Russian colonization of the Americas

ISBN (identifier) History of California 1900 to present History of California before 1900
The Battle of Sitka (1804) played a pivotal role in the history of the Tlingit people and the formation of Russian Alaska. The site of the battle now forms Sitka National Historical Park, the oldest national park in Alaska.
A map depicting the territory of Alaska in 1867, immediately after the Alaska Purchase

The Russian colonization of the Americas covers the period from 1732 to 1867, when the Russian Empire laid claim to northern Pacific Coast territories in the Americas. Russian colonial possessions in the Americas are collectively known as Russian America. Russian expansion eastward began in 1552, and in 1639 Russian explorers reached the Pacific Ocean. In 1725, Emperor Peter the Great ordered navigator Vitus Bering to explore the North Pacific for potential colonization. The Russians were primarily interested in the abundance of fur-bearing mammals on Alaska's coast, as stocks had been depleted by over hunting in Siberia. Bering's first voyage was foiled by thick fog and ice, but in 1741 a second voyage by Bering and Aleksei Chirikov made sight of the North American mainland.

Russian promyshlenniki (trappers and hunters) quickly developed the maritime fur trade, which instigated several conflicts between the Aleuts and Russians in the 1760s. The fur trade proved to be a lucrative enterprise, capturing the attention of other European nations. In response to potential competitors, the Russians extended their claims eastward from the Commander Islands to the shores of Alaska. In 1784, with encouragement from Empress Catherine the Great, explorer Grigory Shelekhov founded Russia's first permanent settlement in Alaska at Three Saints Bay. Ten years later, the first group of Orthodox Christian missionaries began to arrive, evangelizing thousands of Native Americans, many of whose descendants continue to maintain the religion.[1] By the late 1780s, trade relations had opened with the Tlingits, and in 1799 the Russian-American Company (RAC) was formed in order to monopolize the fur trade, also serving as an imperialist vehicle for the Russification of Alaska Natives.

Angered by encroachment on their land and other grievances, the indigenous peoples' relations with the Russians deteriorated. In 1802, Tlingit warriors destroyed several Russian settlements, most notably Redoubt Saint Michael (Old Sitka), leaving New Russia as the only remaining outpost on mainland Alaska. This failed to expel the Russians, who reestablished their presence two years later following the Battle of Sitka. (Peace negotiations between the Russians and Native Americans would later establish a modus vivendi, a situation that, with few interruptions, lasted for the duration of Russian presence in Alaska.) In 1808, Redoubt Saint Michael was rebuilt as New Archangel and became the capital of Russian America after the previous colonial headquarters were moved from Kodiak. A year later, the RAC began expanding its operations to more abundant sea otter grounds in Northern California, where Fort Ross was built in 1812.

By the middle of the 19th century, profits from Russia's American colonies were in steep decline. Competition with the British Hudson's Bay Company had brought the sea otter to near extinction, while the population of bears, wolves, and foxes on land was also nearing depletion. Faced with the reality of periodic Native American revolts, the political ramifications of the Crimean War, and unable to fully colonize the Americas to their satisfaction, the Russians concluded that their American colonies were too expensive to retain. Eager to release themselves of the burden, the Russians sold Fort Ross in 1842, and in 1867, after less than a month of negotiations, the United States accepted Emperor Alexander II's offer to sell Alaska. The purchase of Alaska for $7.2 million ended Imperial Russia's colonial presence in the Americas.


Europeans first sighted the Alaskan coastline in 1732; this sighting was made by the Russian maritime explorer and navigator Ivan Fedorov from sea near present-day Cape Prince of Wales on the eastern boundary of the Bering Strait opposite Russian Cape Dezhnev. He did not land. The first European landfall took place in southern Alaska in 1741 during the Russian exploration by Vitus Bering and Aleksei Chirikov. Captain Sterling Romanov and his wife Anna Romanov founded the first Russian colony in the Americas.[clarification needed] Between 1774 and 1800 Spain also led several expeditions to Alaska in order to assert its claim over the Pacific Northwest. These claims were later abandoned at the turn of the 19th century. Count Nikolay Rumyantsev funded Russia's first naval circumnavigation under the joint command of Adam Johann von Krusenstern and Nikolai Rezanov in 1803–1806, and was instrumental in the outfitting of the voyage of the Riurik's circumnavigation of 1814–1816, which provided substantial scientific information on Alaska's and California's flora and fauna, and important ethnographic information on Alaskan and Californian (among other) natives.

Trading company

Imperial Russia was unique among European empires for having no state sponsorship of foreign expeditions or territorial (conquest) settlement. The first state-protected trading company for sponsoring such activities in the Americas was the Shelikhov-Golikov Company of Grigory Shelikhov and Ivan Larionovich Golikov. A number of other companies were operating in Russian America during the 1780s. Shelikhov petitioned the government for exclusive control, but in 1788 Catherine II decided to grant his company a monopoly only over the area it had already occupied. Other traders were free to compete elsewhere. Catherine's decision was issued as the imperial ukase (proclamation) of September 28, 1788.[2]

The Shelikhov-Golikov Company formed the basis for the Russian-American Company (RAC). Its charter was laid out in a 1799, by the new Tsar Paul I, which granted the company monopolistic control over trade in the Aleutian Islands and the North America mainland, south to 55° north latitude.[3] The RAC was Russia's first joint stock company, and came under the direct authority of the Ministry of Commerce of Imperial Russia. Siberian merchants based in Irkutsk were initial major stockholders, but soon replaced by Russia's nobility and aristocracy based in Saint Petersburg. The company constructed settlements in what is today Alaska, Hawaii, and California.


