SELECTED WOMEN IN EARLY ALASKA
WOMEN IN EARLY ALASKA
Women do not feature prominently in the history of early Russian
Alaska. Yet they were there, some more noted than others, but all women of
power, bravery and endurance whether they were Tlingit women crewing canoes
when hostilities threatened, or creole girls sent to a totally different
culture for education, or young Russian women giving birth while crossing the
6,000 miles of grim Siberia. Strong women are nothing new in Alaska.
Today Sitka, Alaska, is an ordinary small town of 8,000 in a
spectacular setting on an island in Southeastern Alaska about 70 miles from
the mainland. The climate is mild and rainy with great equinoctial storms
sweeping through just often enough to remind the inhabitants of nature's power
and give them something to talk about as well as roofs to repair.
Three hundred years ago Sitka was quite a charming place, as it likely
had been for several hundred years. Long, planked clan houses lay in neat rows
along the beach, fronted by hooded dugout canoes, protected from splitting by
damp cedar mats, hauled out on the gravelly beach.
Some two hundred years ago Sitka was a visual mess. The Russians had
taken over in 1804 and by 1808 New Archangel, as they called it, was the
capital. The house of the Chief Manager of the Russian American Company (RAC)
was on a high kekur (a Siberian term for a pinnacle rock reachable only
at low tide) with a commanding view, but it was a shabby little wooden affair
that leaked when the wind blew the rain through the cracks. There were some
log buildings scattered around that housed the workers and a communal kitchen.
The Russians had a propensity for roofing with bark held down by battens,
which did nothing for a cosmopolitan aspect. There were no real streets or
alleys, just little houses huddling against the rain. Well-built official
structures like the armory or the building in which to house the visiting
important Tlingits were within a stockade; those who wanted individual houses
The Sitkans had not given up their ancestral home gracefully. In fact,
until 1826 when an exasperated manager decided it was simpler to allow the
people back, guerrilla warfare continued and no Russian or Aleut could safely
go into the woods. The Tlingits were waiting for the unwary.
They had built a massive fort high on a cliff miles away, but some
still lived on the surrounding small islands, and those were only the ones the
Russians knew about. Tlingits enjoyed warfare as much as the other Northwest
Coast people, so there must have been some relish in fighting newcomers rather
than the usual other villages or the Haidas.
Whatever the facts, although they had lost the battle in 1804 to the
Russians when they ran out of ammunition, they had no intention of giving up
their land permanently.
After the return of the Tlingits the Russians built a sturdy high
stockade along the reconstituted village, and designated a trading area within
it with massive gates that closed every night.
There were never many Russians; even with the Aleuts they brought down
from Kodiak there were about 600 people versus 1,200 Sitkans.
Until 1818 Alexandr Baranov, the legendary first Chief Manager of the
Russian American Company (RAC), built and ruled Sitka. Later writers loved to
think of him as Washington Irving wrote in Astoria : a
rough...hard-drinking old Russian...a boon companion of the old roystering
school, with a strong cross of the bear. [p.350] He reported a visiting
American was told a young naval officer who wanted to remain sober was forced
to drink and later lashed for his drunken behavior. Thirty years later tales
still circulated of the liquor in an enormous kettle that Baranov demanded be
emptied at a sitting; abstainers were tossed off the kekur. As he got older he
was noted for wearing his ancient, mossy uniform on state occasions, his bald
head topped with a red fright wig tied on by a yellow kerchief.
In real life, Baranov was not a buffoon, but a shrewd businessman, a
sharp bargainer with vision and a gift for getting along with the natives.
His common-law and later actual wife, was an Aleut woman, Anna Grigor'evna.
They had two children, Irina and Antipatr, and raised a little boy taken back
to the village when the Yakutats decided to rid themselves of the Russians
there. Simeon Lukin had a long and romantic life, but both Irina and Antipatr
died young. Anna has been portrayed in various romantic ways as alternately a
ravaged beauty and a woman victimized by the clergy, but the only word we have
from her husband was early on when he wrote she can be trusted in household
matters, but I have found that during my absence she showed weakness. [p.23]
Anna Grigor'evna Baranov remains shadowy.
