No, this is not a post about the recent and now former U.S. National Security Officer Michael Flynn. It is the latest installment of my series on Russian colonialism. Last week, we saw the consolidation of Russia under Peter the Great. So far, the imperial and colonial spread of Russia we’ve looked at took place on land. For this week’s installment, we will learn about Russia’s maritime colonial efforts, specifically those in North America. While the three previous posts have been relatively in chronological order, this post will break away somewhat from that format, and look at the entire history of Russian America from 1732 to 1867.


Map of Russian America (present-day Alaska, United States). Public Domain. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by User:Angusmclellan

As explained last week, under Peter the Great, Russia began exploring the Arctic Ocean in an attempt to find new lands to secure and conquer. In the next few years after Peter’s death, some initial voyages were lead by a Danish admiral named Vitus Jonassen Bering. Though they resulted in newfound understanding about Northern Siberia, the findings were not materially or politically promising, and they failed to reach North America, the end goal of the explorations.

Empress Anna, who ruled from 1730 to 1740, was determined to continue the policies of her uncle Peter. In 1733, under her impetus, Bering headed a massive exploration known as the Great Northern Expedition, led by, in addition to Bering, various admirals, scientists, and academics. Costing over a million rubles and involving thousands of people, it was one of the largest explorations in history. The previous year, a Cossack named Mikhail Gvozdev discovered (for Russia) the Diomede Islands, and sighted the mainland of what is now Alaska.

By 1741 (at this point, Russia was ruled by Empress Elizabeth), Bering’s fleets had traversed the great expanse of the Siberian coast and arrived in Kamchatka. From there, they sailed east, and made contact with indigenous Alaskans. Navigator Alexei Chirikov landed men on the Alaskan coast, the first known landing of Europeans on that part of the North American continent. Bering made landfall shortly afterward. Russia thus became the first European power to discover Alaska and the Aleut Islands.

Bering succeeded in finding North America, but succumbed, as did most of his crew, to the ravages of scurvy, dying before he could return to Kamchatka. Russia’s interest in Alaska, however, did not die with him. The news brought back to Moscow by the surviving crew told of a highly profitable commodity: sea otter pelts. Though Russia, with its vast stretches of Siberian steppe, had access to plenty of fur, otter fur was the finest that had yet been found. And China, one of Russia’s bordering neighbors in the east with convenient trade ports on the North Pacific, would pay the value of otter fur in gold. Russian merchants were quick to capitalize on this valuable resource.

Investors and merchants sent out numerous trade expeditions, but the extremely long distances and hazardous waters involved meant that Alaska was not as profitable as Siberia, with its more established fur trade routes and sources of gold and gems. Initially, colonizing merchants and seafarers tried hunting otters with their own crews. They did not have much expertise in this type of hunting, however, so they increasingly forced the Aleut and Alutiiq to do the hunting for them.

As in Siberia, the indigenous population was ravaged by diseases unwittingly brought by the newcomers, with upwards of 80% of the Aleut dying out between 1741 and 1799. And Russian lordship was harsh. Families were broken apart, countless people enslaved, and rebellions were brutally suppressed. During the rule of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), official policy was to maintain cordial relations with the Aleut, as Catherine recognized their importance in exploiting the resources of Russia. In practice, though, with Alaska and the Alutian Islands being thousands of miles away from the prying eyes of Moscow, traders and soldiers treated the indigenous people however they wished to, which usually was horrifically.

In 1784, the first permanent Russian outpost was established on Kodiak Island by Gregorii Shelikhov. A rival to Shelikhov, Pavel Lebedev-Lastochkin, established outposts in Cook Inlet. Shelikhov eventually managed to conquer these outposts. The Kodiak Islanders resisted the invasions of Shelikhov into Kodiak, but were defeated. Shelikhov later attempted to establish better relations with the Kodiak by offering them gifts and trade deals.

In 1799, Russia consolidated all of the companies in Alaska into a state-run monopoly, the Russian American Company (RAC). Its first manager, who also functioned as governor for the colony, was Aleksandr Andreevich Baranov, who served from 1799 to 1818. One of his first actions was to expand operations southeast. This brought the Russians into contact with the Tlingit. At first, the Tlingit welcomed the Russians. But, in 1802, as Russian encroachment continued, they took a proactive policy of resistance, and attacked a fort today known as Old Sitka. Baranov counter-attacked two years later, and, though almost defeated, drove back the Tlingit. The Tlingits and Russia would continue to war against each other over the next several decades, as the RAC methodically expanded its territorial conquests.

In addition to expanding Russian holdings in Alaska, Baranov established a trading post in California, Fort Ross, in 1812, and Fort Elizabeth in the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1814. Hawaii was abandoned a few years later, in 1817. Fort Ross operated until 1849, at which point it was sold to a California settler (theoretically it was sold, but there is debate as to whether the sale was legally binding). Fort Ross had primarily been an agricultural settlement, but was no longer worthwhile after California missions stopped subsidizing the colony.

Baranov’s successors further expanded Alaska, and launched numerous explorations to uncover resources besides fur. However, by the 1850s, fur was becoming scarce due to over-hunting, and Russian holdings and trade in Alaska had been increasingly challenged and encroached upon by Britain and the United States. It also became harder to commit resources to maintaining Alaska due to conflicts back in Europe such as the Crimean War. At most, there had only been 833 Russians in Alaska. In 1867, Russia sold its Alaskan colony to the United States for $7.2 million, roughly two cents per acre. The deal had been promoted in the United States by the Secretary of State, William H. Seward, and opponents of the deal in the US derided it as “Seward’s Folly.” However, Seward has since been vindicated, as minerals such as gold and oil, and the abundant natural resources and beauty of Alaska, have contributed much to US wealth and prosperity.