Alaska's Heritage


Types and patterns of settlements

Principal Russian settlements in Alaska.
As the Shelikhovs' fur-hunters and the fur-hunters of other Russian trading companies spread thinly out through Alaska they lived in work camps, outlying posts, forts, and towns. The work camps were places where the Russians and the Natives whom they forced or paid to work for them stayed temporarily. Most often, skin tents or traditional Native dwellings housed the workers. Outlying posts were remote log cabins, usually with a covered storage area attached. A Russian fur-trader might stay in such a place for long periods, exchanging goods made by Natives in other parts of Alaska or manufactured in other parts of the world. Forts included several log buildings surrounded by walls-of upright posts. The structures usually included one or two blockhouses, individual dwellings for officials, barracks for workers, storerooms, and special buildings such as blacksmith shops. At some forts there were Russian Orthodox churches or chapels. Russian Alaska's two towns, Kodiak and Sitka, were much the same as the forts in the beginning. They differed from the forts only by being much larger. Later they became small cities. All of the Russian settlements in Alaska were in similar locations. Most were, because of the needs of the maritime fur trade and possible Native hostility, located at the mouths of rivers or at the heads of bays, on high ground. Many were on islands. Some were near Native villages because the Russians depended on Alaska's Natives to get or to trade the furs they desired. Others were near particular resources such as coal, fish, or lumber. Most were at locations easily accessible to sailing ships. In some cases, Native villages grew up near Russian posts.

One Russian settlement was on Unalaska Island, where the Russians had stayed for long periods of time since 1758. Another Russian settlement was on Atka Island. Work camps on other areas of Kodiak Island and on Afognak Island quickly followed the fort the Shelikhovs built at Three Saints Bay in 1784. A work camp at Karluk took advantage of the tremendous salmon runs up the Karluk River.

Several competing Russian fur companies copied the Shelikhovs in setting up permanent trading posts in Alaska. By 1786 there were forts on Cook Inlet at or near Alutiiq Eskimo and Athabaskan villages that have become today's communities of English Bay, Kasilof, and Kenai. In 1791 a fort was established at the Alutiiq Eskimo village of Nuchek on Hinchinbrook Island in Prince William Sound. In 1792 the Shelikhovs' workers moved most of the settlement at Three Saints Bay to the site of today's city of Kodiak. The next year the Russians built a small post at present-day Seward to take advantage of the area's timber resources for ship-building.

Settlements follow the fur trade

Russian settlements tended to be built along the paths of the Native trade networks or in strategic places. When American and British traders began to frequent the Northwest Coast, the Russians began to establish posts in Southeast Alaska. In 1796, a fort was founded close to the Tlingit village at Yakutat.

In 1799 the Russians built Fort Archangel Saint Michael near a large Tlingit village at Sitka. This became the scene of a Russian set-back in 1802. Tlingits attacked the Russian fort and massacred most of the Russians and Aleut workers there. The Tlingits killed 20 Russians and up to 130 Aleuts. They also took over 4,000 sea otter pelts and burned a ship being built. In 1804 Alexander Baranov led a large Russian and Aleut force, supported by several ships with cannons, to reestablish a Russian fort at Sitka. The Shelikhovs had sent Baranov to Alaska in 1792 to manage their Alaskan fur-trading operation. An experienced Siberian merchant, he had vigorously expanded the fur trade. The Sitka Tlingits, led by Chief Katlean, fought bravely but were finally driven away by Baranov. The new fort he established at Sitka eventually became the Russian headquarters in Alaska.

Before that happened, however, the Russians suffered another serious set-back in Southeast Alaska. This came in 1805 when Yakutat Natives led by Chief Theodore, angered by broken promises and Russian abuse, attacked and destroyed the Russian fort there. The Yakutats charged the Russians with robbing a grave, failing to pay for land, closing streams with fish weirs, taking children to educate them but instead using them for slaves, and abusing Native women. For a long time after this there were no new Russian settlements in Southeast Alaska.

New Russian forts were built in the north. This happened because the Russians began to seek the furs of land mammals such as beaver and river otter. Over-hunting had depleted the supply of sea otter furs. To get the furs of land animals, the Russians had to establish posts at which they could trade with the Eskimos and Indians of northern and interior Alaska. In 1819 a new post was established in Yupik Eskimo territory at the mouth of the Nushagak River on Bristol Bay. The fur-traders called the relocated fort New Alexandrovsk. About the same time the Russians built an outlying post on the Copper River near an Ahtna Athabaskan village in the vicinity of what is now Chitina.

