In 1741, Danish navigator Vitus Bering, in the service of the Russian Empire, made a discovery that sent Siberian hunter-traders sailing far across the North Pacific. His spectacular find was the Alaskan coast. Not until 1779 did the rest of Europe realize the value of Alaska’s resources.
Survivors of Capt. James Cook’s last voyage put docked at Canton, China, with hundreds of sea otter furs obtained in trade from Northwest Coast Indians. The Chinese, accustomed to dealing with Russian traders who knew the value of luxurious pelts, offered a price that astounded Cook’s British sailors. Word spread quickly, precipitating a flood of commercial ships to Alaskan waters. As this interest was developing internationally, the Russians were already building an Alaskan wilderness empire that extended from the Aleutian Islands to Fort Ross, an outpost north of San Francisco.
While the Hudson’s Bay Company was trading in the Canadian north, the Russian-American Company was operating quietly and successfully on America’s Northwest Coast. Alexander Baranov, the first chief manager, headed a lucrative fur enterprise while expanding Imperial Russia’s territory as far down the Pacific coast as Spanish and British forces would tolerate. Baranov’s quest took him from his first headquarters on Kodiak Island southeast to the Tlingit village of Shee Atika, which, in 1804, the Russians replaced with their own settlement, New Archangel (Novo Archangelsk), later called Sitka.
Baranov faced tough problems during the colony’s infancy. Especially trying was the shortage of reliable workers. Aleut natives, virtually forced into slavery, labored under the promyshlenniki, brutal, illiterate Siberian fur hunters. An assassination plot against Baranov, raids by exiled Tlingit, and long hazardous supply lines from the Russian homeland added to his woes. What saved Baranov’s company were the abundant fur seal and sea otter pelts—thick, silky, unsurpassed in quality—that commanded princely sums in China.
New Archangel became the capital of Russian America and a busy port for merchant vessels from all over the world in 1808. In 1817, Baranov boasted that the Russian-American Company was the most important fur dealer in the world, even more profitable than its rival, the Hudson’s Bay Company. By the mid-1830s, Sitka’s population had reached 1,300. Most people lived in damp, crowded quarters and ate meager rations. Company officials ensconced themselves in “Baranov’s Castle,” furnished St. Petersburg-style with a grand piano, fine paintings, and silver samovars. Russian Orthodox clergy under the patronage of the Tsar also resided in the colony. The clergy, beneficiaries of company labor and company money, built schools and chapels to spread the Orthodox faith and Russian culture. Prominent on the Sitka skyline was Saint Michael’s Cathedral, dedicated in 1848. A work of art itself, the cathedral housed valuable gilded icons and displayed a wrought-iron clock handmade by Alaska’s first resident bishop, Ivan Veniaminov (Bishop Innocent). The Russian Bishop's House was completed in 1843. The city’s opulence earned it distinction, in one writer’s words, as the “Paris of the Pacific,” although the glitter was surface-deep and out of reach to most.
As Sitka grew in size and population, over-hunting greatly diminished the number of sea otters and fur seals in the North Pacific. By the 1850s, despite last minute attempts at conservation, the company town that once owed its existence to the fur trade depended instead on a shipyard, sawmills, fish saltery, and an ice-exporting business. The remote colony held less interest for the Russian government. Assuming that the United States—or worse yet, Great Britain—would eventually take over Russian America, the Tsar decided to sell. In 1867, with the sale of Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million, Russia ended its 126-year-old North American enterprise.