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The Russian-American Company and the Northwest Fur Trade: North American Scholarship, 1990-2000
Katherine L. Arndt
University of Alaska Fairbanks
In the past decade, much has been written in North America
on topics that fall under the general theme "Russian
America," topics ranging from various aspects of daily
life in the colonies, Russian-Native relations, and Russian
Orthodox missionization, to Russian scientific exploration
and the Russian colonies in the context of international
relations. Yet, in the midst of this wealth of information,
it proves difficult to single out works that deal primarily
with the Russian-American Company as a business enterprise,
as a company engaged in the Northwest fur trade. In part,
I think this is because traditional business histories are
not particularly in fashion right now, but there also seems
to be a feeling that the basic facts of the company's operations
are so well known that there is nothing new to be written.
Instead, in both historical and anthropological writings,
the company and its operations have become mere context for
more detailed studies of the Native peoples and rank-and-file
workers who were actually procuring the furs that fed the
Appended is a bibliography of publications of the past
decade that are nearest the topic of company operations and
the fur trade, plus an important reference work, Richard
Pierce's Russian America: A Biographical Dictionary (1990).
It is by no means an exhaustive list of recent works on Russian
America, and also excludes several items dealing with the
fur trade prior to the Russian-American Company's formation
in 1799. Still, it provides insights into some of the strengths
and weaknesses of current North American research on the
topic at hand.
One major strength of recent research is its breadth of
coverage, both geographical and temporal. It reinforces the
notions that (1) the Russian-American Company's activities
in what is now the United States were not confined to sea
otter hunting along Alaska's outer coast, from the Aleutian
Islands to the Alexander archipelago and (2) the company's
economic focus and relationship to the Russian government,
Alaskan native peoples, and its own employees changed over
time. With regard to the first point, new studies have examined
the company's operations in the Alaskan mainland interior
(where they bore less resemblance to the stereotypical company-sponsored
sea otter hunt than to activities of the Hudson's Bay Company
in what is now Canada), and reexamined both its brief attempt
to establish a foothold in the Hawaiian Islands and its thirty-year
presence at Ross settlement in California (e.g., Arndt 1996;
Mills 1996; Lightfoot et al. 1991, 1997). With regard to
the second point, several works have taken particular care
to distinguish continuities and changes in the company's
policies throughout the period of its existence (e.g., Dean
1993, 1994, 1995; Dmytryshyn 1994), but, because of the amount
of research required to sustain such an approach, it remains
an exception rather than the rule.
Another strength of recent work is the diversity of research
methods brought to bear. Documentary research, both in archives
and in published sources, is still an essential underpinning,
but North American researchers have increasingly supplemented
the written record with information gleaned from native oral
tradition (e.g., Wright 1995) and, especially, from archeological
sites. Particularly noteworthy is a multi-year, multidisciplinary
project undertaken at "Fort Ross," the Russian-American
Company's former Ross settlement in California. Commenced
in 1988, it has so far yielded a two-volume project overview
and several dissertations that examine more limited topics
(Lightfoot et al. 1991, 1997; Martinez 1998; Osborn 1997;
Wake 1995). Also important is a well-integrated ethnohistorical
and archeological study of the Paugvik site at the mouth
of the Naknek River in southwestern Alaska (Dumond and VanStone
The past decade brought a small, but steady, stream of
English translations of recent Russian works dealing with
the Russian-American Company. Most of the book-length translations
were produced by the Limestone Press in its long-running
Alaska History series (Alekseev 1990; Bolkhovitinov 1997;
Khlebnikov 1994a, 1994b), but the Rasmuson Library's Historical
Translation series, University of Alaska Fairbanks, also
contributed to the effort (Khlebnikov 1990). Other translations
published since 1990 include the Limestone Press's retranslation
of a significant German work (Langsdorff 1993) and a smattering
of journal articles that have appeared in the pages of Pacific
Historical Review, Arctic Anthropology, and Alaska
History (Bolkhovitinov 1990; Grinev 1993, 1997, 2000).
