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Russian Interactions With Alaska Natives


Two causes led to the discovery of the region now called Alaska; the first was the search for the Northwest passage, the second was the quest of fur-bearing animals. As early as 1648, the Russian Cossack navigator, Semyon Deshnef, hearing that a tribe far to the eastward on the Polar Ocean had plenty of ivory, sailed along the northern coast of Siberia, rounded Asia, and reached the Chukchi peninsula by the body of water now called Bering Strait. He was the first to discover the walrus in these waters. The first authentic mention of the American Continent was made by Peter I. Popof, who, in 1711, learned from the wild Chukchi Indians that beyond the islands off Siberia lay a great land with broad rivers and inhabited by people who had tusks growing out of their cheeks, and tails like dogs. This evidently referred to the labrets worn in the face, and the wolf or dog tails attached to their parkas behind.

The Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, interested in everything that concerned science and discovery, shortly before his death in 1725, wrote out instructions for his Chief Admiral, Count Feodor Apraksin, to cause to be built at Kamchatka, or some other convenient place, one or more decked vessels to explore the northerly coasts and endeavor to discover whether they were contiguous with America, submitting exact notes of whatever discoveries they should make. Vitus Bering, a Dane, who had shown capacity in the wars with Sweden, was appointed to take charge of the expedition. After extreme hardships in crossing Siberia by land, he and his followers reached Kamchatka, and in boats there launched they sailed along the eastern coast of the peninsula, and in 1728 discovered and named St. Lawrence Island. They passed through Bering Strait and proved that America and Asia were separate countries.

Ivan Fedorov and Mikhail Gvozdev sailed in August of 1732 in the St. Gabriel-from the mouth of the Kamchatka River north toward the Anadyr River. They crossed Bering Strait in its north part and found the Diomede Islands where they were met with a hail of arrows shot by Eskimos from the second island. In September they sailed further east toward Cape Prince of Wales on Alaska's Seward Peninsula. When they neared King island a Native from there came to their ship by boat and gave them information about the Alaska coast. The information they obtained was known to scientists and geographers of their time. Their information gave the correct orientation of American coasts on the east side of Bering Strait and this appeared on eighteenth century maps of the world published in Russia and France.  This voyage also represents the first Russian contact with the American mainland, and with Alaska Native people.

The voyage to Alaska by adventurer Nikolas Gvosdef, in 1731, stimulated to further explorations, and in 1733, Bering, under the patronage of the Empress Anna Ivanovna, the niece of Peter the Great, was once more commissioned to take charge of an expedition from Kamchatka. In September, 1740, Bering, in the ship "St. Peter," accompanied by the "St. Paul " under command of Lieutenant Alexsei Chirikof, who had been with him in the first voyage, set sail. They were soon beset by winter, and established themselves at Avatcha, where they built a few houses and a church, naming the settlement after the two ships, Petropavlovsk. Early in the following June, they once more weighed anchor, but on the twentieth a gale separated the two ships. Chirikof's went to the eastward, and on the fifteenth of July sighted land. He sent ten men ashore, under command of Abraham Mikhailovich Dementief, a young nobleman, who had volunteered for this dangerous service. After they had been absent for five days, another boat was despatched [sic] with six men to look for the first party. Those left on the ship soon observed a black smoke rising above the point of land behind which the boats had disembarked.

The next morning, the anxious company on board were gladdened by the sight of what they thought were the two boats approaching. Their joy was turned to horror when it was seen that the two boats were filled with savages. These turned about at the sight of the ship, and shouting "Agai! Agai!" made for the shore. A gale blew up, and Chirikof was obliged to put out into the open sea. When the storm had subsided, he returned to his former anchorage, but had no means of reaching land. The fate of the missing men was never determined but it can be easily surmised. Chirikof, crippled as he was, was compelled to return to Kamchatka. His men suffered terrible hardships; their provisions and water were exhausted, all on board were ill with scurvy, and they lost altogether twenty-one men.

