Beyond the Moon Crater Myth
A New History of the Aniakchak Landscape
A Historic Resource Study for Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve
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Russian Period (1741-1917)
The sketch is an example of the people with whom Russians made first contact. Woman of Oonalaska [engraved portrait by John Webber of Aleut woman with tattooed face and linked nose labret.] From: Cook, James A. (Captain) 1728-1779, a Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Alaska State Library Collection, PCA 20-226.

1741: A Brave New World Begins

If you would understand Russia, and interpret and forecast aright the march of great events, never forget that, for her, eastward the march of empire takes its way; that as the sap rises, as the sparks fly upward, as the tides follow the moon, so Russia goes to the sunrise.

Henry Norman, All the Russians.
As quoted in Benson Bobrick, East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia (New York: Poseidon Press, 1992).

During their flight to Chignik in 1931, Father Hubbard and his pilots, Harry Blunt and Al Monsen, stopped at the village of Meshik to wait out a storm. The recently blackened landscape, combined with the foreignness of the inhabitants they encountered, probably made the men feel something like William Shakespeare's lost souls in the Tempest, for they, too, might have envisioned this small village, clinging to the edge of the Alaska Peninsula, as "a brave new world."

At Meshik, the three men met with the village residents. After offering a young boy and his tearful sister an orange, Blunt interjected, "Gosh! It makes me feel like Columbus discovering America!" [1] Perhaps flying along the most northwestern part of the North American mainland without seeing any evidence of human occupation upon the flat, lake-studded tundra made Blunt feel as if he were the first to lay eyes upon this world. But Hubbard knew he was neither the first explorer nor scientist, not even the first priest, to visit the Alutiit living in this region.

In Alaskan Odyssey, the Glacier Priest described the small village. Subtly underscoring his description were nearly two hundred years of cultural change that had previously occurred there since the time of his contact:

Meshik is a small jumble of barabaras, as the native dugouts are called, with here and there a slightly more pretentious wooden cabin as well as a deserted Russian church and empty cannery building. The village lies on a bar with the sand-choked harbor of Port Heiden on one side and a shallow enclosed lagoon on the other. It is practically deserted ever since the flu epidemic of war-time carried off most of its inhabitants. [2]

Long before Hubbard visited the Alutiiq villages of Meshik and Chignik, the indigenous peoples of the Alaska Peninsula had encountered other explorers. The first were the Russians. Some people, including many Alaskans, may find it hard to imagine that the initial European expansion into the North Pacific did not come by way of familiar trails that penetrated the American West, but, instead, followed ancient routes through the Asian Far East. Like Columbus, who connected continents on both shores of the Atlantic Ocean, Vitus Bering linked the Pacific worlds the way the land bridge had 20,000 years ago. Suddenly, a window had reopened and the Alaska Peninsula became a meeting point where various cultures from Europe, Asia, and America intersected. According to Lydia Black, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the founding of Russian America was a natural result of Russia's conquest of Siberia and its eastward drive to meet the Pacific.

To a government whose most important source of imperial revenue came from furs, Alaska was "a brave new world." Its discovery gave Russia a foothold along the northwest coast of North America and catapulted this onetime backward empire into the international world of diplomacy, especially in the North Pacific arena. [3] But it became a new world for Native Alaskans, too. The fur trade transformed identity, language, culture, religion, and people's relationship to the natural world. And, from this new world, emerged a diverse and intermingled cultural heritage. Although the Aniakchak region lay on the periphery of the Russian enterprise in southwestern Alaska, the Russian America fur trade nonetheless shaped the people and their cultures of the Alaska Peninsula as dramatically—and as perilously—as Aniakchak Volcano shaped the landscape.

Father Hubbard investigating an Aleut house on Kodiak Island. A similar house style would have been built on the central Alaska Peninsula. 1928. Bernard Hubbard, S.J., Alaskan Photograph Collection. Photograph courtesy of Santa Clara University Archives. H210n.

East of the Sun

The quest that took Russians eastward was not simply for enlightened discovery or nationalistic glory, for the Russians looked north in search of new lands to settle and new opportunities to exploit. Just two years after Columbus discovered North America, the Russians began to penetrate and expand into Siberia on a two-pronged route. Over two centuries, Russians moved south into the Amur River Basin, while other Russian explorers entered the northern region of the Kamchatka Peninsula. The southern route offered the best chance to establish agriculture and access the Pacific, but there the Russians confronted the Manchus, rulers of Imperial China, who guarded the northern border of Manchuria ferociously. As a result, the Russians turned north, considering the Kamchatka prong their window to the Pacific. The problem with the northern route, however, was that the taiga, or the Siberian tundra, could not support agriculture. As Russia's territory expanded into Alaska, this factor became a growing concern. [4]

Russian advancement beyond the Urals and their eventual conquest of Siberia followed a pattern of interaction extending back many centuries. This process of expansion was conducted through a long-established institution called the iasak system—a systematic collection of tribute in the form of furs. [5] Exchange between the conquerors and the conquered was well understood among all Siberian cultures. For example, Russians paid iasak to the Mongols after the Mongols conquered Moscow in the thirteenth century. The Mongols also extracted iasak from most of the Siberian tribes. Those tribes, when gaining dominance over their neighbors, in turn followed the same practice. [6] The delivery of the iasak signified submission to the higher authority, and as the Russian Empire grew, the collection of the iasak became the most important method of obtaining state revenues.

By the fourteenth century, northern settlers explored, hunted, and fished Siberia's arctic coast, but most Russians extracted Siberia's natural resources through the iasak system, which brought them into direct contact with Siberia's indigenous peoples. Not surprisingly, this system was frequently described as brutal. Often Russians took family members hostages, to coerce Siberian hunters into compliance. In some respects, especially in their relations with Alaska Natives, Russian fur hunters transported aspects of an old, well-established system to the new American world. But what the Crown understood, and its policies would later underscore, was that barbarity was not consistently profitable.

Thus, similar to New England or the Great Lakes region, or any other place where colonists interacted with indigenous peoples, the central Alaska Peninsula became a shared space between Russians and Alutiit that developed during the fur trade era. At first, relations forged during a period that ran approximately from 1761 to 1780 were marked by brutality, theft, slavery, and oppressive taxation, for the Russians lacked central control, and instability led to a great deal of violent conflict. By 1780, however, a new era commenced, one characterized by consolidation and relative cooperation between Russians and Alutiit. Although acts of violence between the promyshlenniki and the Alutiit continued through the era, after 1799, the Russian relationship with the majority of the Native groups in Russian America was increasingly determined by the desire to develop cooperative, continuous, uninterrupted trade. [7]

Drawing of two traders holding a fish; probably Russian and English; ship and seals on left. Alaska State Library Collection, PCA 20-177.

First Contact: 1741 to 1761

In 1740, Alutiit lived on the peninsula as they had done for centuries—subsisting upon resources from both land and sea. Bering's famed second Kamchatka Expedition the following year would set into motion forces of change that completely altered their world. In 1740, Alaska stood on the brink of a new era.

The stage for such monumental change was set during Bering's return trip home, as the crew of the eighty-foot packet, the St. Peter, sailed down the length of the Alaska Peninsula in the silence and solitude of a fog-bound ocean. They passed the entire length of Kodiak Island without anyone seeing it. Similarly, no one observed the broken flanks of the Aniakchak Caldera. But toward evening on August 1, 1740, the mist began to lift. On August 3, crewmen saw the snow-clad peak of Mt. Chiginagak, a volcano located just north of Aniakchak. The next day the St. Peter sailed among the Semidi Islands, so dense that the naturalist, Georg Steller, observed that the ship seemed to be hemmed in by land. "Wherever we wanted to get out," noted the naturalist, "we found land in the way." [8] Anxious to get to open water, the officers decided to sail farther south, hoping for fair winds.

