How Alaskans fared during the transition of rule

By SHANA LOSHBAUGH

For the Clarion

The Treaty of Cession, for all practical purposes, left many Alaskans in limbo. After the news reached the far-flung settlements of Russian America, daily life went on as before with routines of catching fish, collecting firewood and swatting mosquitoes. But in the larger picture, everyone grappled to understand major changes thrust upon them.

The new government brought not only a foreign language, but different alphabet, calendar, currency, brand of Christianity and attitude toward different races.

The Russians in the colony had three years to choose a country – return to Mother Russia or throw in their lot with the Yankees who called themselves Americans. Some Russians had homes, Native wives and Creole children, tying them to Alaska. Some had left behind grinding poverty in Russia and over time lost their kin, friends or motivation to go back there. Still, hundreds shipped out in the fall after the tsar’s flag came down in Sitka.

We know one example from Kodiak of how these choices affected families. The Russian American Company (RAC) district boss there was Vasilii Pavloff, the lieutenant governor of Russian America, who had anticipated becoming the next governor in Sitka. His wife, Parascovia, was the Creole sister of renowned mariner Illarion Arkhimandritov, for whom the shoals next to the Homer Spit were named. Arkhimandritov already had moved to California. After the transfer, the Pavloffs lasted a year under U.S. reign before heading to Russia. Their son, Nicholas Pavloff, stayed and took the oath of U.S. citizenship.

Even more ambivalent was the position of Alaska’s Creoles. Unions (legitimate or otherwise) between Russian men and Native women were so common in the colony that the government and church expended much ink pondering the growing mixed-race population.

Russia had a caste system of sorts, with men registered by hometown and profession with classifications such as “merchant” or “peasant.” In 1821, the new RAC charter established Alaska Creoles as an official class in the Russian empire. In the 1830s the tsar allowed Alaskans to gain official status as “colonial citizens” and also mandated that the company educate Creoles.

Given the chronic shortages of skilled manpower in the frontier settlements, the Russians resolved to train the most promising young Alaskans to run the colony. The company sent a few boys to Russia for training. Although many died, at least at first, due to arduous travel and exposure to unfamiliar diseases, survivors returned with credentials from places such as the medical school or naval academy near St. Petersburg.

One such with known Kenai Peninsula ties was Pyotr Malakhov. His father ran the Russian forts at what are now Nanwalek, Kenai and Nuchek, and he himself led expeditions inland and founded the Russian post at Nulato.

Another was Anton Kashevarof, who earned an engineering degree in Russia and worked at the RAC coal mine at Port Graham. Some of his relatives still live in Seldovia.

Others, with humbler roots, worked their entire careers in the colony. By 1867, they were part of multigenerational, multiethnic enclaves in places such as Ninilchik. Some served as Orthodox clergy or worked for RAC as clerks or supervisors of hunting teams.

Many Creoles, although they considered themselves culturally Russian, had never lived anywhere but Alaska. They stayed put after the transfer, but many found that under the new government they were despised as “half breeds” rather than admired as the colony’s elite.

The transition also proved difficult for the region’s indigenous people. The Russians, under a system dating back centuries in Siberia, classified tribes by their acceptance of Western ways such as Christianity. In Alaska, the RAC designated tribes as “dependent” or “independent.” The dependent groups worked for RAC, the others for themselves. Aleuts were dependent; Tlingit independent.

But Kenai Peninsula Natives refused to fit the mold. Russian reports listed the Chugach and Kenaitze as dependent in some sources but as “semi-dependent” in others. Moreover, Russians considered Kenaitze living at the mouth of the river Katnu “civilized” but their relatives upriver in the lake country not so.

A Russian census from 1860 tallied the population of the Kodiak District, which included the Kenai Peninsula, as about 6,000. Of those, about 5,000 were Native, 900 Creole and 100 Russian.

The U.S. government, faced with the vast new acquisition, sparsely inhabited by mysterious and potentially dangerous peoples, responded in two ways: it commissioned studies, and it sent in the army.

This is the 12th 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.

More in Life

File
Minister’s Message: Who is this man?

Over and over again, they struggle to rightly name who he is and what he’s up to

A still from “Casting Maya,” a film about Ascension Bay on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is seen in this screenshot. From Pure Films, the short will be one of nine shown at the International Fly Fishing Film Festival on Aug. 10 in Kenai, Alaska. (IF4/flyfilmfest.com)
Anglers’ night out

Annual International Fly Fishing Film Festival returns to Kenai

Candy pecans make a sweet snack to enjoy on excursions. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
Road trip reimagined

Candied pecans accompany more subdued wandering

Robert C. Lewis photo courtesy of the Alaska Digital Archives 
Ready to go fishing, a pair of guests pose in front of the Russian River Rendezvous in the early 1940s.
The Disappearing Lodge, Part 1

By the spring of 1931, a new two-story log building — the lodge’s third iteration — stood on the old site, ready for business

Viola Davis stars in “The Woman King.” (Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.)
On the screen: Women reign in latest action flick

‘The Woman King’ is a standout that breaks new ground

Artwork donated for the Harvest Auction hangs at the Kenai Art Center on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Auction, juried show to showcase local talent

Kenai Art Center will host its annual Harvest Auction this weekend, juried art show next month

Sweet and tart cranberry pecan oat bars are photographed. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
Cranberries to match the bright colors of fall

Delicious cranberry pecan oat bars are sweet and tart

Will Morrow (courtesy)
Take a chance

The fact of the matter is, you can find a way to hurt yourself in just about any athletic endeavor.

Alaska Digital Archives
George W. Palmer (left), the namesake for the city in the Matanuska Valley and the creek near Hope, poses here with his family in 1898 in the Knik area. Palmer became a business partner of Bill Dawson in Kenai in the last years of Dawson’s life.
Bill Dawson: The Price of Success, Part 5

Thus ended the sometimes tumultuous Alaska tenure of William N. Dawson.

File
Minister’s Message: Plenty

The Bible story of Joseph in Egypt preparing the harvest in the seven years of plenty teaches us some vital lessons

A still from “Jazzfest.” (Photo provided)
DocFest could be the golden year of documentaries — again

Homer Documentary Film Festival returns for 18th year with solid mix

From left: Lacey Jane Brewster, Terri Zopf-Schoessler, Donna Shirnberg, Tracie Sanborn and Bill Taylor (center) rehearse “Menopause Made Me Do It” on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Applause for menopause

Kenai Performers’ new play takes aim at ‘not the most glorious part of womanhood’