Bering, on the sixteenth of July, caught sight of the magnificent snow-clad mountain range, of which St. Elias, rising to a height of 18,000 feet above the sea, is the crown. George Wilhelm Steller, a German naturalist, who accompanied the expedition and left an excellent account of what he saw, claimed to have discovered land on the day preceding, but his claim was ridiculed by his companions. A landing was made on what is now known as Kayak Island. After delaying several days, and finding a number of unoccupied huts built of logs and bark and thatched with coarse grasses, together with dried salmon, copper implements, and other indications of former occupancy, Bering, without attempting to proceed farther, turned about. On his voyage back, he discovered and named a number of the Aleutian Islands, where they found friendly natives, with whom they exchanged gifts. The name Aleutian is supposed to have been suggested by Cape Alintorsky in Siberia, which, according to native tradition, was continued into a chain of islands stretching away toward the east. The ships were buffeted by terrific tempests, and so many of the crew perished of illness and deprivations that the survivors had difficulty in navigating their ships back to the Asiatic coast. There they had the misfortune to be wrecked on a small island, which now bears the name of their famous commander. Here, on the eighth of December, in a hut so exposed to the elements that it hardly deserved to be called a shelter, Bering died of scurvy, after suffering unutterable agonies. His companions, after spending the winter in holes dug in the sand dunes and roofed with canvas, their only food sea-otters and seals, constructed a boat from the wreck of the "St. Peter," and managed to reach the mainland.

The result of the discoveries of Bering and Chirikof was that many expeditions were fitted out for fishing and hunting along the American coast. These traders were called "promui'shleniki," the word signifying traders or adventurers. They pushed farther and farther eastward. Such were Emelian Basof, who made four consecutive voyages; one of Bering's companions named Nevodchikof; and Aleksei Belaief, who, in 1745, inveigled fifteen of the gentle Aleuts into a quarrel for the express purpose of killing them, maltreating their wives, and robbing them of their furs. Similar outrages were perpetrated by many others of these irresponsible and brutal adventurers. In 1759, a promui'shleniki named Glottof discovered the large island of Umnak, and subsequently skirted the extensive group of islands including Unalaska. On account of the foxes abounding there, he called this archipelago, the Fox Islands. Glottof is reputed to have been the first to baptize the natives; he also furnished his government with the first Russian map of that region. Glottof reached the island of Kadiak in the autumn of 1762, and took up his quarters there for the winter. The natives, who had at first been very gentle and patient under the outrageous demands of the traders, had begun to rebel. They attacked Glottof's settlement, but were repulsed by the Russians; after that they kept aloof and refused to trade. Later in the winter, discovering that the invaders were weakened by disease, they renewed their attacks and almost exterminated them. Glottof escaped only with the greatest difficulty. The same year, a merchant, Druzhinin, arrived at Unalaska, with one hundred and fifty men, and was attacked by the natives, who, at a signal, arose and killed all of his followers but four, who happened to be absent, and were protected by a kindly Aleut.

In 1783, the Russian merchant Grigorii Shelikhov equipped three vessels for a voyage to the Aleutian Islands, hoping to gain a monopoly on the fur trade of the region. In 1784, when the ships arrived at Kodiak Island, they were met by a force of 4,000 Koniag Natives who demanded that the Russians leave immediately. After negotiations failed, the Russians fired cannons on Koniag homes, destroying them. By subduing the Alaska Natives with fire power, Russian control grew stronger. Shelikhov extended his authority by setting up political districts in the Kodiak region, and by a building a fur-harvesting labor force of Alaska Natives. His methods were sometimes so brutal that the Russian government actually conducted an inquiry, although Shelikhov was never charged with any crime.

In 1784, Grigory Ivanovich Shelikhov arrived in Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island.  Shelikhov and his men killed hundreds of indigenous Koniag, then founded the first permanent Russian settlement in Alaska on the island's Three Saints Bay. By 1788 a number of Russian settlements had been established by Shelikhov and others over a large region, including the mainland areas around Cook Inlet.

The Alutiiq Eskimos of the Kodiak area, Cook Inlet, and Prince William Sound also suffered. The Kodiak Island Native population was estimated to be about 5,000 to 8,000 in 1784 when the Russians first arrived. Six years later, in 1790, only 3,000 Kodiak Natives survived. Of the 3,000, only 500 were capable of working or hunting.

At the height of Russian America, the Russian population reached 700.

Although the mid–19th century was not a good time for Russians in Alaska, conditions improved for the coastal Alaska Natives who had survived contact. The Tlingits were never conquered and continued to wage war on the Russians into the 1850s. The Aleuts, though faced with a decreasing population in the 1840s, ultimately rebounded.

