The History of Kwethluk

This is a Yup'ik community located 12 air miles east of Bethel on the Kwethluk River at its junction with the Kuskokwim. The village is the second largest along the Lower Kuskokwim River, following Bethel. It lies at approximately 60 49' N Latitude, 161 26' W Longitude (Sec. 05, T008N, R069W, Seward Meridian). The community is located in the Bethel Recording District. The area encompasses 10 sq. miles of land and 2 sq. miles of water.

Archaeological evidence from a nearby site indicates that the area has been occupied since prehistoric times. The name Kwethluk is derived from "Kwikli," meaning "river." In the late 1800s, families from four villages on the Kwethluk River joined others living at the site. In 1889, an Eskimo lay worker for the Moravian Church was stationed at the village. A measles epidemic struck the village in the late 1890s. The Moravian Church built a chapel in 1896, followed by a Russian Orthodox Church in 1912.

Discovery of gold in nearby creeks in 1909 attracted prospectors to the area, but the finds proved disappointing and most were gone by 1911. One placer deposit, discovered on the upper Kwethluk River, delivered a small yield and was worked until World War II. A Moravian orphanage was established three miles upriver. A BIA school with teacher's quarters was built in 1924. In 1939, the villagers owned 31,000 reindeers, used for food and skins. A tuberculosis epidemic at this time tragically reduced the population. A post office was established in 1947, and a Native-owned store opened in 1948. An airstrip was cleared in 1956. Snowmachines replaced dog teams in the 1960s as the principal form of winter transportation.


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History and map graphic used with permission from the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development