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.
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.