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Russian Alaska

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Title: Russian Alaska  
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Subject: Russia, Oregon Trail, Russian colonization of the Americas, Peter the Aleut, Sitka, Alaska, Nanwalek, Alaska, Kodiak, Alaska, Fort Vancouver, Battle of Hampton Roads, Pacific Fur Company
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Russian Alaska

Russian America
Русская Америка
Russkaya Amerika
Colony of Russia



Russian America in 1860.
Capital New Archangel
Languages Russian, Haida, Tsimshianic, Eskimo-Aleut, Chinook Jargon, Na-Dené
Religion Russian Orthodox
Political structure Colony
 -  1799–1801 Paul I
 -  1801–1825 Alexander I
 -  1825–1855 Nicholas I
 -  1855–1867 Alexander II
 -  1799–1818 (first) Alexander Andreyevich Baranov
 -  1863–1867 (last) Dmitry Petrovich Maksutov
 -  Company Charter[a] 8 July 1799
 -  Alaska Purchase 18 October 1867
a. ^ The Russian-American Company was chartered by the Emperor in 1799, to govern Russian possessions in North America on behalf of the Russian Empire.

Russian America (Russian: Русская Америка, Russkaya Amerika) was the name of Russian colonial possessions in the Americas from 1733 to 1867 that today is the U.S. state of Alaska and settlements farther south in California. Formal incorporation of the possessions by Russia did not take place until a ukase (a proclamation or decree of the tsar) in 1799, which established a monopoly for the Russian-American Company and also granted the Russian Orthodox Church certain rights in the new possessions.

Russian sighting of Alaska

The earliest written accounts indicate that the first Europeans to reach Alaska came from Russia. In 1648 Semyon Dezhnev sailed from the mouth of the Kolyma River through the Arctic Ocean and around the eastern tip of Asia to the Anadyr River. One legend holds that some of his boats were carried off course and reached Alaska. However, no evidence of settlement survives. Dezhnev's discovery was never forwarded to the central government, leaving open the question of whether or not Siberia was connected to North America. In 1725, Tsar Peter I of Russia called for another expedition.

As a part of the 1733-1743 second Kamchatka expedition, the Sv. Petr under the Dane Vitus Bering and the Sv. Pavel under the Russian Alexei Chirikov set sail from the Kamchatkan port of Petropavlovsk in June 1741. They were soon separated, but each continued sailing east.

On July 15, Chirikov sighted land, probably the west side of Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska.[1] He sent a group of men ashore in a longboat, making them the first Europeans to land on the northwestern coast of North America.

On roughly July 16, Bering and the crew of Sv. Petr sighted Mount Saint Elias on the Alaskan mainland; they turned westward toward Russia soon afterward. Meanwhile, Chirikov and the Sv. Pavel headed back to Russia in October with news of the land they had found.

In November Bering's ship was wrecked on Bering Island. There Bering fell ill and died, and high winds dashed the Sv. Petr to pieces. After the stranded crew wintered on the island, the survivors built a boat from the wreckage and set sail for Russia in August 1742. Bering's crew reached the shore of Kamchatka in 1742, carrying word of the expedition. The high quality of the sea-otter pelts they brought sparked Russian settlement in Alaska.

History of Alaska
Russian America (1733–1867)
Department of Alaska (1867–1884)
District of Alaska (1884–1912)
Territory of Alaska (1912–1959)
State of Alaska (1959–present)
Other topics

Russian settlement

1740s to 1800

Subsequently, small associations of fur traders began to sail from the shores of Siberia to the Aleutian islands. As the runs from Siberia to America became longer expeditions (lasting two to four years or more), the crews established hunting and trading posts. By the late 1790s, these had become permanent settlements. Approximately half of the fur traders were Russians from various European parts of the Russian Empire or from Siberia. The others were indigenous people from Siberia or Siberians with mixed indigenous, European and Asian origins.

Rather than hunting the marine life, the Russians forced the Aleuts to do the work for them.[2] As word spread of the riches in furs to be had, competition among Russian companies increased and the Aleuts were forced into slavery.[2] Catherine the Great, who became Empress in 1763, proclaimed good will toward the Aleuts and urged her subjects to treat them fairly. On some islands and parts of the Alaska Peninsula, groups of traders had been capable of relatively peaceful coexistence with the local inhabitants. Other groups could not manage the tensions and perpetrated exactions. Hostages were taken, families were split up, and individuals were forced to leave their villages and settle elsewhere. The growing competition between the trading companies, merging into fewer, larger and more powerful corporations, created conflicts that aggravated the relations with the indigenous populations. Over the years, the situation became catastrophic.

