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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

Russian Colonization

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

The Russian colonization of Alaska lasted less than a century but in that time produced a rich history of enduring importance. As in the American West, Russian Alaska attracted the full range of humanity: adventurers and explorers, merchants and plunderers, enlightened and not-so-enlightened administrators, scoundrels and saints. Although the original impetus for colonizing Alaska was the fur trade, the Russian Orthodox Church had probably the greatest lasting impact on the people of Alaska, helping to create a multicultural Orthodox community that exists to this day.

Russian-American Company

Following the early period of Russian exploration of North America, the imperial government was initially content to leave further development of Alaska in the hands of private traders or promyshlenniki. Attracted by the fur-bearing animals of the Aleutian Islands, the promyshlenniki did not settle in the new territory but only hunted seasonally. In 1784, however, Grigorii Shelikhov established the first permanent Russian outpost on Kodiak Island at Three Saints Bay. Eager to eliminate rival Russian companies and gain control of the entire North Pacific fur trade, Shelikhov expanded the sphere of Russian influence along the Alaskan coast and petitioned Empress Catherine the Great to grant him a monopoly. Shelikhov did not live to see his plans implemented, but in December 1799 Catherine's successor, Paul I, decided to issue a charter creating the Russian-American Company. Although its board of directors met in St. Petersburg, the company's business was conducted from the capital of Russian America, New Archangel (founded on Sitka Island in 1804). Despite falling revenues and a changing world order in the Pacific, the Russian-American Company provided Alaska and the Aleutians with a commercial and civil administration until 1867.

Nikolai .P. Rezanov

Report to Alexander I by Rezanov with list of 34 men who want to remain in America. Yudin Collection, LC Manuscripts Division.

Of poor but noble birth, Nikolai Rezanov was close to members of the court of Emperor Alexander I and became an influential figure in the first decade of Russia's American colony. Having met Grigorii Shelikhov in Irkutsk in 1790, Rezanov became more closely involved with his family when he married Shelikhov's daughter Anna in 1793 and became a major shareholder in the Russian-American Company. Acting on behalf of the company and the Russian government, between 1805 and 1806 Rezanov attempted to improve conditions in Alaska by making voyages to Japan and northern California where he hoped to find sources of food for the colony and supplies for Russian ships. In Nagasaki, mutual ignorance of each other's language, culture, and protocol proved an insurmountable barrier, but in San Francisco Rezanov was well received. While in San Francisco, Rezanov, who had been widowed since 1802, fell in love with Concepcion de Argiello, the daughter of the Spanish commandant of the presidio, and despite their differences in nationality and religion proposed marriage. Unfortunately, in March 1807 Rezanov died in Krasnoyarsk on his return trip to St. Petersburg. His fiancee never married and later in life entered a convent.