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The Americas

North American Colonial Settlements

 

Russian Colonies in the Americas (Russian America)
AD 1784 - 1867

Like its main European opponents of the seventeenth century, Sweden, the might of imperial Russia was slow to become involved in the colonisation of the Americas, only even more so. By the time Russia got started with a voyage of exploration in 1732, the main Swedish effort had been started and long-since conquered by numerically-superior European opponents. Admittedly, with none of the easy access to the Atlantic that was enjoyed by Britain, France, and the Netherlands, it was a much less inviting prospect. Russian expansion through Siberia and towards the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea in the east had largely been completed in 1640 with the fall of the khanate of Sibir, but exploring and exploiting that massive expanse of territory left little enthusiasm for many years when it came to crossing the Bering Sea into North America.

The 'Russian American Company' was formed in 1799 under the patronage of Czar Paul I himself, making it a state-sponsored monopoly effort. It was created largely around what was generally known as the Shelikhov-Golikov Company which was already being run by Grigory Shelikhov and Ivan Larionovich Golikov, having entered into business in 1784. Following Shelikhov's death, his interests were managed by his widow, Natalia Shelikhova, with a great deal of involvement from Shelikhov's son-in-law, Nikolai Rezanov, until the latter's death in 1807.

This was Russia's first joint stock company, the arrangement being somewhat unusual in a state that was generally controlled quite tightly from the top down, with a peasant workforce still managing most of the labour. The Russian minister of commerce between 1802-1811, Nikolai Petrovich Rumiantsev (Rumyantsev), was a pivotal influence upon the company's early affairs and, in 1801, that desire for top-downwards control was applied here too, when the company's headquarters were moved from Irkutsk to St Petersburg so that the merchants who were the initial major stockholders could be replaced by Russia's nobility and aristocracy. This had its plus points though. Count Rumiantsev played a very important early role in circumnavigation efforts and in exploring the Alaska-California coastal strip.

The territory included in the company's twenty-year-renewable trade agreement included the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, and lands as far south as latitude fifty-five degrees north (roughly level with the southern edge of Norway), plus a presence on Hawaii. One-third of all profits were to go to the czar. On many maps from the period, the Russian area of interest is labelled 'Russian America' (with the Russian form being 'Russian-America', not 'Russo-America': Российско-Американская). Claims that refugees from Veliky Novgorod who were fleeing persecutions by Ivan III and Ivan IV in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries can be dismissed as wishful supposition based solely on the fact that they traded in fur.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Mick Baker, from Baranov, Chief Manager of the Russian Colonies in America, K T Khlebnikov (The Limestone Press, 1973), from Russians in Alaska, Lydia Black (University of Alaska Press, 2014), from Giinaquq Like a Face: Suqpiaq Masks of the Kodiak Archipelago, Amy F Steffian & Sven D Haakanson Jr (University of Alaska Press, 2009), and from External Links: Sun'aq Tribe of Kodiak (Native Language Community Coordination), and Russian assimilation of America and Alaska (in Russian), and Geophysical survey locates an elusive Tlingit fort, Thomas M Urban & Brinnen Carter (Antiquity, 95(379), E6, Cambridge University Press, 2021).)

1784

The newly-formed Shelikhov-Golikov Company (in 1783) gains the charter for the Russian exploitation of Alaska's resources. Founded by Grigory Shelikhov and Ivan Golikov (1729-1805), this is the first attempt to found a permanent settlement in Alaska following around forty years of relatively low key fur trading. The site chosen is Kodiak Island, once the native Sun'aq (Sunaq) tribe and their less dominant neighbours have been conquered and partially exterminated.

Grigory Ivanovich Shelikhov
Grigory Ivanovich Shelikhov (1747-1795) co-founded the company which would become the main source of Russian involement in North America during the first half of the nineteenth century

1784 - 1786

Grigory Ivanovich Shelikhov

First chief manager for Shelikhov-Golikov. Died 1795.

1786 - 1787

Konstantin Alekseevich Samoilov

Ordered to exterminate all native rebels.

1787 - 1791

Evstratii Ivanovich Delarov

Macedonian. Last manager before company re-founding.

