In the mid 18th century, as British colonists began steadily populating North America’s eastern seaboard, a burgeoning world power was working to establish settlements on the continent’s distant northwest coast: Russia.
Ever since its 1721 victory in the Great Northern War established Russia as Europe’s dominant military force—and prompted a formal declaration that its tsar, Peter the Great, was presiding over a full-fledged empire—Russia actively worked to expand its global footprint.
To do that, Peter and his heirs recognized that they’d need to look eastward—to the Pacific Ocean and beyond, to what is now the Aleutian Islands and Alaskan coast. The allure? Not only the chance to seize more land, but the opportunity to maintain Russian dominance of the lucrative fur trade, which at its peak in Peter the Great’s lifetime, accounted for more than 10 percent of the empire’s total revenues, according to Benson Bobrick, author of East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia.
Bering Crosses the Straits
Russian explorers and trappers had been aware of the potential riches that lay eastward since the mid-16th century. But it wasn’t until 1725 that Danish-born cartographer and navigator Vitus Bering, commissioned by the Russian crown, set out to explore the lands along the northern Pacific, long settled by Indigenous people, and claim them for the empire.
Bering demonstrated that Siberia reached much further east than anyone had believed and that it was possible to navigate the Arctic waters to Russia’s north and reach the Pacific. He embarked on a year-long exploration to map the Aleutian Islands and coastline of Alaska, a necessary first step toward occupation and colonization. The territory, he discovered, was immense and the weather, dreadful.
Bering proved that it was possible to reach Alaska—and points further south—and establish trading posts and settlements there. In fact, only a narrow channel separated the Siberian and Alaskan land masses. But while whose straits were named for Bering, he didn’t live to enjoy the honor. He died of scurvy in 1741 while marooned on an island.
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Fur Traders Rush In, Establish Settlements
The north Pacific’s icy, foggy, stormy weather didn’t deter Russia’s promyshlenniki (fur trade entrepreneurs) from funding Alaskan voyages after robust demand depleted Siberia’s stock of sea otter pelts and other furs. More than 40 merchants sponsored new expeditions between 1740 and 1800, and trappers returned laden with the pelts of sea otters and fur seals.
These lucrative ventures boosted Russia’s interest in establishing Alaskan bases to sustain its territorial claims and support fur-hunting expeditions. Indeed, it was a notable Siberian merchant and fur trader named Grigory Ivanovich Shelikhov who ultimately founded Russia’s first permanent settlement in Alaska, Kodiak Island’s Three Saints Bay, in 1784.
Shelikhov spelled out his colonial philosophy in a letter to one of his aides two years later, instructing the latter to “subjugate” Indigenous populations, who he described as licentious, willful and lazy. “Every one of them must be told that people who are loyal and reliable will prosper under the rule of our Empress (Catherine the Great) but that all rebels will be totally exterminated by her strong hand,” he wrote. Shelihov had already demonstrated that philosophy when he pursued early resisters, Kodiak’s Alutiiq people, to a remote outpost known as Awa’uq, or Refuge Rock. He slaughtered hundreds, and seized more as hostages.
The relationship between the Russian colonizers and Indigenous populations stayed volatile. While local communities traded with Russian merchants, they also fiercely resisted Russian encroachment on their land and proselytizing by Orthodox missionaries. But while Native Tlingit warriors destroyed several Russian outposts in 1802, the colonizers regained control following the Battle of Sitka two years later.
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Russia’s Colonists Struggle to Survive
Shelikhov, who returned to St. Petersburg to receive praise and honors from Catherine the Great, appointed Alexander Baranov to manage his new Alaskan trading ventures in his absence. First as Shelikhov’s representative and later as the first director of the imperial Russian-American Company (RAC)—de facto ruler of the new colony—Baranov relocated Russia’s Alaskan base to Pavlovskaya (later renamed Kodiak) and established new settlements.
He had a new, more expansive mission: Not only was he responsible for maintaining the lucrative fur trade but for establishing Russian political and religious dominance in the region. He imported serfs from the Russian mainland in an effort to establish farms in Yakutat, built forts, opened sawmills and tanneries and began developing coal and iron ore reserves.
Still, Alaska’s Russian community struggled mightily to survive. Living conditions were dire, as another notable Alaskan adventurer, Nikolai Rezanov, chronicled on visiting Novo-Arkhangelsk (today’s Sitka). Baranov “lives in some wooden yurt, so damp inside that mold has to be removed every day,” Rezanov wrote. Heavy rains “make the place resemble a dripping sieve.”
Food insecurity was a major problem. After Tlingit massacred the Yakutat settlers, Alaskan colonists once more became almost entirely dependent on supplies from Siberia—which sometimes arrived spoiled and often didn’t arrive at all. By the winter of 1805-1806, when Rezanov arrived in the colony on an inspection tour, he found his fellow Russians on the brink of starvation.
Southward to California
Rezanov bought a ship from American merchants and set sail in search of provisions for his compatriots. He had a vested interest in the colony’s survival and expansion: Not only was he an ardent Russian imperialist, but his first wife had been Grigory Shelikhov’s daughter, Anna, making him a shareholder in the new state enterprise. So when he headed south toward the Spanish settlements in California, he wasn’t just looking for supplies. He was seeking out new opportunities.
He returned triumphant, having successfully challenged the Spanish ban on trading with outsiders and swapped Russian-made tools for wheat and other foodstuffs. Rezanov had gone further than anyone anticipated: He had married the teenage daughter of the Spanish governor and received preliminary approval for an official trading relationship between San Francisco and other Spanish settlements and the Russian colony.
Rezanov urged the RAC to expand further still. North of the Spanish settlements in the California region, he told his Russian colleagues, he had encountered land then unclaimed and unsettled by other European powers. He declared it to be Russia’s for the taking. While Rezanov died on his way back to St. Petersburg, Baranov heeded his advice. In 1812, he established Fort Ross, in what is now Sonoma County, as Russia southernmost North American outpost.
Russia Bails Out, Sells to the US
Geographic expansion couldn’t save Russia’s Alaskan colony, however. By the time it was established, over-hunting already had wreaked havoc on the sea otter population, the venture’s whole purpose. With profits from the fur trade slumping and other colonial powers intent on curbing Russian expansion and making their own territorial gains, Russian leaders began rethinking the viability of their Alaskan colony. In 1862, the tsar declined to renew the RAC’s mandate. A few years later, Russia sold its land claims in Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million.