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Russian Exploration of Alaska

Over the course of 140 years, Russian mariners and their scientific colleagues recorded their encounters with the peoples and cultures of Alaska natives. Alaska became part of the Russian Empire in the 18th century.

During these years of exploration and exploitation, mariners and scientists met many cultural communities in Alaska. They collected trunks of artifacts. They also painted and wrote about these ancient cultures, although they sometimes did not fully understand or appreciate them. The wide range of their collections and the detail of their visual and written descriptions provide some of the earliest European views and artifacts of the peoples of Alaska at the time of early contact with Western Europe.

Of the European countries, Russia was the first to explore in the North Pacific. The Russians had been exploring the Arctic, looking for new lands, since the tenth century. Under Ivan IV the Terrible (1547-1582) they began to explore east of the Ural Mountains into Siberia, to trade and to conquer the indigenous people there. By1647, they had crossed Siberia to Sea of Okhotsk, at the northwest edge of the North Pacific Ocean. The next year a Cossack (a special Russian military group who were fierce fighters and loyal to the Russian tsars) named Semen Dezhnev sailed along the Siberian coast and through Bering Strait to the mouth of the Anadyr River.

Just before his death in 1725, Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) commissioned Vitus Bering to sail east from the Kamchatka Peninsula.  Bering received these orders at St. Petersburg (now called Leningrad) in 1725.  Bering was assisted by two lieutenants, Martin Spanberg and Aleksei Chirikov.  In 1727, Bering sailed north on the St. Gabriel through Bering Strait to the Arctic ice pack and back to Kamchatka. Due to storms and fog in Bering Strait he did not see the North American mainland to the east.

The main result of Bering's 1725 to 1728 expedition was determination of different points on Russia's Pacific Ocean coasts. A few days after Bering returned to St. Petersburg a brief account of his voyage was published there.

The St. Gabriel's voyage lasted only a month. Bering and his party sailed north along the Siberia coast through what later was named Bering Strait into the Chukchi Sea. They reached 67 degrees 18 minutes north latitude without having sighted the North American coast and turned back. On the return voyage the explorers saw what are now known as the Diomede islands. On September 1,1728, the expedition was at the mouth of the Kamchatka River. The St. Gabriel arrived at Okhotsk in mid-July of 1729. Bering set out overland for St. Petersburg and reached the capital in March of 1730.

Ivan Fedorov and Mikhail Gvozdev sailed in August of 1732 in the St. Gabriel-from the mouth of the Kamchatka River north toward the Anadyr River. They crossed Bering Strait in its north part and found the Diomede Islands where they were met with a hail of arrows shot by Eskimos from the second island. In September they sailed further east toward Cape Prince of Wales on Alaska's Seward Peninsula. When they neared King island a Native from there came to their ship by boat and gave them information about the Alaska coast. The information they obtained was known to scientists and geographers of their time. Their information gave the correct orientation of American coasts on the east side of Bering Strait and this appeared on eighteenth century maps of the world published in Russia and France.  This voyage also represents the first Russian contact with the American mainland, and with Alaska Native people.

In December of 1732 the Russian senate approved the plan for Bering's second chance as an explorer. Russia's navy department, known as the Admiralty College, wrote orders in February of 1733 and in March the senate approved them. Bering was to go to Kamchatka, build two ships, and then sail to the American coast.  The second expedition met difficulties equal to those of the 1725-to-1728 explorers, but two ships were finally launched at Okhotsk in dune of 1740. The St. Peter and the St. Paul were each 80 feet long and 20 feet wide. The explorers spent the winter of 1740 to 1741 moving vessels and supplies from Okhotsk to Petropavlovsk. On June 4,1741, a fair wind took the vessels out of harbor to the east.

In the St. Peter with Bering, now promoted to captain-commander, were Sven Waxell as second-in-command, and five other officers including naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller. He also served as ship's doctor. Lieutenant Aleksei Ilyich Chirikof, commanding the St. Paul, was accompanied by two lieutenants. In addition to officers and scientists, each ship had 76 sailors aboard.

