History of Alaska/Russian Alaska (1780-1867)
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Russian Exploration in Alaska
- 3 Tensions at Nootka Sound
- 4 Early Russian Settlement and The Russian Fur Trade
- 5 Russian Relations with the Indigenous Peoples of Alaska
- 6 The Russian Ukase and the Monroe Doctrine
- 7 The Russo-American Treaty of 1824
- 8 The Russian-American Company
- 9 The Sale of Alaska
Russian Alaska was the name given to Russian owned lands in North America during the years 1780-1867. Debates over who first discovered the land have been integral to the politics of Russian Alaska since its settlement. The first Russian settlements are most often dated to the seventeenth century. After the discovery of Alaska, news returned to Russia of resources available in America. A sort of “fur fever” began and a stream of Russian fur traders and Siberian merchants travelled to Russian America to take part. Fur trade companies quickly followed, supported by the Russian government. The companies sought to turn Russian Alaska into a commercialized and useful territory for the empire. Russian Alaska, in this period, was marked by instability and uncertainty regarding control of the territorial claims in America. Russia struggled to rule the far reaches of their empire and took a variety of actions to attempt to strengthen their authority in Alaska. The Russian-American Company was created to control Alaska while the Russian Orthodox Church was sent to civilize the Indigenous Alaskans. Both powers had distinct and lasting impacts on the native populations in Alaska.
Russian Exploration in Alaska
Early Russian exploration into Alaska began in 1725 with the Kamchatka Expedition. This exploration mission was led by Vitus Bering, who originally left from St. Petersburg. He travelled North through Siberia and the Otter Sea to determine if there was a separation between Asia and America.
Bering was largely unsuccessful until 1741 when he eventually discovered Alaska. This discovery would establish an early Russian claim to Alaskan lands. Unlike the British, the Russians were primarily concerned with the increasing capabilities of European empires, and were intent on modernizing and expanding their lagging empire. Subsequently, this was also the focus of the Spanish during the late eighteenth century, which increased tensions surrounding territorial claims and sovereignty.
Not only did the Russians attempt to disrupt Spanish territorial claims, the Russians would also bury and and destroy possession plaques and royal crests that were involved in ritualistic British territorial claims to the land. Furthermore, British Captain, James Cook’s extended presence in Alaska prompted Catherine II to declare the Alaskan territory the possession of the Russian crown in 1786. The Russians eventually established a strong post at Nootka Sound, thus contributing to the Nootka Crisis of 1789.
Spanish Claims in the Pacific Northwest
Spanish involvement in Alaskan territory developed shortly after Columbus’ initial journey in 1492. The discovery of new lands to the west of Europe and Africa meant that existing international agreements did not account for a large area of the world’s undeveloped land. This created conflict between Spain and Portugal, two countries with established imperial ambition in the fifteenth century. In the twenty years following Columbus’ initial voyage, Spain issued a series of claims to territory in North and South America, including present day Alaska.
The Inter Caetera, Treaty of Tordesillas, and Vasco Nunez de Balboa’s act of sovereignty were the three most notable Spanish claims during the early era of exploration. The Inter Caetera, a papal bull passed in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, gave Spain sovereignty over any territory west and south of a meridian line approximately 550 km west of the Azores and Canary Islands. There are many interpretations of the bull, but the Spanish interpreted it as full sovereignty of all lands in the new world. In 1494, both the Spanish and Portuguese signed the Treaty of Tordesillas which created a new meridian line approximately 2000 km west of the Cape Verde Islands. This new meridian line granted Portugal all lands to the east and Spain all lands to the west of the line. Consequently, in 1513 Vasco Nunez de Balboa became the first European to reach the Pacific coast of the new world, and proclaimed all coastal lands in the name of Spain in a ceremonial act of sovereignty. Thus, from the early days of western exploration Spain had already established a claim to the entire Pacific coast of North and South America, including the land of present day Alaska.
Spanish Expeditions and Enforcement in the Pacific North-West
Spain never settled any effective colony north of Mexico by the middle of the seventeenth century. However, knowledge of Russian and British exploration in the north-west Pacific prompted Spain to build a naval base in San Blas, Mexico in the eighteenth century. This Naval base was mainly utilized for north-west exploration into Canada and Alaska. Russian fur trappers and hunters had established permanent settlement in Alaska, James Cook had made claims of British sovereignty, and Spain’s claims of ownership were fragile considering she did not have a single settlement north of California. Therefore, the Spanish Crown funded several journeys in the years between 1774 – 1794 to try to enforce Spanish control over the Pacific Northwest.
