He Who Lived When Russia Owned America
When merchant and trader Alexander Baranov accepted the offer to become the first governor of Russian America, he probably had no idea what he would end up doing. Fighting fierce wars with Alaska Natives, establishing Fort Ross in California, copper smelter in Alaska, and improving trade links with Hawaii — that is what followed.
Although our navigators first discovered the New World as early as 1648, they confined themselves to determining and charting the coordinates and exploring and describing the coasts for more than a century. In the second half of the 18th-century, travellers began exploring the transoceanic continent and thought about founding settlements.
The most enterprising in this matter turned out to be industrialist Grigory Shelikhov. He heard rumours that Alaska was abundant in Arctic foxes, sea beavers, and sea lions. Fur was then called "soft gold". The lucrative fur trade brought merchants enormous profits, and they were willing to travel even to the uncharted continent for their sake.
In 1781 Shelikhov established the North-Eastern Company to fish on Alaska and the nearby Aleutian Islands. During the first expedition, he became convinced that the area was rich in fur and sea animals and established the first Russian settlement on the island of Kodiak. Alexander Baranov was invited to run the enterprise.
It was a one hundred per cent hit. The 44-year-old merchant, originally from Kargopol in the Arkhangelsk region, had been involved in trading operations in Moscow and St Petersburg, then moved to Irkutsk, where he bought several factories. He had already accumulated a lot of experience but was still full of energy and strength. The man had no idea that from then on, his life would turn into an action thriller.
Baranov's first adventures took place before he reached his destination. His ship was wrecked in 1790 off the island of Unalaska, somewhere between Kamchatka and Alaska. The passengers survived, but the cargo sank. A detachment sent for help to the Russian settlement on Kodiak was overrun by Eskimos. Alexander lived with the surviving sailors and industrialists in a hastily dug earthen yurt all autumn and winter, eating roots, whale meat and shells. Once, he even fell into a trap. It was not until the spring that the Russians built several kayaks and finally reached the appointed place.
It became evident that the Russians were not "awaited with open arms" here. The indigenous population reacted aggressively to the foreigners, who came to hunt animals.
For example, on the Aleutian Islands, which our travellers had been the first to explore, lived Aleuts - the local Eskimos. They resisted the appearance of the Russians for a long time, but after a while, they managed to establish trade relations with them. Later they became the primary labour force of the so-called 'baranovtsy' in America. The Tlingit Indians, on the other hand, were a more warlike and irreconcilable people. All neighbouring tribes were afraid of the Tlingit. They would, time and again, engage in battles over their lands. And it took Baranov more than ten years to negotiate any, even the shakiest, a truce with them.
Alexander Andreevich first encountered the Tlingits in 1792 when exploring Prince William Sound in northern Alaska. The expedition involved 30 Russians in two large kayaks and 300 Aleuts in 150 kayaks. As the Indians were helpless against firearms, their only advantage could be a surprise. And they used it. Like ghosts, the natives armed with spears, bows and daggers attacked Baranov's detachment at night. The warriors wore woven wooden armour and beast-like helmets, apparently made of animal skulls. At the end of the skirmish, they retreated, but some 30 men fell victim. Despite the state of shock experienced, the Kargopol merchant remained resolute in his intentions and continued to advance along the American shores to the southwest.
Some historians write about the spread of Orthodoxy among North American pagans, the building of schools for them, and crops' introduction. At the same time, their more critical colleagues report on the colonisation of local peoples and their recurrent rebellions against the conquerors.
In 1799, the North-Eastern Company, which Baranov headed, was transformed by the decree of Paul I into the Russian-American Company (RAC). The emperor himself and members of the royal family became shareholders. The fur trade flourished, and America attracted the attention it deserved. The exploration of the New World was no longer solely a private initiative of brave entrepreneurs. What changed? Henceforth the RAK, in addition to fulfilling its original extraction and production of furs, became an instrument of state control over the colonisation of the overseas continent. It was then that a new post was established - Chief Ruler of the Russian Colonies in North America. Alexander Baranov took it.
His first decision was to go to Sitka Island and build Fort Michael the Archangel. Baranov planned to move the capital of Russian America here from Irkutsk, so he approached the process thoroughly: he bought the land for the fortress from the Tlingit elders and brought hundreds of Aleuts as builders. But in 1802, a band of 600 Indians attacked the fort and crushed it. The fact is that the Tlingits were a very numerous tribe and not all of their chiefs accepted the presence of foreigners. Baranov suffered significant losses: 24 Russians and 200 Aleuts working for them.