The two ships sailed east together until June 20. Then they became separated in the fog. After searching for Chirikov and his ship for several days, Bering ordered the St. Peter to continue to the northeast. There the Russian seafarers sighted Alaska for the first time. According to the ship's log, "At 12:30 (p.m. on July 17) we sighted snow-covered mountains and among them a high volcano." The Russians were seeing the peak known to some Alaska Natives as Waaseita-Shaa. Later, because the Russians first saw it on the Russian Orthodox Church feast day of Saint Elias, the mountain became known as Mount Saint Elias. Two days after sighting the mountain the crew of the St. Peter saw what is now called Pinnacle Rock on Kayak Island.

On July 20 a party from the St. Peter went ashore on Kayak Island. The shore party reported finding a fireplace and human tracks, and seeing a fox. According to the ship's log for July 21, the sailors found an underground hut but no people. In the hut they discovered dried fish and bows and arrows. They took some things from the hut and left green cloth, knives, tobacco, and pipes.

While Bering and many of his St. Peter crew had been traveling to disaster, Chirikov and the crew of the St. Paul were also having a difficult time. After the two ships separated, lookouts aboard the St. Paul sighted land on July 15, 1741. When the ship was off what is now known as Lisianski Inlet on the northwest coast of Chichagof Island, Chirikov sent ten armed sailors ashore. The people on the ship saw a campfire ashore on the night of July 22-23 but saw no other trace of the landing party. Chirikov sent a second boat to investigate. That night a fire on the beach appeared and disappeared. Neither the first nor the second boat were back by July 25. That day two small canoes came out of the small bay where the St. Paul's boats had gone. When Chirikov tried to invite the people in the canoes to come aboard the St. Paul, both canoes turned away. The Russians in the two boats that went ashore were never seen again.

On July 27 Chirikov and his officers decided to return to Kamchatka. The St. Paul no longer had the small boats necessary to investigate the shore or to collect fresh water. Passing by the Kenai Peninsula and Afognak Island, the St. Paul reached Adak in early September. Here the Russians traded small articles with Aleuts who came out to their ship in baidarkas. On October 12, 1741, this half of Bering's second expedition arrived at Petropavlovsk.

Leaving the Shumagins, the Russians sailed west again toward the Aleutian Islands. By October scurvy, always a problem during long voyages in this period, began to disable many of the ship's crew. Lack of vitamin C causes this disease. Its signs are spongy gums, loosening of teeth, bleeding into the skin, and extreme weakness. Scurvy seriously affected Bering himself. Several of the crew died.

Early in November a council of the ship's officers and crew decided to winter in the Commander Islands off the coast of Kamchatka. They wrecked the St. Peter during an attempt to land on a small, barren island. Survivors spent the winter of 1741-1742 there. They dug pits in the frozen sand and covered them with sailcloth to shelter the dying and the weak. The log of the St. Peter recorded the death of Captain Commander Vitus Bering on the island on December 8, 1741. Lieutenant Waxell took his place as leader of the explorers.

Waxell and the others of the St. Peter's crew who survived the winter built a smaller ship, also called the St. Peter, from the larger vessel's wreckage. They reached Kamchatka in the smaller craft in November of 1742. Forty-six of the original crew were left. On November 15 Waxell sent news of the expedition to the Admiralty College at St. Petersburg.

Following the voyages of Bering and Chirikov in 1741, maps would show the Pacific Ocean north of Japan with reasonable accuracy. Russian fur traders, government officials, and scientists continued the exploration of Alaska begun by the Bering and Chirikov voyages of 1728 and 1741. The Russians explored to advance the fur trade, to establish boundaries for their Alaskan interests, to control North Pacific seas, and to obtain geographic knowledge. This exploration had begun in the seventeenth century and continued into the mid nineteenth century. It was accomplished by ocean voyages in sailing ships, coastal surveys in small craft, river travel in boats and canoes; and, to a much lesser extent, overland travel by foot, dog sled, and skis.

The connection between Russian exploration and Alaska Native exploitation that began in 1745 continued as Russia took firm hold of the coast.

