“Russians – or explorers hired by Russians – were curious about northeastern Asia and the American continent, wanting to know if the two were connected.”
“As early as 1648 Simeyon Dezhnev had passed through what would become known as Bering Strait ad into the Bering Sea. Dezhnev had discovered there was no land connection between Asia and America”.
“In 1728 Vitus Bering, a Dane in the service of Russia, sailed the same area, but at no time coming or going did he sight the American continent through the fogs and mists.”
“In June 1741 Vitius Bering tried again in the ship St Peter. On this terribly trying trip he did see the American mainland, but did not go ashore. On his way south Bering was shipwrecked a d died of scurvy.”
“Those who survived constructed a small boat from the wreckage of the St Peter. James Cook later used some of Bering’s charts in searching for the Northwest Passage.”
“The greatest commotion involving Bering’s second voyage did not result from the American continent, but rather from a book published by a German, George Steller, who was a naturalist aboard the St Peter.”
“In his book Steller gave the first descriptions of four previously unknown marine mammals – the fur seal, the sea otter, the sea lion and the sea cow.”
“The revelation of the existence of these creatures in large numbers brought Russian trappers, hunters and adventurers to the Aleutian Islands, to Alaska and down the Northwest Coast of America. Because of the profitable trade involved, the Russian American Company was founded.”
“In 1790 Alexander Baranov was named manager of the Russian American Company and was appointed governor of Russian America. … “
“The Russians would have preferred to keep the fur trade to themselves, but that was impossible … they could not guard the extensive coast … (and) the Russians received supplies on an irregular basis from ports far away. … The first Russian ships to visit Hawaii came in 1804.” (Joesting)
“From American and British traders who visited both the Russian settlements and Hawaii, the governor of the Russian company, Alexander Baranov, learned something about the resources and convenient location of the islands, and Kamehameha learned something about the needs of the Russians.”
“The general situation was obviously favorable to a useful commerce between the two places. Russian ships first visited the islands in 1804. but were not seen by Kamehameha.”
“A year or two afterwards. the latter made known to Baranov that he would “gladly send a ship every year with swine, salt. batatas [sweet potatoes], and other articles of food, if [the Russians] would in exchange let him have sea-otter skins at a fair price.” (Kuykendall)
“Shortly after, Baranov sent out (two) expeditions, American and British traders became embroiled in the War of 1812. With American and British ships pitted against one another, Baranov saw an opportunity for profit. Several American traders chose to sell their ships to Baranov at reduced prices rather than face the possibility that their ships would be captured or sunk.”
“Baranov had few available navigators, however, so American captains often continued to sail the vessels under contact to the RAC.”
“Baranov bought the Atahualpa and another ship, the Lydia, in exchange for twenty thousand sealskins in December 1813. The Atahualpa was renamed the Bering, after the leader of the first Russian expedition to reach Alaska. Its American captain, James Bennett, remained in command and sailed to Okhotsk to pick up the furs that were being used to buy the ship.” (Mills)
“The Bering sailed to Hawaii in late 1814 for a load of provisions destined for the North American colonies. After making stops at Kauai, Maui and Oahu, the ill-fated vessel made one land stop at Waimea, Kauai, on January 30, 1815.”
“At 3 am the next morning, the ship ran aground in Waimea Bay during a gale. The shipwrecked men were stranded on Kauai for more than two months, eventually receiving passage off the island on April 11, 1815 … Kauai islanders, under the rule of paramount chief Kaumuali‘i, retained the ship’s goods, including its cargo of furs”.
“It appears that Captain Bennett was livid about the whole affair. He proceeded to Sitka and advised Baranov to use force to retrieve the cargo. Baranov, however, chose diplomacy over force, sending Georg Anton Schäffer to Hawai’i on the American ship Isabella to resolve the situation.” (Mills)
Later that year, Schäffer arrived in Honolulu. 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 Kauai, 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.
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)
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George Krischke says
Fascinating history. Thank you for sharing.