The Emergence of Russian America on Alaska’s Coast

The following is an excerpt from Converging Empires: Citizens and Subjects in the North Pacific Borderlands, 1867–1945 by Andrea Geiger.

Russian America

In 1783, four decades after Vitus Bering’s first foray along the Aleutian Islands in 1741, Russia established what would become the center of its commercial operations in “Aliaska” on what Russians called Kodiak Island midway along the southern coast. When sea otter numbers again began to drop because of overharvesting in the areas first colonized along the Alaskan peninsula, much as they had in the western reaches of the Pacific Ocean, the Russian American Company (RAC), chartered by the Russian imperial government in 1799 to advance its interests in North America, extended its operations further eastward along that coast. The number of settlements established by the RAC remained relatively small, but it took just two decades for it to extend its commercial activities some two thousand miles along Alaska’s southern coast. In 1794, the RAC established a small commercial settlement at Yakutat Bay and, in 1799, another that it called Arkhangel’sk, rebuilt nearby as Novoarkhangel’sk in 1804 after the first settlement was destroyed by the Tlingit in 1802. The emergence of a Creole population that had ties both to Russian employees of the RAC and to local Indigenous groups, a consequence of the Russian imperial government’s policy of supporting the cohabitation of Indigenous women and Russian men, was itself a factor in the RAC’s success. Much as Métis men played a key role as midlevel managers for the HBC in British North America, Creole men filled key management roles in RAC operations; as in other colonized areas of North America, Indigenous women served as interpreters and assisted their partners in building a working relationship with local Indigenous communities.

Although Russia claimed the region it called Russian America by right of “discovery,” as the concept was understood in European international law at the time, its geographical contours remained largely unknown. In this sense yet again, the exclusive right to engage in commercial activity granted to the RAC by the Russian imperial government paralleled that granted to the HBC a century earlier by the British Crown and that granted to the Matsumae clan by the Tokugawa shogunate. Like the shogunate and the British Crown, the Russian imperial government knew almost nothing about most of the territory to which it purported to grant exclusive commercial access. With fewer than nine hundred Russian employees in all of Russian America at any given time, the RAC’s efficient exploitation of fur-bearing mammals in the region relied largely on the coerced labor first of the Aleut and then of the Kodiak peoples who had hunted along the Alaskan coast for centuries. It was their knowledge of land and ocean and the creatures that inhabited both, as well as their labor and finely honed technologies, that made possible Russia’s success. In his 1824 report, Zavalishin noted that the Kodiak “had dugout canoes whose speed was not inferior to that of the best rowboats or even whaleboats and gigs of English construction” and that they were not afraid to take either these or their small skin umiaks out on the open ocean. The Aleut, he reported, “handle[d] their small skin boats as deftly as our Cossacks do horses, [pursuing] game with great speed, turning kayaks easily in all directions, so that the prey rarely manages to escape.” Their skill in capturing sea otters far outweighed that of Russian hunters, whose own small boats, well adapted though they were to the more sheltered waters of the far western Pacific, could not always handle the turbulent waves of the Aleutians and in areas along the southern coast of Alaska.

Andrea Geiger is author of the award-winning Subverting Exclusion: Transpacific Encounters with Race, Caste, and Borders, 1885–1928