But with little fresh food and exposure to constant dampness, scurvy had broken out among twenty-one crewmembers, forcing the St. Peter to drop anchor in the narrow strait between Nagai and Near islands in the Shumagin Island group, located off the coast of the Alaska Peninsula, just south of Chignik Bay. After burying their dead and filling their casks with brackish water that made the crew even sicker, the ill-fated St. Peter steered for open sea, but the breeze died down and the ship failed to clear the island. Stuck, the St. Peter dropped the bower behind Bird Island. "Here the event occurred," Steller wrote in his journal, "through which, unexpectedly and without searching, we got to see Americans." [9]

"We all waited for them with the greatest eagerness and utter amazement," wrote Steller as men in two slender skin boats paddled toward them from shore. [10] Pausing a short distance away, the paddlers commenced trade with the strangers. From their baidarkas, the "Americans" threw "feathered sticks" and "face paint" to the Russians while the sailors returned the "sign of good friendship" with "two Chinese tobacco pipes" and "some glass beads." [11] This ceremonial exchange marked the beginning of the Russian trade economy in Northwestern America.

After an exchange of numerous gifts, the Native paddlers beckoned the Russians to follow. Lieutenant Sven Waxell; Steller; a Chukchi interpreter, who was present to communicate with indigenous peoples in Siberia; and nine other heavily armed crewmen rowed the longboat to shore. [12] While on the beach, the Russians encountered men and women, who were "full of wonder and friendliness." [13] One elderly man, who carried his kayak one-handed, approached Lieutenant Waxell. The lieutenant offered the man a sip of vodka by demonstrating that the drink was palatable, but the American spat it out. [14] With only fifteen minutes to observe each other, Steller's journal entry for that day captured the earliest known description of an Alaska Native, who occupied the southern tip of the Alaska Peninsula just south of Aniakchak:

All had on whale-gut shirts with sleeves, very nearly sewed together, which reached to the calf of the leg. Some had the shirts tied below the navel with a string, but others wore them loose. Two of them had on boots and trousers which seemed to be made after the fashion of the Kamchadals out of seal leather and dyed brownish-red with alder bark. [15]

These people regard it as a special ornament to pierce holes anywhere in their faces, as we do in the lobes of the ears, and to insert in them various sticks and bones. One fellow had stuck a slate . . . through the nasal septum. Another had a piece of bone stuck through crosswise about the chin just under the lower lip. Still another had a bone like it fastened in the fore head, and another, finally, had a similar one in each of the wings of the nose. [16]

As the wind and surf pounded harder against the shore, Waxell ordered his crewmen back to the boat. According to Steller, the Americans were reluctant to let go of their Chukchi companion, "whose speech and looks fully resembled theirs." [17] Failing to induce the Siberian to remain, the Americans seized him, which caused a struggle among the men. Fearing the worst, Waxell ordered two musket shots fired into the air. The boom thundered off the cliffs, sending the terrified Americans to the ground. The sound of gunfire, heard on the Alaska Peninsula that day for the first time, would echo throughout southwestern Alaska for the next century. [18]

The eight days the St. Peter spent in the Shumagin Islands sealed the fate of this now infamous crew. Autumn storms had arrived, and their gale-force winds tossed the ship in a constant fury, adding misery to the men inflicted with scurvy. Death, one after the next, turned Pacific waves to graves. Following the snowy volcanic peaks of the Aleutian Chain, williwaw winds, localized, but fierce North Pacific storms, continually struck them, one more terrible than the next. "Our ship was like a piece of dead wood," wrote Waxell, "we had to drift hither and thither at the whim of the wind and waves." [19] By the end of October, no crewman was well enough to steer the ship.

Realizing they could not make it to Russia, the crew wintered on an unknown island that they eventually named Bering Island, after their captain, who died and was buried in its rocky soil on December 8, 1741. During their eight-month stay on the island, the men survived by consuming a "large group of sea otters" Steller observed of them, "Their fearlessness was proof that they had never seen man before." [20] By March, the sea otters moved offshore, but were soon replaced by fur seals. Luckily for the men, the expedition had stranded itself on one of the major rookeries of the northern fur seal. [21] Along with the fur seals, sea lions also came, and as the men recovered from scurvy, they ventured out to hunt several young sea cows, which they considered a real delicacy. Improved health even allowed the men to kill the pesky Arctic foxes that harassed them ceaselessly. [22]

Those who survived the tempest of the North Pacific and the long winter on Bering Island returned to Kamchatka with some nine hundred pelts of sea otter, fur seal, and blue Arctic fox, killed for food and clothing. [23] The pelts from these fur-bearing animals commanded very high prices from Chinese merchants in Kiakhta, a trading post on the Siberian-Mongolian border south of Lake Baikal. Word spread that these "American" pelts were more valuable than the Siberian sable, which two centuries earlier had drawn the Russians across Siberia in their "Urge to the Sea." [24] Thus, these two events—the ceremonial trade conducted with the "Americans" and the luxuriant goods Bering's crew sold in China—initiated a rush for American furs that would completely transform Aniakchak's living world.

Drawing of a fur seal, sea lion and sea cow on Waxel's chart of Bering's voyage, 1741. From: Golder, Frank Alfred, Bering's Voyages. Alaska State Library Collection, PCA 20-182.

Native Peoples of the Alaska Peninsula At the Time of Contact: 1761

In the early years of the Fur Rush, the closest Russian landfall to the central peninsula occurred in 1761, when the merchant ship, the 62-foot Sv. Gavril wintered in Bechevin Bay, establishing for the first time a long-term European presence on the Alaska Peninsula. About two years later, Russian promyshlenniki sailed past the northwest flanks of Aniakchak Crater, and into the north side of Bristol Bay, where they established private trade networks with Yupiik residents of the Nushagak River. [25]

At the time of contact, most Alutiiq inhabitants of the Alaska Peninsula lived in a number of small settlements in which they resided during their seasonal hunting and fishing rounds. It is very likely that people frequented the Aniakchak region, moving from coast to coast, from one seasonal site to the next. [26]

Early Russians reported that the Alutiit living on the north end of the peninsula regularly traveled to Sutwik and Semidi islands to hunt or make war on southern tribes. Quite possibly, these warrior-hunters stopped to rest or wait out a storm in the protected Kujulik and Aniakchak bays. Alutiit living on Chignik Lagoon used the Aniakchak coastline as part of their customary hunting and fishing grounds. [27] On the Bering Sea, Russians noted that a group of Alutiit, known as the Ugashentsy, lived along the Ugashik River and traveled across the peninsula to the Pacific side to hunt abundant sea mammals, skirting, if not entering, Aniakchak along the way. [28]

By 1761, when the promyshlenniki reached the Alaska Peninsula, they found a variety of people all speaking different languages. Besides the Alutiiq speakers, who occupied most of the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island, there were three other ethnic groups who called the peninsula home. The Unangan speakers lived offshore of the Shumagin Islands, and shared a similar language and culture with their Aleutian Island neighbors. In the northeast section of the Alaska Peninsula, lived Dena'ina Athabaskan Indians, an inland people who had moved into the region approximately 1,000 years earlier. [29] Finally, the Yupiik-speaking Kiatagmiut, as well as the more recent Aglurmiut, occupied the northwestern portion of the peninsula near Bristol Bay. [30]

The Russians responded to such diversity by simply renaming the people they encountered. Promyshlenniki and missionaries called the Alaska Peninsula Aliaksa and referred to those people who lived there as Aliaksintsy, meaning Alaskans. [31] They also called many Alutiit "Americans," a term they used to designate all indigenous peoples they encountered in their New World dominion. As the fur trade moved beyond the Aleutians, Russians assigned the catchall term Aleut to both the Unangan and Alutiiq speakers, modifying each group with a geographic adjective. Thus, those people living on Kodiak Island and the Alaska and Kenai peninsulas became known as Koniag Aleut. As Russian expansion spread northward, missionaries and traders even began to call the peoples bordering Bristol Bay Aleuts. [32] Not only did the idiom create confusion for anthropologists attempting to sort out the ethnographic history on the peninsula for years to come, but the name Aleut eventually changed people's self-identity, as well. To this day, many people of the Alaska Peninsula refer to themselves as Aleuts, for the term "Alutiiq" is simply the word Aleut, spoken in the Native language. [33]

According to both Native and Russian accounts, the various ethnic groups living on the Alaska Peninsula were anything but unified. For the most part, they were all bitter enemies, defending their territory, while attacking regions occupied by other groups. Oral tradition offers evidence that Dena'ina warriors waged war on other peninsula groups living as far south as Lake Becharof, [34] while Aleuts frequently fought against their enemies—the Alutiit of Kodiak Island. Kodiak Alutiit even battled their own kin, who inhabited coastal areas on the Alaska Peninsula.