These translations, and a large body of other works that
have been translated since the early 1970s, have rendered
many primary materials and important secondary sources more
accessible to those of us who find it easier to read English
than other languages. The general effect has been positive--the
availability of translations has encouraged broader public
and academic interest in the history of the company and its
trade and, judging from the bibliographies of recent North
American publications on the topic, has considerably facilitated
research. But there is also a danger that this same availability
of translations will make us lazy about acquiring and maintaining
foreign language skills. Even at their best, translations
may miss nuances. At their worst, they contain serious mistranslations
or inadvertently omit text. Consequently, while existing
translations are adequate for general background research,
in scholarly work it is absolutely essential to check relevant
passages against the original if one intends to base an argument
upon a particular point. I cannot stress this enough, for
once errors that originated in a translation have made their
way into the general literature, it is seemingly impossible
to eradicate them.
Overreliance on existing translations remains but a potential
weakness in North American scholarship on the Russian-American
Company and its trade. Current specialists in the field still
rely upon published and archival materials in the original
language, and there is no reason to doubt that future generations
of scholars will follow suit. The purpose of translation,
however, is to make information accessible to those in other
fields so that they might incorporate it into comparative
studies, regional syntheses, and the like. As they rise to
the challenge, we can only hope that they will approach that
information with the same scholarly rigor that they apply
within their own disciplines.
As for the direction of future research, some of the most
interesting work currently under way is archeological in
nature. Erik Hilsinger, University of Alaska Fairbanks, is
close to completing a dissertation that combines a reanalysis
of archeological collections from the Kolmakovskii Redoubt
site (Kuskokwim River drainage, southwestern Alaska) with
intensive analysis of Russian and American documentary sources
for a fresh interpretation of site use. A team at the Alaska
State Office of History and Archaeology (lead contact, David
McMahan) is in the midst of analyzing materials excavated
in 1997 and 1998 from the side and base of Castle Hill in
Sitka, Alaska. The excellent preservation of organic material
(textiles, leather, bone, feathers, even human hair cuttings)
promises a glimpse of everyday life that is far more detailed
than anything found in the documentary record. Also in the
late 1990s, Douglas Veltre (University of Alaska Anchorage)
and Allen McCartney (University of Arkansas) commenced a
survey of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century sites
associated with fur seal hunting in the Pribilof Islands,
Alaska, with an eye toward their archeological potential.
Preliminary results of all three projects have been presented
as papers at scholarly conferences. Publication of their
findings is highly anticipated.
In the introduction to these remarks I mentioned that the
Russian-American Company and its operations have in recent
years become mere context for more detailed studies of those
who procured the furs. That focus is likely to continue for
some time--we have only to look toward studies of the Hudson's
Bay Company undertaken since that firm's archives became
more accessible in 1970 to see its potential, and the potential
for future comparisons. The result will be a far richer and
more balanced understanding of the Russian fur trade in North
America and of the northern fur trade as a whole.
The Russian-American Company and the Northwest Fur Trade
English-Language Scholarship, 1990-2000
compiled by Katherine L. Arndt,
Theses and Dissertations
Arndt, Katherine L.
1996 Dynamics of the Fur Trade
on the Middle Yukon River, Alaska, 1839-1868. PhD thesis,
University of Alaska Fairbanks. (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI
Dean, Jonathan R.
1993 'Rich Men,' 'Big Powers,'
and Wastelands: The Tlingit- Tsimshian Border of the Northern
Pacific Littoral, 1799 to 1867. PhD thesis, University
Doyle, John F.
1990 Twelve Thousand Miles of
Misplaced Motivations: Commercial Management of the Russian-American
Company in Alaska and Siberia. BA thesis, Reed College,
Hirschmann, Erik T.
1999 Empires in the Land of
the Trickster: Russians, Tlingit, Pomo and Americans on
the Pacific Rim, Eighteenth Century to 1910s. PhD thesis,
University of New Mexico . (Arbor, Michigan: UMI Dissertation
Martinez, Antoinette M.