In 1774 and 1779, Bodega Y Quadra led the first two successful Spanish expeditions to Alaskan territory. These journeys marked the first time Spanish ships had sailed north of the Columbia River, eventually reaching latitude 60º North. Bodega Y Quadra and company explored many notable Alaskan landmarks (Puerto de Santa Cruz) and named many in the name of the Spanish Crown (although all names have been anglicized since). The Spaniards did not encounter any Russian or British inhabitants on these two early voyages, but they did perform symbolic “acts of sovereignty” that declared Spain’s ownership of the land. In the end, these two voyages were little more than a quick visit to the area.
In 1789, another Spanish expedition sailed to the Pacific Northwest to investigate Russian activity in the region. Esteban José Martinez and Gonzalo Lopez de Haro led the voyage and reached Alaskan waters in May. On June 30th the Spanish arrived at Three Saints Bay, where they encountered a Russian post commanded by Evstrat Declarov. Haro and Declarov exchanged goods and information, most notably Declarov informed Haro of the other Russian settlements in the area. With this information Haro and Martinez sailed to Unalaska where they received news that the Russians were preparing to occupy Nootka Sound, which was located off the west coast of Vancouver Island. The events of Haro and Martinez’s expedition led to an international crisis between Britain and Spain, deemed the Nootka Crisis. This voyage was the first meeting between Russian settlers and Spanish sailors. This signified Russia’s expansionist attitude, specifically, it showed that Russia was planning on colonizing southern territory and Spain would have to compete with other imperial powers to enforce their claim.
British Presence in Alaskan Territory
In 1778 James Cook became the first British explorer to reach modern-day Alaska; his voyage signified Britain’s interest in the Pacific Northwest. Cook travelled to the Alaskan frontier in search of the Northwest Passage, sailing up the western coast of North America from California to the Bering Strait. Cook mapped a large portion of Alaska, including areas of the Bering Strait which had not previously been charted by Europeans. Cook also laid claims to the Pacific Northwest for Great Britain, an act that challenged Spain and introduced the west coast as a possible outlet for the British fur trade. The British believed they were entitled to the land following the Treaty of Paris signed in 1763, which settled land disputes between the United States and British North America. This treaty granted most of the land in Upper Canada to the British Crown.
Cook’s voyage spurred British development in the Pacific Northwest. This was an act that discredited Spanish claims and led to an increased British influence in Alaska. Moreover, James Cook led an expedition to Nootka Sound in 1786 where he executed early British territorial claims to the land. The British were primarily interested in these lands for their lucrative advantages to the fur trade. The Spanish Empire was forced to establish sovereignty over the lands not only due to British interest, but also because of growing concern for the Russians. British merchants began challenging Spain’s sovereign claims by engaging in commercial activity in the region. Subsequently, an expedition three years later led by James Colnett of the British Royal Navy discovered a Spanish garrison claiming sovereignty of the lands in Nootka. Colnett was apprehended promptly and had his ship seized, which led to the Nootka crisis of 1789 that brought Spain and England to the brink of war.
Tensions at Nootka Sound
Disputing Claims: Spain, Russia, and Great Britain
Spain believed they had territorial claims to the Pacific North-West through the Treaty of Tordesillas signed in 1494. Their naval base was mainly utilized for north-west exploration into Canada and Alaska. Juan Francisco de la Bodega commanded the Sonora and led an expedition to Alaska in 1775 to establish Spanish claims in Nootka Sound. After encountering Russian activity around the Pacific north-west and British utilizing the land for the fur trade, Spanish sovereignty on the Pacific coast had been compromised. By 1788, tensions escalated at Nootka, as the Spanish were not only concerned with British fur traders and increasing Russian activity, but also with the Indigenous peoples of Nootka. One of the Captain’s, Martinez, shot a Chief named Callicum who was well-respected among local settlers, the Indigenous of Nootka, and an advocate of English trade in the colony.
In addition to the dispute of claims by the Spanish, the British also believed they were entitled to the land at Nootka Sound because of a treaty of their own; the Treaty of Paris. The treaty was signed in 1763 and intended to bring an end to the Seven Years War. In addition to ending the war, the treaty also settled land disputes. The treaty “drew the line” between Canada and the United States and granted the British lands in Upper and Lower Canada. Thus, both nations believed they were entitled to the territory of Nootka Sound.