These first moves to establish interior Alaska fur-trading locations were followed by forts at Saint Michael (on the shore of Bering Sea) between two Eskimo villages in 1833, at Nulato (on the Yukon River) in Athabaskan territory in 1834, and at Kolmakov (about 21 miles upriver on the Kuskokwim from today's Aniak) in 1844. A fur-trading station which had operated at Ikogmiut on the Yukon River between 1836 and 1839 shifted to what is now Old Andreafsky. In 1845 the Ikogmiut location became a Russian Orthodox church mission. Also in the 1840s a retirement village for Russian workers arose at Ninilchik on the east shore of the Kenai Peninsula. Similar settlements grew up near today's Seldovia, Kasilof, and Knik. There, it was thought, the retirees could support the fur trade by farming. In the late 1850s the third largest Russian settlement in Alaska grew near Port Graham on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula at the site of a coal mine. During this time Russian settlements developed in interior and northern Alaska, less permanent fur-trading posts came and went at such places as Holitna, Iliamna, Tyonek.

There was one additional Russian settlement i n Alaska to the south of Sitka and also outposts in California and Hawaii. In 1812 the Russians established Fort Ross in California a few miles north of what is now San Francisco. They planned to have workers at this fort grow food to supply the Russian settlements in Alaska. Fort Ross could also serve as a base for sea otter hunts. By this time over-hunting in Alaskan waters had depleted the sea otter populations there and the Russians were hunting as far south as California coastal waters.

In 1816 a Russian agent obtained permission from an Hawaiian king, Kaumalii, to establish trading posts on the islands of Kauai and Oahu. Kaumalii's permission was overridden by a stronger Hawaiian king, Kamehameha I, who threw the Russians out of Hawaii in 1817.

In 1833 the Russians built Fort Saint Dionysius at the mouth of Southeast Alaska's Stikine River. They did so principally to bar British fur-traders from using the Stikine River as a route from their trading grounds in Canada to the ocean. A less important purpose was to develop a fur trade with Stikine Tlingits who occupied a nearby village site that is the location of modern Wrangell.

Russians concentrate at Sitka

The number of posts established by the Russians during their 127 years in Alaska did not mean there were a lot of Russians in the territory. There were only 450 to 500 Russians in Alaska in 1788 when there were a number of competing Russian fur-trading companies active in the territory. As the number of active fur-trading companies declined, the number of Russians in Alaska declined.

By 1799 there were only 225 Russians in Alaska. Their number expanded again after 1799, reaching a total of 470 by 1805. By 1817 the Russian-American Company, by then the only active fur-trading company in Alaska, had 450 to 500 workers and 26 sailors scattered in 16 Alaska sites.

Most of the Russians lived at Sitka, which had become the colonial capital i n 1808. One-hundred and ninety of the Russians in Alaska in 1817 were there. With them were 182 Creoles (children of Russian and Native parents) and 248 Aleuts. Two years later a census tallied 378 Russian males, 13 Russian females, 133 Creole males, 111 Creole females, 4,306 Native males, and 4,322 Native females in Alaska. The Natives counted only included Aleuts, Alutiiq Eskimos, and other Natives in the immediate vicinity of Russian settlements. An 1833 census counted 647 Russian males, 83 Russian females, 608 Creole males, 543 Creole females, 4,463 Aleut males, and 4,619 Aleut females. The census-takers estimated there were about 50,000 Natives in Alaska "independent of the administration." Few Russian women went to Alaska and most of those who did lived at Sitka. The Russian population i n Alaska reached its peak in 1839 when there were 832 Russians throughout Alaska.

There were never enough Russian workers in Alaska to satisfy the demands of the fur trade. The shortage was not only of actual fur traders, but also of workers for ship-building and other activities that supported the fur trade. Alaska was a long distance from Russia, living conditions were severe, and the Natives were sometimes hostile. Few of the Russians who were free to travel there wished to do so.

Russians use Native workers

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.

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.

Diseases introduced by Russians killed many Natives. These graves at Andreafsky on the lower Yukon River combine Euroamerican and Native beliefs about death.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, B. B.. Dobbs, Photographer.
Identifier: PCA 12-184
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 Athabaskans, Tlingits, Haidas, Inupiaq and Yupik Eskimos felt less of an impact from the Russians. All, however, felt Russian influence in other ways as will be discussed in succeeding chapters.