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In 1741, the Russian Second Kamchatka Expedition under the leadership of explorer Vitus Bering extended Russian sovereignty over northwestern North America. The Russians were interested in enlarging the lucrative fur trade. Officially, the purpose of the expedition was to determine if Asia and the Americas are joined.
The Russians encountered the Tlingit in Alaska and lost two boats, each with ten men. According to oral tradition, the Tlingit lured the unsuspecting crew members with a bear skin and killed them.
Unfortunately, the Russians also found sea otter which was valuable in the Chinese market. This led to the development of the Russian fur trade in the area.
In 1788, a Russian expedition made contact with the Tlingit under the leadership of Ilchak from the Chilcat River. The Russians gave Ilchak a Russian crest in copper and a picture of the heir to the Russian throne.
In 1793, a group of Russians and Aleut under the leadership of Baron Baranof were attacked by the Tlingit. The Tlingit were wearing armor made of wooden rods bound together with leather thongs. Their faces were protected by masks which represented different animals and gave a frightening appearance. They were wearing wooden hats. The Tlingit fought with lances, bows, and pointed daggers. While the Russians aimed their guns at their attackers’ heads, they soon found that their bullets did not penetrate the thick head coverings. Still, with the superiority of fire power, the Russians were victorious and the Tlingit fled leaving 12 dead behind. Two Russians and nine Aleuts were killed and 15 others in the Russian party were wounded.
Three years later, Baron Baranof established a Russian colony with 80 colonists in Yukatat Bay. Many of the Tlingit chiefs made ceremonial visits to Baranof. They showed their friendliness toward the Russians by leaving some of their own children and relatives to live among the Russian colonists.
In 1799, the Russians under the leadership of Alexander Baranov established a trading post at New Archangel (now called Sitka) in Tlingit territory. The Russians relied on the Natives to supply them with food supplies. This stimulated the Tlingit around Sitka to raise tons of potatoes and bring in quantities of ‘mutton’ (mountain sheep meat) and halibut.
The Russian-American Company (RAC) was formed in 1799 as a quasi-governmental monopoly to control the fur trade and rule the Russian colony in Alaska. RAC was given the power to establish settlements in Alaska. They were to carry on agriculture and commerce, to spread the Greek faith, and to extend Russian territory. There were usually fewer than 500 Russians in Alaska at any one given time. Most of them lived in Sitka. With regard to the Native American populations, the Russians were ruthless and moved villages to different areas where they needed people to work.
The peace between the Tlingit and the Russians did not last very long. In 1802, the Tlingit rebelled against the Russians at the settlement of New Archangel. An estimated 600 warriors armed with guns destroyed the fort, killing 20 Russians and 130 Aleuts. Following their victory on Baranov Island, the Tlingit next attacked an Aleut hunting party quartered at Yakutat Bay. The Tlingit accused the Russian commander of robbing them of their fur-bearing animals and also of stealing skins from Tlingit graves.
Two years later, the Russians returned to Baranov Island. They reasserted their dominance over the Tlingit by sending four ships to Sitka harbor. The Russians destroyed two Indian villages. At the site of New Archangel (Novo-Arkangelsk), the Russians attacked a Tlingit fort. While an initial attack was repelled, the Russians fired their ships’ canons at the fort and soon the Tlingit asked for peace. Following their defeat, the Tlingit moved to the other side of the Island.
This was not the end of the conflicts between the Russians and the Tlingit. The next year the Tlingit attacked and destroyed the Russian fort at Yakatat, Alaska.
In 1806, the Tlingit began to plan an attack against the Russians at New Archangel. While nearly 2,000 warriors gathered for the attack, the Russian commander learned of the plans and invited the important chiefs to the fort. The Russians welcomed the chiefs with great honor, provided them with a great feast, and gave them many presents. As a result of this, the chiefs declared the Russians to be their friends and the war was averted.
In 1822, the charter for the Russian-American Company now permitted the Russians to conscript half of the adult male population between 18 and 50 years of age to work for up to three years hunting sea otters. This undermined the natives’ ability to obtain food for themselves.
In 1836, smallpox struck New Archangel and killed about half of the Tlingit. On the other hand, the Russians who had been vaccinated against smallpox lost only one man. This epidemic weakened the power of the traditional shamans and convinced many of the Tlingit of the superiority of Russian knowledge. As a result of the epidemic, the two groups became closer.
In 1841, the Russian administrator of New Archangel invited the Tlingit to a fair which had a ceremonial feast for the guests. About 500 of the most prominent Tlingit gathered at a special building for the event. The Russians hoped to promote friendly relations with the tribes through the ceremonial feast.
The Russian involvement with the Tlingit ended in 1867 when Alaska was sold to the United States. The Russians had never attempted to force the Alaska natives to recognize Russian ownership, nor had they made any treaties with the natives, nor had they purchased any land from the natives. The Russians had never had any effective control over the natives and the total Russian population in Alaska was less than 800 living in four very heavily fortified towns. Thus the Russians really sold only their tenuous title to Alaska. In the transaction, the natives were barely mentioned and there was more concern for the protection of those Russians who might want to remain.
The Tlingit watched the ceremonial transfer from Russia to the United States at New Archangel (Sitka) with great interest. Since the Tlingit were not allowed in town, they viewed the proceedings from their canoes which were positioned in the harbor.