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Russia, Alaska, and the Russian American Company "Tracking Down Kad'yak"
August 26, 2004

[image] Russia and Alaska (Robert Ross and Co., [LARGER IMAGE]

Only 2.5 miles of sea separate Alaska and Russia at their closest point, and it is possible to walk across when the Bering Strait freezes in mid-winter. This proximity led Russia to develop interests in Alaska, which it claimed in 1741 after Vitus Bering, a Danish seaman who worked for Russia, "discovered" the land on his second voyage. The first permanent Russian settlement in Alaska was established in 1784 on Kodiak Island (off of which Kad'yak was discovered). Settlements continued to grow, but Moscow had little money to fund colonization. There were never more than 400 Russians living in Alaska at any one time.

In 1799, Czar Paul I granted sole rights for trade in America to the Russian American Company, and six years later the company began to trade furs in China. The Hudson's Bay Company, however, tried to gain interest in Alaska, eventually making a deal with Russia to lease part of the Alaskan mainland. By 1857, the Russian American Company had been surpassed in the fur trade by Hudson's Bay Company. The Tzar was ready to revoke trading rights by this point since the Russian American Company was having great financial difficulties, but the company managed to hang on for a few more years through coal and whaling, both of which soon failed. The company tried trading ice, in which Kad'yak was engaged at the time of its sinking. The ice trade was successful, but it was not enough to keep the company alive.

The company expired, and in 1867, the United States paid Russia $7.2 million for Alaska, officially ending Russia's reign over the area. The purchase, made by Secretary of State William H. Seward, was ridiculed at the time and dubbed "Seward's Folly", though the critics of the purchase were soon embarrassed when Alaska quickly proved to be a land teeming with natural resources.

The selling of Alaska to the United States did not erase the history of Russian commercial interest in Alaska, and the wreck of Kad'yak is probably just one small part of underwater remains that the Russians have left behind. Kad'yak is the only Russian American Company shipwreck that has certainly been identified, though remains near St. Michael on the Yukon Delta may prove to be those of another Russian American ship, called Politkofsky. Fifty-two Russian wrecks in the North Pacific have also been documented, and of those, roughly 49 have been identified tentatively based on their locations. East Carolina University archaeologists are currently working to identify the sites that are accessible, and they hope to investigateother potential sites connected with the Russian American Company in the future.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America