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Alaska's Heritage

Russians initiate a period of great change

Some significant dates in Alaska history.
Among some Natives of Alaska there is a tradition that once Goozekwan, the Great White Raven, was sighted. As the raven drew near, it turned out not to be Goozekwan. The white sails of the ships of Anuce, the whites, had been mistaken for the raven's wings. This tradition probably began in the eighteenth century when non-Natives first came to the North Pacific. These first non-Natives were Russians.

They began a period of great change for Alaska. The first phase of this change came between 1725 and 1867. The agents of change were few in number. They were chiefly Russians, whose numbers in Alaska never went above 1,000 at any time and there were even fewer Americans, British, French, and Spanish. Alaska's Eskimos, Aleuts, and Indians outnumbered the newcomers about 60 to 1. Many Natives never saw any of the Russians or other Euroamericans. The Aleuts' world was turned upside down, however, and coastal Eskimos and Indians also had much to do with the newcomers.

Peter the Great seeks geographic knowledge

Tsar, or emperor, Peter the Great ruled Russia between 1689 and 1725. From west to east, his empire stretched from the Baltic Sea on the west, to the Pacific Ocean on the east. From north to south, his empire stretched from the Arctic Ocean to the borders of such countries as India and China. Tsar Peter sought to expand geographic knowledge about his empire and the rest of the world. He was also interested in expanding Russian commerce and controlling trade routes. When he made a trip to France in 1717, he visited the French Royal Academy of Sciences. A scientist there suggested to him the idea of finding out if Asia and North America were separate continents. Many other things occupied Tsar Peter right after his return to Russia, but he soon ordered two of his subjects, Feodor Luzhin and Ivan Yeverinov to explore the eastern frontier of the Russian empire.

Luzhin and Yeverinov made their journey from 1719 to 1721 and reported back to their tsar. They had crossed the Kamchatka Peninsula from west to east and had voyaged from the west coast of Kamchatka to the Kurile Islands. The information they collected resulted in the first plausible map of Kamchatka and the Kurile Islands.

Tsar Peter orders Vitus Bering to explore

Just before his death in early 1725 Tsar Peter selected Vitus. Bering, a captain-lieutenant in the Russian navy, to explore further. Bering was a Dane who had enlisted in the Russian navy in 1703, when he was about 22 years old. Tsar Peter ordered Bering to go to Russia's Pacific coast, build ships, and sail north along the coast since that coast appeared to be part of America. The expedition was to look for settlements of European countries.

Polar view of the world.
Bering received these orders at St. Petersburg (now called Leningrad) in 1725. To carry them out he and the people he chose to go with him first had to travel by river boat, horse, and foot over 5,000 miles to Russia's Pacific coast. There were few roads and the journey was difficult. Bering, assisted by two lieutenants, Martin Spanberg and Aleksei Chirikov, took from January 1725 until the spring of 1728 to move the entire expedition across Russia to the Pacific Ocean seaport of Nizhne Kamchatsk.

After arriving there, the explorers built a new ship 60 feet long and 20 feet wide. In June this vessel, the St. Gabriel, was launched. A month later the St. Gabriel went to sea.

Some think Bering has failed

The St. Gabriel's voyage lasted only a month. Bering and his party sailed north along the Siberia coast through what later was named Bering Strait into the Chukchi Sea. They reached 67 degrees 18 minutes north latitude without having sighted the North American coast and turned back. On the return voyage the explorers saw what are now known as the Diomede islands. On September 1,1728, the expedition was at the mouth of the Kamchatka River. The St. Gabriel arrived at Okhotsk in mid-July of 1729. Bering set out overland for St. Petersburg and reached the capital in March of 1730.

Natives along the Siberian coast had told Bering that Asia and America were separated. Bering believed bringing back this information meant that he had carried out his orders. Not everyone agreed with Bering. He had been sent to find out for himself if the continents were separated, not to bring back the reports of others.

The main result of Bering's 1725 to 1728 expedition was determination of different points on Russia's Pacific Ocean coasts. A few days after Bering returned to St. Petersburg a brief account of his voyage was published there.

The criticism of his voyage hurt Bering financially and in his naval career. Although he traveled from St. Petersburg to Moscow to report to the senate of Russia (a group which helped the tsar or tsarina to govern), the senate failed to vote him the usual 1,000 ruble (Russian dollars) reward given to explorers returning from long voyages. The senate also refused to pay his salary for the five years between 1725 and 1730 until two years after his return. In addition, the Russian navy refused to promote Bering.

Bering suggests a second expedition

Bering answered the criticisms of his first expedition by suggesting a second expedition. The new exploration would investigate unmapped areas of Siberia and search for a sea route to China.