Sketches of two Baidarkas (skin boats); top shows Aleut man with spear, bottom shows three Aleuts rowing. From: Sarychev, Gavrill Andreevich, Atlas of the Northern Part of the Pacific Ocean compiled in sheets by the Imperial Navy Department from the latest reports and maps, 1826. Alaska State Library Collection, PCA 20-56.

Many Yupiik stories discuss a time shortly before the Russians arrived when peninsula people were pushed southward and inland by invading Yupiit from the north. Russian reports concur, for in the 1830s, Russian American Chief Manager Wrangell explained how the Aglurmiut, who were themselves displaced by their enemies, the Kuskokwim, invaded the Ugashentsy and forced them to flee from the Nushagak River:

The Agolegmiuts [Aglurmiut] and the Kuskokvim [Kuskokwim] are enemies, since the former were driven from their homes on the banks of the Kuksokvim...they finally moved away to Nunivok [Nunivak] Island and another island at the mouth of the Nushagak, where they settled under the protection of the commander of the [Novo] Aleksandrovskii Redoubt and were safe guarded from the attacks of the Kuksokvim . . . For their part, the Agolemiuts expelled the natives living at the mouth of the Nushagak, and these wandered as far as the eastern half of the Aliaska Peninsula and are now known as the Severnovtsy (Northerners) and Ugashentsy [35]

Stories, told and retold, described how the roving bands of Aglurmiut men terrorized western Alaska. Moving down the peninsula toward Chignik Bay, the invasion eventually involved most of the various ethic groups on the peninsula—Alutiiq, Aleuts, and Yupiik all engaged in regional warfare. If one were to view such conflict from the perspective of the local tribes, they might describe it as a kind of world war. [36] Despite battle, displacement, and drawn boundaries, Alutiit and Yupiik seemingly interacted and the phenomenon of cultural borrowing grew. When the Russians arrived, they noted a strong connection between Ugashik and Katmai people, as well as between Ugashik and Nushagak people. In 1897, according to Russian observers, the Orthodox community of Chignik consisted of Creoles, Aleuts [Alutiit] and Aglomiuts." Such records indicate a lasting influence of the Yupiik invaders, and demonstrate that during times of peace or war, human cultures seldom remain static. [37]

In the days prior to contact, trade went hand in hand with warfare. For instance, slaves, taken in war from Unangan, Dena'ina, or Yupiik, could be bought and sold, given as gifts, or bartered back to their original villages. [38] Significantly, inhabitants of Alutiiq settlements maintained affiliations with former allies, and, therefore, established relationships necessary for trade. From the Alaska Peninsula, people exchanged sinew and caribou skin for amber and bone ornaments, which they received from the Koniags from Kodiak Island. [39] Through extensive trade routes that reached far into the interior and along the Northwest coast, Alaska Peninsula groups were even able to obtain items such as the highly valued dentalium shells and pearls from Dena'ina middlemen. [40]

Such widespread trade was apparent when the crew of the St. Peter encountered the Aleuts of the Shumagins. Stunned, Steller recorded in his journal that two of the men carried "a long iron knife in a sheath of very poor workmanship." The naturalist observed that "it was of iron, and besides that, it was not like any European product." Steller reasoned, "Either the Americans had iron ore and knew how to smelt and work it, or they had traded the knives from the Chukchis." [41] Thus, the Alutiiq desire to acquire luxury goods was not a phenomenon restricted to the contact period, for it was also a characteristic trait of late prehistoric Alutiiq society. [42]

Besides warriors and traders, the people the Russians encountered were extraordinary sea mammal hunters. Alutiiq hunters donned elaborate bentwood head gear that they intended would transform them into master seamen, capable of braving the ocean and its dangers. The helmets masked the hunter's human identity from his prey, and at the same time, exhibited an ingenious work of art. [43] Decoys, made out of the same animal, were cleverly used to hunt seals. [44] The skin sea kayak, or bidarka, however, was arguably the most important piece of technology used by the sea mammal hunters. Like the Aleuts of the Aleutian Islands, the Alutiit impressed Russian observers with their skill in building, maneuvering, and hunting from these boats. [45] As the Russians quickly learned, the people of the Aleutians, the Alaska Peninsula, and Kodiak Island were the best hunters of sea otters in the world. [46] Numerous accounts by visitors acknowledged the Alutiit mastery of the sea. Hieromonk Gideon, an Orthodox official sent to report on Russian America in 1803, described the methods used by Kodiak Islanders to hunt sea otters:

The first man who sights a sea otter signals the others by lifting his paddle. The others try to encircle the place at a distance within range of their spears. Only those who occupy the forward hatches throw the spears, everyone at will, before each other, while those in the rear hatches maneuver the baidarkas. Sometimes the sea otter is hit by two spears and in such a case the carcass belongs to the hunter whose spear struck the animal closer to the head or above the other spear. If the spears are spaced evenly, then that hunter receives the sea otter who, before commencement to shoot, uttered the cry: "Ku-ko-ko!" [47]

When the Russians arrived on the peninsula, they encountered a people with a highly organized social structure. For spiritual guidance, communities followed three specialists: the shaman, a healer, and a wise man, all of whom mediated between the complex human and spiritual realms. [48] Politically, no region-wide territorial government existed on the Alaska Peninsula. The village was the basic political unit, where each family was represented by an anayugak. The anayugak ruled by maintaining respect as a skilled hunter and warrior. He was known to be a persuasive speaker and was responsible for amassing and redistributing wealth through gifts and rewards. Women, too, had the means to wield power. Some of the girls were even raised as boys, which entitled them to participate in councils of men. Others were trained as shamans and maintained important positions in society. [49] Russian visitors also noted that Alutiiq children exercised power over their parents, for when they cried, children were usually given everything they needed or wanted. Accordingly, parents never struck children; they exerted control through lecturing and shaming. [50]

Thus, when the Russians arrived on the Alaska Peninsula in the 1760s, a people with a complex understanding of how they fit in the universe, met them. As the Russians observed, residents maintained a deep, comprehensive relationship with their surrounding environment. Yet, these were not a people living in a utopian world. Even before they encountered the Russians, the people of the Alaska Peninsula had experienced ethnic conflict, cultural aggression, and social displacement. They had developed a strong tradition of barter among themselves and with interior groups. Communities respected strong leadership in the human world and feared those with wisdom of the spirit world. They were deadly warriors, stealthy hunters, and loving parents. And, in many respects, the Russians did not have to introduce or initiate unfamiliar trade activity in order to meet their economic demands. Rather, the newcomers had to simply intensify practices already in place. [51]

Violent Encounters: 1761-1780

At the time of contact, the combination of profit and politics drove the Russians eastward into Alutiiq territory. This was certainly clear to Georg H. Von Langsdorff, a young Russian naturalist, who observed that:

The constant decrease in the number of sea-otters taken for some years upon the coast of Kamschatka [Kamchatka], and the great advantages derived from the trade in these valuable skins, induced the Russians to extend their possessions eastward from the continent of Asia; first, to the [Aleutian] islands between that coast and America; and finally, to the north-west coast of America itself. [52]

