Susan Morris, historical researcher, discusses documents written by Russian American Company officers in the early 1800s (nineteenth century) that describe the fight between the Russian-led hunting group and the island people.
During the 1800s (nineteenth century), commercial sea otter hunting was in full force. Russians, as well as Americans and the British, engaged in the enterprise, trading their skins for goods in China. Russians initially hunted in Alaska, and required Alaska Natives to hunt with them.
When the sea otter populations diminished in Alaska, the Russian and Alaska Native hunters moved south to Spanish-held California. The Channel Islands, off the California coast, were ideal hunting grounds because of high sea otter populations and distance from the Spanish on the mainland.
We know that Russians brought Alaska Native hunters to San Nicolas Island because four documents from 1818 discuss a massacre on the island that involved a Russian-led hunting group. This group was sent to the island to hunt for the Russian American Company (RAC), a commercial enterprise (or business) that had exclusive rights granted by the Russian government to hunt fur-bearing animals in North America.
The Il’mena, a RAC ship, brought a crew of Alaska Native sea otter hunters and a Russian overseer, Iakov Babin, to San Nicolas Island in 1814. The ship then sailed away, planning to return after the hunters spent several months gathering otter skins.
The Alaska Natives began hunting otter, but the native inhabitants of San Nicolas Island may not have been happy about their intrusion on the island. According to a letter dated July 15, 1818, written by Ivan Kuskov, manager of Fort Ross, the Russian colony in northern California, the Nicoleños killed one of the Alaska Natives while they were on the island.
The remaining Alaskan hunters were angry about the death and killed many Nicoleños in return. The letter does not state how many Nicoleños died, or how many survived.
Russian officials learned of the massacre and were concerned about the violent events. Documents show that three RAC managers, Ivan Kuskov, Leontii Hagemeister, and Semen Ianovskij, asked for information about the deaths on San Nicolas Island. They held the Russian overseer, Iakov Babin, responsible for the massacre. Letters tell us that Babin was sent from California to Russian Alaska and was scheduled to sail to RAC headquarters in St. Petersburg, Russia, to answer questions about the murder and killings on San Nicolas Island in 1814.