1791

The Shelikhov-Golikov Company is refounded as the 'North-Eastern Company'. The man appointed to be its new chief manager is Alexandr Andreyevich Baranov, first hired in 1790 and who, in 1799, serves as the first chief manager when it is converted into the 'Russian American Company'.

1791 - 1799

Aleksandr Andreyevich Baranov

Remains chief manager for the Russian American Company.

1795

Baranov is concerned by non-Russian Europeans who are trading with the natives of south-eastern Alaska. He establishes the colony of Mikhailovsk around ten kilometres to the north of today's city of Sitka, purchasing the land from a Tlingit tribe. With the death of Grigory Ivanovich Shelikhov his wife, Natalia Shelikova, takes the reigns and Golikov departs to form a fresh fur-trading concern. It is largely Natalia's efforts which result in the changes to the company of 1799.

1799

In the same year in which the Second Coalition is formed by Austria and Russia against France, the 'Russian American Company' is formed under the patronage of Czar Paul I himself, making it a state-sponsored effort. It is created largely around what had generally been known as the Shelikhov-Golikov Company. The position of chief manager remains, and so does the current chief manager, Alexandr Andreyevich Baranov. Many place names on southern Alaska bears names that originate with these chief managers or (from 1818) governors.

Tinglit tribesfolk
The native Tlingit practice matrilineal descent, so that that people belong to the same clan as their mother, and village leadership is inherited by a nephew (the head man's sister's son)

1799 - 1818

Alexandr Andreyevich Baranov

Former Shelikov-Golikov manager. Died 1819.

1802

While Baranov is at Kodiak, the colony of Mikhailovsk is attacked and destroyed by Native American Tlingit from a neighbouring settlement. A British vessel, Unicorn, is on hand to rescue some of the Russian and Aleut survivors while also being able to seize the ringleaders and transport them along the coast to be delivered to Baranov, albeit in exchange for a ransom. Baranov then begins a search for a new site for permanent settlement, finding one in 1803.

1803 - 1806

Count Rumiantsev funds Russia's first naval circumnavigation under the joint command of Ivan Kruzenstern and Nikolai Rezanov in 1803. In 1804 Baranov establishes his new permanent settlement at Novo-Arkhangelsk (now Sitka, Alaska), and a thriving maritime trade is organised. It becomes the capital of Russian interests in Alaska, also taking over from Kodiak.

In September of the same year he leads a military reprisal against the Tlingit, known as the Battle of Sitka. After four days of heavy skirmishing on foot and bombardment from naval guns, the Tlingit are forced into surrender. Under cover of night they begin a full-scale evacuation of the area that comes to be known as the 'Sitka Kiks.ádi Survival March'. The site of their specially-constructed fort, which is burned by the Russians, is only discovered in January 2021.

Battle of Sitka, 1804
The Battle of Sitka took place in September 1804, with the native Tlingit people especially creating a fortified structure from which they defied the Russian traders and soldiers (painting by Louis S Glanzman)

1812

Rumiantsev (Bodega) Bay in northern California is named in honour of Count Rumiantsev during the Russian-California period which starts in 1812 with the founding of Fort Ross (in Sonoma County, California). This is the southernmost mainland extension of Russian-controlled interests in North America, although control of the region is contested by Spain and then its successor state in the region, Mexico.

Native American tribes in the district include the 'Kashia Band' of Pomo natives around the Stewarts Point Rancheria. Also known as Kashaya Pomo, the Pomo are the dominant tribe in the district. With the arrival of the Russians, the tribe is conscripted to work for them but is not broken up or converted to Christianity. Lesser tribes in and around the area include the Wappo, the Coastal Miwok, and the Lake Miwok, together with the periphery tribes of the Costanoan, Patwin, and Yuki.

1814 - 1816

Count Rumiantsev is instrumental in outfitting the Riurik for its circumnavigation in this period, which provides substantial scientific information on the flora and fauna of Alaska and California, and important ethnographic information on Alaskan and Californian natives (amongst others).