During these early years of expansion, the Russians lacked any kind of central control over their fur operations. Even though, by 1764, forty-two hunting or trading expeditions had embarked from Kamchatka for Alaska, most were organized by small groups of traders and carried out in crude vessels manned by Siberia's commoners. Bering and his crew had shown the way, but the scrimmage for advantage in the North Pacific occurred between individual Russian adventurers and the entrepreneurial promyshlenniki. [53]

Technically speaking, the activities of the promyshlenniki show that these men were not exactly hunters or even traders. They are more accurately described as pelt procurers, for the Russian word promyshlennik is a derivative of promysl—business. [54] Initially, the promyshlenniki captured sea otters without assistance. But because the Russians lacked the skills to hunt the animals from boats, they began to enlist the aid of Natives. To do this, the Russians developed simple trading relationships with the indigenous peoples, but for the most part, the promyshlenniki, far from view of Imperial authorities, coerced Alutiiq hunters by taking family members as hostages and, when necessary, used brute force. [55]

Therefore, following familiar patterns established long ago in Siberia, the first promyshlenniki to reach Alaska subdued native communities by forcing them to pay a fur iasak. The iasak system stemmed not only from the backwardness of Russian manufacturing, which consequently, made trade goods low in quantity and high in price, [56] but it was, as Professor Black notes, "a logical outgrowth of patterns established in the Russian homeland from its earliest days." [57] Likewise, James R. Gibson, author of Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods, points out that the actual "trade" in the Russian Fur Trade at this time referred to the exchange of furs between Russian and Chinese merchants, not so much between the Russians and Alaska Natives. [58]

Brutal tactics by these first fur procurers led to a high degree of violence. The Russians may have conscripted a flotilla of indigenous residents to hunt sea otters, but Alaska Natives fought back against Russian intrusion—so much so that they prevented the Russians from establishing permanent hunting camps on the Alaska Peninsula until after the turn of the nineteenth century. [59] One of the worst examples of violent interaction occurred in 1761, when men of the Russian ship, the Sv. Gravil, committed unspeakable and unprovoked atrocities to the Aleuts living on the southern portion of the Alaska Peninsula. Avenging this act, in December 1763, the Aleuts overcame long-time ethnic disagreements and mounted a concerted counter attack. At the outcome of the battle, the Russians had lost four vessels and out of two hundred men, only twelve survived. [60]

Russians reasoned that such a strike demanded revenge. Throughout the next summer, a man named Ivan Solov'iev and his crew attacked several Aleut villages, reportedly killing forty to sixty Aleut men. Moreover, Solov'iev employed a scorched-earth policy, in which he systematically destroyed the Aleuts' weapons, kayaks, and large skin boats, annihilating the villagers' means to subsist. Oral history records this destructive time as the beginning of the end of indigenous sovereignty. According to Professor Black, "the most violent acts committed by the Russians through time have come to be ascribed to this man." [61]

The combination of promyshlenniki autonomy and Native insurgence increased the potential for violent confrontation from Kamchatka to Kodiak. When Empress Catherine the Great took the throne in 1762, she reformed the tribute system by abolishing the hostage system and terminating quotas for pelts. To prevent the destruction of Native cultures, Catherine implemented a policy of maximum isolation, which intended to leave Native peoples in peace. The Czarina also ordered the Orthodox Church to set up churches, schools, and charity programs in Siberia, which would later extend to Russian America. Despite Catherine's enlightened intentions, the policy fell upon deaf ears, for the promyshlenniki needed the Natives to hunt the elusive sea otters, and although Russian goods were of poor quality, the Natives had grown somewhat dependent upon them. [62] Alaska's geographical and political distance from St. Petersburg seemed to epitomize the Russian proverb, "God dwells high, and the tsar is too far." [63]

Russian hunting route along the Central Alaska Peninsula (From Morseth, 2003). By B. Bundy. (click on image for a PDF version)

Era of Consolidation: 1780-1799

As competition between Russian investors in the fur trade intensified, it increased their need for expert hunters, and as a result, relations between Russians and Alutiiq hunters began to shift. Hieromonk Gideon, an observer sent to Russian America by the Czarina, noted that one company was almost wholly reliant upon the skills and products of the Alutiit. Likewise, two Russian inspectors reported, "In chatting with the Aleuts [Alutiit], and in fact with all the Natives, we have come to the conclusion that they are not in slavery to the Company at all, but that in fact the Company itself has become a slave to them." [64] Moreover, supplies came slowly and expensively from Moscow and attempts to develop agriculture continually failed. Undermanned and overextended, the Russians began to depend almost entirely on Native support, making it clear that occupation of Alaska would be impossible without them. [65]

Within just twenty years of the discovery of Alaska, large Russian merchant companies with ties to the Crown had forced out the small independent entrepreneurs from the fur trade. By 1780, only two companies dominated: the Lebedev-Lastochkin Company, which mainly operated in Cook Inlet and the Upper Peninsula, and the Shelikhov-Golikov Company, or the Northeastern Company, under the direction of the Siberian merchant Grigorii Shelikhov.

At first, the shift in power was hardly recognizable. In 1780, Grigorii Shelikhov proposed that the government establish a monopoly modeled after the British Hudson Bay Company. He argued that one company could more efficiently entice the Natives and exploit Alaska's resources, but Catherine the Great, a firm believer in free enterprise and Native enlightenment, turned him down. Shelikhov was all too aware that the destruction of four Russian vessels by the Aleuts in 1763 contributed to the downfall of some notable fur traders, and consequently believed the Russian government needed permanent and orderly fur trading bases in Alaska. [66] Because the Czarina only administered a proclamation and provided no imperial military presence to back it up, Shelikhov ignored Catherine's policies toward the Natives and set out to establish a base on Kodiak Island by way of force.

In 1785, at a conference with all the mariners of his company in attendance, Shelikhov adopted a policy known as "The Resolution," which, for the first time, outlined perceived problems regarding interactions between the Russians and the Native population. [67] To understand the relationship between the Russians and Alaska's indigenous peoples during these early years, it is important to remember that Shelikhov's men lacked strength. Many new arrivals to the new world died from disease or exposure to the elements, and those who did not die were often weak from malnourishment. At the same time, tradable goods from Russia were slow to come or never came at all, making trade relations with the Alutiit more difficult. Moreover, the Alutiiq on Kodiak Island greatly outnumbered the Russians. [68] In this so-called Resolution, mariners, who feared to live even with friendly Kodiak people, agreed that emphasis should be placed on establishing relations with Natives for "bargaining" and to "subdue [them] into citizenship of the Russian Empire." Shelikhov called this approach "reconciliations." [69]

To achieve successful and safe bargaining relations, Shelikhov knew that first, "with difficulty and great battles," they had "to conquer the Native." [70] Thus, shortly after they arrived on Kodiak in 1784, Shelikhov's men used cannons and muskets to attack hundreds of men, women, and children who had fled to Refuge Rock on Sitkalidak Island, just off Kodiak. Alutiiq elder Arsenti Aminak recounted the massacre in 1851:

The Russians went to the settlement and carried out a terrible blood bath. Only a few [people] were able to flee to Angyahtalek in baidarkas; 300 Koniags were shot by the Russians. This happened in April. When our people revisited the place in the summer the stench of the corpses lying on the shore polluted the air so badly that none could stay there, and since then the island has been uninhabited. After this every chief had to surrender his children as hostages; I was saved only by my father's begging and many sea otter pelts. [71]

Over the next several years, Shelikhov's men continued to coerce more Alaska Natives under the authority of the Russian Empire. Any show of rebellion was thwarted with use of weapons, terror tactics, and hostage taking. In a telling document written in 1786, Shelikhov instructed his chief manager, Konstantine Alekseevich Samoilov, on how to deal with those people already pacified:

...Add as many of the local pacified natives as possible to strengthen the Russians. In this manner we can move faster along the shore of the American mainland to the south toward California ... With the strengthening of the Russian companies in this land, try by giving them all possible favors to bring into subjection to the Russian Imperial Throne the Kykhtat, Aliaksa, Kinai and Chugach people.

