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Regional History
Interior Alaska
1800-1869 THE RUSSIANS AND ENGLISH MEET

In this section you will learn about:

  • Russian exploration of Interior Alaska in the 1830s and its effects upon Athapaskans
  • Some of Zagoskin's experiences
  • Arrival of the English at Fort Yukon
  • The Western Union Telegraph Expedition

Russians explore Interior Alaska

The Lebedev-Lastochkin Company sent the first Russian promyshlenniki to investigate the resources of the lower Yukon River in 1790. The party, led by the hunter Ivanov, traveled from Iliamna Lake to the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers. Ivanov reported on the extensive fish and game resources and the many people inhabiting the region.

The competing fur companies became the Russian-American Company in 1799. Facing declining sea otter and seal populations the company sought to expand its fur trade and began exploring the western interior. In 1833 Andrei Clazunov a Creole left the new post at St. Michael on the west coast of Alaska to cross to Cook Inlet. Traveling in late winter, the party reached the Stoney River, a tributary of the middle Kuskokwim River, before they ran out of supplies and turned back. Almost ten years later, in 1842, Lavrentiy Zagoskin led a two year expedition that investigated the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Innoko river drainages. Zagoskin met many Natives and learned a great deal about Athapaskan and Eskimo life in the western Interior. He wrote a detailed report of what he saw and learned. Zagoskin's journal includes descriptions of routes he traveled, natural resources of the country, people he met, and places he visited.

During a summer voyage east from Nulato on the Yukon River, Zagoskin wrote of a chance encounter with families from the upper Innoko River. He saw six one-place" and two "family-size boats" pulled ashore. The owners of the the boats were

enjoying a deep sleep covered with deerskin blankets and under the shelter of a few branches which scarcely kept offthe sun. A few dogs of the sled-dog variety were tied to the bushes with their tails tucked under them. Sleds, snowshoes, bag nets, fish traps and other gear belonging to a northern household were strewn about. Before we were within 20 sazhens of the camp our guides could resist no longer and gave out with their usual `Hello!' In a split second headsappeared, human figures of all ages dashed in every direction one would have seized his lance but became entangled in a fish net and landed with his feet in the air. That changed the situation. They began to laugh over their kinsman and were completely reassured when they were told that the Russian chief had come to give presents to those who would sell beavers to his countrymen. This was the offer that I had advertised by word and deed from the start of our Nulato trip.

Through interpreters Zagoskin questioned the Natives about their homes. He carefully recorded the information the Indians gave him.

Beyond these mountains there is the river Tlegon, or Innoka, where our tribe lives .... Our river is smaller than this one but we take a lot of beaver and otter along its tributaries, we catch many sable in the woods, our country is famous for its foxes. We bring our furs this way to trade for white and black beads, shells, iron and tobacco .... We come to the Yuna [upper Yukon] river in several places after hunting deer on the hard snow crust there we build our canoes, take beaver in the side streams and prepare yukola, at the first snowfall we go back home. We have no large houses, but each one lives where he likes.

Natives attack Russians at Nulato

The Russians were for the most part accepted peaceably in Interior Alaska. One exception occurred in 1851 at Nulato. Without warning, Koyukon Athapaskans attacked the Russian trading post. They killed the Indians and a Russian trader who lived there and also a visiting British naval officer, Lieutenant J.J. Bernard. Some historians think the attack was directed at the Russians for alleged insults to the Koyukon Athapaskans. Others feel it was directed at the Nulato Indians because the Koyukon Athapaskans were jealous of their trade relationship with the Russians. Some believe that Bernard, who had been sent there to seek word of the lost Franklin expedition, had offended a Koyukon leader. Whatever the cause, such attacks were rare. They did not discourage Russian fur trading along the lower Yukon River.

Hudson's Bay Company begins to trade in Interior Alaska

A thousand miles upriver from Nulato, events threatened further expansion of Russian trade. The Hudson's Bay Company was pushing into the upper Yukon River area to expand its fur trade. In 1845 chief trader John Bell had set out westward from Fort McPherson in Canada and reached a large, clear, southwest-flowing river, the Porcupine. He descended the river through 460 miles of unknown territory to where it joined the muddy Yukon River. The next year, trader Alexander Hunter Murray retraced Bell's route. When he reached the point where the rivers joined he built a trading post and named it for the Yukon River. The "Youkon House" (now known as Fort Yukon) was the most isolated of all the Hudson's Bay Company posts.

It was a bold move by the Hudson's Bay Company. The 141st meridian had been set by treaty as the Russian territorial boundary, and Fort Yukon was well west of that line. The site was well-suited for fur trade with Natives of the upper Yukon River, but Murray was not impressed with the surroundings

I must say, as I sat smoking my pipe and my face besmeared with tobacco juice to keep at bay the d---d mosquitoes . . . that my first impressions of the Yucon [sic] were anything but favorable as far as we had come (21/4 miles) . . . I had never seen an uglier river.