Unlike the British, the Russians were primarily concerned with the increasing capabilities of European empires, and were intent on modernizing and expanding their lagging empire. Subsequently, this was also the focus of the Spanish during the late 18th Century, which increased tensions surrounding territorial claims and sovereignty. Not only did the Russians attempt to disrupt Spanish territorial claims, the Russians would also bury and and destroy possession plaques and royal crests that were involved in ritualistic British territorial claims to the land in Alaska. Furthermore, British Captain, James Cook’s extended presence in Alaska prompted Catherine II to declare the Alaskan territory to belong to the Russian crown in 1786. The Russians eventually established a strong post at Nootka Sound, thus contributing to the Nootka Crisis of 1789.
"Crisis of 1789"
Nootka Sound is a network of islands off the coast of Vancouver Island. The Nootka Crisis of 1789 is important when considering the struggle for settlement and territorial claims in Alaska. The Nootka Crisis of 1789 emerged as a power struggle among three great powers: Russia, Spain, and Great Britain. The crisis became a political dispute among these powers, and almost began a war between Spain and Great Britain.
Due to the Treaty of Tordisilla and the Treaty of Paris both the Spanish and the British believed that they had rightful sovereignty over Nootka Sound. In addition to the territorial claims of Spain and Britain, Russian involvement in Alaska led to disputes about their right to the land as well. An exploration mission was led by Vitus Bering in 1741, and provided evidence for later territorial claims by the Russians. The Russians managed to set up a fairly successful post at Nootka Sound by the late 18th century. However, the explorations of James Cook led to a need for diplomatic intervention to solve the territorial dispute. Catherine II declared that all land north of Bering’s discovery was to be subject to the Russian crown. However, Britain's increased presence eventually suppressed Russian establishments in the Pacific north-west.
Although territorial claims were the contributing factor to the development of the crisis at Nootka Sound, it was the seizure of British fur trader ships that ignited the conflict. James Colnett of the British Royal Navy led an expedition to Nootka Sound in the spring of 1789, and upon arrival was arrested by a Spanish garrison who had claimed the territory of Alaska for Spain. This act prompted serious protest and backlash from the British and nearly pushed the two great powers to the brink of war. Along With the fear of British involvement at Nootka the tensions grew higher when a Spanish Captain, Martinez, shot and killed an Indigenous Chief named Callicum. It is well understood that the Chief was an advocate for the British fur trade although it is generally unclear why the Captain killed the Chief.
Demise of Spanish Involvement in the Pacific North-West
The Crisis ended with an agreement allowing Britain to settle in lands historically claimed by Spain, and led to widespread British settlement in present day British Columbia, Washington state, and Oregon. By the early 19th century the Hudson’s Bay Company opened a trading post on Vancouver Island. British settlement in the Pacific Northwest quickly expanded to consist of a vast network of trade between British merchants and their Russian (and increasingly American) neighbours to the North. By the mid-19th century the British population had grown substantially in the area. Diplomatic activity had reduced Spanish claims of sovereignty in Alaskan territory and commercial enterprises strongly linked Alaska and its neighbours.
Many other Spanish exploratory voyages occurred in the following decade, but none had much significance outside of ceremonial acts of sovereignty. The Malaspina voyage of 1789 led by Alejandro Malaspina and José de Bustamante y Guerra is perhaps the only exception as its purpose was largely scientific. Malaspina and crew searched for mineral deposits of gold and silver in Alaska, likely a prerequisite for Spanish colonization. However, the expedition also collected information on the Indigenous Tlingit community as well as glacial measurements. Spanish expeditions ended in 1794 and by 1819 Spain ceded their claims to Alaskan territory when they signed the Adams-Onis Treaty with the United States. Little Spanish influence remains in Alaska today, largely due to a lack of attempts at permanent settlement.
Early Russian Settlement and The Russian Fur Trade
There is some evidence that Russian settlements appeared in Alaska in the fifteenth century during the rule of Ivan the Terrible. However, most sources date the discovery of Russian America to the middle of the seventeenth century by Captain Vitus Bering, who led a government-sponsored expedition that visited the shores of the Gulf of Alaska. This expedition returned laden with sea otter pelts in 1741, which struck a pattern of sailors traveling to Alaska in small merchant vessels to hunt furs. This lead to the opening of the Aleutian Islands and mainland Alaska. It was not until forty years later that permanent settlements would come to Alaska.