...Appoint khaskaks and set by their own free will the amount of iasak to be paid into the treasury so that it will not be a burden to them. They should be made to understand that if they are good subjects and pay this tax, they will have the protection of Her Imperial majesty. The best of the natives should be given presents from the company's stock, according to their influence.

...When the above mentioned natives are subjugated, every one of them must be told that people who are loyal and reliable will prosper under the rule of our Empress, but that all rebels will be totally exterminated by Her strong hand. The purpose of our institutions whose aim is to bring good to all people, should be made known to them. They must be told to stop wars and robbery among themselves, murderous plotting against the Russians.

...You must see that the inhabitants who become subjugated do not lack food and clothing, as are apt to happen due to their laziness and negligence. Before we came they were living in poor conditions due to their profligacy and laziness. After they know what good housekeeping and order are they will acquire a taste for a better life and will become ambitious and quit their licentious and willful ways. When they know a better way of living, they will understand and will take part in the work that enlightened people are doing. [72]

To orchestrate the incorporation of Alaska hunters into the fur trade, Russians introduced a new social position to the Native community, called a tuyuq. Russian agents appointed toions (plural for tuyuq) from among the respected leaders, or anayugaks. Their role was to influence or convince their fellow villagers to work for the Company. Accordingly, the Russians aimed to model the toions on traditional Alutiiq leadership positions. [73] But because the anayugak led individual families, not entire villages, the toions enjoyed a different type of authority and power than their predecessors. Under the Russian system, the tuyuq represented the entire village. The tuyuq negotiated the fate of hostages and chose and sent the required number of hunters on each trip. The toions received the trade goods at the end of the season and redistributed them throughout the village. Certainly, a tuyuq was needed to organize sea mammal hunting parties that prowled the shores of Aniakchak.

In 1788, Shelikhov addressed Catherine the Great directly and petitioned her to grant his company a request for financial and military support. Although Shelikhov understood that brutality undermined lucrative barter and instructed his men to show restraint and some kindness toward the Native inhabitants, his company's activities appalled the Czarina. Since she prohibited iasak collection long ago, the Empress wished to know on what basis the company had been collecting iasak. Not only did Catherine refuse Shelikhov's requests, but she ordered an investigation into the Company's activities. Charges of misconduct and brutality toward the Natives were lodged by Orthodox missionaries against Shelikhov and his men. Clearly, the Empress had grave doubts about expansionist aims into the Pacific: "It's one thing to trade," remarked Catherine, "quite a different thing to take possession." [74]

In 1795, Grigorii Shelikhov died, and his company took direction from his wife, Natalia, while Aleksandr Baranov, who had taken over as the company's manager in 1790, remained head of the company's day-to-day organization. Between 1741 and 1798, the Russians sent pelts from over 400,000 seals, 96,000 sea otters, and 102,000 foxes back to Russia. Perhaps because Russian America represented great wealth, four years after Shelikhov's death, the new Russian Emperor Paul I, granted the monopoly for the Russian American fur trade to Shelikhov's heirs. With the grant, all remaining fur operations in Alaska consolidated with the Shelikhov Company, forming the aptly called Russian-American Company in 1799. [75] Although it never held judicial powers, the Russian-American Company effectively became the governing body of Russia's American Territories. The new company had the right to explore and occupy newly discovered lands in the name of Russia, to establish settlements where needed, and engage in commerce with all nearby powers. Moreover, the Imperial Government authorized the Navy to use its forces to support the Company's needs. [76] Like the British East India Company, the Russian-American Company was a thinly masked imperial enterprise calling itself a trading company. [77]

Until 1799, the Native communities outside Kodiak had preserved much of their political independence by playing Shelikhov's company off against its main competitor, the Lebedev-Lastochkin Company, as well as other, smaller, entrepreneurial traders. But when Shelikhov eliminated the competition and set out to monopolize the fur trade, those groups living outside Kodiak, especially those groups living on the Alaska Peninsula, had little room to maneuver, and political independence was lost to all peoples within the immediate control of the Company. [78] "From that point on," contends ethnographer Michele Morseth, "Alaska Natives had to deal with only one set of intruders." [79] Still, with consolidation of the fur trade under one company, trade goods improved and violence and conflict subsided. Although the Russians exploited and irreparably disrupted indigenous lifeways, the merger of these two groups undoubtedly created new systems and understandings. Thus, in the enclaves of the Russian fur trade, people—both Russians and Natives—began to adapt to the new world that together they had created.

A New World For All: Russian and Alutiiq Relations in Aniakchak: 1799 to 1818

In the book, New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America, historian Colin Calloway notes that after 1492, the Americas not only became a "New World" to the Europeans, but over time, encounters and exchanges between Indians and Europeans transformed the cultural landscape into a "New World" for its indigenous peoples as well. [80] The same can be said for Alaska after 1741. As Russians and Alaska Natives began to inhabit the same land, Aniakchak, too, became a New World for all.

As Shelikhov's old company continued to "reconcile" Native inhabitants, it expanded operations to the Alaska Peninsula, including the establishment of fur hunting camps, or artels, near Aniakchak. In 1798, Baranov ordered his men to build an odinochka, or a one-man trading post, at Sutkhum, located on or near Cape Kumliun on the southern shores of Kujulik Bay. He may have established another on Sutwik Island. [81] Artels or work crews stationed there serviced these odinochkas. Compared to the Kodiak and Katmai settlements, the Sutkhum odinochka was never more than a minor outpost of the Russian-American Company. Almost as soon as he ordered the post built, Baranov wrote in 1800 that "only a few men are sent to Sutkhum way to hunt birds as there are not as many of them there as formerly." [82]

Little information is known about daily life at Sutkhum, but researchers do know that both Russian and Native peoples were associated with the artels. Not only were these work stations the mainstays of the Russian-American economy, but artels, including the one that worked at Sutkhum, combined various Alaska Native peoples, which included both men and women, and through their everyday interactions, the artels became the stage on which a integrated Russian-American society and culture emerged.

The purpose of the Sutkhum artel was to supply the seasonal sea otter and seabird hunts at nearby islands. [83] As with Shelikhov, in Baranov's colonial labor system, Alutiit men were forced to join hunting parties commanded by Russian foremen, or a baidarshchik. [84] Hunting parties mixed together one-time enemies, Aleut, and Alutiiq, from various parts of the Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak, and Prince William Sound. Gradually, inter-tribal conflict began to cease under pressure by the Russians, who left these traditional warriors with no time for battle. Also practiced during the Baranov era, although expressly forbidden by the Imperial government, was the removal of large numbers of people from one ethnic area and their relocation to another. The Russians resettled Eastern Aleuts and Kodiak Islanders to places such as the Shumagins, the Pribilofs, and to outposts like Sutkhum on the Alaska Peninsula, while Aleuts and Alutiit were brought to the Chugach area and eventually into Tlingit territory. [85] With the advent of the Russian American fur trade, Yupiit, Aleuts, and Alutiit came to know each other more than ever before. [86] Sutkhum had become a meeting place for hunting parties from Unalaska and Kodiak who now scoured the Alaska Peninsula coast and islands—instead of each other. [87]

Beginning in March, several groups of hunters, under the leadership of a Russian baidarshchik, paddled to different areas each year. Those groups, who hunted near the shores of Aniakchak, headed west from Kodiak towards the Shumagin Islands via Tugidak, Chirkof, Semidi, and Sutwik islands, and then along the Alaska Peninsula coast to Cape Kumliun, where the Sutkhum artel was located. [88] Hunting parties at times consisted of about 150 baidarkas. Because of rough seas and ceaseless winds, only the best hunters with well-built baidarkas made the long and dangerous crossing from Tugidak to Chirkof and across to Sutkhum [89] And indeed, many never survived.

