Year
1788

Russian explorer Izmailov arrives at Yakutat Bay, Alaska

Searching for sea otter pelts and other furs, the Russian explorer Gerrasim 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 19th 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 this day in 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.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

University of Alabama desegregated

Facing federalized Alabama National Guard troops, Alabama Governor George Wallace ends his blockade of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and allows two African American students to enroll. George Wallace, one of the most controversial politicians in U.S. history, was ...read more

Six-Day War ends

The Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors ends with a United Nations-brokered cease-fire. The outnumbered Israel Defense Forces achieved a swift and decisive victory in the brief war, rolling over the Arab coalition that threatened the Jewish state and more than ...read more

Jeannette Rankin born

Jeannette Pickering Rankin, the first woman ever elected to Congress, is born on a ranch near Missoula, Montana Territory. Rankin was a social worker in the states of Montana and Washington before joining the women’s suffrage movement in 1910. Working with various suffrage ...read more

Henry VIII marries first wife

King Henry VIII of England marries Catherine of Aragon, the first of six wives he will have in his lifetime. When Catherine failed to produce a male heir, Henry divorced her against the will of the Roman Catholic Church, thus precipitating the Protestant Reformation in England. ...read more

D-Day landing forces converge

Five days after the D-Day landing, the five Allied landing groups, made up of some 330,000 troops, link up in Normandy to form a single solid front across northwestern France. On June 6, 1944, after a year of meticulous planning conducted in secrecy by a joint Anglo-American ...read more

John Wayne dies

On this day in 1979, John Wayne, an iconic American film actor famous for starring in countless westerns, dies at age 72 after battling cancer for more than a decade. The actor was born Marion Morrison on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa, and moved as a child to Glendale, ...read more

Buddhist immolates himself in protest

Buddhist monk Quang Duc publicly burns himself to death in a plea for President Ngo Dinh Diem to show “charity and compassion” to all religions. Diem, a Catholic who had been oppressing the Buddhist majority, remained stubborn despite continued Buddhist protests and repeated U.S. ...read more

JFK faces down defiant governor

On this day in 1963, President John F. Kennedy issues presidential proclamation 3542, forcing Alabama Governor George Wallace to comply with federal court orders allowing two African-American students to register for the summer session at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. ...read more

Tragedy at Le Mans

On this day in 1955, a racing car in Le Mans, France, goes out of control and crashes into stands filled with spectators, killing 82 people. The tragedy in the famous 24-hour race leads to a ban on racing in several nations. The Le Mans race, organized by France’s Automobile ...read more

China issues warrant for Tiananmen dissident

In the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, China issues a warrant for a leading Chinese dissident who had taken refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. The diplomatic standoff lasted for a year, and the refusal of the United States to hand the dissident over to ...read more