The 1700s and 1800s were a time of imperial expansion and colonial occupation for many European nations, including Russia. In 1733, Russian Tsar Peter I commissioned the Great Northern Expedition, an ambitious exploration of Eastern Siberia and the Northern Pacific Ocean.
Vitus Bering (1681-1741), a Dane in the service of the Russian Navy, and Aleksei Chirikov (1703-1748) a Captain in the Russian Navy, were commissioned to explore and map Russia’s northeast coast.
In 1741, their explorations landed them in Alaska and they realized that the Siberian fur trade could be profitably extended further east. In the beginning, private companies conducted the fur trade throughout the Aleutian Islands and around Kodiak. (NPS)
In 1799, Tsar Paul I consolidated these private companies into one entity, the Russian American Company. This gave the Russian American Company (RAC) a monopoly on Russia’s North American trade. It also entrusted the RAC with the government of Russia’s North American colonies. (NPS)
During the early part of this century Russian America was governed by Count Baranoff, who resided at Sitka, he was a ‘rough, rugged, hospitable, hard-drinking old Russian; somewhat of a soldier, somewhat of a trader; above all, a boon companion of the old roystering school, with a strong cross of the bear.’ (Alexander)
When Baranof laid down the management of the Russian American Company, the dominion of the Czar in North America was at its greatest breadth
Its outposts were from St. Michael to Ross in California; from Sitka to Attu Island. For nearly 30 years he had been extending the limits of the possessions of his Imperial Master (Andrews)
Anxious to establish a trade with the Sandwich Islands, and well aware of their growing importance, in 1814, Baranoff sent the Bering to negotiate with the native monarch. (Dall)
Hawai‘i’s Russian story starts when three-masted Bering (sometimes spelled Behring) wrecked on the shores of Kaua‘i’s Waimea Bay early on the morning of January 31, 1815. The Behring had a load of seal skins/otter pelts bound for the Russian-American Trading Company in Sitka, Alaska.
The ship’s cargo and the sailors’ possessions were confiscated by Kaua‘i’s ruler, Kaumuali‘i.
The Russian-American Company (the owner of the ship and its cargo) sent Bavarian Georg Anton Schäffer to the Hawaiian Islands to retrieve the cargo or seek appropriate payment.
Later that year, Schäffer arrived in Honolulu. There, Kamehameha granted him permission to build a storehouse near Honolulu Harbor.
But, instead, Schäffer began building a fort and raised the Russian flag. When Kamehameha discovered this, he sent several of his men to remove the Russians from O‘ahu, by force, if necessary. The Russians judiciously chose to sail for Kaua‘i, instead of risking bloodshed.
Once on Kaua‘i, Schäffer gained the confidence of King Kaumuali‘i, when he promised the king that the Russian Tsar would help him to break free of Kamehameha’s rule.
“It would appear that the Russians had determined to form a settlement upon these islands; at least, preparations were made for the purpose; and I was informed by the commandant, that if I chose, I might get a situation as interpreter.”
“Amongst other things, I told him that I understood the Russians had some intention of forming a settlement on the Sandwich islands.”
“This reached the captain’s ears; and he gave me a severe reprimand, for having, as he expressed it, betrayed their secrets.
He desired me to say no more on the subject in future, otherwise I should not be permitted to quit the ship.”
“I know not what obstacle prevented this plan from being carried into effect; but although the Neva remained several months in the country, I never heard any more of the settlement.” (Campbell)
In 1817, however, it was discovered that Schäffer did not have the support of the Russian Tsar. He was forced to leave Hawai‘i, and Captain Alexander Adams, a Scotsman who served in the navy of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, raised the Kingdom of Hawai‘i flag over the fort in October 1817.
Eventually, over-hunting greatly diminished the number of sea otters and fur seals in the North Pacific. By the 1850s, New Archangel, which once owed its existence to the fur trade depended instead on a shipyard, a fish saltery, sawmills and an ice-exporting business.
The RAC and the Russian government no longer profited from the colony, instead focusing their main commercial activities on tea importing. The Crimean War highlighted Russian America’s vulnerability to attack by other European nations.
The Tsar decided to sell in 1867 rather than lose the territory in another war. The US States bought Alaska for $7.2 million, or approximately 2 cents per acre, and Russia ended its 126-year-old North American enterprise. (NPS)