Russian America

Our Shared Heritage in NHLs

In the summer of 1741, Russian explorers got their first glimpse of Alaska. They were in a race against England, France, and Spain to claim territory in the Americas for commercial resources. Sea otter, fur seal, and fox furs were Russia's main interest in Alaska. Their strategy in the Aleutians was to kidnap Unangax (Aleut) women and children thereby forcing men to mass harvest animals if they wanted to see their families. Distracted by the brutality of the Russians, the time spent hunting for commercial pelts, and the fatalities in their communities from introduced diseases, Unangax communities struggled to survive.

The first permanent Russian post in Alaska was established on Kodiak Island in 1784. There, and elsewhere in Alaska, Russian colonizers alternated between bloody battles with Alaska's people and relying heavily on them for food. Alutiiq from Kodiak archipelago, Tlingit from southeastern Alaska, and Dena'ina from the Alaska Peninsula successfully defended their land and families from Russian control for many years but were eventually defeated as Russia continued to send more armaments.

By 1799, the Russian-American Co. controlled all Russian interest in Alaska, including north along the Bering Coast and 500 miles up the Yukon River into interior Alaska. As much as 23 Russian trading posts were established all over the region. St. Paul Island (part of the Seal Islands Historic District National Historic Landmark) and Sitka were the booming Russian towns of the period.

Russian Orthodox missionaries, first arriving around 1794, began a systematic effort to convert Alaska. Previously, Russian explorers had introduced Alaska Natives to their Orthodox beliefs and many had already converted. The most well-known missionary effort, by Father Ioann Veniaminov, began in 1823 in the Aleutians. He developed a written form of Unangax language, using Cyrillic characters, to translate the Bible and church material. He became fluent in six Alaska languages and wrote studies on the Unangan and Tlingit languages. Father Veniaminov eventually reached the highest level in the Orthodox Church, the Metropolitan of Moscow, and was canonized as a saint in the 20th century.

The first Russian church, the Holy Resurrection Church on Kodiak, was constructed in 1795. It included a school house and offered bilingual programs, thus serving to help preserve Native language in Alaska. The Orthodox Church in Alaska remains integral to many families today.

Last updated: November 29, 2017