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Russian colonization of North America

Russian colonization of North America

The Russian colonization of North America covers the period from 1732 to 1867, when the Russian Empire laid claim to northern Pacific Coast territories in the Americas. Russian colonial possessions in the Americas are collectively known as Russian America. Russian expansion eastward began in 1552, and in 1639 Russian explorers reached the Pacifi...

Russian colonization of North America covers the period from 1732 to 1867. At that time the Russian Empire laid claim to the northern territories of the Pacific coast of North and South America. Russian colonial possessions in North and South America are known collectively as Russian America. The Russian Empire's expansion eastward began in 1552, and in 1639 Russian explorers reached the Pacific Ocean. In 1725, Emperor Peter the Great, known by his nickname "Vitus Bering," ordered the navigator Vitus Bering to explore the northern part of the Pacific for possible colonization. The Russian colonists were primarily interested in the furbearer fishery on the Alaskan coast, since supplies had been depleted by overhunting in Siberia. Vitus Bering's first voyage was cut short by thick fog and ice, but in 1741 a second voyage by Bering and Alexei Chirikov made it possible to see the mainland of North America.

Russian industrialists (mostly trappers and hunters) quickly developed a maritime fur trade, which provoked several conflicts between Aleuts and Russians in the 1760s. The fur and fur trade proved to be a profitable enterprise, attracting the attention of other European countries. In response to the emergence of potential competitors, the Russians expanded their claims eastward from the Commander Islands to the shores of Alaska. In 1784, with the support of Empress Catherine the Great, explorer Grigory Shelekhov established the first permanent settlement in Alaska at Three Saints Bay. Ten years later the first group of Orthodox missionaries arrived and evangelized thousands of Native Americans, many of whose descendants continue to adhere to this religion.[1] By the late 1780s trade relations with the Tlingits had opened and in 1799 the Russian-American Company (RAC) was formed to monopolize the fur trade, which also served as an imperialist means to Russify Alaska Natives.

Frustrated by encroachment on their lands and other grievances, Native relations with the Russians deteriorated. In 1802 Tlingit warriors destroyed several Russian settlements, most notably the redoubt of St. Michael (Old Sitka), leaving New Russia as the only outpost on the Alaskan mainland. This did not help drive out the Russians, who re-established their presence two years later after the Battle of Sitka. (Peace negotiations between the Russians and Native Americans later established a modus vivendi, a situation that, with few interruptions, persisted throughout the Russian presence in Alaska.) In 1808, St. Michael's redoubt was rebuilt as New Archangel and became the capital of Russian America after the former colonial headquarters was moved from Kodiak. A year later the RAC began to expand into the richer sea otter grounds of Northern California, where Fort Ross was built in 1812.

By the mid-19th century, profits from Russia's North American colonies had declined sharply. Competition with the British Hudson Bay Company meant that sea otters were nearly extinct, and the population of bears, wolves, and foxes on land was also close to depletion. Faced with the reality of periodic Native American uprisings, the political consequences of the Crimean War, and having failed to fully colonize America to their satisfaction, the Russians concluded that their North American colonies were too expensive to hold. Eager to relieve themselves of this burden, the Russians sold Fort Ross in 1842, and in 1867, after less than a month of negotiations, the United States accepted Emperor Alexander II's offer to sell Alaska. The purchase of Alaska for $7.2 million ended Imperial Russia's colonial presence in the Americas.


The earliest evidence suggests that Russians were the first Europeans to reach Alaska. There is an unofficial assumption that Slavic navigators reached the coast of Alaska long before the 18th century. But this is not supported by any documents or evidence.

In 1648, Semyon Dezhnev sailed from the mouth of the Kolyma River through the Arctic Ocean and around the eastern tip of Asia to the Anadyr River. According to one legend, some of his boats went off course and reached Alaska. However, no evidence of a settlement has survived. Semyon Dezhnev's discovery was never reported to the central government, which left open the question of whether Siberia was connected to North America.

Europeans saw the coast of Alaska for the first time in 1732; this observation was made by Ivan Fedorov, a maritime explorer and navigator of Russian origin, from the sea near present-day Cape Prince of Wales on the eastern border of the Bering Strait opposite the Russian Cape Dezhnev. He did not go ashore.

The first European landing occurred in southern Alaska in 1741 during the Russian explorations of Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikov. In 1725, Tsar Peter the Great convened another expedition. As part of the Second Kamchatka Expedition of 1733-1743, the vessel St. Peter, commanded by the Danish Vitus Bering, and the St. Paul, commanded by the Russian Alexei Chirikov, set sail from the Kamchatka port of Petropavlovsk in June 1741. They soon separated, but each continued their voyage eastward. On July 15, Chirikov saw land, probably the western part of Prince of Wales Island in southeastern Alaska. He sent a group of men ashore in a longboat, becoming the first European to land on the northwest coast of North America. On July 16, Bering and the crew of the St. Peter saw Mount St. Elijah on the Alaskan mainland; shortly thereafter they turned west toward Russia. Meanwhile, Chirikov and the ship St. Paul returned to Russia in October with news of the land they had found.

Because of the distance from the central government in St. Petersburg, as well as the difficult geography and lack of sufficient resources, the next state-sponsored expedition lasted more than two decades, until 1766, when captains Peter Krenitsyn and Mikhail Levashov sailed to the Aleutian Islands, eventually reaching their destination after the initial crash at Bering Island. There Bering fell ill and died, and strong winds blew the St. Petr to pieces. After the ship's crew wintered on the island, the survivors built a boat from the wreckage and sailed to Russia in August 1742. Bering's crew reached the shores of Kamchatka in 1742, bringing news of the expedition. The high quality of the sea animal pelts they brought back was the impetus for the settlement of Alaska by the Russians.

Between 1774 and 1800 Spain also undertook several expeditions to Alaska to assert its claims to the Pacific Northwest. These claims were revoked in the early 19th century after the Noot Crisis. Count Nikolai Rumyantsev financed Russia's first circumnavigation of the globe under the joint command of Adam Johann von Kruzenshtern and Nikolai Rezanov in 1803-1806, and participated in equipping the circumnavigation of the Rurik in 1814-1816, which provided considerable scientific information on the flora and fauna of Alaska and California as well as important ethnographic information on the indigenous peoples of Alaska and California (among others).

The colonies founded by the Russians were part of the empire until they were sold in the 19th century


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