely rock, they did not last. Just three years later, only 42 remained in a landscape littered with bones.
According to experts, the reindeer likely overgrazed the small island and ended up succumbing to starvation. And this adds yet another grim fate to the list of those that have befallen humans and animals on St. Matthew over the years. Despite centuries of horror stories, however, there are some who still make the long journey – mostly scientists keen on studying the local seabirds. But will man ever conquer these shores on a more permanent basis? Well, if the past is anything to go by, it seems unlikely to happen.