By 1763 fur trader Stephan Glotov had landed on Kodiak Island.

After 1763 the government sent officials with fur-trading vessels to keep logs, to write descriptions of voyages, and to ensure proper treatment of Natives. The first government-sponsored exploration after the 1741 voyages of Bering and Chirikov came in 1768 to 1769 when Russian Navy captains Peter Krenitzin in the St. Catherine and Mikhail Levashev in the St. Paul sailed from Kamchatka to the Aleutian Islands. They were to describe the islands found, claim them and their inhabitants for Russia. They were also to look into the collection of taxes and the control of fur traders. According to beliefs held by Euroamerican nations at this time, if their explorers found lands where only non-Christians lived, they could claim the lands for their countries by "right of discovery." They justified this by stating that it was their duty to claim the lands so that they could bring the Christian faith to the heathen inhabitants of the newly discovered lands.

While Levashev remained at Unalaska for the winter, Krenitzin wintered at Unimak. After Levashev and the St. Paul sailed to Unimak in the spring, the St. Catherine and the St. Paul visited the south coast of the Alaska Peninsula before returning to Kamchatka. This voyage determined Unimak to be an island by discovering Isanotski Strait--the water passage between Unimak and the Alaska Peninsula--and determined the exact latitude of Unalaska.

Fur-trader Potap Zaikov's Aleutian cruise of 1774 to 1779 resulted in a reasonably accurate record of the Aleutian Islands chain between Attu and the Alaska Peninsula. After 1784 when the Shelikhovs established the settlement at Three Saints Bay, trips from there, particularly by Gerasim Izmailov and Dmitrii Bocharov, resulted in additional geographical knowledge of Southcentral and Southeast Alaska waters.

Official expeditions and fur traders continued to learn more about Alaska.  In 1786 Gerasim Pribilov became the first Russian to visit the islands which are named for him. Two years later Izmailov and Bocharov went from Three Saints Bay in the ship Three Saints into Prince William Sound and then on to Yakutat. At several places along the way they buried copper plates announcing that the lands visited were now Russian possessions. They buried the plates to prevent Alaska Natives or other Euroamerican explorers from destroying them.

One Russian settlement was on Unalaska Island, where the Russians had stayed for long periods of time since 1758. Another Russian settlement was on Atka Island. Work camps on other areas of Kodiak Island and on Afognak Island quickly followed the fort the Shelikhovs built at Three Saints Bay in 1784. A work camp at Karluk took advantage of the tremendous salmon runs up the Karluk River.

In August of 1783 Gregorii Shelikhov led an expedition of 193 people east into Alaskan waters. His wife Natal'ia, who after his death would take over management of his fur-trading company, shared the hardships of the voyage. The Shelikhovs' three ships, the Three Saints, the St. Simeon, and the St. Anna--the Prophetess, wintered at Bering Island. In the spring of 1784 they sailed past the Aleutian Islands and arrived at Kodiak Island in early August. There the Shelikhovs chose a site for their settlement at a bay about 75-miles southwest of what is now the city of Kodiak. The site they chose was on a small spit in what is now called Three Saints Bay.

The voyages from Siberia to America were expensive. Investors worked to save costs and increase their profits by forming partnerships. Eventually two groups came to dominate. One group, led by Gregorii Shelikhov, established the first permanent Russian post in Alaska, on Kodiak Island in 1784. From there Shelikhov sent hunters into Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound. They traded with local Natives, sometimes in a friendly manner, sometimes not. Shelikhov's chief rival, Pavel Lebedev-Lastochkin, established several posts in Cook Inlet, at the mouths of the Kasilof and Kenai Rivers, on the west side of the inlet, and near the mouth of Eagle River. Eventually Shelikhov took over all of these posts.

The number of posts established by the Russians during their 127 years in Alaska did not mean there were a lot of Russians in the territory. There were only 450 to 500 Russians in Alaska in 1788 when there were a number of competing Russian fur-trading companies active in the territory. As the number of active fur-trading companies declined, the number of Russians in Alaska declined.