Illiuliuk and Eguchshak were the earliest Russian settlements established on Unalaska Island in 1722-1775. However, the first permanent Russian settlements in Alaska were settled between 1784 and 1786 by the well-known merchant G.I. Shelikhov on Kodiak Island, located near the south coast of Alaska. In 1781 Shelikhov had petitioned the government to gain permission to establish a permanent colony in Alaska, he believed that a permanent settlement would serve to uphold Russian territorial claims and generate large fur revenues. In early August 1784, two vessels under the command of Shelikhov arrived on the coast of Kodiak Island. Here Shelikhov founded Three Saints Harbour, these settlements would serve as bases on the Pacific Islands and the Alaskan coastline for harvesting fur pelts. Three Saints Harbour became the first founding settlement of Russia’s colonial enterprise. Structures and facilities at Three Saints harbour included wooden buildings used as residences and company offices, earthen-walled workers’ barracks, a school, a cemetery, storehouse, gardens, and animal pens.
Three years after Shelikhov settled Three Saints Harbour, Pavel Lebedev-Lastochkin’s company was the first to settle the shores of Kenai Bay and then Chugach Sound in 1793, today's Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound respectively. Lebedev-Lastochkins men picked the mouth of the Katnu (Kenai) river for the establishment of their first settlement, named Pavlovskia, this settlement came to be the base for the Kenai Bay hunters throughout the years of Russian presence in Alaska. During the period from 1787-1798 Lebedev-Lastochkin’s employees explored new lands, built several settlements and small fur trading posts. The Lebedev-Lastochkin’s Company employees were the first to establish permanent contacts with the Tanaina Indigenous peoples which they referred to as Kenaitzy. Lebedev’s employees explored the shores of Kenai Bay and took hostages from the neighbouring Kenaitzy in order to secure their safety and barter for furs. The settlement of Pavlovskaia was not located far from the Indigenous village called Skittok, because of this many Natives lived alongside Lebedev’s employees in the twenty-three structures located in the fort. Some buildings in the fort were also used as facilities for teaching the indigenous children the Russian language. The settlement at Pavlovskaia faced some struggle in the late 1780s and early 1790s. July 1789, Stephen Ziakov the commander of the St. Paul, one of Lebedev’s ships and some other crewmen set sail for Okhotsk leaving thirty-eight Russians behind at Pavlovskaia. Over the next two years seven people died, supplies ran out, and everyone in the settlement developed low-spirits waiting for aid form Okhotsk. Although during those two years the settlement was able to gain 250 sea otter pelts, 500 arctic fox pelts, and 350 beaver and river otter pelts. The settlers bartered for these pelts with the Indigenous groups which had depleted the settlements exchange goods.
Lebedev’s company was the first to secure a position in Chugach Sound, and in 1793 his employees started building a fortified settlement in the southwestern part of modern Constantine harbour on Hinchinbrook Island. This settlement came to be known as Fort Konstantinouskaia. Just as they had done in Kenai Bay, Russians in Chugach Sound settled near Indigenous villages in order to establish a profitable barter. The most important goal of Lebedev’s company was to find profitable hunting grounds and to use the labour of skilled Indigenous fur and food hunters to their own benefit.
Originally, Russians and Siberians had engaged in agreement pertaining to the fur trade. However, as the fur trade continued, different companies emerged to deal with the increased pelt demand. Lebedev-Lastochkin’s company and Georgii Shelikhov's companies are two influential fur trading enterprises that emerged in this era. By the end of the 18th century, Shelikhov and Golikov’s company was a part of the main settlement on the Kodiak Islands. These companies eventually led to the creation of the Russian-American Company that became the ultimate representative of the crown in Russian America.
Russian settlers did not live without their share of troubles. Harsh conditions made life difficult for young fur traders, and a lack of young Russian women made companionship non-existent. It was difficult for settlers to become accustomed to the difference in climate, food, and the heavy workload. The difficult circumstances caused much discontent among the Settlers. In early years of Russian Settlement, there were many uprisings by Russian settlers protesting against the living conditions. Shelikhov used many tactics to try to keep his workers content but eventually resorted to trapping workers into financial contracts. As a result, workers became indebted to company owners for the duration of their work in Russian Alaska.
Russian Relations with the Indigenous Peoples of Alaska
The first contact between Russians and the Aleutian people likely occurred during the Bering Expeditions. Bering encountered the Aleutian peoples, or Aleuts as referred to by missionaries. Other Indigenous peoples encountered by the Russians were the Inuit, Athapascan, and Tlingit, among other existing tribes in the area. However, in studying Russian influence on these populations, the most notable is the influence upon the Aleutian peoples.
