The Finnish Connection
During the first half of the 19th Century many adventurous Finnish settlers contributed to the development of Russian America. The 1700s and 1800s were a time of imperial expansion and colonial occupation for many European nations. At this time the Russian Empire extended well beyond Russia's current geographic boundaries. Modern-day Finland was among the key territories of this empire. It was established as a Grand Duchy, or semi-autonomous territory, in 1809 just five years after the Russian establishment of New Archangel, or modern-day Sitka.
Etholen began his career with the Russian Imperial Navy in the early 1800s, leading trips into Russia's American territories. He served as Chief Manager of the Russian American Company from 1840-1845. As the leader of the Russian American Company, Etholen resided in New Archangel with his wife, Margaretha Hedvig Johanna Etholen.
While in New Archangel, Etholen instituted the practice of laying cut stone foundations for important buildings, dramatically improving their lifespans. He oversaw the construction of the Russian Bishop's house, the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the first stages of the construction of St Michael's Orthodox Cathedral. He also endeavored to improve the strained relationship between the native Tlingit community and the Russian colonists. He hired Tlingit men to work on construction projects and threw festivals outside the city walls, to which all were invited including prominent members of Tlingit society who were honored with gifts.
Margaretha Etholen also made important contributions to Russian America during her years in New Archangel. Originally a teacher, Margaretha began a successful boarding school for girls. Drawing upon Finnish teaching methods, the school catered to all social classes and represented a progressive stance on education.
Finnish settlers in Russian America were successful in many other ways. Finnish physicians Dr. Frankenhaeuser and Dr. Pippingskiold served the health needs of Russian American Company employees; scientist Henrik Holmberg published an ethnography of Russian America; and the Finnish engineer Hjalmar Furuhjelm opened the first coal mine in Alaska. And of course, in an era so characterized by seafaring, the Finns contributed notably to that as well. J.J. Conradi, J.W. Weckman, Axel Juselius and Lars Krogius were just a few of the Finnish officers who commanded vessels for the Russian American Company.
The Finnish Legacy