Alutiiq Eskimos who lived on Kodiak fought the Russian fur hunters, but after several battles gave up when the Shelikhovs took a large number of hostages. During their first year on Kodiak Island the Russians built a settlement that included several small wooden buildings.

The Shelikhovs organized the Natives into groups to do different kinds of work for the company. Sea otter hunters were the most important. Old men and children hunted birds and collected birds' eggs for food. Women cleaned fish, sewed parkas, and picked berries. The Shelikhovs also started a school for Natives so that they could learn arithmetic and the Russian language and be better workers.

From the settlement at Three Saints Bay the Shelikhovs sent fur hunters first into other parts of Southcentral Alaska and then into Southeast Alaska.

Several competing Russian fur companies copied the Shelikhovs in setting up permanent trading posts in Alaska. By 1786 there were forts on Cook Inlet at or near Alutiiq Eskimo and Athabaskan villages that have become today's communities of English Bay, Kasilof, and Kenai. In 1791 a fort was established at the Alutiiq Eskimo village of Nuchek on Hinchinbrook Island in Prince William Sound. In 1792 the Shelikhovs' workers moved most of the settlement at Three Saints Bay to the site of today's city of Kodiak. The next year the Russians built a small post at present-day Seward to take advantage of the area's timber resources for ship-building.

In the middle of July, 1792 Baranov himself arrived. He personally toured the whole vicinity of the bay and finally found a favorable place for a colony. Not far from the shore, a fort was laid out, and at some distance from it, at the mouth of a small stream, a settlement. Baranov preferred to give the latter a more modest name than that previously suggested by Shelikhov. In this regard, he wrote, not without sarcasm, to the settlers in 1796: “Your settlement is to be named Novorossiisk [“New Russia”] and not Slavorossiisk [“Glory of Russia”], because you have done nothing glorious.” He also sometimes used the adjective form of this name to designate the fort (Fort Novorossiiskii) located nearby, though in the sources and literature it is usually designated as the “fort at Yakutat” or simply “Yakutat.”

Yakutat Bay was reached in 1794 and the settlement of Slavorossiya was built there in 1795. Reconnaissance of the coast as far as the Queen Charlotte Islands was carried out by James Shields, a British employee of the Golikov-Shelikhov Company. In 1795 Alexandr Baranov, who had been hired in 1790 to manage Shelikhov's fur enterprise, sailed into Sitka Sound, claiming it for Russia. Hunting parties arrived in the following years and by 1800 three-quarters of Russian America's sea otter skins were coming from the Sitka Sound area. In July 1799 Baranov returned on the brig Oryol and established the settlement of Arkhangelsk. It was destroyed by Tlingits in 1802 but rebuilt nearby in 1804 and given the name Novo-Arkhangelsk (New Archangel). It soon become the primary settlement and colonial capital of Russian America. After the Alaska Purchase, it was renamed Sitka, the first capital of Alaska Territory.

Russian settlements tended to be built along the paths of the Native trade networks or in strategic places. When American and British traders began to frequent the Northwest Coast, the Russians began to establish posts in Southeast Alaska. In 1796, a fort was founded close to the Tlingit village at Yakutat. In 1799, Shelikhov's son-in-law, Nikolay Petrovich Rezanov, acquired a monopoly on the American fur trade from Czar Paul I and 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.

A board of directors in St. Petersburg set the policies for the Russian-American Company, but a chief manager in the colony of Alaska ran the actual operations. The Chief Manager was also the Governor of the colony. In commercial matters he functioned as a manager; but in diplomatic and civil matters, he functioned as a governor. The first Chief Manager was Aleksandr Andreevich Baranov.

Also in 1799, the Russians built Fort Archangel Saint Michael near a large Tlingit village at Sitka. This became the scene of a Russian set-back in 1802. Tlingits attacked the Russian fort and massacred most of the Russians and Aleut workers there. The Tlingits killed 20 Russians and up to 130 Aleuts. They also took over 4,000 sea otter pelts and burned a ship being built. In 1804 Alexander Baranov led a large Russian and Aleut force, supported by several ships with cannons, to reestablish a Russian fort at Sitka. The Sitka Tlingits, led by Chief Katlean, fought bravely but were finally driven away by Baranov. The new fort he established at Sitka eventually became the Russian headquarters in Alaska.

