Alaska: Russian-America (1799-1867)

Archaeologists Identify Famed Fort Where Indigenous Tlingits Fought Russian Forces 

Groups of Siberian tribes crossed the isthmus (now the Bering Strait) between sixteen to ten thousand years ago. The Eskimos began to settle along the Arctic coast, whilst the Aleuts settled in the Aleutian archipelago. On the Seward Peninsula in Alaska, (near Cape Espenberg), ancient Whale-hunting equipment together with bronze and iron artifacts have been found dating back around one thousand years – indicating contacts between East Asians and the Americas. The name ‘Alaska’ comes from the Aleutian word ‘Alaskaҳ’  – which means “Place of the Abundant Whale”. Initially, only the southwestern part of the territory of the present State (the Gulf of Alaska and Alaska Peninsula) was called ‘Alaska’. The name has been fixed since the 18th century.  

Before the arrival of the Europeans, the area was inhabited by the Tlingit Indians, who were engaged in hunting and fishing. The Tlingits were famous for their belligerence, instilling fear in other tribes. Originally, the first ‘White’ settlement was founded by Alexander Baranov with the permission of the Tlingit elders. This happened in 1799 at the Fort of Archangel Michael situated at the mouth of a stream, which is now called Starrigavan (Old Harbor). In 1802, during the Russian-Indian War, the fort was destroyed by the Indians, and its inhabitants were killed. In 1804, the Russian re-occupied this territory with the help of the Aleut and the guns of the battleship “Neva”. The settlement was moved to a more strategically convenient location, on a steep hill, (Kekur), next to the bay. The new settlement was named Novo-Arkhangelsk. 

The first Europeans to visit Alaska arrived on August 21, 1732, and were members of “St. Gabriel” Russian Expedition. This mission was under the Command of the geodesist M. S. Gvozdev  who was assisted by Navigator I. Fedorov together with A. F. Shestakov and D. I. Pavlutsky. The expedition lasted between 1729-1735. Although Viking-explorers reached the Americas in a long-boat during the 11th century – the details of further Russian-explorers reaching the Americas throughout the 17th century are generally of a fragmentary nature. These Russians were not enlightened ‘Soviets’ but were very much part of the ‘White’ expansion of imperialist power throughout the world, and like their European and US counter-parts, sought to viciously subjugate (and ‘convert’) the non-White people of the world. Within three-years of arriving in Alaska, the Czarist Russians were raping, torturing and killing. The children of the indigenous people were not killed or raped providing they willing attended the Russian Christian schools.  

From July 9, 1799 to October 18, 1867 – Alaska with the adjacent islands – was under the control of the Russian-American Company. The fighting in the Far East during the Crimean War showed the absolute insecurity of the eastern lands of the Russian Empire, and especially Alaska. In order not to waste the territory (that was impossible to protect and develop in the foreseeable future), it was decided to sell. On December 16, 1866, a special meeting was held in St. Petersburg, which was attended by Alexander II, Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich, the Finance and Naval Ministers, as well as the Russian envoy to Washington, Baron Eduard Steckl. All participants approved the sale idea. At the suggestion of the Ministry of Finance, a threshold was set for the amount – not less than five million dollars in gold. On December 22, 1866, Alexander II approved the border of the territory. In March 1867, Steckle arrived in Washington DC and made a formal appeal to Secretary of State William Seward. 

The signing of the agreement for the sale of Alaska took place on March 30, 1867 in Washington. The territory with an area of 1.519 thousand km² was sold for 7.2 million dollars in gold, that is, at 4.74 dollars per 1 km² (the much more fertile and warmer French Louisiana – bought from France in 1803 – cost the US budget a little more – about for 7 dollars per 1 km²). Finally, Alaska was transferred to the United States on October 18 of the same year, when Russian Commissioners – headed by Admiral Alexei Peshchurov – arrived at Fort Sitka. The Russian flag was solemnly lowered over the fort and the American flag was raised. Attending with the Americans were 250 soldiers in dress uniform under Gen. Lovell Rousseau – which gave the Secretary of State William Seward – a detailed report on this event. Since 1917, October 18 has been celebrated as Alaska Day. The Gold Rush in Alaska (during the late 1800s) eventually netted about 1000 tonnes of gold. Since 1867, Alaska was under the jurisdiction of the US Department of War and was called the “District of Alaska”. This name was retained between 1884-1912 – and then changed to “Territory of Alaska” between 1912-1959. Since January 3, 1959 – this area (situated North of Canada) has been known as the ‘US State of Alaska’. 

Russian Language Sources:Аляска

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