1998 An Archaeological Study
of Change and Continuity in the Material Remains, Practices,
and Cultural Identities of Native Californian Women in
a Nineteenth Century Pluralistic Context. PhD thesis,
University of California Berkeley. (Ann Arbor, Michigan:
UMI Dissertation Services.)
Mills, Peter R.
1996 Transformations of a Structure:
The Archaeology and Ethnohistory of a Russian Fort in a
Hawaiian Chiefdom, Waimea, Kauai. PhD thesis, University
of California Berkeley. (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Dissertation
Osborn, Sannie K..
1997 Death in the Daily Life
of the Ross Colony: Mortuary Behavior in Frontier Russian
America. PhD thesis, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.
Michigan: UMI Dissertation Services.)
Wake, Thomas A.
1995 Mammal Remains from Fort
Ross: A Study in Ethnicity and Culture Change. PhD
thesis, University of California Berkeley. (Ann Arbor,
Michigan: UMI Dissertation Services.)
Wright, Miranda H.
1995 The Last Great Indian War
(Nulato 1851). Unpublished Master's thesis, Department
of Anthropology, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
Dumond, Don E., and James W. VanStone..
1995 Paugvik: A Nineteenth-Century
Native Village on Bristol Bay, Alaska. Fieldiana:
Anthropology, n.s., No. 24. Chicago: Field Museum of
Ellanna, Linda J., and Andrew Balluta.
1992 Nuvendaltin Quht'ana:
The People of Nondalton. Washington: Smithsonian Institution
Gibson, James R.
1992 Otter Skins, Boston Ships,
and China Goods: The Maritime Fur Trade of the Northwest
Coast, 1785-1841. University of Washington Press, Seattle.
Lightfoot, Kent G., Thomas A. Wake, and Ann M.
1991 The Archaeology and Ethnohistory
of Fort Ross, California. Vol. 1, Introduction. Contributions
of the University of California Archaeological Research
Facility, No. 49. Berkeley.
Lightfoot, Kent G., Ann M. Schiff, and Thomas A.
1997 The Archaeology and Ethnohistory
of Fort Ross, California. Vol. 2, The Native Alaskan
Neighborhood: A Multiethnic Community at Colony Ross. Contributions
of the University of California Archaeological Research
Facility, No. 55. Berkeley.
Pierce, Richard A.
1990 Russian America: A Biographical
Dictionary. Limestone Press, Kingston, Ontario, and
Pierce, Richard A., ed.
1998 The Romance of Nikolai
Rezanov and Concepcion Arguello by Eve Iverson and The
Concha Arguello Story by Fr. Maurice M. O'Moore, edited,
with historical notes, by Richard A. Pierce. Limestone
Press, Kingston, Ontario and Fairbanks, Alaska.
Alekseev, A. I.
1990 The Destiny of Russian
America, 1741-1867. Transl. Marina Ramsay, ed. Richard
A. Pierce. Fairbanks: Alaska and Kingston Ontario: Limestone
Bolkhovitinov, N. N.
1997 Russian-American Relations
and the Sale of Alaska, 1834-1867. Transl. and ed.
Richard A. Pierce. Fairbanks, Alaska and Kingston, Ontario:
Khlebnikov, Kirill T.
1990 The Khlebnikov Archive:
Unpublished Journal (1800-1837) and Travel Notes (1820,
1822, and 1824). Ed., with intro. and notes, by Leonid
Shur, transl. John Bisk. Fairbanks: University of Alaska
Notes on Russian America
1994a Part I: Novo-Arkhangel'sk.
Compiled, with intro. and commentaries, by Svetlana G.
Fedorova, transl. Serge LeComte and Richard Pierce, ed.
