- 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
Baranov’s troubles with the Indians were aggravated by the presence in Alaskan waters of free-lance Yankee traders who ignored the Russian American Company and bought furs from the natives on their own, which they then took to market in Canton, China. Among the goods they gave in exchange were guns and powder—with which the Kolosh armed themselves against the Russians. In vain did Baranov remonstrate with the American skippers. “I said to them again and again,” he wrote, “that these goods were not suitable things to sell to an uncivilized people. … But they paid little attention, saying, ‘We are a commercial people; we look for profits and there is nothing to stop us doing so.’”
British ships were in the vicinity, too, and “The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay,” having established forts and trading posts from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Arctic Ocean to the Columbia River, were eyeing Alaska from the south and east.
Baranov could do little to prevent these incursions. He had all he could do to keep alive his Russians and the Aleut hunters they had brought with them from the islands. Time and again Sitka and the other little company outposts that sprang up along the coast were in danger of starvation, for no crops were raised in Alaska, and the Russians there had to depend upon the uncertain arrival of supply ships from home. One of the fruits of an inspection visit made by Rezanov in 1805 was the establishment of Fort Ross, in the fertile soil of California hundreds of miles to the south, as a military post and agricultural colony to supply Sitka with food.∗
∗ Life at Sitka in Baranov’s time is described in George Howe’s “The Voyage of Nor’west John,” in the April, 1959, AMERICAN HERITAGE . The history of Fort Ross is contained in “Russians in California,” by Allan Temko, in the April, 1960, issue.
For most of the first charter’s duration Russia was caught up in European wars, but when the charter came up for renewal in 1819 Czar Alexander I began to take a more active hand in the company’s affairs.
The renewed interest of the Czar meant a different kind of administration for the colony. Imperial Navy officers on detached service with the company now became its officials, and the rough-and-ready ways of the promishleniki gave way to a quasi-military discipline and government bureaucracy.
For the bulk of the population, life in Sitka must have been dull monotony in a gray company town. An American newspaperman who visited it at the time of its transfer to the United States found it a one-street settlement of plank sidewalks and hewn-log houses. The laboring classes and the soldiers, he wrote, have been a slow, simple-hearted, well-disposed people. On account of the numerous [church] holidays, they have worked for the company not over two hundred days annually. Their pay has been about sixty dollars per year. To a citizen of the States, this would seem nothing short of “starvation” wages. True, their fare has been coarse, and they have, to use a homely phrase, lived “from hand to mouth.” Yet in Sitka no family has really ever been destitute of food and clothing. The company has a bakery, and furnishes coarse wheat bread and flour at four and a half cents a pound, and dispenses either fish or venison soup gratis. The soup is prepared daily, and after inspection … is distributed from the soup-house to each family, according to its wants. Added to this, the company furnishes a physician, priest, and school-teacher free from tax. Food, drink, and clothing is supplied at a stipulated price. In a word, it leaves nothing for the individual to do—but to work. … Yet, having no conception of any other [life], they have been, for the most part, a contented people. Their world was the little town in which they lived, with its surrounding waste of water and woodland. The busy outside world, its revolutions, its bustling trades and startling improvements, have been to them of as little moment as to the inhabitants of the moon. Of all the inventions of the past century only two have been practically known to this people—the friction match and one or two sewing machines.
The company, which could look after soup-kitchens, schools, and commissaries with such thoroughness, was totally incapable of acting with any imagination on a larger scale. As the years passed and the fur-bearing animals were exterminated along the mainland coast as they had been in the Aleutians, its directors did not seem to know what to do. Like the Company of One Hundred Associates, which for so long impeded the progress of New France, the Russian-American Company made no effort to explore the interior or develop its resources. The charter was renewed for a third twenty-year period, but by mid-century it was evident that the company was in deep trouble.