Alaska's Heritage


Russians explore for several reasons

Russian fur traders, government officials, and scientists continued the exploration of Alaska begun by the Bering and Chirikov voyages of 1728 and 1741. The Russians explored to advance the fur trade, to establish boundaries for their Alaskan interests, to control North Pacific seas, and to obtain geographic knowledge. This exploration had begun in the seventeenth century and continued into the mid nineteenth century. It was accomplished by ocean voyages in sailing ships, coastal surveys in small craft, river travel in boats and canoes; and, to a much lesser extent, overland travel by foot, dog sled, and skis.

The explorers had several immediate objectives. They wanted to determine the extent of and discourage foreign intrusion into lands claimed by Russia. They wanted to identify travel corridors and possible settlement sites. They wanted to know about Native groups, particularly in the context of their trading relationships and potential as trading partners. They wanted to know about resources, such as fur bearing animals and minerals that might be exploited. Finally, they wanted to contribute to satisfying a widespread thirst among Euroamerican people to know about the world, its people, and its lands.

Seventeenth century explorers examine Siberian coast

Russians knew little about the eastern frontier of their empire in the seventeenth century. In 1639 I.Y. Moskvitin became the first Russian to reach the Pacific coast of Siberia. He sent information about the rivers, coasts, and people of that area to European Russia. A number of coastal explorations followed in the 1600s.

Eighteenth century explorers examine Aleutian Islands and Alaskan coast

Russian exploration of the North Pacific in the 1700s began with the investigations of 1719-1721 and 1725-1728 discussed in Chapter 3-1. One other exploration preceded Bering's 1741 voyage, which is also discussed in Chapter 3-1. Ivan Fedorov and Mikhail Gvozdev sailed in August of 1732 in the St. Gabriel-from the mouth of the Kamchatka River north toward the Anadyr River. They crossed Bering Strait in its north part and landed on Big Diomede Island. In September they sailed further east toward Cape Prince of Wales on Alaska's Seward Peninsula. When they neared King island a Native from there came to their ship by boat and gave them information about the Alaska coast. The information they obtained was known to scientists and geographers of their time. Their information gave the correct orientation of American coasts on the east side of Bering Strait and this appeared on eighteenth century maps of the world published in Russia and France.

After the voyages of Bering and Chirikov in 1741 maps could show the Pacific Ocean north of Japan with reasonable accuracy. The fur traders who sailed east after 1741 brought back additional information. By 1763 fur trader Stephan Glotov had landed on Kodiak Island.

Navy explorers claim Alaska for Russia

After 1763 the government sent officials with fur-trading vessels to keep logs, to write descriptions of voyages, and to ensure proper treatment of Natives. The first government-sponsored exploration after the 1741 voyages of Bering and Chirikov came in 1768 to 1769 when Russian Navy captains Peter Krenitzin in the St. Catherine and Mikhail levashev in the St. Paul sailed from Kamchatka to the Aleutian Islands. They were to describe the islands found, claim them and their inhabitants for Russia. They were also to look into the collection of taxes and the control of fur traders. According to beliefs held by Euroamerican nations at this time, if their explorers found lands where only non-Christians lived, they could claim the lands for their countries by "right of discovery." They justified this by stating that it was their duty to claim the lands so that they could bring the Christian faith to the heathen inhabitants of the newly discovered lands.

While Levashev remained at Unalaska for the winter, Krenitzin wintered at Unimak. After Levashev and the St. Paul sailed to Unimak in the spring, the St. Catherine and the St. Paul visited the south coast of the Alaska Peninsula before returning to Kamchatka. This voyage determined Unimak to be an island by discovering Isanotski Strait--the water passage between Unimak and the Alaska Peninsula--and determined the exact latitude of Unalaska.

Fur-trader Potap Zaikov's Aleutian cruise of 1774 to 1779 resulted in a reasonably accurate record of the Aleutian Islands chain between Attu and the Alaska Peninsula. After 1784 when the Shelikhovs established the settlement at Three Saints Bay, trips from there, particularly by Gerasim Izmailov and Dmitrii Bocharov, resulted in additional geographical knowledge of Southcentral and Southeast Alaska waters.

