30 March 2020

Russian America

“If [our] Government had given its attention to this part of the world earlier, if it had had proper respect for it, if it had persistently pursued the sagacious visions of Peter the Great, who with the small resources of his time dispatched [Vitus] Berings mapping expedition, one may be certain that New California would never have become a Spanish possession…” Nikolai P. Rezanov (1764-1807), promoter of Russian colonization of North America. 

                                                         From The Russian American Colonies 1798-1867.

• • •


1721 – Tsar Peter the Great declared the Russian Empire and himself Emperor of All of Russia.
1732 – The Russian Empire began to colonize the northern Pacific coast areas of North America in modern-day Alaska and parts of Northern California. The colonial Russian possessions were called Russian America.
1763 – Empress Catherine the Great issued her manifesto inviting foreigners to colonize her Empire. 
1776 – The U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed. By this time in Russia, Germans were known to be living in Orenburg, Astrakhan, and had founded Sarepta near Tsaritsyn (Volograd today), the Belowesh colonies and all of the Volga Mother colonies.

The Russian Discoveries from the Map Published by the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg. Circa 1775
Source: World Digital Library

This map, showing the known geography of Alaska in the late 18th century, was based on an original Russian map by Gerhard Friedrich Müller published in 1754 by the Imperial Academy of Saint Petersburg... Because the North Pacific and Arctic constituted the last largely unknown parts of the world at this time, early maps of Alaska were popular in Western Europe and were frequently reprinted. The map was published before the third Pacific voyage of Captain Cook to Alaska in 1778...

Timeline (cont.)

1784 – At the encouragement of Empress Catherine the Great, Russian fur trader Grigorii Ivanovich Shelikhov (1747–95) founded the first permanent Russian settlement in Alaska at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island. 

General Map Presenting the Convenient Methods of Increasing Russian Trade and Navigation
in the Pacific and Southern Oceans.
Source: World Digital Library

This Russian map, published in 1787, centers on the Pacific Rim and includes much of Eurasia and North America on its margins. It was produced by Ivan Golikov, a Russian merchant who was one of the founders of the Russian-American Company active in the maritime fur trade in sea otter pelts in the North Pacific from the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century. The map displays, for the era in which it was made, a thoroughgoing level of knowledge of Alaska. It clearly incorporates cartographic insights gained from both the recent Russian explorations in the North Pacific since the voyage of Vitus Bering to Alaska in 1741 as well as the subsequent trading expeditions of the Russian-American Company along the Aleutian Islands and south-central Alaska...

Timeline (cont.)

1799 – Russian Emperor Paul I of Russia granted a charter to establish the Russian-American Company. The company kept detailed records of its work, finances, the fur trade, the movement of people from Russia to North America, company accomplishments, and, in some years, maps of new territories explored or new settlements established.  
1803 – The Louisiana Purchase from France doubled the size of the U.S. and opened up the young countrys westward expansion.  
1804 – Novo-Arkhangelsk (today Sitka, Alaska) was founded and became the Russian-American Company’s capital.  
1804 – Alta California or Nuevo California (New California) was established as a province of New Spain.  
1812 – The Russian-American Company established Fort Ross, a Russian outpost in northern Alta California (northern California today). It was inhabited from 1812-1842 and was the center of Russian colonial activity.  

Russian America souvenir card. 1856.
Source: World Digital Library

This card is one of a souvenir set of 82 illustrated cards–one for each province of the Russian Empire as it existed in 1856. Each card presents an overview of a particular province’s culture, history, economy, and geography. The front of the card depicts such distinguishing features as rivers, mountains, major cities, and chief industries. The back of each card contains a map of the province, the provincial seal, information about the population, and a picture of the local costume of the inhabitants. The territory depicted on this card corresponds to present-day Alaska.

From the Russian-American Company Report 1859.
Source: World Digital Library

“... Emperor Paul I of Russia granted a charter to establish the Russian-American Company... Although primarily a commercial entity, the Russian-American Company took on the responsibilities of Russian colonial government and became an outpost in the Pacific for the Imperial Court in Saint Petersburg....

Timeline (cont.)

1863 – The Homestead Act in the United States went into effect on January 1, 1863.
1867 – The United States purchased Alaska from Russian Emperor Alexander II on March 30, 1867.

Northwestern America Showing the Territory Ceded by Russia to the United States. 1867
Source: Library of Congress

Timeline (cont.)

1872 – Russian Emperor Alexander II revoked the Codex of the Colonists, making the German colonists subjects of Russia. Also that year, gold was discovered in Alaska. 
1873 – German colonists living Russia began emigrating from Russia to the United States, taking advantage of the Homestead Act to acquire land.  
1898 – Special legislation extended homesteading into the unincorporated U.S. territory of Alaska.  
1912 – Alaska Territory was established on May 17, 1912.  
1959 – Alaska became a state January 3, 1959. 
1958 – The first reported descendants of Germans from Russia resided in Seward, Alaska Territory, United States.  
2019 – According to the Germans from Russia in America Survey, at least five generations of descendants of Germans from Russia settled in Alaska at some point from the following regions: Bessarabia (Alt-Elft, Alt-Posttal, Hoffnungstal); Black Sea (Crimea, Bergdorf, Kassel, Neudorf, Elsass, Strassburg); Volga (Beideck, Frank, Kratzke, Saratov, Schäfer); and Volhynia (Karolinufka). 

Note: I've been collecting maps of Russian America for quite a while. Last summer, I happened upon the book The Russian American Colonies 1798-1867. To Siberia and Russian America. Three Centuries of Russian Eastward Expansion while browsing the stacks at the University of Arizona Libraries. From that book, an idea emerged of interspersing the history of the Russian Empire, the history of Germans from Russia and American history together in one timeline. Most of the maps come from the Library of Congress (LOC) and the World Digital Library (WLD), two of my favorite repositories for digitized primary documents.