Alaska's Heritage


Food is hard to find

The Russians who came to Alaska between 1741 and 1867 always had trouble getting the food they wanted and needed. Part of the trouble came because they wanted food they were used to eating. In particular this meant bread, which was a major part of most workers' diets in Russia. Another reason for the Russians' difficulty in finding the food they wanted was that they did not have the hunting skills Alaska's Natives had developed over the centuries.

Although the Russians in Alaska tried to grow the grain crops necessary to make bread, they were not successful. As a result, flour or the grain to make it from had to be imported to Alaska. Sometimes the grain came directly from Russia. Sometimes ships on their way to Alaska from Russia stopped in California to buy wheat. Until the practice was forbidden, Russians in Alaska bought food supplies from passing American ships. After 1837 they also bought food from Hudson's Bay Company farms in what is now Oregon.

Supply ships did come to Alaska from Russia once or twice a year. The Russian-American Company found that it was cheaper to ship whole grain than to ship flour. The company built mills at Sitka and other places to grind the grain into flour. Even at Sitka, bread was never plentiful. In 1805, for instance, there was only one pound of bread each day for 200 people. The Russians, Creoles, and Natives at Sitka that year ate eagles, crows, and cuttlefish.

Fish and tea are food and drink

Tea washed down whatever the Russians ate. Usually the Russian workers lived on fish. They ate salted fish for four months of each year and fresh fish for the rest of the year. Although they ate whatever fish were caught and edible, cod, halibut, and salmon were the most commonly-eaten fish.

The Russian-American Company workers who built the new fort at Sitka in 1806 were fed two or three dried fish each day. Typically, this meant a ration of about two pounds of dried salmon. On Sundays they might have special meals of soup, salted meat, rice, and perhaps molasses or brandy. They were so busy building and there were so few workers that no one had much time to catch fresh fish. At this time, because the Russians had just driven the Tlingits away from Sitka, there were not even any nearby Natives from whom the Russians could buy food. Later the Russians at Sitka came to depend on food bought from the Tlingits.

Some Russian efforts to produce food locally were successful. Kodiak became the chief source of "colonial products" such as dried fish, dried yellow lily bulb, cowberries, sour rye-flour soup, and blubber that could be sent to other Russian settlements.

At more remote settlements, such as the forts on Cook Inlet, the Russian workers' diet also consisted of fish but there were few treats such as the special Sunday meals. At Kodiak in 1804, the fur traders ate seal meat, blubber, fish, berries, and roots. They had bread on holidays. Other Russian settlements in Alaska also depended on locally-available food. On the Pribilof Islands, where the Russians had a work camp almost permanently since the islands' discovery in 1786, the workers' diet was mostly whale, fur seal, sea lion meat and sea bird eggs.

Important Russian-American Company officials had better food than the common workers. Explorers visiting the company manager at Kodiak in 1805 had soup, beef, fruits, pastry, porridge, sweetmeats, and other European dishes fixed for them by the manager's wife, Mrs. Banner.

The Russian-American Company's difficulty in supplying adequate food to its workers in Alaska was very important. Constant pressure to get more furs and a shortage of workers left little time to grow needed food in Alaska. Importing food from other places increased costs. Increased costs created additional pressure to get more furs.

Russians adapt Native housing

The first Russians to spend much time in Alaska were the fur hunters who swarmed over the Aleutian Islands. They either lived on their ships or adopted Native housing styles. The first permanent Russian settlement in Alaska, Three Saints Bay, sheltered its inhabitants in huts. The Russians there also built a storehouse and two bathhouses. In the fort at Kodiak, which the Russians called Saint Paul, individual log cabins for officials, barracks for workers, and storehouses were built. There the Russians used pieces of seal gut and also bits of mica and talc to cover the windows in their dwellings and other buildings. Brick ovens were used to heat the buildings. Water was obtained from nearby streams or community wells.

Sitka, 1889. The large building to the left was the dwelling of the chief managers of the Russian-American Company from 1837, when it was built, until 1867. After the American occupation it became known as Baranov's Castle, although Baranov himself neve
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, Sincic Collection.
Identifier: PCA 12-184
At Saint Paul there was also a Russian Orthodox church. Built in 1796, it was the first Christian church erected in Alaska. Other buildings at Saint Paul included a combined house and office for the Russian-American Company's chief manager in Alaska, another combined house and office for the company's manager of the Kodiak station, separate houses for the company clerk and for important visitors, four houses with apartments for company employees, a barracks for Aleuts working for the company, a public bathhouse, and a cattle shed. The Russians had a small cemetery located on the banks of a small stream nearby. By 1806 Saint Paul consisted of a walled fort at the east end of the settlement and over 50 houses. The houses were generally log, caulked with moss, and had roofs thatched with grass. Most houses were divided into three apartments.

Unalaska, in the 1820s, consisted of a church with separate bell tower, five wooden houses and three wooden storage buildings. The houses were roofed with sod. There were also a school and a hospital. Aleuts and Creoles lived in 27 barabaras.

Sitka, in the later years of the Russian presence in Alaska, featured yellow-painted squared-log houses roofed with red-painted sheet iron. An Englishman who visited Sitka just after the Russians left said the Russian-American Company's buildings were antiquated, foreign, and "fossilized in appearance." There is no indication that housing ideas brought to Alaska by the Russians changed traditional Native housing styles.

Russians adapt Native clothing

As they did with housing, Russians in remoter areas of Alaska simply adopted Native clothing styles. In the larger forts, officers wore uniforms of the Russian Navy or the Ministry of Finance. Russian women wore European clothing of the period. Workers wore linen, cotton, or silk shirts and cotton trousers. Cheap leather boots, which wore out in a month or two of use, were imported to Alaska from Russia. As outer garments the Russians adopted Native clothing of fur coats and sewn-skin boot tops. Fur seal pelts helped to clothe the Russians and their Native workers. Baranov tried unsuccessfully to have hats, gloves, and socks woven with fur seal fur.

Native Alaskans continued to wear their traditional dress but mingled items of European clothing with it.

Technology includes communications and transportation, tools, and weapons

Russians in Alaska communicated by sending hand-written or verbal messages from one place to another. Although toward the end of the Russian presence i n Alaska telegraphs served other parts of the world, this was not to happen in Alaska until the beginning of the twentieth century. Nor were there telegraph lines from eastern to western Russia until after 1867. As a result, messages sent from one place to another i n Alaska, or from Alaska to Russia had to be carried over water. In most cases, this meant that months had to pass before a message could be delivered or a reply received.

The Russians sent their messages, as well as people and goods, back and forth by the baidarkas they and their Native workers used even for journeys of hundreds of miles through stormy waters. They also used the ships they bought or built for ocean travel. On rivers and lakes, they used traditional Native canoes and boats. Overland travel was mostly by foot, although in winter in northern areas of Alaska the Russians used sleds and dogs. At Sitka, the Russians used horse-drawn sleighs in winter and wagons in summer.

Russians arriving in Alaska brought with them iron, long-desired as a trade item by Alaska Natives for its use in making tools. The Russians brought the tools, such as knives, axes, saws, metal cooking pots, and crockery, which the Natives began to use. Some of the tools such as axes and knives could also be used as weapons, as could the firearms the Russians and other Euroamericans introduced to Alaska. These were quickly adopted by the Natives in contact with the Russians. The Indians of Southeast Alaska even armed themselves with cannons that they got from American fur traders. The Russians also brought the wheel, sleighs and wagons drawn by large animals, simple machinery, steam, water, and wind power to Alaska.