Official expeditions and fur traders continued to learn more about Alaska' In 1786 Gerasim Pribilov became the first Russian to visit the islands which are named for him. Two years later Izmailov and Bocharov went from Three Saints Bay in the ship Three Saints into Prince William Sound and then on to Yakutat. At several places along the way they buried copper plates announcing that the lands visited were now Russian possessions. They buried the plates to prevent Alaska Natives or other Euroamerican explorers from destroying them.

Fur traders explore inland Alaska

Fur traders began inland exploration in the 1790s, concentrating on the Alaska Peninsula and Cook Inlet areas. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Russians, together with explorers of other nations whose work is discussed in Chapter 3-8, had learned much about the islands and coasts of Alaska and knew a little about Alaska's mainland.

Nineteenth century explorations include round-the-world voyages

There were more than 40 Russian exploratory ocean voyages before 1867. Most took place between 1800 and 1850. Many were round-the-world voyages from Kronstadt, a port on the Gulf of Finland not too far from St. Petersburg. The Russians made these voyages for political reasons and to carry goods and people to and from their American colonies. They made a few of the voyages chiefly for scientific purposes, but all of the voyages included these purposes. The voyagers were interested in locating lands previously unknown to them, finding out about ocean currents, and gathering data to make more accurate maps.

Voyage of Krusenstern and Lisianski in the Hope and the Neva (1803-1806).
Ivan Krusenstern in the Hope and Yuri Lisianski in the Neva made the first Russian round-the-world voyage in the years 1803 to 1806. They sailed from Kronstadt, around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, and into the Pacific Ocean. After reaching the Hawaiian Islands the two ships parted. Krusenstern concentrated on the waters north of Japan while Lisianski went first to Kodiak and then to Southeast Alaska. While in Southeast Alaska waters he determined that Chichagof, Yakobi, Kruzof, and Baranof islands were separate and named them. His voyage also recorded detailed data on the people encountered and places visited.

After the Krusenstern and Lisianski voyages, other such explorations continued throughout the period of Russian interest in Alaska.

Data collected by these voyages contributed to the Atlas of the Northern Parts of the Ocean published in 1826. These and later Russian explorations in the North Pacific resulted in two additional atlases. Aleksandr Kashevarov's 1850 Atlas of the Eastern Ocean (north of Japan) and Mikhail Tebenkov's 1852 Atlas of the Northwest Coasts of America were both important contributions to knowledge of Alaska's geography.

Fur trade motivates inland exploration

Patterns of Russian settlement and inland and coastal explorations in Alaska.
In 1801 directors of the Russian-American Company instructed Alexander Baranov, then company chief manager in Alaska, to investigate the Alaskan mainland and to have maps prepared of all areas surveyed. Little was accomplished. The principal object of the fur trade at this time was the catch of sea otters and therefore the fur traders had little interest in knowing about Interior Alaska. The Russians only began serious inland exploration about 1818 when their interest in the furs of land animals increased. The inland explorations the Russians did make sought new sources of fur and better routes to known fur sources. They were also stimulated to explore inland when they realized that the Hudson's Bay Company was beginning to compete in the Alaska fur trade from its posts in Canada. All of these investigations, like those at sea, also collected scientific data.

Three-quarters of Alaska remain unknown to outsiders

At the time of the 1867 purchase, although Alaska's coasts and islands were well-explored, about three-quarters of inland Alaska remained unknown except to Alaska Natives.

Much of Alaska's arctic interior remained virtually unknown to the Russians, although the mouths of the Colville, Kobuk, and Noatak rivers had been located. The course of the Yukon River was fairly well known, but the junction of the Tanana and Yukon rivers, near present-day Tanana, was the farthest upriver point reached by Russian fur traders. The Kuskokwim River had been partially traced, but its head waters and its mouth were unknown. The Nushagak River and Lake Iliamna were fairly well known. The Susitna and Copper rivers were only partially explored. In Southeast Alaska the Alsel, Chilkat, and Taku rivers were known to the Russians through Native informants, but only the Stikine River had actually been traveled by Russian investigators. Russian Navy captain Pavel Golovin, sent to assess Russia's American colonies in 1861, said of the inland exploration efforts "these ...have been taken irregularly, without any real system, and have been quite superficial and not at all definitive." While the Russians' ocean and coastal explorations had been effective, it remained for later investigators to thoroughly document Interior Alaska.