Count Nikolai Petrovich Rumiantsev, minister of commerce (1802-1811)
Count Nikolai Petrovich Rumiantsev, Russian minister of commerce between 1802-1811, had an influential hand in Russian exploitation and exploration of North America, funding the first Russian circumnavigation in 1803 and helping to outfit the Riurik for a further circumnavigation in 1814-1816

1818

Cpt Leonty A Gagemeister

Baltic German. Chief manager between 11 Jan-24 Oct only.

1818

The position of chief manager of the Russian American Company is generally replaced from this point by the title of governor. This is thanks to the company being transferred to the oversight of the Russian navy on 11 January 1818 and foreign employees taking over the post. The Russians are fairly dependant upon British and American food suppliers, given that Russian supply ships are few and far between.

1818 - 1820

Lt Semyon Ivanovich Yanovsky

Russian navy. Baranov's son-in-law. Died 1876.

1820 - 1825

Matvey Ivanovich Muravyev

Russian navy. Died 1826.

1821 - 1825

Russia issues a renewal of the company's charter in 1821, asserting its holdings as far south as latitude fifty-one degrees north (roughly in line with London). This is challenged by Great Britain and the USA, resulting in the Russo-American Treaty of 1824 and the Russo-British Treaty of 1825 which establishes fifty-four degrees, forty minutes as the southwards limit of Russian interests.

The only attempt by Russia to enforce its claim takes place in 1822 when the US fur-trading brig, Pearl, is seized by the Russian sloop, Apollon. When the US government protests, the vessel is released and compensation is paid. Profits from Russia's fur trade have already begun to decline, however, signalling a gradual diminution of Russian interest in the colonies.

The harbour of St Paul, Kodiak Island
Drawn by Captain Lisiansky and published by John Booth, London, in 1814, the harbour of St Paul, Kodiak Island in Russian America contains a Russian sloop, a light vessel with, typically, a small crew of around forty (click or tap on image to view full sized)

1825 - 1830

Pyotr Igorovich Chistyakov

Russian navy. Died 1862.

1830 - 1835

Baron Ferdinand Petrovich von Wrangel

Baltic German, Russian navy. Died 1870.

1835 - 1840

Ivan Antonovich Kupreianov

Russian navy. Died 1857.

1838

A lease to the Hudson's Bay Company involves the south-eastern region of today's Alaska Panhandle, as far north as fifty-six degrees, thirty minutes north. The lease is part of a damages settlement due to treaty violations in 1833 by the company's former governor, Baron Wrangel.

1840 - 1845

(Arvid) Adolf Karlovich Etolin

Swedish Finland. Died 1876.

1841 - 1842

The Russian-California period around Fort Ross largely comes to an end in 1842 following the 1841 settlement which sells it off. Today Rotchev House is the last remaining original building from that period.

1845 - 1850

Vice-Admiral Mikhail D Tebenkov

Russian navy. Died 1872.

1850 - 1853

Cpt Nikolay Yakovlevich Rozenberg

Russian navy. Died 1857.

1853 - 1854

Aleksandr Ilich Rudakov

Russian navy. Died 1875.

1854 - 1859

Cpt Stepan Vasiliyevich Voyevodsky

Russian navy. Died 1884.

1859 - 1863

Cpt Ivan Vasiliyevich Furugelm

Finno-Russian, Russian navy. Died 1909.

1863 - 1867

Prince Dmitri Petrovich Maksutov

Russian navy. Died 1889.

1867 - 1881

The United States senate reluctantly votes in 1867 to purchase Alaska from Russia for just US$7.2 million. Czar Alexander of Russia allows this because he fears that the British in Canada will invade and seize it. In Canada and Britain the act is seen somewhat differently, as a threat to Britain's Pacific coast colony. The Russian American Company is sold to Hutchinson, Kohl, & Company of San Francisco, California, who then rename it to the 'Alaska Commercial Company'. It continues its activities for a time, but ceases entirely in 1881.

Signing of the Alaska Treaty
The Signing of the Alaska Treaty by Emmanuel Leutze shows Russian minister Eduard Stoeckl standing beside the globe and pointing to 'Russian America', while the seated US secretary of state, William Seward, prepares to sign the treaty (click or tap on image to view full sized)