A brief history of Russian America

Did you know that less than a century before being admitted to the USA as the 49th State Alaska was part of Russia and it was called Russian America? Alaska was actually discovered by Russia and it was part of the Russian empire until the emperor Alexander II sold 586,412 square miles (1,518,800 km2) of land to the United States on March 30, 1867 for $7.2 million.

The map pictured above is on display at the Museum of the History of Saint Petersburg, located in the Peter and Paul Fortress, the original citadel of today’s Saint Petersburg, where I photographed it. It depicts the Geographical Discoveries (made) by the (naval) Academy of Saint Petersburg from 1724 to 1743. During that time the ships of Peter the Great sailed for the first time upriver in the Siberian North (mapping those lands for the first time) and all the way to the Pacific Ocean via the Artic route and then all the way to Alaska. Peter died just one year after this new cycle of geographical discoveries begun, but he had been, undoubtedly, the force behind the building of the fleet.

The first European vessel to reach Alaska is generally held to be the St. Gabriel under the authority of the surveyor M. S. Gvozdev and assistant navigator I. Fyodorov on August 21, 1732, during an expedition of the explorer Dmitry Pavlutsky (1729–1735). Another European contact with Alaska occurred in 1741, when Vitus Bering (yes, just like the Bering strait, which is named after him) led an expedition for the Russian Navy aboard the St. Peter. After his crew returned to Russia with sea otter pelts judged to be the finest fur in the world, small associations of fur traders began to sail from the shores of Siberia toward the Aleutian Islands. The first permanent European settlement was founded in 1784. Then, between 1774 and 1800, Spain sent several expeditions to Alaska in order to assert its claim over the Pacific Northwest. In 1789 a Spanish settlement and fort were built in Nootka Sound. These expeditions gave names to places such as ValdezBucareli Sound, and Cordova.

Later, the Russian-American Company carried out an expanded colonization program during the early-to-mid-19th century, creating what became known as Russian America. The town of Sitka, renamed New Archangel (after the Russian city of Arkhangelsk) from 1804 to 1867, on Baranof Island in the Alexander Archipelago in what is now Southeast Alaska, became the capital of Russian America. It remained the capital after the colony was transferred to the United States. As mentioned, this happened in 1867 when William H. Seward, the United States Secretary of State, negotiated the Alaska Purchase (also known as Seward’s Folly by those who didn’t think it was a good idea to spend all that money on a frozen, barren piece of land…).

Thanks to Kevin Andreassend who, in an interesting discussion in the Facebook group “Friends and Lovers of Russia 2.0” pointed me to a very interesting article of the New York Times published this past spring  I’ve become aware of a theory, according to which the payment (in gold) for the sale of Alaska actually never made it to Russia. The explanation on why this happened vary. Some say that that the gold used to pay for the sale sank on a ship, others that robbers seized the gold.

Alaska Sale Contract
The actual Bill of Sale for the USA purchase of Alaska from Russia. Picture source.

The same article points out, though, that “One scholar, Aleksandr Petrov of Moscow State University, refuted those theories by tracking down a document showing that nearly all of the money went to build railroads.” So it appears Russia actually received the gold and spent it and, therefore, can not “claim Alaska back” due to the payment never having arrived. In any case I really, really love it when people come together in these on-line discussions and provide more infos on an interesting subject!

Would you like to enjoy a visit to Saint Petersburg and its seemingly endless number of museums and at the same time discover interesting facts about Russian history and its links with the rest of the world? If so, do get in touch and we’ll be happy to create an unforgettable, tailor-made experience for you!




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