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

Fort Voskresenskii and the Building of the Phoenix

After Baranov's initial expedition, he freely navigated the bays of the outer Kenai coast including Resurrection Bay and Prince William Sound. He possessed sufficient knowledge of the area to choose a site in Resurrection Bay for the construction of a fort and shipyard. The Russian name Voskresenskaia gaven' or guba, chosen by Baranov in 1792, was the literal translation of Resurrection Harbor or Sunday Harbor. Traveling by the bay in early spring close to the date of Easter Sunday on the Julian Calender, Baranov celebrated that visit with the joyous name. Resurrection Bay replaced the earlier Russian name for the bay, Delarov Harbor; in the 1770s, Portlock had named the area south of the bay as Port Andrews, and the name Blying Sound also denoted the waters at the mouth of the bay in the Gulf of Alaska.

Like most Russian settlements, Fort Voskresenskii was built on the coast. Proximity to the sea allowed for the easy transfer of stockpiled furs from warehouse to ship. Native trade as well as access to coastal hunting grounds mandated the use of ships and smaller skin boats. As resource needs changed, the Russians eventually dismantled some of their coastal forts. As one researcher observed, "...each of the abandoned [Russian] sites was in a location of little value to later white settlement." [34]

Completed in 1793, Fort Voskresenskii incorporated many military features. A large rectangular stockade constructed of vertical logs encircled interior buildings similar to the design of Siberian forts. Many buildings were braced directly into the stockade. Two watchtowers provided high sentinel posts. Men lived in a large central building that faced the bay complete with a storage area and cellar. In the event of an attack, the crew could draw wooden shutters to seal off the windows. Located outside the principal stockade, the shipyard was protected with chevaux-de-frise, a tight wooden barricade made of sharpened posts. [35]

With the fort under construction, Baranov turned his interests to the shipyard. Baranov shared Shelikhov's long-term aspirations for a colony-based fleet of ships. With a supply of trading vessels on hand, Baranov hoped to open Japanese trade routes and to expand the international market for goods from the colony. Shelikhov envisioned the construction of a large frigate, approximately 85 feet long, to transport pelts, supplies, news, and passengers between the Russian forts in America and Okhotsk in Siberia. [36] In 1790 Shelikhov informed Delarov, then his chief manager, of the need for such a vessel and reassured him that necessary supplies would be forthcoming if he secured a carpenter from the Billings Expedition.

Baranov first learned of Shelikhov's shipbuilding plans in 1792 in a hand carried set of instructions from James Shields, a second lieutenant in the Russian Ekaterinburg regiment. [37] Shields, who was fluent in Russian, had been building a ship in Okhotsk for the Shelikhov Company. In 1792, Shields sailed the ship to Kodiak Island with a supply of rigging and hardware for the construction of a new frigate.

sketch of Russian shipbuilding site
Drawings by James Shields of Russian shipbuilding site in Resurrection Bay, c. 1795. University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

While Baranov endorsed the shipbuilding plan, he lacked the essential materials to carry out Shelikhov's instructions. In one letter, Baranov openly balked at the scheme of a ship, proclaiming a hopelessly low inventory of laborers and supplies, among which there were no nails or caulking, only half a flask of pitch, and very little iron. [38] Most of the canvas was too worn and rotten or had been used to make tents and pants for Native hunters. [39]

Baranov's problems were not limited to poor supplies. Shelikhov agreed with Baranov that Resurrection Bay benefited from dramatic changes in tide and that it held promise as a place to launch, moor, and rig ships. As a construction site, however, it was too limited; Shelikhov instead encouraged Baranov to choose a site with more timber. Baranov assured Shelikhov that he had assessed the forested shores of Kodiak and Afognak islands and the Kenai Peninsula; he had settled on the Chugach region, in part, for its proximity to dense timber. He was convinced that local stands of larch trees on an island in Prince William Sound would supply the needed raw logs. He recounted that the ship could be built "very economically from larch trees called in English spruce, more durable and stronger than the wood at Okhotsk, and painted by a composition that I invented." [40] Larch was the wood of choice for the Russian ships built in the colonies and also for those built at Okhotsk. [41] Baranov avoided the use of fir, considering the planks too rigid and scarred with knots for shipbuilding. [42] Shelikhov encouraged Baranov to continue to survey the coast and forego plans for Fort Voskresenskii. To Shelikhov, shipping in logs in from Grekovskii ostrovok (Greek Island) [43] in Prince William Sound was too risky for a long-term ship building operation. As he informed Baranov, "I must conclude that your shipyard is not completely suitable, or that you have not yet had time to find a good location with all advantages." [44]

While Shelikhov continued to focus on the issue of timber, Baranov reminded him that proximity to Kenai and to nearby salmon streams was equally important. Also, as mentioned above, he needed to stop the Lebedev-Lastochkin Company from gaining control of the site.

