Yankees in Russian America

The United States did not exist when Russians first claimed Alaska’s coast. But by the time British Captain James Cook entered the inlet now bearing his name, the Revolutionary War was underway. As Russians gained a foothold in Southcentral Alaska, the new United States of America began their experiment in nationhood.

Soon mariners from the new nation began poking into North Pacific waters. To Russians in the colony, the term “Americans” referred to indigenous Alaskans, so they called the new group Yankees or Boston men.

Early British involvement with Alaska made plenty of English-language information available to Yankees. This came not only from Britannia’s explorers such as Cook, Vancouver and Portlock, but directly from Russia. The czarist court recruited skilled foreigners from all over northern Europe. One was Joseph Billings, who, with Gavriil Sarychev, mapped the outer Kenai Peninsula coast and Prince William Sound in 1790. Another was shipwright James Shields, who in 1792, created a ship yard at the head of Resurrection Bay, where Seward now sits, for Aleksandr Baranov.

The new government in Washington, D.C., took a keen interest in Russia. Young John Quincy Adams, who became the first official U.S. envoy to Russia and later our sixth president, first worked in St. Petersburg in 1781.

At first Yankees barely impacted Alaska. But by 1800 their ships displaced the British in the North Pacific and by the mid-1800s they were all over.

Relations between Alaska Russians and the newcomers were ambiguous and complicated. New Englanders brought essential food and other critical supplies. But they also poached sea otters and threatened Russia’s trade monopoly with the Natives. By 1800, U.S. ships, nearly all from Boston, were running sea otter pelts past the Russians to Canton and selling more than 10,000 a year. This undermined the fur market and dented the Russian American Company’s (RAC’s) revenue. Most dangerously, Yankees traded guns for furs, a practice Russians banned.

In 1802, armed Tlingit overran Baranov’s new headquarters at Sitka while the manager was away at Kodiak. One British and two U.S. vessels came upon the situation, counterattacked the Tlingit and helped rescue survivors from the Russian camp.

In 1803, Baranov and Boston men agreed to cooperate to extend sea otter hunts south into waters Spain claimed. Historian James R. Gibson wrote that the Yankees provided ships and sailors while the Russians provided Native hunters and bidarkas. To maintain its fleet, the RAC often had to hire Yankees or buy their boats. Working with Yankees and sailing to California relieved severe food shortages in the Russian posts. This pleased Alaska colonists but displeased their Russian superiors, who strove to prevent fraternizing and maintain the motherland’s trade monopoly.

John Jacob Astor, the fur trader who established the first U.S. settlement on the Pacific Coast, made a deal with Baranov to serve as an official RAC representative and thwart the Hudson Bay Company’s expansion in the Pacific Northwest. The War of 1812, during which the British attacked Astoria and Yankee shipping, nixed that plan.

In 1814, St. Petersburg headquarters demanded Baranov stop colluding with Yankees. When Baranov retired in 1818, his successors condemned Yankee activities in Alaska. Poaching and illicit trade continued, with the Boston men exchanging blankets, rifles and cloth for pelts, mostly along the southeast panhandle where the Tlingit enthusiastically flouted Russian rules.

But the trade ban renewed privation in colonial settlements and didn’t improve the bottom line, so in the 1820s, the Russians welcomed the Yankees back into Sitka and other harbors. By that time, the Russians had Fort Ross in California, and the Mexican War of Independence removed Spaniards from the equation. In California, Russians encountered ever more U.S. citizens.

Yankees were aggressive, taking sea otter from places as far afield as the Kuril Islands. The once-lucrative fur trade between China and Russia faded and the RAC’s fortunes with it. When Russia pulled out of California in 1841, a Yankee, John Sutter, bought the Ross buildings.

Prospectors were poking around the West by 1848, when Pyotr Doroshin found gold near Cooper Landing. That year marked the beginning of another rush that influenced the Americanization of Alaska. A New York whaling captain named Thomas Roys sailed through the Bering Strait and discovered a bonanza of fat bowheads. New England’s whaling fleet rushed to the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

And in 1865, a U.S. military party, led by Robert Kennicott, arrived in Russian America to start surveying an international telegraph route along the Yukon.

Even if residents of a quiet backwater like the Kenai Peninsula didn’t know it in the early 1860s, the Yankees were coming. Prospectors, whalers and fur traders, they had crossed North America from sea to shining sea and were looking north for new frontiers.

The only thing slowing them was the catastrophe of the Civil War. Perhaps it is fitting that the war’s last battle, the naval engagements of the Confederate “Shenandoah,” took place off Alaska’s coast because its captain didn’t know that Lee already had surrendered to Grant thousands of miles away.

This is the sixth 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. Jeffrey Meyers from Kenai Peninsula College will talk moreabout why Russia sold Alaska. 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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