Author Revives Aleutian History Through ‘Lost Ledgers’

Photo courtesy of Pennelope Goforth.
Photo courtesy of Pennelope Goforth.

Two years ago, historian Pennelope Goforth discovered six ledgers from the Alaska Commercial Company gathering dust in a friend’s basement. Now, she’s using the “Lost Ledgers” to bring a distant chapter of Aleutian history to life.

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The Alaska Commercial Company dominated the fur trade in the Aleutians during the late 1800s. Trading station agents used ledger books to keep careful records of business transactions and correspondences. But the agents didn’t limit their writing to just business.

“They also noted things happening in the community — if somebody was born, if somebody was married, if someone passed away, you know, all of these different events,” Goforth says.

The “Lost Ledgers” offer a rare glimpse into life in the Aleutians in the early years of American settlement. Goforth transcribed the contents of the ledgers for a multimedia project last year, and recalls several entries:

“Men from Kashega arrived today. Akutan people came and visited. Unalaska people couldn’t leave today, too much surf on the beach.”

When taken together, the individual entries tell a story. Goforth says she wants to use them to paint a vivid picture of Aleutian life for a broader audience. And to do that, she’s going old-school.

“There’s something about a book,” she says. “You know, you just have to put it into a book.”

While the book is going to rely heavily on information gleaned from the ledgers, it won’t actually be about the Alaska Commercial Company. Instead, Goforth says she’s focusing on how an influx of foreigners changed the Unangan way of life.

Ultimately, she wants her book to help younger generations of Unangan better appreciate their rich history and culture — including the day-to-day happenings that defined life during that time.

“The next chapter that I’m working on is going to be really fun. It is a cash account of everybody’s purchases at the Alaska Commercial Company store,” says Goforth. “There was a little kerfuffle, as it were, about the price of mustard at one point. I won’t say more about that until you read the book.”

When that might be possible is still up in the air. Goforth hasn’t found a publisher yet, but she has received a $5,000 grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum for her project, and hopes to be done with a first draft by the end of the year.

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