Russian America on the peninsula in the mid-1800s

  • Saturday, February 11, 2017 9:15pm
  • LifeCommunity


For the Clarion

Russians claimed the Kenai Peninsula for 81 years. Although few, they brought massive changes to the North Pacific, including Southcentral Alaska and the Kenai.

One reason for Russia’s cultural clout was tragic: Eurasian invaders and their international shipping transmitted devastating illnesses. As had happened throughout the New World since 1492, Alaska Natives died in droves during the 1800s and even into the early 1900s. Russian administrators estimated several thousand people in the Cook Inlet region when they claimed control and reported the declines with alarm. A smallpox epidemic in the late 1830s killed half the people.

Unlike the tumultuous late 1700s, the early 1800s were relatively quiet. Sea otters were scarce, so the Russians relied on Dena’ina partners at Kenai (then called Nikolaevsk or Fort St. Nicholas), Knik, Tyonek, Katmai and Iliamna to collect inland furs. In 1818, after the colony’s head Aleksandr Baranov retired, the Russian American Company (RAC) downgraded the Aleksandrovsk post at Nanwalek to a one-man station and moved most of its stock (even boards) to the Nushagak River. For a generation, little was written about the Kenai Peninsula, and an 1821 report listed only 15 Russians here.

But about 1840, Russian activity in the area renewed. A new generation promoted reform, religion and science in Alaska. As the fur trade diminished due to depleted wildlife and global competition, the RAC and czarist government sought to diversify Alaska’s economy and reassess the colony’s role.

Natives and Russians linked to the Kenai Peninsula worked at Russia’s California outpost, Fort Ross. When the RAC relinquished Ross in 1841, some returned to Cook Inlet with a new worldview. One such was Qadanalchen, son of a Dena’ina chief of Shk’ituk’t Village (by the present Kenai senior center), who returned with the Russianized name Nikolai. Locals dubbed him “Kalifornsky” — the Californian — and he started his own village on the coastal bluff between Kenai and Kasilof.

In the 1840s, explorers such as scientist Ilya Voznesenski and mariner Illarion Arkhimandritov studied the area. For three years, mining engineer Pyotr Doroshin inventoried peninsula resources such as coal outcrops. Doroshin became the first white man to discover gold in Alaska, at the confluence of the Kenai and Russian rivers, the latter thus called because he camped there.

The Russian Orthodox Church, energized by the brilliant leadership of Bishop Innocent (later canonized), established a parish center at Nikolaevsk in 1845, and sent Igumen Nikolai Militov as the first resident priest. Father Nikolai served the rest of his life in the village. He opened a school, oversaw construction of the first church and, when smallpox threatened again in 1860, sent his talented deacon, Makary Ivanoff, to use the new technique called vaccination to immunize the peninsula’s far-flung residents from the scourge. Western medicine, wielded by the church, did much to convince the Natives to turn from ancient shamanic traditions to Orthodox Christianity.

Other profound changes came on gradually.

The RAC took keen interest in settlers’ mixed-race children. As early as 1821, those were designated “creoles” in Russia’s caste system. The RAC recruited and trained many for professions, some sent as far as St. Petersburg to become navigators and physicians that the colony badly needed. In Alaska, they often lived apart from their Native relatives. By the Kahtnu (Kenai) River mouth, Shk’ituk’t became the old Dena’ina village, while a mile to the west, the Creole community by the church became “old town.” The Creole population grew, even as others dwindled.

The number of Russians in Alaska never exceeded 750, with probably fewer than 100 ever on the southcentral mainland. Many returned to Russia when their contracts expired, but others married into Native families and wanted to stay. Starting in 1835, the czar allowed them to remain and approved special retirement communities including Ninilchik, founded in 1841.

By 1860, the main institutions were the RAC and the church. Nikolaevsk was a regional hub, although the colonial government in Sitka classified the entire peninsula as part of the Kodiak district. Russian posts at Kasilof and Resurrection Bay were long gone. Creole settlements existed at Ninilchik and Aleksandrovsk. Native villages, Dena’ina or Sugpiaq, dotted the area, but many shrank or were abandoned due to disease and consolidation.

It’s hard to believe now, but the peninsula’s largest community in 1860 was Coal Village — now vanished — next to Port Graham. Russian America, struggling for income, sought to sell Kenai coal to gold-rush California. Built in 1855 and run by the governor’s brother, the mine at its peak had 20 homes, a smithy, warehouse, chapel, steam engines, horses, cows and 52 people. But its coal was crumbly, and California found better sources.

Within a few years, the coal project went bust. Its fate, it turned out, was a sign of Russian America’s sinking fortunes.

This column is part of a series leading up to the 150 Years: Kenai Peninsula History Conference, scheduled for April 21-22 in Soldotna. It is run by volunteers and funded via the Alaska State Historical Commission and the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association. For more information about the conference, check out its website at and its Facebook page or phone 907-460-7554.

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