The Russian-American Company sought to use Natives to meet the demand for workers but disease and the Russians' harsh treatment of Natives, particularly Aleuts, caused the Native population to drop sharply. The Aleut population, estimated to have been 16 to 20 thousand in the early 1700s had dropped to 7,000 in 1836. Four years later there were only 4,000 Aleuts. The rest had died from disease, chiefly smallpox that had spread to Alaska from California, the dangers of sea otter hunts, and starvation in their villages. An observer attributed the dramatic decline to ill-treatment by the Russians, new lifestyles forced on the Natives by the Russians, and new diseases transmitted to the Natives by the Russians. The sea otter hunts, which took Alutiiq Eskimos and Aleuts on long sea voyages in their baidarkas, often in violent storms, caused many deaths. In one incident in 1799, over 100 Natives on a hunting trip died from eating poisonous shell fish.

At Kukak, a village opposite Kodiak on the Alaska Peninsula, only 40 of 1,000 men remained in 1805. Over the 10 years before that the Russians had taken the rest of the men to Sitka to hunt sea otters. Also in 1805 Native women and children starved on Kodiak Island because Alexander Baranov, chief manager for the Russian-American Company, had taken their husbands and fathers to Sitka to hunt sea otters. Because they were away, the husbands and fathers could not hunt food for their families.

The Russians also caused hardships by moving Natives from smaller villages into a few larger villages to make it easier to discipline and to supply them. The Natives had no natural immunities to diseases they contracted from Russians and other Euroamericans. This meant their bodies could not fight the diseases and they often died. The Russians did establish hospitals at Sitka, Kodiak, Unalaska, and Atka between 1817 and 1821. These offered free treatment to the Natives. The Russians also vaccinated some Natives against smallpox. The hospitals and vaccines, however, did not prevent unfamiliar diseases from having catastrophic effects on the Natives.

The Aleuts and Alutiiq Eskimos were the most affected by the Russians' presence in Alaska. Athabaskans of Cook Inlet shared the hardships of Aleuts and Alutiiq Eskimos to some extent. Other Athabascans, Tlingits, Haidas, Inupiaq and Yupik Eskimos felt less of an impact from the Russians. All, however, felt Russian influence in other ways.

On some islands and parts of the Alaskan peninsula, groups of traders had been capable of relatively peaceful coexistence with the local inhabitants. Other groups could not manage the tensions and perpetrated exactions. Hostages were taken, individuals were enslaved, families were split up, and other individuals were forced to leave their villages and settle elsewhere. In addition, eighty percent of the Aleut population was destroyed by Old World diseases, against which they had no immunity, during the first two generations of Russian contact.

The treatment of the natives by the adventurers hardly corresponded to the wishes of the Empress Catharine II., who, in expressing her satisfaction at the reported subjection of the six new Aleutian Islands by the Cossack Vasiutin and his followers, said in her ukase to the Governor of Siberia: — "You must urge the promui'shleniki to treat the natives with kindness, and to avoid all oppression or ill treatment of their new brethren." She also urged the governor to glean all possible information regarding the country. In response to this wish, the Admiralty College selected two Russian Navy captains, Peter Krenitsin and Mikhail Levashef, who sailed from Kamchatka in 1768, and attempted to make explorations and gather scientific details about the land and the people. But they had difficulty with the natives, and, after losing a third of their forces through scurvy and the arrows of their enemies, they returned to Siberia. The profits of the trading and hunting expeditions were very great, and there are records of more than sixty such enterprises. The profits were generally divided equally between the owners of the vessels and the crews; each sailor had one share, and the navigator and commanders had two each. A tenth of the whole was exacted as a tax by the government.

The natives who fell into the hands of their oppressors were compelled to do the hunting and to turn over their booty, receiving as a reward a few cheap trinkets, or a bit of tobacco. They thus became practically slaves. The horrors of their condition form the dark background of Alaskan history. The story of the revenge wreaked by the cruel Ivan Soloviof for the slaughter of such Russians as were killed by the natives, when they at last were goaded into rebellion, is only one chapter of this tale of violence.


Source:  Our Northern Domain: Alaska Picturesque, Historic, and Commercial.  Dana Estes & Company: Boston, 1910




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