The chief ruler was determined to embark immediately on a punitive expedition. But he was persuaded to prepare well for a retaliatory strike. As a result, the second conquest of Sitka did not take place until 1804. It involved 120 Russian fishers and about 800 Aleuts and Eskimos. They came in 400 kayaks and three ships, among which was the 14-gun sloop, Neva. The Indians could not withstand such a force and left the fort. A new fort, Novo-Arkhangelsk, was built in place of the old one and became the centre of Russian America.
Later a truce was eventually achieved. Baranov's authority among the natives significantly increased after the battle on Sitka, and the Russians' agreement not to fish on the Indians' lands contributed to this.
Indeed, Baranov not only fought with natives but also developed the entrusted to him lands in every possible way - he opened brickworks, sawmills and tanneries, began the development of coal on the Kenai Peninsula. He wrote to the head of the RAC about the discovery of iron ore in Alaska "in adequate quantities; therefore, it is hoped to start up ironworks for the benefit of the fatherland. As soon as the opportunity arose, he built a copper smelter on Kodiak.
In 1805, Nikolai Rezanov, Shelikhov's son-in-law, arrived in Novo-Arkhangelsk. He was sent to Alaska by the RAC leadership to inspect the Russian colonies. The man found them in a grave condition. Despite Baranov's best efforts, the settlers were starving to death - on the northern shores of America. It was challenging to grow the necessary amount of cereals and legumes. The food was delivered to them from Siberia, came from already spoiled. So Rezanov, on two ships, the Juno and Avos, sailed south for provisions and to establish trade links with the Spanish, who officially owned California.
Thanks to a rock opera, "Juno and Avos", to Andrei Voznesensky's lyrics, the love story of the 42-year-old son-in-law Shelikhov and the 15-year-old daughter of the Spanish commandant of San Francisco became known all over Russia. However, the main result of that trip was not someone's drama, and not even 2156 poods of wheat, 351 poods of barley and 560 poods of beans, which Novo-Arkhangelsk received. The main thing was the idea of creating an agricultural settlement in Northern California to provide Alaska with food. Rezanov commissioned the Chief Ruler of Russian America to implement it.
The Fortress of Ross was founded in 1812, 80 km north of San Francisco. It became the southernmost Russian settlement on the continent. Although the Spanish considered the territory their property, the Indians were the immediate owners. For three blankets, three pairs of trousers, two axes, three hoes and a few strings of beads, they allowed the Russians to use the land to build the fort. Even years later, however, the colony was bringing only losses to the Russian-American Company. The wind and scorching sun on the coast did not give agriculture a chance, and in 1941 it was sold to an American businessman. Today the factoria is most commonly called Fort Ross in the American manner. It has become a national historical monument in the United States and is visited by 150,000 people annually. Most of them are Russian immigrants and tourists.
Towards the end of his reign, in 1815, Baranov established trade relations with Hawaii and even built three forts there. Moreover, one of the two kings of the islands expressed a wish to become a subject of Russia and make Hawaii its colony. However, the second king and the Americans and the British also showed interest in these lands. Their intervention forced the Russians to abandon this collaboration. The Russian Emperor Alexander I did not want to spoil relations with Great Britain and the USA and refused to acquire Hawaii and bring it voluntarily under his patronage.
In 1819, Alexander died at the age of 73. The death occurred aboard a ship en route from Novo-Arkhangelsk to St Petersburg, near the Indonesian island of Java. The discoverer's body was lowered into the waters of the Indian Ocean. Although the sale of Alaska did not take place until 1867, it can be said that it was lost with the departure of Baranov. After his death, it was not statesmen but naval officers who had little understanding of economics appointed to the Chief Administrator position. The situation of the colonies deteriorated every year, and it was subsequently decided that it was better to get rid of them as ballast. The costs of maintaining and defending this remote territory outweighed the potential profits.
The cost of the deal was $7.2 million in gold. The total land area sold was about 1.5 million km², i.e. less than $5 per square kilometre. The three-storey New York County Courthouse built simultaneously cost the New York State Treasury more than the entire Alaskan government.
Thirty years later, large reserves of gold were discovered there, and the Klondike gold rush began. According to Vladimir Obruchev, a prominent Russian geologist and graduate of St. Petersburg Mining University, mining the yellow metal in Alaska brought the Americans about 200 million dollars only by 1915. Large deposits of oil were later found in the region. But that is not the story of Russian America.