How Alaskans fared during the transition of rule


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 and its Facebook page, or phone 907-460-7554.

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