When Russia Colonized North America

In the middle of the 18e century, as British settlers began to steadily populate the east coast of North America, a rising world power sought to establish colonies on the continent’s remote northwest coast: Russia.

Since its 1721 victory in the Great Northern War made Russia the dominant military force in Europe – and prompted an official declaration that its Tsar, Peter the Great, presided over an empire in his own right – Russia actively worked to expand its global footprint.

To do this, Peter and his heirs recognized that they had to look east to the Pacific Ocean and beyond to what are now the Aleutian Islands and the Alaskan coast. The look? Not just the chance to seize more land, but the chance to maintain Russian dominance over the lucrative fur trade, which at its height during Peter the Great’s lifetime accounted for more than 10% of the empire’s total revenue. according to Benson Bobrick, author. of East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia.

Bering crosses the strait

Russian explorers and trappers were aware of the potential riches that lay to the east since the mid-16e century. But it was not until 1725 that the Danish-born cartographer and navigator Vitus Bering, commissioned by the Russian crown, set out to explore the lands along the North Pacific, long colonized by indigenous peoples, and to claim them. for the empire.

Bering demonstrated that Siberia extended much farther east than anyone had believed and that it was possible to sail through Arctic waters as far north as Russia and reach the Pacific. He embarked on a year-long exploration to map the Aleutian Islands and the Alaskan coastline, a necessary first step towards occupation and colonization. The territory, he discovered, was immense and the weather terrible.

Bering proved that it was possible to reach Alaska—and points farther south—and establish trading posts and settlements there. In fact, only a narrow channel separated the Siberian and Alaskan land masses. But while whose straits were named for Bering, he did not live to enjoy the honor. He died of scurvy in 1741 while abandoned on an island.

WATCH: Discover the history of the Russian Navy at HISTORYVault.com

Fur traders rush in and establish colonies

St. Michael's Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church in Sitka, Alaska.  Sitka was the headquarters of Russian-American society and during the 1800s was the site of a thriving fur trade, earning it the nickname of

St. Michael’s Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church in Sitka, Alaska. Sitka was the headquarters of Russian-American society and during the 1800s was the site of a thriving fur trade, earning it the nickname “Paris of the Pacific”.

Freezing, foggy and stormy weather in the North Pacific did not deter Russia promyshlenniki (fur trade entrepreneurs) to fund trips to Alaska after high demand depleted the stock of sea otter pelts and other Siberian furs. More than 40 merchants sponsored further expeditions between 1740 and 1800, and trappers returned laden with pelts from sea otters and fur seals.

These lucrative ventures spurred Russian interest in establishing bases in Alaska to support its territorial claims and support fur hunting expeditions. Indeed, it was a notable Siberian merchant and fur trader named Grigory Ivanovich Shelikhov who eventually founded Russia’s first permanent settlement in Alaska, Kodiak Island’s Bay of Three Saints, in 1784.

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Shelikhov explained his colonial philosophy in a letter to one of his aides two years later, ordering the latter to “subdue” the indigenous people, whom he described as licentious, willful and lazy. “Each of them must be informed that loyal and reliable people will prosper under the rule of our Empress (Catherine the Great) but all rebels will be utterly exterminated by her strong hand,” he wrote. Shelihov had already demonstrated this philosophy when he pursued the early resisters, the Alutiiq of Kodiak, to a remote outpost known as Awa’uq, or Refuge Rock. He slaughtered hundreds and took others as hostages.

The relationship between the Russian colonizers and the indigenous populations remained unstable. While local communities traded with Russian merchants, they also fiercely resisted Russian encroachment on their lands and proselytizing by Orthodox missionaries. But while native Tlingit warriors destroyed several Russian outposts in 1802, the colonizers regained control after the Battle of Sitka two years later.

READ MORE: Why the Alaska Purchase was far from ‘madness’

Russian settlers struggle to survive

Portrait of Alexander Baranov, leader of the Russian-American Company and first governor of Russian Alaska, 1818. Found in the collection of the State Arctic and Antarctic Museum, St. Petersburg.

Portrait of Alexander Baranov, leader of the Russian-American Company and first governor of Russian Alaska, 1818. Found in the collection of the State Arctic and Antarctic Museum, St. Petersburg.

Shelikhov, who returned to St. Petersburg to receive eulogies and honors from Catherine the Great, appointed Alexander Baranov to manage his new business ventures in Alaska in her absence. First as a representative of Shelikhov, then as the first director of the Imperial Russian-American Company (RAC) – de facto ruler of the new colony – Baranov moved the Russian base from Alaska to Pavlovskaya (renamed more later Kodiak) and established new colonies.

He had a new, larger mission: not only was he responsible for maintaining the lucrative fur trade, but also for establishing Russian political and religious dominance in the region. He imported serfs from the Russian mainland with the aim of establishing farms in Yakutat, built forts, opened sawmills and tanneries, and began to develop reserves of coal and iron ore.

Yet the Russian community in Alaska struggled mightily to survive. Living conditions were dire, as another notable Alaskan adventurer, Nikolai Rezanov, recounted when he visited Novo-Arkhangelsk (present-day Sitka). Baranov “lives in a wooden yurt, so damp inside that the mold has to be removed every day,” Rezanov wrote. The heavy rain “makes the place look like a dripping sieve”.

Food insecurity was a major problem. After the Tlingit massacred the Yakutat settlers, the Alaskan settlers again became almost entirely dependent on supplies from Siberia, which sometimes arrived spoiled and often did not arrive at all. In the winter of 1805-1806, when Rezanov arrived in the colony on an inspection tour, he found his fellow Russians on the brink of starvation.

To Southern California

Rezanov bought a ship from American merchants and went in search of provisions for his compatriots. He had a vested interest in the survival and expansion of the colony: not only was he an ardent Russian imperialist, but his first wife had been Grigory Shelikhov’s daughter, Anna, making him a shareholder in the new company of State. So when he headed south to the Spanish colonies in California, he wasn’t just looking for supplies. He was looking for new opportunities.

He returned triumphant, having successfully challenged Spain’s ban on trading with foreigners and traded Russian-made tools for wheat and other foodstuffs. Rezanov had gone further than anyone expected: he had married the Spanish governor’s teenage daughter and received preliminary approval for an official business relationship between San Francisco and other Spanish colonies and the Russian colony.

Rezanov urged the RAC to develop further. North of the Spanish colonies in the California area, he told his Russian colleagues, he had encountered land then unclaimed and unsettled by other European powers. He said it was up to Russia to take it. As Rezanov died on the way back to St. Petersburg, Baranov heeded his advice. In 1812, he established Fort Ross in present-day Sonoma County as Russia’s southernmost North American outpost.

Russia bails out and sells to US

Geographical expansion, however, could not save the Russian colony of Alaska. By the time it was established, overhunting had already taken its toll on the sea otter population, the company’s goal. As profits from the fur trade plummeted and other colonial powers intended to curb Russian expansion and make their own territorial gains, Russian leaders began to rethink the viability of their colony of Alaska. In 1862, the Tsar refused to renew the mandate of the RAC. A few years later, Russia sold its land claims in Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million.

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