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Letter from Russian America: Unearthing America's Czarist Heritage Volume 59 Number 5, September/October 2006
by Eric A. Powell

What remains of the Russian frontier is largely underground.

[image] From 1787 to 1811 at least 20 metal plates asserting Russia's land claims were secretly buried along the Pacific coast. This plate was unearthed in the 1930s at the site of the first Russian settlement in Sitka. (National Park Service) [LARGER IMAGE]

Fort Ross stands on a windswept bluff not far from where northern California's Russian River flows into the ocean. A reconstructed wooden stockade that commands a sweeping view of the Pacific, it's the most visible reminder of a period in American history that has been reduced to a footnote. In its early nineteenth-century heyday, Colony Ross was the only settlement in the lower 48 that was loyal to the czar.

Founded by Russian merchant Ivan Kuskov in 1812 on the northern border of Spanish California, the colony served in part as an agricultural station to supply Russia's far-flung Alaskan settlements. Sea otter hunting, brick making, and shipbuilding were other industries at Colony Ross (from Rossiya, or Russia), one of several outposts governed from New Archangel, the capital of Russian America, now the town of Sitka in the Alaskan panhandle. In recent years, Ross and New Archangel, along with several other sites in Alaska and even Hawaii, have been the focus of archaeological projects that have deepened our understanding of this neglected chapter in American history.

Overshadowed by their French, English, and Spanish counterparts, Russia's New World outposts had their origins in centuries of Russian expansion east across Siberia. An expedition commissioned by Peter the Great as he lay on his deathbed and commanded by the Dane Vitus Bering first reached Alaska in 1741 and established Russian sovereignty. Close behind were ships filled with otter hunters eager to add the New World to the lucrative Siberian fur trade.

While a series of European wars kept the Russian government occupied in the mid-eighteenth century, these private entrepreneurs had their run of what would become Alaska. Eventually, the wealthy Irkutsk trader Grigorii Shelikhov consolidated the New World fur trade and by 1790 he was founding permanent Russian settlements on Kodiak Island. Shelikhov's heir, Alexander Baranov, supported by his widow Natalia, established New Archangel on Sitka Island as the capital of the territory. Shelikhov's company was chartered in 1799 by Czar Paul I as the Russian American Company (RAC) and was granted a monopoly on trade in Russian America. It eventually grew to include more than a dozen outposts and settlements, including Fort Ross and Fort Elisabeth, a brief, ill-fated outpost in Hawaii.

Eric A. Powell is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America