They took the best places for getting food supplies, and made the inhabitants prisoners. I chose this bay in order to hinder their communication between Kinai and Chugach over the nearest neck of land.... If we move, only the labor spent building the fort will be wasted; in the meantime, our artel is in a place of refuge for the Chugach from the Lebedev men and a barrier for their communication. The Kinai people want to move here to get away from Lebedev's men and are waiting only the permission from me and from Father Archimandrite [Ioasaf]. [45]

Baranov insisted that these strategic concerns outweighed the lack of timber and isolation.

Over the next year, Baranov transported approximately one-fifth of the logs on the company ship Orel. Supply shortages continued, along with the threat of attack from both Natives and Lebedev-Lastochkin men. (Natives easily outnumbered the Russian construction crews at both Voskresenskii and Kenai.) To improve relations with the Natives, Baranov traded extensively with the Kenai and Chugach to procure both furs and food. To keep a steady supply of food and furs on hand, Baranov used beads to conduct local business and maintain an appealing collection:

As you know, we have no trading goods here, only beads and even they are of the small size. The large beads are of the kinds for which there is no demand. There are not enough to buy sea otters with, and even our native workers no longer take them in exchange for fox skins. [46]

Baranov's need to meet company expectations at whatever cost discouraged his crew. The prospect of living and working more than 260 miles from the familiarity of Kodiak scared Baranov's hired crew. To procure laborers, Baranov enlisted more than half of his 152 men, leaving the rest on Kodiak. [47] Refusing to pay them full wages until they arrived in Resurrection Bay, Baranov managed to lure his reluctant crew to the remote site.

Had I paid the men on Kadiak Island first I would not have been able to force them to go to Chugach Bay. The men who are free would have quit and the men who are in debt would either have refused to go or would have started a mutiny. [48]

Laborers working for the Lebedev-Lastochkin Company menaced the shipwrights, scaring them with threats of hunger if they ventured into Resurrection Bay. [49] They also harassed and stalked Baranov's men who felled trees on Hinchinbrook Island. Forced to contend with repeated attacks and threats against his men, Baranov finally managed to convince many of Lebedev-Lastochkin's employees to change sides and join his crews. [50]

Morale remained low and during the winter of 1793-94, Baranov's crew made an attempt to kill their supervisor. [51] Unhappy with the daily ration of iukola or dried salmon, the crew demanded an allotment of two pounds of flour. Petty rivalry ensued. Communication deteriorated over the winter and fearing they had been forgotten, the men decided to retreat to Kodiak. Problems also escalated on Kodiak Island among the men scheduled to transfer to Resurrection Bay. Taking the threat on his life in stride, Baranov wrote to Shelikhov, "I straightened things out on my return, but the scoundrels made an attempt on my life. However, I will not speak of that. I would not deserve the position of manager if I could not stop troubles in my company." [52]

The use of Native labor supplemented Baranov's crew and fulfilled one of Shelikhov's earlier stipulations. Determined to train a skilled local labor force that could grow within the ranks of the company, Shelikhov had directed Baranov to assign young Chugach apprentices to work with ship artisans.

My only instruction is that you must not fail to have young American Natives study with master shipwrights, carpenters, blacksmiths, artisans and navigators. Generally speaking American Natives make very capable seafarers; all they need is practical experience, especially with the compass which is so necessary; then they can master this. [53]

Baranov began construction of the Phoenix in 1793 after completion of the fort barracks and a blacksmith shop. Already delayed by a year because of bad weather and the other problems discussed above, the building of the Phoenix proceeded throughout the winter of 1793 and was completed in September 1794.

Baranov likely modeled the ship after a schooner belonging to Hugh Moore. While sailing in the Chugach region in 1792, Baranov encountered the Irishman Moore en route from Bengal. Moore had anchored his ship, also named the Phoenix, in Prince William Sound to repair damage to the masts. [54] Baranov spent five days with Moore on his 75 foot, three-mast ship. This gave Baranov ample time to admire its design and construction.

Baranov's Phoenix measured 60 feet long at the keel and had two decks and three masts. It was 73 feet in length along the lower deck and 79 feet along the upper. The width of the ship was 23 feet, and at the upper deck the height reached 12-1/2 feet. The ship's total capacity was 180 tons. In Russian texts, the vessel was commonly referred to as a frigate. In an account by Natalia A. Shelikhov, Grigorii's wife, the Phoenix carried twenty-four guns. [55] When the finished ship set sail in 1795, it sported a variety of exterior finishes and colored sails.

