Kenai Settlement History
Kenai’s motto, “Village with a past, City with a future,” reflects the link between the community’s long and rich history and its opportunities for sustainable growth and development. Kenai’s past has shaped its present. Its settlement history provides a strong cultural foundation and the physical pattern of growth that remains today.
The Dena’ina people lived in the region long before the first Russian explorers arrived in Alaska in 1741, While they do not measure their history in years, the Dena’ina consider they have lived in the area since time immemorial, a period that is beyond the reach of memory or record.
When the first Russians arrived, there was a thriving Dena’ina Athabascan Indian Village on the high bluff overlooking Cook Inlet near the mouth of the Kenai River. At that time, about 1,500 Dena’ina lived in the Kenai River drainage with several hundred in the village of Shk’ituk’t on the bluff above the Kenai River mouth.
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The local Dena’ina people originally called themselves Kahtnuht’ana – “People of the Kenai River” (Kahtnu). The Russians, however, called them Kenaitze from the Dena’ina stem “ken,” which refers to flat land meaning the wave cut terrace Kenai is built on, and the Russian “-itze,” which means “people of.” So, Kenatize means “people of the flat land.” The Dena’ina called the Russians “Tahdna” which means “underwater people” from the image of their ships coming up Cook Inlet which, viewed from afar, looked like the ship was emerging from underwater.
The Russians built Fort (Redoubt) St. Nicholas at Kenai in 1791, the fifth Russian post in Alaska. The fort was an outpost for trading fish and furs. The log wall and blockhouses were built by the Russians as part of Redoubt St. Nicholas. By the time British explorer Captain George Vancouver visited in 1794, about 40 Russians occupied the outpost. The Russian Orthodox religion took root, and Kenai’s oldest buildings are Orthodox-related: A log rectory (1886), the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Orthodox Church (1895), and the nearby log chapel (1906).
The United States established Fort Kenay in 1869 two years after the Alaska purchase. Most of the Russian buildings were in disrepair by the time the American Army took over, and the post was abandoned in 1871.
Commercial salmon canneries became a significant economic factor in the late 1800s. The first cannery at Kenai, the Northern Packing Company, was established in 1888. From then on at least one and often two or three canneries operated at the Kenai River mouth.
As the community evolved, residents constructed new infrastructure and adapted to a changing economy. A post office was established in 1899. During the 1920s, commercial fishing and fish processing became important local industries. Opportunities for homesteading in the 1940s led to further development. The first road connecting Anchorage and Kenai, opened in 1951, provided access that helped expand the community. The Wildwood Army Base, built north of Kenai in 1953, was later converted to an Air Force base. During the Cold War, it served as a communications and Russian surveillance base.
With Alaska’s first major oil strike in 1957 at the nearby Swanson River, a new economy took root. The City of Kenai incorporated in 1960, and offshore oil was discovered in Cook Inlet in 1965. Today’s economy reflects the importance of the fishing, oil and gas, tourism, and service industries.
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