The new outpost was a benefit to Natives all along the Yukon River. Now there was competition for furs brought in for trade. Murray noted that as soon as the Russian-American Company learned of the English post, it lowered its prices for goods at Nulato

. . . kettles knocked down from twenty to ten skins each, common guns to ten skins, above a pint of powder given for a measure, and beads and other things, above a half cheaper, and cloth which they cannot dispose of given for nothing.

The Fort Yukon outpost grew. There was a large log house for the commander, separate one-room cabins for workmen, a storeroom, kitchen, and four blockhouses. Windows were of parchment, except in the commander's house where glass was used.

Lukin spies on British traders

The Russians sent a scout, Ivan S. Lukin, who paddled up the Yukon River in 1863 to assess the size of the British fort and the extent of the Hudson's Bay Company influence. He left St. Michael with a trading party and journeyed as far as Nuklukayet. From there he traveled alone, the first Russian-American Company employee to ascend the Yukon River from its mouth to its junction with the Porcupine River. When he reached Fort Yukon Lukin told the British that he had defected from the Russian-American Company and learned what he could about their trade.

The Russians apparently did not use Lukin's information when he returned to St. Michael. They made no effort to enforce their boundary on the upper Yukon River. The real value of Lukin's journey was knowledge of the Yukon River's course.

The Americans arrive

After Lukin's expedition the twisting, sprawling Yukon River was known to both British and Russians. Americans learned its ways for the first time three years later. The Western Union Telegraph Expedition had been formed to survey a globe-circling telegraph line. The proposed route lay across North America to the Bering Sea. There an underwater cable would connect the line with Siberia. Wires across Russia would complete the link between Europe and America. The line was planned after many failures to lay a underwater cable in the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and America.

Part of the Telegraph Expedition was a Scientific Corps charged to collect information about the land through which the line would pass. Scientist Robert Kennicott led the seven member Scientific Corps. He had spent a winter at Fort Yukon collecting arctic animals, birds, and ethnographic materials for the Smithsonian Institution. He recruited other young scientists for the Scientific Corps and assigned them to two groups. One group would explore the Yukon River country east from Nulato to meet a Canadian survey team. The other group would travel west from Nulato to the mouth of the Yukon River and north to the Seward Peninsula. Just reaching Nulato was an arduous undertaking. Kennicott died at Nulato in May of 1866. William H. Dall replaced Kennicott as leader of the corps. In the summer of 1866 three members of the corps traveled upriver in a kayak from Nulato to Fort Yukon.

The next year, Dall and corps artist Frederick Whymper left Nulato, where they had wintered, and traveled the same route. On their return to Nulato in mid-July they were called to St. Michael. There they learned, to their dismay, that the overland telegraph project had been abandoned. A cable had been successfully laid beneath the Atlantic Ocean.

The scientists' reports detailed Alaska's vast resources for the first time. The information they gathered was used by Senator Charles Sumner to help convince Congress to appropriate money for the purchase of Alaska. Whymper's sketches of Interior Alaska and the Athapaskans provided a unique glimpse of life along the Yukon. Dall and the others identified a large number of previously unknown plants and animals. Today, many of these species bear Dall's name, among them the Dall sheep (Ovis dalli) and the blackf fish (Dallis pectoralis) .

Dall was in Nulato on February 3,1868, when Lukin and two other Russian-American Company employees brought him word of Alaska's purchase by the United States. Dall immediately raised the American flag for the first time in Interior Alaska.

Summary questions

  1. Why did the Russian-American Company begin exploration of the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Innoko river drainages?
  2. What resulted from the Hudson's Bay Company establishing a trading post on the Yukon River inside Russian America?
  3. What was the real value of Lukin's 1863 trip up the Yukon River?
  4. Why was the Western Union Telegraph Expedition cancelled?

Inquiry questions

  1. Visit your community museum or look at the catalog of the Alaska State Museum. Are ethnographic objects included in the collections?
  2. The Western Union Telegraph Expedition, if successful, would have resulted in a telegraph line connecting the United States and Europe via Siberia. Find out what and how many ways there are today for you to send a message from your community to Europe.

THE YUKON RIVER AND ITS PEOPLE
1800-1869 THE RUSSIANS AND ENGLISH MEET
1869-1896 STARS AND STRIPES UP THE RIVER
1896-1910 CHANGING LIFESTYLES, DIFFERENT VALUES
1910-1940
1940-1980 CONSTRUCTION BOOM
Suggested Readings


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THE YUKON RIVER AND ITS PEOPLE1869-1896 STARS AND STRIPES UP THE RIVER

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