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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 system.

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 1995).

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,
May 2001

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 Dissertation Services.)

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 of Chicago.

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, Portland Oregon.

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 Services.)

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 Services.)

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. (Ann Arbor,
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 Natural History.

Ellanna, Linda J., and Andrew Balluta.
1992   Nuvendaltin Quht'ana: The People of Nondalton. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

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. Schiff.
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. Wake, eds.
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 Fairbanks, Alaska.

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.

Translated books

Alekseev, A. I.
1990   The Destiny of Russian America, 1741-1867. Transl. Marina Ramsay, ed. Richard A. Pierce. Fairbanks: Alaska and Kingston Ontario: Limestone Press.

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: Limestone Press.

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 Press.

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: Limestone Press.

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

Black, Lydia.
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- 49.

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.

Dmytryshyn, Basil.
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 Anthropology 30(1):54-66.

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 History 15(2):1-18.

Haycox, Stephen.
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 Society, Anchorage.

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, eds.
1990   Russian America: The Forgotten Frontier. Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma, Washington.

Other works

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.)

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