If men of the village were either too young or too old to hunt sea otters, then Shelikhov and later Baronov drafted them to hunt birds. Beginning in early May, bird hunting parties, consisting of about 100 men, left Sutkhum for the Alaska Peninsula in large, skin-covered rowing boats. The Company supplied the parties with tobacco, guns, gunpowder, lead, axes, and kettles. A skilled hunter caught 300 to 500 birds, which the women at the artel sewed into parkas. [90]

The small Alutiiq villages that once facilitated hunter-gatherer seasonal rounds during pre-contact times gradually disappeared, as people converged near artel settlements. Initially, Russians brought only hunters and servants from Kodiak to work in the artel. Even as late as 1803, the Russian researcher Gavril Ivanovich Davydov reported that "the Sutkhum artel was made up entirely of Kodiak Natives, and that there was no settlement of non-employees nearby." [91] Soon thereafter, however, some Alutiiq families had moved to Sutkhum where it was reported that a Russian Orthodox chapel once stood. [92]

As previously mentioned, in the first few decades of the Russian-American fur trade, Russians obtained these male hunters and female workers by force. But with an improvement in the quality of trade goods, by the early 1800s, hostage taking became unnecessary. The Alutiit rarely rebelled, and in fact, Patricia Partnow notes that the Alutiiq peoples of the Alaska Peninsula "had come to depend on and enjoy the goods they received in exchange for animal pelts or hard labor." [93] Sometimes hunters received Europeans goods such as sugar, tobacco, knives, and alcohol. [94] Alutiiq women quickly enhanced their status through luxury goods like needles, cloth, thimbles, glass beads, kettle pots, ceramic dishes, and even western style dresses. The acquisition of material items meant social prestige for themselves, their families, and their children. [95] But what the Russians really altered during this time of transition was how people acquired traditional supplies. With their incorporation into the Russian-American Company's economic sphere, Native people received items they would have normally made on their own had they not been working for the Company—items such as bird skin parkas, sealskins, and nets. [96]

After the turn of the century, the Russian American fur trade was as much a social and cultural complex as it was an economic activity. The Russians needed Natives for food, technology, labor, and also for companionship. [97] If the Sutkhum artel was similar to other Russian artels, when the Native men left the community to hunt, their absence from the community provided the Alutiiq women working there the opportunity to enhance their status and family resources through other means of exchange. The arrival of families meant that women lived at the Sutkhum artel where, contrary to popular belief, Native women facilitated trade that occurred within the post and likely maintained some measure of control within the community. [98] Russian reports note that while all able-bodied Alutiiq men between the ages of 18 and 50 were conscripted to hunt for the Company, the women continued their regular tasks of sewing mats and baskets, gathering berries and roots, processing skins into clothing, and procuring and preparing smoked and dried salmon to supply both the Company hunting parties and the artel community. [99] Even in 1890, after Russia sold Alaska to the United States, U.S. census taker Ivan Petroff noticed that women participated in the fur trade: "From their village, the hunters proceed to some lonely cast near the hunting-ground, either in their canoes or by schooners and sloops belonging to the trading firms, [and] a few women generally accompanied the party to do the housework in the camp." [100]

According to Petroff, Aleutian hunters initially believed that sea otters possessed an aversion to females, but with the spread of Orthodox Christianity, the census taker reasoned that most of these beliefs eventually disappeared. Indeed, Petroff notes evidence that women shared work with men at the various fur stations: "The wives and daughters of the sealers linger around the rear of the death-dealing column, reaping a rich harvest of blubber which they carry away on their heads, the luscious oil dripping down their faces and over their garments." [101] Thus, like most staple industries, the fur trade on the Alaska Peninsula generated a distinctive regional way of life that was reflected in patterns of work.

In the groundbreaking book, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870, author Sylvia Van Kirk convincingly shows that even more than the men, Native women welcomed the advent of Western technology, especially items such as kettles, knives, awls, and woolen cloth, that considerably reduced their onerous domestic duties. [102] Thus, it is not surprising that it was in the woman's interest to advance the cause for peaceful and productive trade between Alutiiq hunters and Russian promyshlenniki. Furthermore, as women literally fed participating members of the fur trade through their task as fish processors, traditional divisions of labor became significantly altered. Besides childcare and their daily chores within the artel, Alutiiq women began to include men's jobs into their schedules, such as mending nets, subsistence hunting. Over time, they gained more responsibility and increased their power both at home and in the community. [103]

Women remain important cultural integrators on the central Alaska Peninsula. Sassa Struck at Ugashik, date unknown. Photograph courtesy of the Pilot Point Tribal Council, Ace Griechen Collection.

Besides work and trade, opportunity also came through intermarriage. Throughout North America from the seventeenth century onwards, liaisons between Native American women and fur traders were widespread. [104] To maintain and extend its territorial domain, Russian-American Company charters explicitly encouraged officers to marry Alutiiq women. Researcher Katherine Woodhouse-Beyer contends that traditional Alutiiq women, like the indigenous women of the Canadian fur trade, used intermarriage as a tactic to preserve at least some aspects of their own culture. As Richard White points out, these sexual unions "were a bridge to the middle ground, an adjustment to interracial sex in the fur trade where the initial conceptions of sexual conduct held by each side were reconciled in a new customary relation." [105] These new customary relations, whether taking the form of long-term marriages, or solitary trysts, resulted in the birth of a special class of Russian citizens, the Creoles. [106]

Creoles played a major role in development of life on the Alaska Peninsula. They represented not only a new, mixed ethnic identity, but they also created new conceptions of how people constructed their worldviews. By 1862, one-third of the population was Creole. In Alaska, the Russian-American Company regarded them as full Russian citizens. This meant that the Company educated and later hired the children of Russian men and Alutiiq or Aleut women. Although no evidence suggests that Sutkhum maintained a school, most artels maintained facilities to educate Creole children. Creole children learned the Russian language and heard Russian stories and folktales. Many Creoles worked for the Company as managers and supervisors. These Creole families were supplied with baidarkas, tools, and gardening plots at the Company's expense. [107] Company motives, however, were more ulterior than altruistic. The government believed that providing such benefits would create potentially loyal Russian subjects, and more importantly, a stable workforce for the Russian-American Company. [108]

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the sea otter population around Sutwik Island had declined significantly, a likely reason that Sutkhum did not support a school. Besides sea otters, most other fur bearing mammals throughout the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula had come perilously close to extinction. One permanent victim of the fur trade, the Steller sea cow, was last seen in 1768. In the early 1800s, as fur bearing animals and birds waned, trading interests along the Alaska Peninsula subsided. Company headquarters shifted from Kodiak to Novo-Arkhangel'sk (Sitka), nearly 1000 miles away in Southeast Alaska. Although the Company banned sealing on the Pribilof Islands in an attempt to allow resources to rebound, damage to the region's wildlife was so severe that by the early 1820s, settlers briefly abandoned Sutkhum.

Women remain important cultural integrators on the central Alaska Peninsula. Sassa Struck at Ugashik, date unknown. Photograph courtesy of the Pilot Point Tribal Council, Ace Griechen Collection.

The Russian Fur Trade Ends, A Brave New World Begins: 1818-1867

In 1824, the Sutkhum artel resumed a limited fur harvest. [109] Russian census records for 1825 indicate that in spite of failing resources, thirty adults and eleven children resided in the artel's dilapidated company buildings at Sutkhum. [110] Between 1818 and 1867, the Native people at Sutkhum, as with Alutiit throughout the peninsula, began to experience notable changes in Company policies. In 1821, the Russian-American Company's second charter finally ended the practice of conscripting Alutiiq hunters once and for all. Instead of forcing the Natives to hunt for them, the Russian Crown required that the Company managers pay the hunters for their goods and services. Upon their return, hunters received on average thirty rubles per first grade sea-otter skin. [111] Freedom did not mean independence, however. Alutiiq dependence on the Russians grew even more intense as the second stage of a market economy, characterized by the credit system, appeared on the peninsula.

