The exact meaning of the name "Kenai" is unclear. The Dena’ina Athabascan Indians are the indigenous people of the area. In the Dena’ina language, "Ken" translates into "big flat." "Ken’ey" means two big flats and river cut-back, and the word "ken’e" represents trees and brush grown in a swampy marsh. Any one of these terms may have been the root or origin for the name of Kenai.
Kenai is a growing community with around 7,500 residents, Kenai is the largest city on the Kenai Peninsula. The Peninsula’s population is approximately 48,000.
Before the arrival of European ships, the Kenai area was dotted with settlements of the Dena'ina, a tribe of Athabascan Indians who made homes along the now famous Kenai River as well as the peninsula's outlying reaches. The roots of Alaska Native culture on the Kenai Peninsula reach back thousands of years. Drawn to the mouth of the Kenai River, the largest watershed on the peninsula, the Dena'ina took advantage of the abundance of fish that annualy move through the area each summer. The summer calendar of their subsistence lifestyle is marked by the arrivals of king, red and silver salmon.
By the late 1700's Kenai was one of several Russian Alaska outposts during the fur trade era. Here at Old Town, Russian fur traders in 1791 built Redoubt Nikolaevsk (Fort St. Nicholas) near the bluff where the Russian Orthodox Church now stands. The Russians built ungarrisoned forts called redoubts during their time in Alaska. In 1867, with declining revenue from sea otter and seal furs, Russia sold its interests in Alaska to the Americans.
The United States won the race for Alaska's economic resources by purchasing it from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million. Considered "Seward's Folly" in jest of then Secretary of State William H. Seward, Alaska was designated as "Indian Country." Given that distinction, four officers and their families, along with 116 enlisted men, were assigned here to Fort Kenay. Situated in Old Town, the fort had been converted from barracks left behind by the Russians. The United States military occupation lasted just sixteen months from April 1869 to September 1870.
Old Town Kenai
From the departure of the U.S. military in 1870 to Alaska statehood in 1959, the small village of Kenai grew slowly into a town. Salmon canneries, commercial interests, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the American schools all influenced its growth. An important by-product of the canneries was salvage materials: after fish traps were dismantled, residents collected the timber planking and built homes with it. Kenai grew most dramatically with the advent of homesteading after World War II and boomed when oil was first discovered in Alaska at the Swanson River not far from Kenai in 1957. Dena'ina elders say that Kenai is a place for your heart. A community of now roughly 7,500, Kenai is still a confluence of cultures.
*This information was provided by the Old Town Kenai Walking Tour map.