Richard Pierce. Kingston, Ontario, and Fairbanks, Alaska:
1994b Parts II-V: Kad'iak, Unalashka,
Atkha, the Pribylovs. Compiled, with introduction and
commentaries, by R. G. Liapunova and S. G. Fedorova, translated
by Marina Ramsay, edited by Richard Pierce. Limestone Press,
Kingston, Ontario, and Fairbanks, Alaska. (Translation
of Liapunova and Fedorova 1979.)
Langsdorff, Georg Heinrich von. 1993 Remarks
and Observations on a Voyage Around the World from 1803
to 1802, vol. 2. Trans. and annotated by Victoria Joan
Moessner, ed. by Richard A. Pierce. Kingston, Ontario and
Fairbanks, Alaska: Limestone Press.
Articles in Periodicals, 1990-2000
1990 "Creoles in Russian America." Pacifica 2(2):142-155.
Bolkhovitinov, N. N.
1990 "The Crimean War and the emergence
of proposals for the sale of Russian America, 1853-1861." Tr.
and intro. by James R. Gibson. Pacific Historical Review 59(1):15-
Dean, Jonathan R..
1994 "'Their Nature and Qualities
Remain Unchanged:' Russian Occupation and Tlingit Resistance,
1802-1867." Alaska History 9(1):1-17.
1995 "'Uses of the past' on the
Northwest Coast: The Russian American Company and Tlingit
nobility, 1825-1867." Ethnohistory 42(2):265-302.
1997 "The Sea Otter War of 1810: Russia
Encounters the Tsimshians." Alaska History 12(2):25-31.
1994 "The administrative apparatus
of the Russian-American Company, 1798-1867." Canadian-American
Slavic Studies 28(1):1-52.
Dumond, Don E.
1996 "Poison in the Cup: The
South Alaskan Smallpox Epidemic of 1835." University
of Oregon Anthropological Papers 52: 117-129.
Gibson, James R..
1998 "Sitka versus Kodiak: Countering
the Tlingit threat and situating the colonial capital in
Russian America." Pacific Historical Review 67(1):67-98.
Grinev, Andrei V..
1993 "On the banks of the Copper
River: The Ahtna Indians and the Russians, 1783-1867." Arctic
1997 "The forgotten expedition
of Dmitrii Tarkhanov on the Copper River." Translated by
Richard Bland. Alaska History 12(1):1-18.
2000 "The kaiury: The slaves of
Russian America." Translated by Richard Bland. Alaska
1990 "Russian America: Studies
in the English language." Pacific Historical Review 59(2):231-252.
Collections that include some papers relevant to the topic
Frost, O. W., ed.
1992 Bering and Chirikov: The
American Voyages and Their Impact. Alaska Historical
Pierce, Richard A., ed.
1990 Russia in North America:
Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Russian
America, Sitka, Alaska, August 19-22, 1987. Limestone
Press, Kingston, Ontario, and Fairbanks, Alaska.
Smith, Barbara Sweetland, and Redmond Barnett,
1990 Russian America: The Forgotten
Frontier. Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma,
Arndt, Katherine L.
1996 "Released to Reside Forever
in the Colonies: Founding of a Russian-American Company
Retirement Settlement at Ninilchik, Alaska." In Adventures
through Time: Readings in the Anthropology of Cook Inlet,
ed. N. Y. Davis and W. E. Davis, pp. 237-250. Cook Inlet
Historical Society, Anchorage.
Works in Progress (preliminary results presented at annual
meetings of Alaska Anthropological Association, 1999-2001)
Hilsinger, Erik D.
(in progress Topic: reevaluation of archaeological collections from Kolmakov
Redoubt. PhD. thesis, University of Alaska Fairbanks.)
McMahan, David, et al..
(in progress Multidisciplinary analysis of materials recovered from excavations
at Castle Hill, Sitka, Alaska. Alaska State Office of History and Archaeology.)
Veltre, Douglas, and Allen P. McCartney.
(in progress Survey and perhaps future excavation of 18th- and early 19th-century
settlements in the Pribilof Islands, Alaska. University of Alaska Anchorage
and University of Arkansas.)