Searching for sea otter pelts and other furs, the Russian explorer Gerasim Grigoriev Izmailov reaches the Alaskan coast, setting his ship in at Yakutat Bay.
Although most Americans think of the exploration of the Far West as an affair that began in the East and proceeded westward, the opposite was true for Russians. In the far northern Pacific, Russia was separated from the North American continent only by the relatively manageable expanse of the Bering Sea. Czar Peter the Great and his successors commissioned journeys east to the coast of Alaska, including the 1741 voyage of Vitus Bering, whose name was given to the narrow strait that separates northern Alaska and Russia.
Bering also brought back to Russia reports that sea otter pelts were abundant in the land they called Alaska, a Russian corruption of an Aleut word meaning “peninsula” or “mainland.” Russian fur trading companies were formed, and they soon became the semi-official exploratory representatives of the czars. By the late 18th century, British, Spanish, and American vessels were also sailing the waters off the coast of Alaska, and Russia became increasingly concerned about protecting its claims to the region.
Gerrasim Grigoriev Izmailov joined the Russian effort to explore and claim Alaska in 1776, making a highly successful fur trading and trapping journey that netted a cargo worth some $86,000. Thereafter, he made numerous fur-gathering voyages to Alaska, sailing out of the port of Okhotsk on the Russian East Coast.
By the late 1780s, Izmailov had become one of a small number of Russian captains with extensive experience sailing the Alaskan Coast. Eager to advance the Russian claim to Prince William Sound and the Alaskan coast, Izmailov’s backers sent him on an exploratory and diplomatic voyage into the region. Izmailov initially reached several islands off the coast where he erected large wooden crosses proclaiming the territory to be the property of Russia. He then proceeded eastward down the Alaskan coastline, finally putting into shore at Yakutat Bay on June 11, 1788.
At Yakutat Bay, Izmailov immediately began a peaceful and successful program of fur trading with the Tlingit Indians. He presented the Tlingit Chief Ilkhak with a portrait of Czar Paul, presumably suggesting that the far-off monarch should be viewed as the Tlingit’s new ruler. In a rather ineffective attempt to further solidify the Russian claim, Izmailov had two large copper plates marking “the extent of Russia’s domain” buried nearby. More a symbolic gesture than an actual assertion of ownership, they were designed to prove Russia had been the first western nation to arrive in the area. True Russian control over the region was not established until fur trading posts and settlements were constructed over the next few decades.
After further exploring the Alaskan coast, Izmailov eventually returned to his homeport of Okhotsk, where he is thought to have died in around 1796. Although the Russians continued to consolidate their hold on Alaska during the first half of the 19th century, the claim had become tenuous and expensive to maintain by the 1860s. In 1867, Russia sold the region of Alaska to the United States for $7 million.