Kenai Fjords
A Stern and Rock-Bound Coast: Historic Resource Study
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Chapter 3:

Russian Enterprise on the Outer Kenai Coast

By 1786, Russian hunting parties had clearly decimated sea otter populations in Cook Inlet, forcing Native hunters to enter Chugach territory in Prince William Sound and push farther south toward Yakutat. Official estimates calculated a take of 3,340 pelts a year between 1743 and 1799. [21] Desperate to find new fur resources, the Russian began a series of scouting expeditions in Prince William Sound. Evstratii Delarov, Dimitrii Polutov, and Potap Zaikov, who apparently had seen the Sound on a map drawn by Cook, sailed from the Aleutians, past the outer Kenai Coast, to Kayak Island in Prince William Sound (see Table 3-1). The traders alienated and brutalized Natives in the region, a move that resulted in retaliatory attacks by both Kenaitze and Chugach. The Russians spent the winter on Montague Island at Zaikof Bay and almost half the crew died of scurvy. [22]

Two years later Gerasim Izmailov and Dimitrii I. Bocharov, under instruction from Grigorii Shelikhov, returned to Montague Island. They noted abandoned Native houses and wrote, "the inhabitants of this point were the last of the Oogalakhmutes who lived here in constant war and hostilities with the Kolash [Tlingit]." [23] At Montague Island, the closest island in the Sound to the Kenai Peninsula, the traders met Natives in two-hatch baidarkas willing to trade. Izmailov followed the men to a grouping of Chugach dwellings on the shores of a "sheltered channel formed by the island Khligakhlik [Latouche] on the right and the mainland on the left." [24] Here he observed village houses from the boat, but never went ashore.

Accounts by Sarychev and naturalist Carl Merck, of Captain Joseph Billings's "Northeast Secret Geographical and Astronomical Expedition," tell of a meeting with a group of Natives near Nuka Island in 1790. In early July, Billings's ship left Kodiak and headed for Cook Inlet. Forced to turn eastward in the prevailing winds, the ship rounded the peninsula. After four days of mist and fog, the crew caught its first glimpse of the outer Kenai coast and the channel of Nuka Bay. Two Chugach spied the ship and set off from the shore in a baidar to welcome the ship. They offered gifts of a river otter, sea otter, seal, and petrel. [25]

The following excerpt recounts Sarychev's version of the chance meeting and his unsuccessful attempt to follow the Chugach into the bay.

From these Americans, we learned that the bay ahead of us was called Nuka, and the cape that presented itself on its eastern side, belonged to an island, which was separated from the main land only by a strait. They added, moreover, that in this bay were several [more] of an inferior size, with sandy bottoms, which furnished good stations for shipping. Their habitations lay in one of the havens, to which they invited us with much cordiality. Captain Billings ordered the ship to tack, and put into the bay, after which we bore up to the island in question, passing a rock to the left that was about two miles distant from it. On arriving at the bay, Captain Billings found it most prudent not to advance. We accordingly tacked about again, and soon gained the open sea. [26]

Sarychev Atlas, c. 1826, showing Outer Kenai Coast. Translation by Katerina S. Wessels, NPS.

Martin Sauer, Billings's secretary on the expedition, recorded an exchange at the mouth of Cook Inlet with a Spanish frigate and later with several Natives off the coast of Cape Elizabeth. The Natives freely traded pelts for beads and tobacco, then returned to the coast with one of the crew. Sauer noted that the Spaniards traded regularly in the region with both Natives and Russians and in part acted as middlemen to supply the Russians with pelts in return for hardware, beads, and linens. [27]

Heavy rains and fog shadowed Billings's ship until it arrived near Montague Island. The only other observances that were made of the coast were references to its fine timber that reached the water's edge and to the deepness of the sea. [28]

Russian enterprise quickly followed these initial scouting trips. Russian traders established temporary posts and fortified redoubts at strategic hunting locations in the Gulf of Alaska. The Shelikhov-Golikov Company established Fort Alexandrovsk at English Bay near Cape Elizabeth in 1786. [29] Farther into Cook Inlet, the Pavel S. Lebedev-Lastochkin Company constructed Fort St. George on the Kasilof River in 1787 and Fort St. Nicholas on the Kenai River in 1791. The company relied heavily on a Kenaitze labor force to build these posts. In a concerted effort to control Native hunters and fur resources, the two companies monopolized territorial influence from Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island to Prince William Sound and Yakutat. However, in late 1791 open rivalry broke out between the two companies. In 1793, Baranov reported to Shelikhov that he would build a fort complete with barracks, blacksmith, and warehouse at the head of Resurrection Bay to block any move by the Lebedev-Lastochkin Company.

In 1792, Baranov first visited the Chugach region. Driven by the constant need to replenish falling pelt stocks and his own desire to expand Russian holdings and succeed as a manager, Baranov wanted to establish a fortified station in Prince William Sound. Traveling in a skinboat, Baranov set out to approach the Chugach in the vicinity of Montague Island.

Baranov described the Chugach as both warlike and savage, but ever frightful of the sight of the Russians and more likely to hide than attack. [30] The Russian naval officer Davydov recounted Baranov's expedition and his meeting with the Chugach.

When they learnt that Baranov was travelling to Chugatsk Bay they disappeared from their settlements so that none of them was visible anywhere. All that could be seen everywhere were poles with sticks bound to them at right angles. The Russians believed that these sticks indicated the direction of the fleeing villagers had gone - and that they were left as a sign for their comrades who might have been caught out of the village or unawares and would not know what had happened. [31]

In anticipation of an attack by the Tlingit against his men, Baranov traveled in the company of the Chugach and often took hostages. Despite these precautions, his crew fell victim to a Tlingit raiding party while camping on Montague Island. The party consisted of Ugaliagmiuts from Cape St. Elias [on Kayak Island] who in the night mistook the Russian camp for one of the enemy Chugach. Twelve men died in the retaliatory raid. [32] According to one account, the attackers intended to continue raids along the Chugach coast and then proceed to Cook Inlet. [33]

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002