March 30, 2017

1741: The Year Russia Discovered America

1741: The Year Russia Discovered America

A seafaring Russian first glimpsed the shores of Alaska on June 4, 1761 – 355 years ago today. Its first settlement was established on August 14, 1784, but the Russian colony in Alaska lasted a mere 83 years – then it was sold to the United States as “something useless.”

“Captain Bering discovered our wild shore…” goes a Russian children’s song by Yuly Kim. The same could be said of Russian Alaska: in July 1741 navigator Vitus Bering sighted what would later become known as Russian America. The sighting proved fatal: Bering didn’t get very far and died in December of the same year.

But, unlike for Bering, for Russia this new land was to become a windfall – a lucrative new fur-trapping ground. Think Siberia’s big? Think again. Apparently, by the eighteenth century the Russian fur trappers had already depleted Siberia's fur animal populations and were itching for more. Within two years after Bering’s voyage, trade with the Alaskan natives had begun. For a while. the trade was conducted from the sea, until Grigory Shelikhov founded the first permanent settlement on Kodiak Island, later to be expanded into a large network of trading posts.

The Russian settlements, compared to the British colonies, were never particularly numerous or populous, but they had similar trouble with the natives. When Shelikhov landed on Kodiak Island, the locals tried to defend themselves against this apparent invasion, but earned themselves only massacres and devastating disease. European powers, too, were eyeing Russian claims nervously: the southernmost outpost at Fort Ross was uncomfortably close to Spanish California, while to the east Russia competed economically and politically with the British Empire’s Canada.

If it only took Russian trappers two centuries to deplete Siberia, Russian America didn’t stand much of a chance, especially with competition from the British Hudson’s Bay Company, also after the area’s furs. Sure thing, by the middle of the nineteenth century the fur animals (sea otters) were in decline, and the colony became even less profitable than it had ever been. Enter the Alaska Purchase, in which Russia sold Alaska to the United States for the oft-repeated price of 2 cents an acre.

Some on the American side were pretty excited about the territory – it was a great place to hunt seals, which the Russians had left alone. But since oil and national parks were not yet a consideration, and gold wasn’t discovered until three decades later, many people disapproved of the deal, calling it Seward’s Folly (after Secretary of State and primary negotiator William H. Seward). But who was the most upset about the sale? The native peoples of Alaska. They pointed out that the land never belonged to Russia in the first place, so how could Russia sell it? (Said the car thief to the cop, "I didn't steal the car, I discovered it!")

Check to pay for the Alaska Purchase

After the transfer of territory on October 18, 1867, most Russian settlers returned to the mainland, on a special ship provided by the Russian-American Company (the Russian America equivalent to the East India Trading Co.) But not everyone left, and some even kept speaking their own Russian dialect. Not much is left of the Russian presence in Alaska, but even now Alaska Day – the anniversary of the transfer – is observed as a minor state holiday.

Captain Bering's "discovery" of Alaska gets no such celebration. But from the moment of his sighting to Alaskan politicians' claims they can stare across the water at Russia, there's no denying the important historical link between cultures provided by the state known as "The Last Frontier." 

See these articles in Russian Life (print edition) about Russian America:


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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