Siberia and Russian America.
In December of 1732 the Russian senate approved the plan for Bering's second chance as an explorer. Russia's navy department, known as the Admiralty College, wrote orders in February of 1733 and in March the senate approved them. Bering was to go to Kamchatka, build two ships, and then sail to the American coast.

Bering's second expedition lands in Alaska

The second expedition met difficulties equal to those of the 1725-to-1728 explorers, but two ships were finally launched at Okhotsk in dune of 1740. The St. Peter and the St. Paul were each 80 feet long and 20 feet wide. The explorers spent the winter of 1740 to 1741 moving vessels and supplies from Okhotsk to Petropavlovsk. On June 4,1741, a fair wind took the vessels out of harbor to the east.

In the St. Peter with Bering, now promoted to captain-commander, were Sven Waxell as second-in-command, and five other officers including naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller. He also served as ship's doctor. Chirikov, commanding the St. Paul, was accompanied by two lieutenants. In addition to officers and scientists, each ship had 76 sailors aboard.

The two ships sailed east together until June 20. Then they became separated in the fog. After searching for Chirikov and his ship for several days, Bering ordered the St. Peter to continue to the northeast. There the Russian seafarers sighted Alaska for the first time. According to the ship's log, "At 12:30 (p.m. on July 17) we sighted snow-covered mountains and among them a high volcano." The Russians were seeing the peak known to some Alaska Natives as Waaseita-Shaa. Later, because the Russians first saw it on the Russian Orthodox Church feast day of Saint Elias, the mountain became known as Mount Saint Elias. Two days after sighting the mountain the crew of the St. Peter saw what is now called Pinnacle Rock on Kayak Island.

On July 20 a party from the St. Peter went ashore on Kayak Island. The shore party reported finding a fireplace and human tracks, and seeing a fox. According to the ship's log for July 21, the sailors found an underground but but no people. In the but they discovered dried fish and bows and arrows. They took some things from the but and left green cloth, knives, tobacco, and pipes.

The naturalist Steller investigated the island. He collected plants not found in Asia or Europe and specimens of unknown birds. Among the birds was a dark-blue jay. Steller recognized the jay as native to North America. This was evidence that the land the St. Peter had reached was part of North America. Years later scientists named this type of bird the Steller jay to honor the naturalist.

Russians and Natives meet

While Steller and a few sailors did the first scientific collecting in Alaska, others of the St. Peter's crew hurried to refill the ship's water barrels. Once these were aboard, the St. Peter sailed home toward Russia. Running west, the ship passed through the Kodiak Island group. By the end of August the St. Peter had reached the Shumagin Islands off the end of the Alaska Peninsula. On September 4 Bering and his crew made the first recorded contact between Russians and Alaska Natives. According to Steller:

we heard a loud shout ....A little later, however, we saw two small boats paddling toward our vessel from shore ....both men in their boats began, while still paddling, together to make an uninterrupted speech in a loud voice of which none of our interpreters could understand a word.

After an exchange of gifts, Steller, Lieutenant Waxell, an inter preter, and nine soldiers and sailors armed with lances, sabers, and muskets went ashore. They tried to talk with the Natives they met, but neither group could understand the other.

The St. Peter wrecks and Bering dies

Leaving the Shumagins, the Russians sailed west again toward the Aleutian Islands. By October scurvy, always a problem during long voyages in this period, began to disable many of the ship's crew. Lack of vitamin C causes this disease. Its signs are spongy gums, loosening of teeth, bleeding into the skin, and extreme weakness. Scurvy seriously affected Bering himself. Several of the crew died.

Early in November a council of the ship's officers and crew decided to winter in the Commander Islands off the coast of Kamchatka. They wrecked the St. Peter during an attempt to land on a small, barren island. Survivors spent the winter of 1741-1742 there. They dug pits in the frozen sand and covered them with sailcloth to shelter the dying and the weak. The log of the St. Peter recorded the death of Captain Commander Vitus Bering on the island on December 8, 1741. Lieutenant Waxell took his place as leader of the explorers.

Waxell and the others of the St. Peter's crew who survived the winter built a smaller ship, also called the St. Peter, from the larger vessel's wreckage. They reached Kamchatka in the smaller craft in November of 1742. Forty-six of the original crew were left. On November 15 Waxell sent news of the expedition to the Admiralty College at St. Petersburg.

Chirikov also finds land

While Bering and many of his St. Peter crew had been traveling to disaster, Chirikov and the crew of the St. Paul were also having a difficult time. After the two ships separated, lookouts aboard the St. Paul sighted land on July 15, 1741. When the ship was off what is now known as Lisianski Inlet on the northwest coast of Chichagof Island, Chirikov sent ten armed sailors ashore. The people on the ship saw a campfire ashore on the night of July 22-23 but saw no other trace of the landing party. Chirikov sent a second boat to investigate. That night a fire on the beach appeared and disappeared. Neither the first nor the second boat were back by July 25. That day two small canoes came out of the small bay where the St. Paul's boats had gone. When Chirikov tried to invite the people in the canoes to come aboard the St. Paul, both canoes turned away. The Russians in the two boats that went ashore were never seen again.