The second charter ensured that adult hunters had time to feed their families through the winters. This allowed peninsula Alutiit to hunt big game animals such as caribou and bear in the fall, and to trap fox during the winter months. Salmon fishing remained the most important subsistence activity during the summer months. Although the abolishment of slave labor meant that Alutiiq men had the opportunity once again to hunt animals for food and clothing for their families as they had in pre-contact times, many men actually intensified their market hunting. In the Russian period, these one-time subsistence hunters and fishermen gradually began to allocate a percentage of their catch for trade or to pay off debt. Even more significantly, for the first time, Native hunters worked for cash. Partnow, in her study of ethnicity on the Alaska Peninsula, explained how the market incorporation process occurred:

Instead of obtaining just enough furs and meat for his family's clothing and food, each man spent additional time on the trapline to bring in dozens of pelts, decreasing his available time to obtain subsistence food. As a result, he needed money to buy food and goods to help his family subsist through the year. Nor did he have time to make his own snares and traps, depending instead on company-owned metal traps issued at the beginning of each season on credit. The "Free Aleuts" thus started each year owing a portion of their future catch to the company. [112]

The fur trade not only took time away from obtaining animals for food and clothing, but over-hunting forced Native hunters to spend more valuable time traveling to remote areas to find animals that had once been abundant. [113] Over-hunting along the coast not only affected traditional subsistence practice, but it also directly altered the highly complex relationship with nature. Members of Sutkhum's hunting parties must have been traumatized by the numbers of animals killed on coastal islands. From their point of view, Russian hunters continually broke Alutiiq taboos without repercussion, and hunting tours lacked the appropriate ritual, ceremony, or intended respect toward the natural world. The Alutiit not only witnessed the Russians commit acts against the animals' suas that were contradictory to powerful Alutiiq beliefs, but more significantly, they observed that nothing happened to the offenders. This absence of anticipated cause and effect undoubtedly undermined the pre-contact relationship with nature. Over the years, witnessing, as well as participating in such practices, allowed Alutiiq hunters to incorporate a more materialistic view of the natural world.

At the same time that the Alutiit adopted a more pragmatic relationship with the natural world, Russians began to embrace more conservation measures to save it. Although Russian interests had expanded into new territories along the Pacific Northwest coast, the Company was aware of the toll that over-hunting was taking in the Aleutians and on the Alaska Peninsula. In an attempt to restore the fur sea and sea otter populations, conservation practices were implemented in 1828. Such policies limited the number of animals that could be taken per year in a given district. In addition to the rotation of hunting grounds, in specific hunting areas, they prohibited hunters from killing females and pups and traders from obtaining their pelts from Native hunters. Other measures implemented by the Russians were even more drastic and included the prohibition of settlement near sea otter hauling grounds. Russian authorities, for example, moved the entire Aleut population of Sanak Island, one of the most famous sea otter grounds in Alaska, to the Alaska Peninsula, where they settled the village of Belkofski. [114]

Russian leaders also implemented health programs to protect their Native hunters from epidemic diseases. When the Russians came to Alaska, they unknowingly brought diseases that Native people had not encountered. Because they had no natural immunities from ailments such as measles, smallpox or influenza, Alaska Natives died in extraordinarily high numbers with each wave of illness. [115]

Despite the introduction of smallpox vaccine in Alaska in 1808, a smallpox epidemic spread from Kodiak to the Alaska Peninsula between 1836 and 1840, reducing the aboriginal population by as much as one-third. [116] Often lost were the primary caregivers and educators, whose responsibility it was to pass knowledge down to the next generation. As death rapidly claimed seemingly innocent victims, people began to lose faith in their spiritual leaders, the shamans, who lacked the power to cure their loved ones. [117] Using new medicines, the Russians vaccinated willing Natives and finally controlled outbreaks of smallpox and even some venereal diseases. According to Lydia Black, "the lesson was clear and taken to heart...and vaccinations conducted by employees of the company and progressive village chiefs, had found wide acceptance." [118]

In his book Chills and Fever: Health and Disease in the Early History of Alaska, physician and Alaska historian Robert Fortuine argues that by the end of their stay in America, the Russians had developed a "well-thought out system of health care," which extended to Company employees and Alutiit alike. Fortuine suggests that the Russians administered "a well-organized effort that was effectively adapted to the living conditions and geography of Alaska." [119] And as a result, when another small pox epidemic swept most the North American continent in the early 1860s, Alaska escaped, due to the administration of vaccines to Alaska Natives by the Russians. [120]

Despite notable progress in Russian-Native relations and sea mammal conservation, by 1850, Russia began to show signs that its ties to Russian American were crumbling. The Russians had never solved the problem of adequately supplying their American colony with goods and manpower, and this failure, despite effort to the contrary, left them dependent on the indigenous peoples as well as their international rivals. Indeed, Russia's geopolitical position had changed over the last century and a half. By the nineteenth century, Russia no longer had the North Pacific to itself. Although in 1786, it proclaimed imperial sovereignty over an arc extending from the Kuril Islands to the Alaska panhandle, St. Petersburg remained too far away to properly protect its American Territories. The official naval voyages Catherine did actually deploy—the Krenitsyn-Levashev expedition of 1763-4 and later the Billings-Sarychev expedition of 1790-93—were apparently insufficient attempts by the imperial navy to enforce the entire empire.

Children attending school at Pilot Point. Teachers were Florence and Sam Hanson, circa 1920s. Photograph courtesy of the Pilot Point Tribal Council, Ace Griechen Collection.

As early as 1778, Captain James Cook had surveyed the northwestern coast of North American and passed through the Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean. Similarly, by the 1780s, New England merchants, collectively called "Bostonians," started to collect furs from the Tlingit of the northwest coast in exchange for cloth, rum, and guns, the last of which the Tlingit occasionally discharged at Russians. [121] By the mid-nineteenth century, a new emerging power, the United States, seemed destined to dominate North America, as the 1848 war with Mexico had demonstrated.

Six years later, Russia had its own war to worry about. On the other side of the world from Russian America, Imperial Russia engaged in battle with Turkey on the Crimean Peninsula. On the verge of a Russian victory, the war was extended for nearly two years, as France and England joined the Turkish cause. Not only did the Crimean War drain the Russian treasury, it eroded Russia's relationship with England, which eventually dictated to whom the Russians would sell their American Territories. With their loss of the Crimean War, the Russian government gained new interests in their Siberian holdings, which resulted in improved border relations with Manchuria. New treaties signed between the Russian and Chinese empires provided Siberian promyshlenniki with new access to furs in the Amur Region, and a rich agricultural area as a bonus. [122]

American expansion, the opening of the Amur Region to Russians, and the outcome of the Crimean War sealed the fate of Russian America, a colonial experiment that had seemingly run its course. On March 30, 1867, Russia sold all its Alaska land claims to the United States for 7.2 million dollars. Later that year, on October 18, the formal transfer took place, and by nightfall, the American flag flew over what the U.S. Congress named Alaska, a derivative from the Aleut term Alaxaxaq, for the land east of the Aleutians. Russian and American dignitaries never consulted the Alaska Natives about this sale, and for many years, the change in ownership hardly affected Alaska Peninsula Alutiit. Eventually, however, this transfer was felt by both the Native and Creole population, as hordes of newcomers from the south and east came north to exploit Alaska's natural resources. After 1867, the Aniakchak region once again became a symbolic "Brave New World" to American traders, trappers, and cannery men.

Russian Imperial Coat of Arms, date unknown. Alaska State Library, Michael Z. Vinokouroff Photograph Collection, ca. 1880s-1970s. PCA 243-3-009.

Like Shakespeare's heroes, who shipwrecked on Prospero's Island, the Russian story in America began with a ship at sea and a tempestuous storm. By the end of the Russian era, the Alaska Peninsula had become a place where people from diverse cultures had fought, exchanged goods and ideas, and even formed advantageous and loving relationships. Old World imperialism and New World capitalism were important factors, but these global systems remained relatively minor players on the central Alaska Peninsula, for it was the relationships forged between Alutiit and Russians that shaped this story.

