Settling Russian Alaska2021-05-28T15:17:48-04:00

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Settling Russian Alaska

This letter demonstrates that Russian colonial efforts relied on intermarriage between Russian traders and Native women.

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Summary

It would also be very useful, while these economic benefits are in the process of being realized, if bachelor settlers would take native American women as their wives and teach them how to perform all household tasks. This could be done with the help of Russian women and young girls who are members of families there now. Likewise, efforts should be made to arrange marriages between native American men and young Russian girls and with Russian widows, so that mutually beneficial ties will be established. While we wait for the farms and fur trade to be established, it would be good if settler men married Native women. Then, the Native women could learn about Russian culture. Settler women and girls can help teach them. We should also try to marry Russian girls and widows to Native men, so that our communities have strong ties.

“Ivan Pil to Grigorii Shelikhov, 12 May 1794,” Russian Penetration of the North Pacific Ocean, 1700–1797, eds. Dmytryshyn, Basil, E. A. P. Crownhart-Vaughan, and Thomas Vaughan. (Portland, OR: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1988).

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Background

Until the mid-1700s, Russia was not a major player in the colonial contests in North America. But the collapse of animal populations in Siberia forced Russian fur traders to find new sources, and in 1733, they turned their attention to the recently explored territory known today as Alaska.

By the 1780s, there were a number of Russian companies trading in the Aleutian Islands and Alaskan mainland. The most powerful trader, Grigorii Shelikhov, petitioned the government for exclusive rights to the territory, but Tsarina Catharine the Great turned him down. Undaunted, Grigorii hatched a new plan with Ivan Pil, the governor-general of Irkutsk. They asked the Tsarina for settlers who would work for Grigorii’s company. These colonists would build a self-sustaining colony that could support the growth of the fur trade. This request was granted, and the first wave of settlers was sent to Alaska in 1794. Russia governed Alaska until they sold it to the United States in 1867.

About the Document

In this letter, the Governor General of Irkutsk, Ivan Pil, outlines Tsarina Catharine the Great’s expectations for the new Russian settlers of Alaska. Of particular note is the recommendation that settlers marry local Native people to establish “mutually beneficial ties.” Both Native and Russian women were expected to build lasting peace between settler and Native communities through their marriages. The settlers wasted no time in following this instruction. In 1795, there were ten recorded marriages between Russian settlers and Native people. But intermarriage failed to prevent the outbreak of fighting between Native communities and Russian settlers, which continued throughout the history of Russian Alaska.

Vocabulary

  • Aleutian Islands: A chain of islands that stretches between Russia and Alaska, between the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea.
  • Irkutsk: An administrative region of Russia, located in southeast Siberia. In the eighteenth century, Irkutsk was central to the efforts to explore eastern Siberia, the Aleutian Islands, and Alaska.
  • Siberia: An area of Russia that spans North Asia from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
  • tsarina: Empress of Russia.

Pronunciation

  • Aleutian: uh-LOO-shun
  • Grigorii Shelikhov: GRIG-ore-ee SHELL-ee-kov
  • Irkutsk: EER-kut-sk
  • Ivan Pil: EE-van pill

Discussion Questions

  • According to this letter, what should be the priorities of the Russian settlers?
  • Why was marriage considered a good way to ensure peaceful relations?
  • How did this instruction impact the lives of Native and Russian women?
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Themes

POWER AND POLITICS; DOMESTICITY AND FAMILY

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