On July 27 Chirikov and his officers decided to return to Kamchatka. The St. Paul no longer had the small boats necessary to investigate the shore or to collect fresh water. Passing by the Kenai Peninsula and Afognak Island, the St. Paul reached Adak in early September. Here the Russians traded small articles with Aleuts who came out to their ship in baidarkas. On October 12, 1741, this half of Bering's second expedition arrived at Petropavlovsk.

Fur-hunters swarm to Alaska

Explorers from both the St. Peter and the St. Paul brought reports back to Russia of the many fur-bearing animals they had seen in Alaska. Russian fur-hunters in Siberia set out for Alaska almost at once. Furs were much in demand in China. The Russians traded with the Chinese at a commercial center called Kiahtka. This was a town on the Russian-Chinese border over 1,000 miles inland from the Siberian coast.

There the Russians traded furs to Chinese merchants for tea, silk, and other goods. The Chinese especially wanted sea otter pelts and by the time the Bering explorers returned with news of sea otters in Alaskan waters, hunters were taking these animals in the Kurile Islands off Kamchatka. Alaskan waters promised new profits for the Siberia fur-hunters and merchants. A hunter could sell a sea otter pelt to a trader for 10 rubles. The merchant could trade the pelt to the Chinese for articles worth about 75 rubles.

The first hunting expedition went to Bering Island in 1743. A series of fur-seeking voyages to Alaskan waters followed. By 1745, Russian traders had reached Attu and Agattu islands at the western end of the Aleutian Islands. Within 20 years the Russians were at Unalaska seeking furs. As the fur-seekers returned with more and more furs, more merchants became interested, and more traders went to Alaska.

A typical fur-hunting voyage left Siberia in mid-summer and arrived in the Aleutian Islands by August. When a suitable harbor was found, parties went ashore to trap, gather sea lion meat and blubber for winter food, and build winter quarters. Most often, these winter shelters were like Aleut barabaras. Once ashore the Russians traded with Aleut hunters to get sea otter furs from them. Often they took Aleut men, women, and children hostage to insure the safe return of Russians who hunted with or visited with the Aleuts. Voyages sometimes lasted two, three, or more years.

Aleuts resist the Russians

The Aleuts fought this intrusion. In the winter of 1763-1764 they killed the crews of and destroyed four Russian ships. Two were at Unalaska, one was at Umnak, and one was at Unimak. The Russians responded by destroying Aleut villages on Unalaska and Umnak.

Although the Aleuts were brave fighters, the Russians had the advantage of firearms although they more often fought with lances. Also, because the Aleut villages were scattered throughout the islands and located on the coastline they were easy for the Russians to attack.

Shelikhovs establish a permanent settlement

The Russians used these advantages to force the Aleuts to help them make money at the fur trade. Gregorii Shelikhov was one of the Siberian merchants attracted by the chance to make money. He also dreamed of settling an empire from Bering Strait to California. After financing several voyages on which the fur-hunters stayed only a year or two in Alaska, he decided to establish a permanent trading post on Kodiak Island. Traders at such a post could trade for furs all year and would not have to spend much of each year at sea going to and from Alaska. Also, the furs they took i n trade could be stockpiled so that each ship returning to Russia could carry a full cargo.

In August of 1783 Shelikhov led an expedition of 193 people east into Alaskan waters. His wife Natal'ia, who after his death would take over management of his fur-trading company, shared the hardships of the voyage. The Shelikhovs' three ships, the Three Saints, the St. Simeon, and the St. Anna--the Prophetess, wintered at Bering Island. In the spring of 1784 they sailed past the Aleutian Islands and arrived at Kodiak Island in early August. There the Shelikhovs chose a site for their settlement at a bay about 75-miles southwest of what is now the city of Kodiak. The site they chose was on a small spit in what is now called Three Saints Bay.

Alutiiq Eskimos who lived on Kodiak fought the Russian fur hunters, but after several battles gave up when the Shelikhovs took a large number of hostages. During their first year on Kodiak Island the Russians built a settlement that included several small wooden buildings.

The Shelikhovs organized the Natives into groups to do different kinds of work for the company. Sea otter hunters were the most important. Old men and children hunted birds and collected birds' eggs for food. Women cleaned fish, sewed parkas, and picked berries. The Shelikhovs also started a school for Natives so that they could learn arithmetic and the Russian language and be better workers.

From the settlement at Three Saints Bay the Shelikhovs sent fur hunters first into other parts of Southcentral Alaska and then into Southeast Alaska.

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