Baranov's Phoenix was a patchwork of local technologies and materials. Iron, which was so critical to the construction, was in short supply. Iron was needed to manufacture an anchor, anchor chains, ring bolts, windlasses, nails and tools. Baranov estimated that he had received only 300 finished nails from Shelikhov, and more than 600 axes needed to be forged or repaired at the shipyard to fell trees. [56] At first, Baranov hoped to salvage enough iron from shipwrecks and second-hand sources. Discouraged by the poor quality and quantity of the metal, however, he decided to construct a local smelting plant. Turning to others for advice, Baranov consulted Father Juvenal only to realize that the priest's professed expertise with iron pertained to its chemistry and not to its smelting. [57] Relying on local sources of ore collected on the Kenai Peninsula, Baranov requested Shelikhov to send an expert in the field to establish a local factory. Baranov's blacksmith Tsypanov eventually forged his own items from metals that he found. [58]

Baranov, Shields, and his assistants, among them Vasilii G. Medvednikov, concocted a local paint and resin to protect and caulk the ship's hull. After a failed attempt at making turpentine, and having no tar, oakum, or pitch, Baranov sent 500 Native men, a number equal to one complete hunting party, to collect resin in the vicinity of Fort Kenai. The end product consisted of a paint-like substance made from the "entrails and offal of fish mixed with whale blubber." [59] Coated and caulked in stages, the vessel exhibited a variety of paint finishes. Bancroft reported that upon arriving in Okhotsk, the vessel underwent modifications, including the construction of upper decks. [60]

On 5 September 1795 the Phoenix, under the command of James Shields, left Resurrection Bay and sailed for Kodiak Island. For the ceremonial launching Shields made a sketch of the event and Baranov threw a party complete with homemade berry and root vodka. [61] Later that year, Gerasim Izmailov took charge of the ship for its first official voyage to Okhotsk. The Phoenix proudly carried in its hull a three-year backlog of furs. Baranov sent with Izmailov a plan of the Phoenix drawn by Shields. [62] He requested recognition and bonuses for the men who worked at Fort Voskresenskii.

On the Phoenix's return trip from Okhotsk, Baranov learned of Shelikhov's death. In 1795, Shelikhov's widow praised the ship in honor of her husband:

...Baranov, instructed by my husband, has experimented in shipbuilding. On this frigate he sailed to Kadiak and from there sent her to Okhotsk as I mentioned above with three years' accumulation of furs.... I have the honor of enclosing the plans of the above mentioned Resurrection Harbor where the frigate and these ships were built. In this manner shipbuilding was started even before the skilled workers arrived, justifying the labors and hopes of my deceased husband. [63]

The Phoenix, acclaimed as the first Russian ship built and launched in Alaska, made three round trip voyages between Kodiak and Okhotsk from 1795 to 1799, transporting passengers, furs, ammunition, and supplies. [64] On the second voyage in 1797-1798, Gavriil Talin piloted the Phoenix to Kodiak.

In 1799, on a return trip to Kodiak Island from Okhotsk, the Phoenix hit a May storm in the waters off the Aleutian Islands. All crew and cargo were lost. Within days, debris from the shipwreck began to wash on shore. Over the next year, objects continued to be found on beaches in the vicinity of the Gulf of Alaska. Davydov reported that "[f]lagons of vodka were discovered, bottles of sour wine, wax candles, a samovar, a ships's wheel, upper beams and other articles- in an area extending from Unalashka right down to Sitkha and even further south." [65]

Try as he might, Baranov never learned what happened to the Phoenix. In June 1800, he admitted that he still knew few details.

All this proves that a misfortune occurred. Probably our Phoenix, carrying the transport, was wrecked. We investigated on Shuiakh [Shuyak], Afognak, and the Peregrebnye [Wosnesenski] Islands and at Chugach from Nuchek to Kenai but no one there knew anything of a shipwreck.... The uncertainty troubles me. [66]

Eighty-eight crewmembers, including several major personalities in Russian America, lost their lives on the ill-fated voyage. James Shields, so instrumental in the construction of the ship, died as captain of the voyage. Archimandrite Ioasaf, the newly consecrated first bishop of America, Russian Orthodox Church dignitaries, Heiromonk Makarii, Heirodeacon Stephen, and a novice also perished. [67]

Many suspected that the Phoenix faltered off the Aleutians in the vicinity of Umnak Island. Speculation and hearsay surrounded the infamous shipwreck. Shields' inadequacies as ship captain came into question, suggesting that he lacked the experience to master the vessel in rough seas. [68] Others blamed the effects of a deadly outbreak of yellow fever that raged in Okhotsk and Kamchatka at the time that the Phoenix set sail. [69] Given the close quarters on board, the fever could have spread quickly — weakening the crew. Whatever the cause, the loss of the Phoenix put a temporary hold on local trade and business in the colonies. Baranov wrote of his predicament, lamenting the loss of trade goods needed to carry on local business.

It is a great misfortune for all of us, not to mention the loss of Company money and of private capital. What is most important, we will not have the supplies we need to keep on friendly terms with people here and to send out hunting and trading parties. [70]

Throughout the late 1790s and early 1800s, Baranov continued to sail between Kodiak and Prince William Sound with Fort Voskresenskii a regular port of call. At the same time, hunting crews frequently stopped at the fort en route to Nuchek. Transport of raw furs between the outer forts and the company warehouses in Kodiak kept up a steady stream of boat traffic along the coast. On one of these trips, in 1800, Baranov still had hopes of expanding and improving the settlement in Resurrection Bay. He had "the intention of visiting Voskresenskii redoubt to see the local Chugach and Kinai natives and to plan a new settlement there...." [71] However, the Russian-American Company had other plans.

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002