Relations between Aleutian peoples and Russian workers in Alaska included marriages between Russian men and Indigenous women. Aleutian hunters helped the fur trade, as their knowledge of the land and hunting skills were highly valuable to Russians. Bartering between Russians and Aleutians also took place. However, the Russians often exploited the Indigenous People of Alaska. The explicit commercial agenda of Russian colonization established the policies and practices of its colonists and structured their encounters with local populations. The primary interest in local Indigenous people was for exploitation as cheap labour by the fur trade companies. The Russians brought a practice of controlling the Indigenous people of Alaska, forcing them to pay a tax or a tribute in furs. Early exploitation of sea otters on the Aleutian Islands and Kodiak Island involved using military force against Indigenous communities, which included taking women and children as hostages to ensure that local Indigenous people paid their fur taxes. Catherine II banned this form of tribute in 1788, and replaced it with a mandatory conscription of Indigenous people to hunt for Russian companies. The Russian-American Company had difficulties recruiting Russian people to populate its colonies, and therefore heavily relied on the Indigenous population of Alaska for the economic continuation of their colonies. Due to this lack of Russians, the colonies supported few Europeans, but supported many Indigenous workers.
Russian immigrants had a major influence on the Native peoples and the cultural landscape of Alaska, that left lasting effects on the population today. Diseases brought over by the Russians, as well as early massacres, caused serious declines in the Indigenous population in Alaska. The effects of the Russian language on Native groups can also be seen through the use of "loan words". Similarly, The Russian Orthodox Church had a huge and lasting impact on the Indigenous Peoples of Alaska, and Orthodox Christianity remains the predominant religion within the native peoples of Alaska.
The Russian Orthodox Church
The Russian Government employed many methods to strengthen their somewhat tenuous hold on Alaska during their control over the territory. One such way was through the Russian Orthodox Church. The missionaries, who followed the fur trade to Alaska, were directly connected to Russia’s plan for assimilation. Russian officials were aware of the controlling power of religion, and used it to their full advantage. The Orthodox Church made no attempts to disguise their motives and publicized their goal of “creating a preference for settled life and labor among the newly-baptized.” Religious conversion was viewed as a symbolic pledge of allegiance to the Russian Empire, and an important first step of assimilation into Russian culture. Assimilation remained a major goal in companies such as the Russian-American Company, throughout their existence.
The first group of Russian Orthodox Clergy arrived on Kodiak Island in Alaska in September of 1794 on orders from Catherine the Great. However, this was not Indigenous Alaskans first encounter with Russians or Orthodox Christianity. Russians who had first explored Alaska, or had come later for the fur trade, had converted some Indigenous Alaskans to Christianity as early as 1747. There were some instances of baptism of Indigenous people well before the arrival of the Orthodox Priests. The clergy was sent by request of Russian Fur Trade Companies who saw the opportunity to strengthen their control over, and commercialize, Alaska through the Orthodox Church. However, the relationship between the clergy and the Russians people living in Alaska was not as smooth as expected. Many Russians had taken informal Indigenous wives, and had stopped following the rules of the Orthodox Church. The new arrivals forced the Alaskan Russians to practice a religion they had grown unaccustomed to, which led to a great deal of resentment between the clergy and Russian Alaskans. The priests also disliked the Fur Trade Companies which had sought to use the clergy for their own gain. All churches, schools, pay, and living quarters of the clergy were funded by the Russian-American Company. As a result, the company had a great deal of control over the clergy and the mission could not function without the support and cooperation of the company.
After the abolition of the Patriarchate under Peter the Great in 1700, the Orthodox Church and the Russian state became more closely intertwined. In theory, The Tsar was the head of both Church and State, and had the opportunities to use the church to further his political agenda and gain control over the empire. During the reign of Nicolas I (1825-1855) the Russian Orthodox Priests were encouraged to adopt a more Protestant version of missional Christianity. The Priests were asked to add a component of political propaganda to their sermons, and serve as government officials in the new world. They were required to create reports, compile statistics, and deliver the news of new laws to the Indigenous population. Despite the actions taken by Russian officials to bolster missional Christianity in Russian America, Orthodox Christianity was met with mixed results until smallpox epidemics in 1835 and 1837 failed to be stopped by the local shamans. The priests were equipped with the smallpox vaccine, which assisted in the turning of Indigenous favours to Russian Orthodoxy. Policies implemented in the 1840s and 1850s also saw Indigenous Alaskans taking a larger role in the Orthodox Church. The native Alaskans filled the seminaries, and began to preach and proselytize to those not yet reached by the Russian Orthodox Priests. Relations between the priests and the Russian-American Company were better during this time and Russian Orthodox Christianity began to flourish.
