Herschel Island was named, in 1826, by the British Arctic explorer, Sir John Franklin, after the famous English astronomer William Herschel, who studied the planets and the stars in the 17th century. He was the first to spot the far-off gas giant Uranus, which had been predicted to exist, but had not been seen until Herschel pointed his telescope in the right direction. The island was the only safe haven for ships operating between Point Barrow, Alaska and the Mackenzie delta. As the riches of the Beaufort Sea became known, whalers arrived in droves from the United States.
The crew of the US navy ship, the Thetis, surveyed the island in 1899 and named many of its features. The same year, the first of many whaling ships over-wintered here. The island was almost unknown to Canadian authorities, and its population of Inuit was subjected to untold debauchery by the American whalers.
As many as 100 ships were anchored at Herschel Island at one time. In 1896, the Canadian Church Missionary Society found out about the awful conditions faced by the native people. Isaac Stringer, later to become Bishop of the Yukon, was sent to the island to build a mission.
Stringer insisted that Ottawa do something to help, but it wasn't until 1903 that a NWMP detachment was set up. By that time, the whalers had pretty much depleted the stocks and moved out. The island continued to be a trading centre and, in 1925, a post office was established.
As trade decreased, the population dwindled and in 1938, the post office was closed. By 1968, no permanent residents were left, but it remained a favourite summertime visiting and whaling ground for the native people of the Mackenzie delta.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin