- Historic Sites
Seward’s Wise Folly
In Alaska a much-abused Secretary of State saw a fabulous bargain, and what might have been a Russian beachhead became instead our forty-ninth state
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
If it was scientific curiosity that had impelled the Russians eastward, the lure of riches now turned the impulse into an obsession. Like New Fiance, whose great era would soon close at one end of the continent, Russian America, whose star was about to rise at the other, was built upon the fur trade. And where New France had its coureurs de bois , bold adventurers who served as advance agents for the merchants, Russia had her promishleniki , fur hunters who had been following the sable and the fierce Siberian tiger eastward for over a century. It was these men who, when they heard about the cargo brought back by Bering’s men, were suddenly seized by ambition.
At once the wealthier and more enterprising among them began Ruing out expeditions which leapfrogged eastward along the Aleutian chain chasing the seal, the sea otter, and the fox. In the islands and on the Alaskan mainland beyond, the next sixty years was a period of rugged, pell inell competition in which many Russians went broke and many died, but in which a single ship, after a successful two-year voyage, might bring back furs worth, at today’s prices, $2,500,000.
The chief victims of this scramble for riches, in addition to the animals, were the cheerful, peace-loving Aleuts who inhabited the islands, a people whom the Russians turned into virtual slaves to do their hunting for them. Clarence L. Andrews, one of the historians of Alaska, says of the Aleuts: Hunting was with them n passion. … When one of them saw the head of a sea otter on the sea lie trembled with excitement as a setter dog trembles at the scent of a bird, and he could hardly be made to take his eyes off the coveted prize. In [their] wonderful little skin boats they searched the seas and when the head of an otter was sighted it was almost equivalent to a death warrant for the animal, for one seldom escaped.
In addition to enslaving the men, the bearded promishleniki took the Aleut women for their own, and lived like sultans with their harems. “Heaven is high,” the saying among them went, “and the Czar is far away.” Finally aroused to action, in 1762 the natives all along the Aleutian chain rose up against their masters, but their revolt was put down at once with such violence that, according to Andrews, “they never after made any resistance to wrongs.”
Few of the promishleniki stopped to realize that intensive hunting in one location year after year might eventually exterminate all the fur-bearing animals in the vicinity. That is exactly what happened: by the end of the eighteenth century the sea otter was virtually extinct all along the Aleutian chain, and the Russians found themselves forced to travel farther and farther eastward to make a profitable catch. About this time one among them, more enterprising and farseeing than the rest, began to realize that if the cutthroat competition continued unchecked, there would soon he no livelihood for any of them. Grigoii Ivanovich Shelekhov was foresighted enough to realize something else, too: (hat organized operations so far from home would require bases closer to the Alaskan mainland. Accordingly, he began to consolidate some of the smaller fur companies, and appealed to the Empress Catherine the Great (1762–96) for a monopoly. In 1794, to give his venture the color of permanence, he brought over to Kodiak island just off the mainland coast some thirty families of settlers, together with missionaries of the Orthodox Church.
The following year Shelekhov died, but in 1799 his son-in-law, Nikolai Petrovich Rexanov, who shared his vision, organized the Russian-American Company and finally succeeded in obtaining from Catherine’s successor, Czar Paul I (1796–1801), a twenty-year charter to “use and profit by everything which has been or shall be discovered” in the Russian domains in America. It was in effect a private monopoly especially favored by the state, and during the next sixty-eight years it was to represent the czars in America, carry the Imperial double eagle down the Pacific coast as far as Spanish California, and with England and the United States turn the drive for supremacy in the Northwest into a three cornered race whose outcome was for a long time uncertain.
Considering the stubborn nature of the country, the international rivalry for the area, and the company’s weaknesses, it seems a minor miracle that it was able to accomplish any of these things. Its first manager, Alexander Baranov, set up headquarters at Sitka on what is now Baranov island in Norfolk Sound, where there was an excellent harbor girdled with virgin forests and ringed round with snow-crowned peaks. But before the colony could put down roots, disaster struck. The promishleniki had been treating the Kolosh Indians of Kodiak Island and the mainland with the same lordly air they had assumed toward the Aleuts; the bolder Kolosh rose up at once and in June of 1802 wiped out Sitka, killing all but forty two of its two hundred people.