The Russian Orthodox Mission to Alaska was limited by the small Russian population in Alaska. As a result, the mission was unable to reach vast areas of Alaska, and left groups of Indigenous Alaskans untouched by Christianity. To combat this issue, the Orthodox Church focused heavily on developing an Indigenous Alaskan clergy. A school had been established on Kodiak Island since the first arrival of missionaries in 1774, but had struggled due to the language barrier between Natives and Russians. As the language skills of the missionaries improved, more schools were built. A school was built in the Aleutians in 1825, and five more were established throughout Alaska by 1829. A theological school was also opened in Novo-Arkhangel’sk in 1841 which, when merged with the Kamchatka theological school in 1844, became a seminary able to educate Indigenous priests and clergymen. While the main purpose of the seminary was to educate future priests, the Russian-American Company continued to use the Orthodox Church to their advantage, and used schools to develop clerks and government officials, as it was the only secondary education available in Alaska. The church also attempted to encourage Indigenous people to join the clergy by conducting services in Indigenous languages.
After the sale of Alaska to the United States, the Orthodox Church persisted in Indigenous cultures of Alaska. Some even referred to Orthodox Christianity as the “native religion” and saw Orthodox Christianity as a form of resistance to American culture and Protestantism. As a result of its huge success, Russia lobbied the American government to allow the Russian Orthodox Church to continue to practice and proselytize Indigenous peoples. Support for the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska from Russia continued in the form of money and missionaries until the Soviets took control in 1917. As a result, many native Alaskans converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity even after the sale of Alaska in 1867.
Native Interaction with the Russian-American Company
In 1799, the Russian-American Company (RAC) located a depot in Sitka Sound, a small port built off the Gulf of Alaska, where the Sitka Tlingit village was stationed. This calm bay was a safe harbour and provided a good base for Russia’s North American operations. The RAC also used this village as a base for planning southern advances in the region and hunting. Unfortunately for the RAC, the Tlingit tribe fought for their land and managed to destroy the Russian redoubt after a battle in 1802, but the Russians would come back. In 1804, the Russians returned and took the land back from the Sitkans, causing them to flee the area. The company would go on to formally establish this base as the capital of Russian America, Novo-Arkhangelsk, now known as Sitka.
In 1807, over 2000 natives gathered in the Sitka harbour threatening to attack the settlement. They were hoping for news to be brought to them by women from the tribe who had decided to marry Russian hunters who worked for the RAC. The natives waited outside the town for days before they were no longer interested in staying, then left for their homes. In the early years of the settlement of Sitka, the Kolosh tribe were determined to rid their land of the Russian-American Company and all who came with them. War parties were always waiting for an unsuspecting hunter or fisherman to leave the fort but once the RAC became settled, their strength and weapons commanded the natives.
The Russian Ukase and the Monroe Doctrine
The area of land that would become Alaska was originally occupied by various groups of Indigenous peoples as well as traders from Britain, America, and Russia. Outsiders had interest in this area for trading possibilities. Being some of the first foreigners to occupy the area, the Russians were frequent traders with Indigenous peoples of the region and established the Russian-American Company at the end of the 18th century. In September 1821, Tsar Alexander I extended Russian territories to the fifty-first parallel of north latitude along the Northwest Coast of North America by issuing a ukase, forbidding any other group from trading with Indigenous people within this zone. A ukase was an arbitrary command issued by the Russian government. In addition to forbidding trade and fishing, the ukase also closed access to foreign ships entering through Russian waters along the coast. However, not all limitations made by the ukase were enforced, meaning many ships continued to pass through Russian waters. Tsar Alexander I, argued that the ukase was justified because Russia had first discovery claims to the area and had occupied the region peacefully for over half a century. Russia’s decision to implement this restrictive law was not driven by territorial expansion but instead by a policy of aggression against the growing numbers of British and American traders in the area. While ships did continue to pass through Russian waters, the news of the ukase was ill-received in the United States and generated protest from its citizens for the country to take a firm stance against Russia. The United States government was mainly concerned about the limitations the ukase placed on trade and fishing on the coasts rather than concerns about Russia's territorial possessions.
