Aleutian Islands, a chain of about 90 islands making up a district of Alaska. The Aleutians extend generally west-southwestward for about 1,100 miles (1,800 km) from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula. The islands, with a total area of 6,821 square miles (17,666 km2), lie between the Bering Sea on the north and the Pacific Ocean on the south. From the Alaska Peninsula west there are four main groups—the Fox, Andreanof, Rat, and Near islands. Unimak, in the Fox group, is the largest island. It is about 65 miles (105 km) long and up to 33 miles (53 km) wide.
The rocky and often rugged islands are the crests of the partially submerged Aleutian Range, an extension of the Alaska Range. There are nearly 50 active volcanoes on the Aleutians and numerous inactive cones. The highest peak, reaching 9,373 feet (2,857 m), is Shishaldin Volcano, on Unimak Island. The islands are bleak and dreary, with almost constant fog and clouded skies. They are mostly treeless and covered with grass and bushes. The climate is cool and damp; temperatures average slightly below freezing for January and nearly 50º F. (10º C.) for August. Precipitation averages above 30 inches (760 mm) a year.
The inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands are predominantly the native Aleuts. The population in 2000 was 8,162. The largest cities are Unalaska (population, 4,283), Sand Point (952), St. Paul (532), and King Cove (792).
The Aleutian Islands were inhabited as early as 6,000 B.C. by descendants of Old Stone Age migrants from Asia. A distinctive Aleut culture dates from about 2,000 B.C. Through the centuries, the Aleuts have remained in the area, relying on the sea for their livelihood.
In 1741 the islands were discovered by Vitus Bering, who led a Russian expedition. Trade in fur seal and sea otter pelts attracted the Russians to what they named the Catherine Islands, but which were soon called the Aleutian Islands after their native inhabitants, the Aleuts. During a century of occupation, Russian traders exploited both the land and the natives.
In 1867 the United States purchased Alaska, including the Aleutians, from Russia. The islands remained important primarily for the fur trade until World War II, when their strategic value was realized. The Japanese briefly occupied Attu and Kiska in 1942.
From 1965 to 1971, Amchitka Island was used as an underground nuclear test site. In 1971 the Aleuts were included in the federal government's property and financial settlement for native Alaskans.