The first Russian colony in Alaska was founded in 1784 by Grigory Shelikhov.[3] Subsequently, Russian explorers and settlers continued to establish trading posts in mainland Alaska, on the Aleutian Islands, Hawaii, and Northern California.


The Russian-American Company was formed in 1799 with the influence of Nikolay Rezanov for the purpose of hunting sea otters for their fur.[4] The peak population of the Russian colonies was about 4,000 although almost all of these were Aleuts, Tlingits and other Native Alaskans. The number of Russians rarely exceeded 500 at any one time.[5]


The Russians established their outpost of Fort Ross in 1812 near Bodega Bay in Northern California,[6] north of San Francisco Bay. The Fort Ross colony included a sealing station on the Farallon Islands off San Francisco.[7] By 1818 Fort Ross had a population of 128, consisting of 26 Russians and of 102 Native Americans.[6] The Russians maintained it until 1841, when they left the region.[8] As of 2015 Fort Ross is a Federal National Historical Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. It is preserved—restored in California's Fort Ross State Historic Park 50 miles north of San Francisco.[9]

Spanish concern about Russian colonial intrusion prompted the authorities in New Spain to initiate the upper Las Californias Province settlement, with presidios (forts), pueblos (towns), and the California missions. After declaring their independence in 1821 the Mexicans also asserted themselves in opposition to the Russians: the Mission San Francisco de Solano (Sonoma Mission-1823) specifically responded to the presence of the Russians at Fort Ross; and Mexico established the El Presidio Real de Sonoma or Sonoma Barracks in 1836, with General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo as the 'Commandant of the Northern Frontier' of the Alta California Province. The fort was the northernmost Mexican outpost to halt any further Russian settlement southward. The restored Presidio and mission are in the present day city of Sonoma, California.

In 1920 a one-hundred pound bronze church bell was unearthed[by whom?] in an orange grove near Mission San Fernando Rey de España in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California. It has an inscription in the Russian language (translated here): "In the Year 1796, in the month of January, this bell was cast on the Island of Kodiak by the blessing of Juvenaly of Alaska, during the sojourn of Alexander Andreyevich Baranov." How this Russian Orthodox Kodiak church artifact from Kodiak Island in Alaska arrived at a Roman Catholic Mission Church in Southern California remains unknown.

Purchase of Alaska

The Russian colonies were rarely profitable, primarily due to transportation costs for supplies. In addition, Russia was in a difficult financial position and feared losing Russian Alaska without compensation in some future conflict, especially to the British. The Russians believed that in a dispute with Britain, their hard-to-defend region might become a prime target for British aggression from British Columbia, and would be easily captured. So following the Union victory in the American Civil War, Tsar Alexander II instructed the Russian minister to the United States, Eduard de Stoeckl, to enter into negotiations with the United States Secretary of State William H. Seward in the beginning of March 1867. At the instigation of Seward the United States Senate approved the purchase, known as the Alaska Purchase, from the Russian Empire. The cost was set at 2 cents an acre, which came to a total of $7,200,000 on 9 April 1867. The canceled check is in the present day United States National Archives.


The Soviet Union (USSR) released a series of commemorative coins in 1990 and 1991 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the first sighting of and claiming domain over AlaskaRussian America. The commemoration consisted of a silver coin, a platinum coin and two palladium coins in both years.

At the beginning of the 21st century, a resurgence of Russian ultra nationalism has spurred regret and recrimination over the sale of Alaska to the United States.[10][11][12] There are periodic mass media stories in the Russian Federation that Alaska was not sold to the United States in the 1867 Alaska Purchase, but only leased for 99 years (= to 1966), or 150 years (= to 2017)—and will be returned to Russia.[13] However, the Alaska Purchase Treaty is absolutely clear that the agreement was for a complete Russian cession of the territory.[14]

Russian Orthodox Church

Saint Herman of Alaska, Saint Innocent of Alaska and Saint Peter the Aleut have contributed historically to the strong Russian Orthodox Church community in Alaska. The Orthodox Church in America, which was formerly a missionary diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, traces its history back to the early Russian missionaries in 'Russian America'.

See also


  1. ^ Sergei., Kan. Memory eternal : Tlingit culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through two centuries (First paperback ed.). Seattle, Wash. ISBN 9780295805344. OCLC 901270092.
  2. ^ Pethick, Derek (1976). First Approaches to the Northwest Coast. Vancouver: J.J. Douglas. pp. 26–33. ISBN 0-88894-056-4.
  3. ^ a b Black 2004, p. 102
  4. ^ Black 2004, p. 40
  5. ^ Black 2004, p. xiii
  6. ^ a b Black 2004, p. 181
  7. ^ Schoenherr, Allan A.; Feldmeth, C. Robert (1999). Natural History of the Islands of California. California natural history guides. 61. University of California Press. p. 375. ISBN 9780520211971. Retrieved 2015-04-27. A small Russian f1shing and sealing colony was established on Southeast Farallon Island at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Russians brought in Aleuts from Alaska to hunt the seals, and by 1825 they had killed off all Northern Fur Seals [...].
  8. ^ [1]
  9. ^
  10. ^ Nelson, Soraya Sarhaddi (1 April 2014). "Not An April Fools' Joke: Russians Petition To Get Alaska Back". NPR. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  11. ^ Tetrault-Farber, Gabrielle (31 March 2014). "After Crimea, Russians Say They Want Alaska Back". The Moscow Times. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  12. ^ Gershkovich, Evan (30 March 2017). "150 Years After Sale of Alaska, Some Russians Have Second Thoughts". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  13. ^ Haycox, Steve (18 May 2017). "Russian extremists want Alaska back". Anchorage Daily News. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  14. ^ "Transcription of the English text of the Alaska Treaty of Cession". Our Documents. The United States National Archives. Retrieved 26 November 2019.