The United States responded to the Russian problem by creating a document known as the Monroe Doctrine. Introduced by President James Monroe in 1823, the Monroe Doctrine stated European expansion and colonization of the continent would no longer be tolerated. The Doctrine was a direct response to the trade restrictions of the Russian ukase of 1821.Many Americans supported the doctrine and believed it was a justified response. Although many scholars argue the document was directed towards British claims in North America, it also applied to Russia and enabled the United States to eventually obtain full control of the area. The non-colonization principle of the doctrine was created by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. Adams argued that this aspect of the Monroe Doctrine would persuade Tsar Alexander I to recede his implementation of the Russian ukase. The establishment of the Monroe Doctrine allowed the United States to argue Russia should not have the right to maintain a colony in North America, let alone make claims that restricted Americans’ movement and trade within the area. Although the ukase of 1821 negatively impacted American sentiment towards Russia, both President Monroe and John Adams wanted to maintain good relations between the two countries. Both the Russian ukase and the Monroe Doctrine were important pieces of legislation that uncovered major territory and trading region problems between Russia and the United States. These disputes subsequently led to the Russo-American Treaty of 1824 that resolved the problems which had been building over the years.
The Russo-American Treaty of 1824
The Russo-American Treaty of 1824 aimed to solve boundary and trading issues that had risen on the Northwestern Coast of North America in the early 1800s. While tensions had raised between the United States and Russia as a result of the Russian ukase and the Monroe Doctrine, the United States continued to value diplomatic and peaceful relations with the Russians. On April 17th, 1824 the convention between the countries fixed the southern boundary of Alaska at 54°40′ north latitude and granted Americans access to Russian-Alaskan coasts. The convention also allowed Americans to fish and trade with the Indigenous populations in the area. For Americans, this was one of the most important outcomes of the 1824 convention. However, this trading period only lasted for a ten year period, after which restrictions were to be reinforced. Although Alexander I agreed to the terms of the treaty, the officials of the Russian-American Company were not content with it as the treaty appeared to be more advantageous for Americans. Initially, the Russian-American Company’s leading spokesman, Count Mordvinov, wanted the Russian government to argue for inland territory that stretched to the mountain range. Once the convention had been signed, more complaints from the company arose regarding the terms of the treaty. The Russo-American Company argued that American trade should be restricted to Behring Bay and Cross Sound. By the time the convention reached Washington on July 26th, 1824, both John Adams and President Monroe were comfortable with the changes requested by the Russian-American Company and agreed that the terms were fair for both countries.
The requests by the Russo-American Company were applied to the original treaty and approved by the Senate on January 5th, 1825. The convention was officially ratified and concluded on January 11th, 1825. The treaty held high importance as it finally settled conflicting claims to the area. For Russians, the treaty ended any hopes of territorial expansion on the continent and ultimately denied the demands of the early Russian ukase. However, Russia had greater concern for more pressing conflicts occurring within Europe. This was the major reason Alexander I willingly agreed to the terms of the convention and let the earlier demands of the Russian ukase become irrelevant. On the other hand, the United States was able to gain access to trade in settled Russian areas as well as claimed territories, but not officially settled by Russia. Overall, the Russo-American Treaty of 1824 was important to Alaska’s history because it granted American rights to the area and began to push other groups, such as the Russians, out of the region.
The Russian-American Company
Origins of the Russian-American Company
Russia first arrived in Alaska in the early-to-mid eighteenth century and are thought to be the first Europeans to reach the modern-day state. After first contact, the Russian-American Company would be born. The company became the first ever Russian joint-stock company created at the end of the eighteenth century by Tsar Paul I in the Ukase of 1799. The company originally started with Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov, son-in-law of a former fur trader, Shelikhov, obtaining a 20 year contract from Tsar Paul I. Tsar Paul I granted Rezanov a monopoly over the Alaskan fur trade, with a donation of 724,000 rubles from the Russian royal family. The main purpose of the company was to aid in the colonization of modern-day Alaska, as well as establish trading relationships between Aboriginal groups and the Russians. Outside of mainland Alaska, the company also controlled posts and settlements throughout the Bering Strait, as well as some regions in the lower Pacific Northwest. Although the land claims by the Russians were legitimate, Great Britain and America challenged the borders set out by the Tsarist government. However, these disputes were put to rest by treaties agreed on at international conventions. These treaties would firmly set Russia’s Southern and Eastern boundaries in Alaska. The Russian-American Company's issued their flag in 1799 and used on the company's ships and settlements throughout Alaska. The flag changed a few times throughout the company's history, starting with the original design only being used until 1806 when Tsar Alexander I approved a new design. While there were several variations of the flag, it was used up until 1881 while the company was being liquidated, even though the company ended in 1867.