As the animal populations declined, the Aleuts, already too dependent on the new barter economy created by the Russian fur trade, were increasingly coerced into taking greater and greater risks in the highly dangerous waters of the North Pacific to hunt for more otter. As the Shelekhov-Golikov Company developed as a monopoly, it used skirmishes and violent incidents turned into systematic violence as a tool of colonial exploitation of the indigenous people. When the Aleuts revolted and won some victories, the Russians retaliated, killing many and destroying their boats and hunting gear, leaving them no means of survival. The most devastating effects were from disease: during the first two generations (1741/1759-1781/1799 AD) of Russian contact, 80 percent of the Aleut population died from Eurasian infectious diseases; these were by then endemic among the Europeans, but the Aleut had no immunity against the new diseases.[3]

Though the colony was never very profitable because of the costs of transportation, most Russian traders were determined to keep the land for themselves. In 1784, Grigory Ivanovich Shelekhov, who would later set up the Russian-Alaska Company that colonized early Alaska, arrived in Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island with two ships, the Three Saints and the St. Simon.[4] The Koniag Alaska Natives harassed the Russian party and Shelekhov responded by killing hundreds and taking hostages to enforce the obedience of the rest. Having established his authority on Kodiak Island, Shelekhov founded the second permanent Russian settlement in Alaska (after Unalaska) on the island's Three Saints Bay.

In 1790, Shelekhov, back in Russia, hired Alexander Andreyevich Baranov to manage his Alaskan fur enterprise. Baranov moved the colony to the northeast end of Kodiak Island, where timber was available. The site later developed as what is now the city of Kodiak. Russian colonists took Koniag wives and started families whose surnames continue today, such as Panamaroff, Petrikoff, and Kvasnikoff. In 1795, Baranov, concerned by the sight of non-Russian Europeans trading with the Natives in southeast Alaska, established Mikhailovsk six miles (10 km) north of present-day Sitka. He bought the land from the Tlingit, but in 1802, while Baranov was away, Tlingit from a neighboring settlement attacked and destroyed Mikhailovsk. Baranov returned with a Russian warship and razed the Tlingit village. He built the settlement of New Archangel on the ruins of Mikhailovsk. It became the capital of Russian America and today is the city of Sitka.

As Baranov secured the Russians' settlements in Alaska, the Shelekhov family continued to work among the top leaders to win a monopoly on Alaska's fur trade. In 1799, Shelekhov's son-in-law, Nikolay Petrovich Rezanov, had acquired a monopoly on the American fur trade from Tsar Paul I. Rezanov formed the Russian-American Company. As part of the deal, the Tsar expected the company to establish new settlements in Alaska and carry out an expanded colonization program.

1800 to 1867

By 1804, Alexandr Baranov, now manager of the Russian–American Company, had consolidated the company's hold on fur trade activities in the Americas following his victory over the local Tlingit clan at the Battle of Sitka. The Russians never fully colonized Alaska. For the most part they clung to the coast and shunned the interior.

From 1812 to 1841, the Russians operated Fort Ross, California. From 1814 to 1817, Russian Fort Elizabeth was operating in Hawaii. By the 1830s, the Russian monopoly on trade was weakening. The British Hudson's Bay Company, based in Canada, set up posts on the southern edge of Russian America in 1839 under terms of a lease resulting from an earlier attempt in 1833 to block the establishment of such posts. The Hudson's Bay Company began siphoning off trade.

The Americans were also becoming a force. Baranov began to depend heavily on American supply ships, since they came more frequently than Russian ones. In addition, Americans could sell furs to the Canton (Chinese) market, which was closed to the Russians. The downside was that American hunters and trappers encroached on territory Russians considered theirs. The Russo-American Treaty of 1824 recognized exclusive Russian rights to the fur trade above Latitude 54°, 40' North, with the American rights and claims restricted to below that line. This division was repeated in the Treaty of Saint Petersburg, a parallel agreement with the British in 1825. The agreements soon went by the wayside, however, and with the retirement of Alexandr Baranov in 1818, the Russian hold on Alaska was further weakened.

When the Russian-American Company's charter was renewed in 1821, it stipulated that the chief managers from then on be naval officers. Most naval officers did not have any experience in the fur trade, so the company suffered. The second charter also tried to cut off all contact with foreigners, especially the competitive Americans. This strategy backfired since the Russian colony had become used to relying on American supply ships, and the United States had become a valued customer for furs. Eventually the Russian–American Company entered into an agreement with the Hudson's Bay Company, which gave the British rights to sail through Russian territory.

