Alaskans and the Treaty of Cession

In the summer of 1867, in the village of Nikolaevsk (not the one now bearing that name, but the one now called Kenai), the priest, Igumen Nikolai, lay dying. For a generation he had lived in the Kenaitze and Creole community as its first resident priest. He’d given the people their first church, school and medical care.

We don’t know if Nikolai ever found out that the U.S. bought Russian America at the end of that March. In fact, we know almost nothing about how the momentous news reached Alaska or how its people received it. Communications 150 years ago were orders of magnitude slower than they are now, and neither government had conveyed its intentions to the northern colony.

A few people in Russian America probably had an inkling of the possibility, if they had highly placed connections in the nation’s government. When the Russian American Company’s third charter expired in 1862, the government sent inspectors to the colony to assess its resources and inventory company assets. Officials in the Russian Far East talked about pulling back from America.

Russia, with autocratic rule by the tsar, his kin and cronies, had neither need nor incentive to involve Alaskans in the decision. So it didn’t.

Historian Katherine Arndt, based at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said that the last Alaskan dispatches surviving from the Russian America administration in Sitka were dated May 21, 1867, and contained not even a hint of awareness of the sale.

After the treaty was signed and approved, Russian envoy Eduard de Stoeckl sent a telegram to the Russian consul at San Francisco, where apparently it was typed out and put on a boat bound for Novo Arkhangelsk (Sitka), the colonial capital. It arrived at the end of May, instructing Gov. Dmitri Maksutov to open Russian American sea ports to U.S. shipping and prepare to receive a delegation to complete the transfer.

Word may have reached other parts of the colony informally. Arndt also reported that St. Michael, the remote Russian outpost on Norton Sound, learned the news when a Yankee ship stopped and passed the info to William Healey Dall and his countrymen working on the Western Union Telegraph Expedition. Official word from the government didn’t get there until the following January, she said.

Presumably, word of the sale went from Sitka to Kodiak, and from there to posts on Cook Inlet which, during the final days of Russian America, were administered through the Kodiak District. It is likely that the news reached the Kenai Peninsula sometime that summer.

Igumen Nikolai had been in poor health for a long time, so his death was not surprising. Deacon Makary Ivanoff, his assistant, later reported that the priest nearly died during the winter, but rallied in the spring. After a few good months, Nikolai took a turn for the worse in mid-July and breathed his last on the summer night of July 31.

We cannot know if the news of the colony’s sale hastened the priest’s demise or had nothing to do with it. The people of his parish may have seen his death as a grim omen, but we have no records of how they received the news that Russian America, too, had forsaken them.

The records that we do have, written from a U.S. perspective, describe the reaction of the locals to the transfer ceremony in Sitka on Oct. 18, 1867, now observed as Alaska Day. The Stars and Stripes replaced the Russian flag, and Maksutov officially handed over control to Gen. Lovell Rousseau of the U.S. Army. U.S. observers reported that the Tlingit and most of the Russians avoided the ceremony. For those who had to attend, the mood was funereal. The outgoing governor’s young wife, Princess Maria V. Maksutova, fainted when their flag came down and was carried, weeping, to the home they no longer owned.

This is the 11th in a series about Kenai Peninsula history in observance of the 150th anniversary of the US purchase of Alaska, leading up to our local history conference, April 21-22 in Soldotna. For more conference information, check out its website at http://www.kenaipeninsulahistory.org/ and its Facebook page, or phone 907-460-7554.

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