Alexander Baranov was the first and longest-standing manager of the RAC until his position was appointed to naval officers. Baranov was one of the key players in bringing the company to new heights, especially since the major stockholders of the fur trading enterprise were unable to conduct business themselves as they were stationed in mainland Russia. While Baranov never expanded into middle or eastern Alaska, he made it his mission to strengthen the RAC’s position along the Pacific coast and islands situated in the Bering Strait. His actions resulted in the primary establishment of the major settlements that would further allow for the company to profit from trade, however, the lack of mass expansion ultimately hurt the company in terms of progress and growth in North America.
Conducting Business In & Around Alaska
The Aleutian Islands were one of the primary targets for the Russian-American Company to exploit and its people, the Aleuts, were some of the first native populations to come into contact with the Russians. Native men, from islands off the coast of Alaska were forced to work for the company, due to their high skill in hunting animals at sea such as otters, beavers, and seals. By using tribesmen, the company could work much more efficiently. The Russian-American Company had issues with recruiting skilled Russian seamen in earlier years, and thus believed it was necessary to conscribe Indigenous men to work for them. As a result, the furs of sea otters and seals became some of the most profitable items collected and sold by the RAC. One major reason behind the company's continued success was their ability to sell the valuable furs to China. The company's industrious nature led them to look southward to present-day California. Eventually, the Russian government would take over from the merchants who controlled the charter of the enterprise. Shortly after, the company saw a decline in the number of fur-bearing animals, especially sea otters.
The Russians were still not willing to give up on the colonies and kept supplying them with resources, such as salt to preserve food, in an attempt to sustain the outposts. Fortunately, the government was able to take outright control of the company, when the Crimean War broke out, as a wartime precaution for the possibility of an invasion by the British. This was a real threat to the Russian-American Company and Russian-controlled Alaska, as the Hudson’s Bay Company, a British-owned trading organization, was operating out of what is now Canada. The two companies would eventually broker peace, as neither side was in favor of the war since it would greatly disrupt both of their profitable businesses. Despite this agreement, a British and French ship attacked an outpost controlled by the RAC in 1855 which was located in a set of islands off the coast of Russia called the Kuriles. The post, on Urup Island, was thought by the attackers not to be protected under the agreement. After the war, the Russian-American Company branched out from primarily trading pelts of animals and began whaling, however, was only successful in erecting a small number of stations for this purpose.
The Decline of an Enterprise
On April 20, 1866, the Russian-American company called an emergency shareholders’ meeting where they announced that the company sustained major losses on the tea trade. In early 1867, the RAC told the finance minister that they had losses equivalent to that of an entire annual income in the late 1850s. The company would receive loans from the government in early 1867 and continued to receive subsidies to cover the costs of Russian America but their stock continued to fall. The shares reached an all-time low on February 27, 1867. Eventually, the United States purchased Alaska in 1867 for $7.2 million. This would lead to the end of the Russian-American company in Alaska. In October 1867, the inhabitants of Sitka raised the American flag, ending an era of northwest dominance from the Russian-American company in North America.
At the time of its inception, the Russian-American Company was not as well established as other new-world businesses of the time, such as the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Company faced a decline in profitable goods, such as the disappearance of fur-bearing animals, which was a key factor in the company’s demise. The RAC also executed expeditions poorly, resulting in a limited expansion of Russian territory outside of Alaska. Although Russian Alaska was no more, they had achieved remarkable feats ever since its creation. The RAC managed to explore nearly the entire modern-day Alaskan State and managed to colonize major waterways. Also, through Russian funding, they could investigate natural resources and profit from many of them which would not have been possible through a private enterprise.
The Sale of Alaska
Overall, Russia's attempts at settlement and colonization were largely unsuccessful. It was difficult for Russian Alaska to have any permanent settlers, as Russians who worked for companies were only living in settlements for a limited time, and still had family in Russia that they returned to after their contracts were complete. As the United States began to acquire more of the North American continent, Russian America became viewed by the Russians at home as an obstacle to their own growth in Siberia. Many Russians, including politician Eduard Stoeckl, began to view American Manifest Destiny - the belief that US expansion of the American continent was a god given right - as an inevitability. They also began to view Russian America as a thorn in the side of Russia.
With ports of trade opening between Britain and China in the 1840s, Russia feared involvement with Great Britain, and Britians power to overtake them. The final factor contributing to the sale of Russian America was Grand Duke Constantine’s dislike of the Russian American Company, which he saw as a drain on Russia’s treasury. Negotiations between America and Russia on the sale of Russian America were taking place on and off for at least ten years before the final sale took place. The sale of Russian America was a viewed as a triumph of Duke Constantine, and an acknowledgment to Eduard Stoeckl of the inevitably of Manifest Destiny.