Although the mid–19th century was not a good time for Russians in Alaska, conditions improved for the coastal Alaska Natives who had survived contact, primarily the Aleut, Koniag, and Tlingit. The Tlingit were never conquered and continued to wage war on the Russians into the 1850s. The Aleut, many of whom had been removed from their home islands and sent as far south as California to hunt sea otter for Russians, continued to decline in population during the 1840s.

The naval officers of the Russian–American Company established schools and hospitals for the Aleut and gave them jobs. Russian Orthodox clergy moved into the Aleutian Islands to aid the people. The Aleut population began to increase.

Russian settlements in America

Missionary activity

At Three Saints Bay, Shelekov built a school to teach the natives to read and write Russian, and introduced the first resident missionaries and clergymen who spread the Russian Orthodox faith. This faith (with its liturgies and texts, translated into Aleut at a very early stage) had been informally introduced, in the 1740s-1780s. Some fur traders founded local families or symbolically adopted Aleut trade partners as godchildren to gain their loyalty through this special personal bond. The missionaries soon opposed the exploitation of the indigenous populations, and their reports provide evidence of the violence exercised to establish colonial rule in this period.

Inspired by the same pastoral theology as Bartolomé de las Casas or St. Francis Xavier, the origins of which come from early Christianity's need to adapt to the cultures of Antiquity, missionaries in Russian America applied a strategy that placed value on local cultures and encouraged indigenous leadership in parish life and missionary activity. This cultural policy was originally intended to gain the loyalty of the indigenous populations by establishing the authority of Church and State as protectors of over 10,000 inhabitants of Russian America. (The number of ethnic Russian settlers had always been less than the record 812, almost all concentrated in Sitka and Kodiak).

A side effect of the missionary strategy was the development of a new and autonomous form of indigenous identity. As Christianity is a syncretic religion, many native traditions survived within local "Russian" Orthodox tradition and in the religious life of the villages. Part of this modern indigenous identity is an alphabet and the basis for a written literature in nearly all of the ethnic-linguistic groups in the Southern half of Alaska. Father Ivan Veniaminov (later St. Innocent of Alaska), famous throughout Russian America, developed an Aleut dictionary for hundreds of language and dialect words based on the Russian alphabet.

The most visible trace of the Russian colonial period in contemporary Alaska are the nearly 90 Russian Orthodox parishes with a membership of over 20,000 men, women, and children, almost exclusively indigenous people. These include several Athabascan groups of the interior, very large Yup'ik communities, and the quasi-totality of the Aleut and Koniag populations. Among the few Tlingit Orthodox parishes, the large group in Juneau adopted Orthodox Christianity only after the Russian colonial period, in an area where there had been no Russian settlers nor missionaries. The widespread and continuing local Russian Orthodox practices are likely the result of the merger or creolization of local cultures and Christian beliefs and rituals.

The Spanish Roman Catholic colonial intentions, methods, and consequences in California and the Southwest were the product of the Laws of Burgos and the Indian Reductions of conversions and relocations to missions. While more force and coercion was used, the indigenous peoples created a kind of Christianity that reflected many of their traditions.

Sale of Alaska to the United States

Main article: Alaska Purchase

By the 1860s, the Russian government was ready to abandon its Russian America colony. Zealous overhunting had severely reduced the fur-bearing animal population, and competition from the British and Americans exacerbated the situation. This, combined with the difficulties of supplying and protecting such a distant colony, reduced interest in the territory. After Russian America was sold to the U.S. in 1867, for $7.2 million (2 cents per acre) (total $121 million in today's terms), all the holdings of the Russian–American Company were liquidated.

Following the transfer, many elders of the local Tlingit tribe maintained that "Castle Hill" comprised the only land that Russia was entitled to sell. Other indigenous groups also argued that they had never given up their land; the Americans encroached on it and took it over. Native land claims were not fully addressed until the latter half of the 20th century, with the signing by Congress and leaders of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

At the height of Russian America, the Russian population had reached 700, compared to 40,000 Aleuts. They and the Creoles, who had been guaranteed the privileges of citizens in the United States, were given the opportunity of becoming citizens within a three-year period, but few decided to exercise that option. General Jefferson C. Davis ordered the Russians out of their homes in Sitka, maintaining the dwellings were needed for the Americans. The Russians complained of rowdiness of the American troops and assaults. Many Russians returned to Russia, while others migrated to the Pacific Northwest and California.

See also


Further reading

  • Grinëv, Andrei. V., and Richard L. Bland. "A Brief Survey of the Russian Historiography of Russian America of Recent Years," Pacific Historical Review, May 2010, Vol. 79 Issue 2, pp 265–278
  • , Andreĭ Valʹterovich Grinev (GoogleBooks)

Coordinates: 57°03′N 135°19′W / 57.050°N 135.317°W / 57.050; -135.317

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