Indeed, monopolization by the Russian-American Company altered forever the lives of so many Alaska Natives. Decisions as to where people could live and hunt were determined by the needs and policy of the Company. People became dependent on purchased food and clothing to supplement what they could obtain by hunting and trapping. [123] Division of labor changed, as well as people's relationship to the natural world. Diseases caused population decline, while people's relationship to the spiritual world also became distorted. But what the history of Russians in Alaska clearly shows is that cultural change never meant cultural death.

From the cultural collision between these two worlds, a new, integrated world emerged. As the Russians left and Americans arrived, people living in the central peninsula settled new villages and made their adjustments. In these new villages, people continued to respect the plants and animals, they taught their children the old ways, and elders remained the cultural pundits, passing down their wisdom to younger generations. As Partnow explains, "underlying such cultural persistence was always hope." [124]

The story of Russian America teaches us that Alutiiq culture changed, but important aspects of it recovered, and survived. And, as Americans and their industries moved into the Aniakchak region, they imported more change, but they also brought opportunity. Like Shakespeare's optimistic Miranda, who declared:

O wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in't! [125]

Alaska had become once again a new world for all.


1Father Hubbard, Alaskan Odyssey, 50.

2Ibid., 48.

3John Stephan, The Russian Far East: A History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), 35.

4Ibid., 28.

5Lydia T. Black, The Russians in Alaska, 1732-1867 (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2004), 6.

6Ibid., 6.

7Ibid., xiii.

8Georg Wilhelm Steller, Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741-1742 ed. O.W. Frost (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 81.

9Ibid., 97.

10Ibid., 97.

11Ibid., 98-100.

12Black, Russians in Alaska, 45.

13Corey Ford, Where the Sea Breaks its Back: the Epic Story of Early Naturalist Georg Steller and the Russian Exploration of Alaska (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books, 1966), 101.

14Black, Russians in Alaska, 45.

15Steller, 103.

16Ibid., 106.

17Ibid., 100.

18Ibid., 101.

19Ford, 114.

20Ibid., 122.

21Black, Russians in Alaska, 48.

22Ibid., 48.

23Raymond H. Fisher, "Finding America" in Russian America: the Forgotten Frontier eds. Barbara Sweetland Smith and Redmond Barnett (Washington State Historical Society, 1990), 28.

24Benson Bobrick, East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia (New York: Poseidon Press, 1992), 67-78.

25Morseth, 30.

26Partnow, 37

27Merry Allyn Tuten, A Preliminary Study of Subsistence Activities on the Pacific Coast of the Proposed Aniakchak Caldera National Monument (Cooperative Park Studies Unit, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 1977), 3.

28Partnow, 37.

29Boraas, 7.

38Partnow, 27.

31Ibid., 30.

32Morseth, 5.

33Partnow, 31.

34James Kari, personal communication, 7/2005.

35Wrangell, in Partnow, 37-38.

36Partnow, 44.

37Morseth, 23.

38Ibid., 17.

39Hieromonk Gideon, The Round the World Voyage of Hieromonk Gideon, 1803-1809 trans and eds. Richard Pierce and Lydia Black (Kingston, Ontario: The Limestone Press, 1989), 57.

40Morseth, 20.

41Ford, 102.

42Katherine Woodhouse-Beyer, "Artels and Identities, Gender, Power, and Russian America," in Manifesting Power: Gender and the Interpretation of Power in Archaeology (London: Routledge, 1999), 143.

43Lydia T. Black, Glory Remembered: Wooden Headgear of Alaska Sea Hunters (Alaska State Museums, 1991), 15-16.

44Gideon, 56.

45Partnow, 48.

46James Gibson, Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods: The Maritime Fur Trade of the Northwest Coast, 1785-1841 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992), 14.

47Gideon, 56.

48Partnow, 56.

49Morseth, 16.

50Ibid., 18.

51Gibson, 8.

52Ibid., 12.

33Bobrick, 211.

54Barbara Sweetland Smith, personal communication, 12/10/1004.

55Frank Norris, Isolated Paradise: Katmai and Aniakchak History (Anchorage, AK: National Park Service), 412.

56Gibson, 15.

57Black, Russians in America, 1.

58Gibson, 15.

59Tuten, 16.

60Black, Russians in America, 89.

61Ibid., 89.

62Stephan, 38.

63Black, Russians in America, 165.

64Pavel Golovin, Civil and Savage Encounters: The Worldly Travel Letters of an Imperial Russian Navy Officer 1860-1861 trans Basil Dmytryshyn and E.A.P. Crownhart-Vaughn (Portland: Western Imprints 1983), 138; Gibson, 15.

65James R. Gibson, "Russian Dependence on the Natives of Alaska," in An Alaska Anthology: Interpreting the Past (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 21.

66Tuten, 16; Black, Russians in America, 101.

67Katerina G. Solovjova and Aleksandra A. Vovnyanko, The Fur Rush (Anchorage, AK: Phenix Press, 2002), 58.

68Black, xiii.

69Solovjova and Vovnyanko, 58.

70Ibid., 58.

71Holmberg, in Crowell, 54.

72Richard Pierce, ed. Documents on the History of the Russian-American Company (Kinston, Ontario: The Limestone Press, 1976), 18-19.

73Basil Dmytryshny, E.A.P Crownhart-Vaughan, Thomas Vaughn, Russia's Conquest of Siberia: A Documentary Record 1558-1700 (Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1985), lxxxvii.; Partnow, 67.

74Black, Russians in America, 113.

75Ibid., 102.

76Katherine Arndt, "Consolidation and Expansion: The Russian American Company" in Alaska Geographic: Russian America, Volume 26, Number 4, (1999), 26.

77Woodhouse-Beyer, 134.

78Black, Russians in America, 135.

79Morseth, 31.

80Colin G. Calloway, New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

81Partnow, 75.

82Petr A. Tikhmenev, A History of the Russian American Company trans. Richard Pierce and A. Donnelly (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978), 103.

83Morseth, 38.

84Crowell, 56.

85Black, Russians in America, 130.

86Partnow, 100.

87Morseth, 38.

88Ibid., 36.

89Ibid., 39.

90Ibid., 39.

91Gavrill Davydov, Two Voyages to Russian America, 1802-1807 ed. Richard Pierce (Kingston, Ontario: The Limestone Press, 1977), 192-193.

92Morseth, 38.

93Partnow, 67.

94Ibid., 68.

95Woodhouse-Beyer, 131.

96Partnow, 71.

97Stephan, 38.

98Woodhouse-Beyer, 131.

99Ibid., 140.

100Ivan Petroff, Preliminary Report on the Population, Industry, and Resources of Alaska. U.S. Congress House Executive Document No. 40, 10th Census, 1880 (Washington D.C.: US Department of Interior, 1881), 52.

101Ibid., 54.

102Sylvia Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983), 6.

103Woodhouse-Beyer, 143.

104Ibid., 146.

105White, 65.

106Woodhouse-Beyer, 146.

107Ibid., 147.

108Partnow, 96.

109Ibid., 75.

110Morseth, 38.

111Gibson, 15.

112Partnow, 71.

113Ibid., 101.

114Black, Russians in America, 199.

115Ibid., 97.

116Morseth, 44.

117Robert Fortuine, Chills and Fever: Health and Disease in the Early History of Alaska (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1992), 199-208.

118Black, Russians in America, 196.

119Fortuine, 128-129.

120Black, Russians in America, 196.

121Stephans, 36.

122Andrei V. Grinev, "Why Russia Sold Alaska: The View from Russia" Alaska History, Vol. 19 Spring/Fall (2004): 1-17.

123Partnow, 97.

124Partnow, xiii.

125William Shakespeare Miranda, in The Tempest, act 5, sc. 1,1. 184-7 (1623).

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Last Updated: 03-Aug-2009