In 1801 directors of the Russian-American Company instructed Alexander Baranov, then company chief manager in Alaska, to investigate the Alaskan mainland and to have maps prepared of all areas surveyed. Little was accomplished. The principal object of the fur trade at this time was the catch of sea otters and therefore the fur traders had little interest in knowing about Interior Alaska. The Russians only began serious inland exploration about 1818 when their interest in the furs of land animals increased. The inland explorations the Russians did make sought new sources of fur and better routes to known fur sources. They were also stimulated to explore inland when they realized that the Hudson's Bay Company was beginning to compete in the Alaska fur trade from its posts in Canada. All of these investigations, like those at sea, also collected scientific data.

Baranov was aggressive and determined as the manager and governor. One of his first acts was to extend the colony into Southeast Alaska. At first the Tlingit Indians there welcomed the Russians. But in 1802 the Tlingit attacked the Russian post in Sitka, killing perhaps as many as eighty Russians and Aleuts. A British trading ship rescued some others and charged Baranov a fee to get them back. Baranov considered the Tlingit attack as merely a temporary setback and soon returned to Southeast with a force of several hundred Aleut hunters. When he arrived at the location of his original post, he learned the Indians had moved to a more easily defended location and had erected a formidable fortress. Baranov would have had great difficulty re-taking the post with the weapons he had. Luckily for him a Russian naval ship, the Neva, was waiting to help, armed with a number of cannons.

Initially, Baranov intended to have his people settle in the regions of the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound. Besides settlements of the “Shelikhov” company, fortified outposts were located there of the company of the Yakutsk merchant P.S. Lebedev-Lastochkin, whose workers were the chief competitors of the “Shelikhov people” in Alaska. But since, in a letter of the deceased Shelikhov, it was recommended that the territory to the south along the mainland coast be occupied, Baranov decided to establish the colony of Slavorossiia near the large Yakutat Bay, the vicinity of which was inhabited by Eyak and Tlingit Indians. The manager was encouraged to occupy places southeast of Kodiak both for political reasons (the penetration into this region by British maritime traders who bought up furs from the Indians), and the desire to outstrip the competing “Lebedev people” in seizing new hunting grounds along the Northwest Coast of America.

Ivan Krusenstern in the Hope and Yuri Lisianski in the Neva made the first Russian round-the-world voyage in the years 1803 to 1806. They sailed from Kronstadt, around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, and into the Pacific Ocean. After reaching the Hawaiian Islands the two ships parted. Krusenstern concentrated on the waters north of Japan while Lisianski went first to Kodiak and then to Southeast Alaska. While in Southeast Alaska waters he determined that Chichagof, Yakobi, Kruzof, and Baranof islands were separate and named them. His voyage also recorded detailed data on the people encountered and places visited.

By 1804, Alexandr Baranov, now manager of the Russian–American Company, had consolidated the company's hold on the American fur trade following his victory over the local Tlingit clan at the Battle of Sitka. Despite these efforts the Russians never fully colonized Alaska.

Before that happened, however, the Russians suffered another serious set-back in Southeast Alaska. This came in 1805 when Yakutat Natives led by Chief Theodore, angered by broken promises and Russian abuse, attacked and destroyed the Russian fort there. The Yakutats charged the Russians with robbing a grave, failing to pay for land, closing streams with fish weirs, taking children to educate them but instead using them for slaves, and abusing Native women. For a long time after this there were no new Russian settlements in Southeast Alaska.

Most of the Russians lived at Sitka, which had become the colonial capital in 1808; 190 of the Russians in Alaska in 1817 were there. With them were 182 Creoles (children of Russian and Native parents) and 248 Aleuts. Two years later a census tallied 378 Russian males, 13 Russian females, 133 Creole males, 111 Creole females, 4,306 Native males, and 4,322 Native females in Alaska. The Natives counted only included Aleuts, Alutiiq Eskimos, and other Natives in the immediate vicinity of Russian settlements. An 1833 census counted 647 Russian males, 83 Russian females, 608 Creole males, 543 Creole females, 4,463 Aleut males, and 4,619 Aleut females. The census-takers estimated there were about 50,000 Natives in Alaska "independent of the administration." Few Russian women went to Alaska and most of those who did lived at Sitka. The Russian population in Alaska reached its peak in 1839 when there were 832 Russians throughout Alaska.

There were never enough Russian workers in Alaska to satisfy the demands of the fur trade. The shortage was not only of actual fur traders, but also of workers for ship-building and other activities that supported the fur trade. Alaska was a long distance from Russia, living conditions were severe, and the Natives were sometimes hostile. Few of the Russians who were free to travel there wished to do so.

New Russian forts were built in the north. This happened because the Russians began to seek the furs of land mammals such as beaver and river otter. Over-hunting had depleted the supply of sea otter furs. To get the furs of land animals, the Russians had to establish posts at which they could trade with the Eskimos and Indians of northern and interior Alaska. In 1819 a new post was established in Yupik Eskimo territory at the mouth of the Nushagak River on Bristol Bay. The fur-traders called the relocated fort New Alexandrovsk. About the same time the Russians built an outlying post on the Copper River near an Ahtna Athabaskan village in the vicinity of what is now Chitina.

The Russian-American Company suffered because of 1821 amendments to its charter which turned over management to the Imperial Russian Navy and banned foreigners from participating in the Alaskan economy. The Russo-American Treaty of 1824, which banned American merchants above 54° 40' north latitude, was widely ignored and the Russians' hold on Alaska weakened further.  It soon entered into the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1825 which allowed British merchants to trade in Alaska. The Convention also settled most of the border between Alaska and British North America. A less important purpose was to develop a fur trade with Stikine Tlingits who occupied a nearby village site that is the location of modern Wrangell.

These first moves to establish interior Alaska fur-trading locations were followed by forts at Saint Michael (on the shore of Bering Sea) between two Eskimo villages in 1833, at Nulato (on the Yukon River) in Athabaskan territory in 1834, and at Kolmakov (about 21 miles upriver on the Kuskokwim from today's Aniak) in 1844. A fur-trading station which had operated at Ikogmiut on the Yukon River between 1836 and 1839 shifted to what is now Old Andreafsky. In 1845 the Ikogmiut location became a Russian Orthodox church mission. Also in the 1840s a retirement village for Russian workers arose at Ninilchik on the east shore of the Kenai Peninsula. Similar settlements grew up near today's Seldovia, Kasilof, and Knik. There, it was thought, the retirees could support the fur trade by farming. In the late 1850s the third largest Russian settlement in Alaska grew near Port Graham on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula at the site of a coal mine. During this time Russian settlements developed in interior and northern Alaska, less permanent fur-trading posts came and went at such places as Holitna, Iliamna, Tyonek.

There were more than 40 Russian exploratory ocean voyages before 1867. Most took place between 1800 and 1850. Many were round-the-world voyages from Kronstadt, a port on the Gulf of Finland not too far from St. Petersburg. The Russians made these voyages for political reasons and to carry goods and people to and from their American colonies. They made a few of the voyages chiefly for scientific purposes, but all of the voyages included these purposes. The voyagers were interested in locating lands previously unknown to them, finding out about ocean currents, and gathering data to make more accurate maps.

The selling of Alaska to the United States did not erase the history of Russian commercial interest in Alaska, and the wreck of Kad'yak is probably just one small part of underwater remains that the Russians have left behind. Kad'yak is the only Russian American Company shipwreck that has certainly been identified, though remains near St. Michael on the Yukon Delta may prove to be those of another Russian American ship, called Politkofsky. Fifty-two Russian wrecks in the North Pacific have also been documented, and of those, roughly 49 have been identified tentatively based on their locations. East Carolina University archaeologists are currently working to identify the sites that are accessible, and they hope to investigate other potential sites connected with the Russian American Company in the future.





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