Although it is known she left for Kodiak when Baranov left for Russia
upon his retirement, it was a common belief that creole and native people
would die if they went to Russia. Given the lack of inherited immunity to
European disease, this was probably right. She was said to have remarried in
Kodiak and later it is known she lived under the care of Father German, the
beloved priest there.
Anna did receive a nice pension, and Baranov signed over most of his
shares to Irina, his daughter, upon leaving. Irina married Semeon Yanovskii, a
young lieutenant in the Russian service. He acted briefly as Chief Manager
when Hagemeister, Baranov's successor, became ill. When his tour was up Semeon,
Irina, and their two children traveled to Russia via the overland route. Irina
died there in her early 20s.
Baron Ferdinand Wrangell married Baroness Elizabeth Rossillon when he
was 32 and she was 19. Their titles conjure up grand mansions and gracious
living and make one wonder what he was doing in rainy little Sitka as the
General Manager of the RAC. In reality, Wrangell's
artistocratic Estonian family was literally dirt poor. His grandfather
refused to recognize Empress Catherine of Russia, so his lands were
confiscated. While his son had inherited some land, both parents died young,
leaving their children in financial straits. Ferdinand was given to
relatives to raise.
The Baroness was the daughter of Wilhelm von Rossillon, a French
refugee who had married into an Estonian noble family. We don't know how rich
they were, but as they had no objection to her marrying into a fine but
improverished family, we can assume they were not wealthy. Or perhaps the
beautiful Elizabeth, determined to marry her love after a two-week courtship,
rolled over their remonstrations and did as she pleased.
From Ferdinand's memoirs, it was love at first sight when he saw her on
the street. She has the face of an angel! He wrote. “Truly, I have never seen
anyone so lovely!
Since a rule had just been laid down demanding that the chief manager
be married, a cynic might wonder about the depth of his feelings, but the
cynic would be wrong. Ferdinand dearly loved his Lisinka. A merciful fate
intended to make her my friend, my priceless treasure and my salvation in this
life and beyond.
Whatever the circumstances, the happy couple did marry not quite a
month after they met in 1829, and set off for Alaska via Siberia. Their first
baby, Marie Louise, was born in Irkutsk the following year and the three
promptly continued the journey in the spring. They arrived in Sitka September,
Ferdinand was the first
General Manager to arrive married and Elizabeth
promptly brought a distinctly higher tone to the rough little capital,
nicknamed Krysopolis or Ratville by the inhabitants. They lived in a
nondescript house, but Elizabeth managed to hold formal balls and dinners for
the officers and guests and generally add sophistication to Sitka. She also
was noted for visiting the sick and poor, making her way around the scraggly
little town where and where she was needed.
Elizabeth met one of the great female toyons of the Chilkats with true
warmth and graciousness. The toyon had come down with a great retinue, and the
two women greeted each other as equals. They compared sewing skills; one wove
baskets and blankets while the other embroidered. Both were quite pleased with
Elizabeth tried her best to enjoy the area. She picked berries in
season, visited the site of the first Russian settlement; the one destroyed by
the Tlingits in 1799, visited the Indian River near town for picnics, and was
rowed the twelve miles down to the little fishing outpost known as The Redoubt
on pleasant summer days.
There was also heartache; their daughter Marie Louise, quickly
nicknamed Müschen, born in Siberia on the journey over, was never strong and
died in 1832, shortly after baby Wilhelm was born.
The contrast between this rainy little bedraggled town set in the gray
granite and evergreen wooded wilderness and the glories of a great city like
St. Petersburg was simply too great. Elizabeth was delighted to leave in 1835
when their five years were up. Since her husband had diplomatic duties in
Mexico, they returned via the East Coast and then by ship back to Europe. She
became noted as the first woman to go around the world without crossing the
She died in 1854 and her husband, although he rose to be Minister of
the Navy, never remarried.
It is telling that the woman toyon from the Chilkats greeted the
baroness as an equal; Elizabeth must have been impressive. Most Tlingit toyons,
as the Russians called chiefs, would have considered any white woman or man as
inferior. The Chilkats and the Stikines were the richest of the Tlingits. The
Chilkats had the lucrative trade with the interior Gwich'in Athabaskans sewed
up. Every year they'd take marine products, particularly the rich eulachon
fish, up to trade for furs. And why didn't the Athabaskans come down to trade?
The Chilkats in the Yukon and Stikines, who went up the Stikine River to the
Tahltan people, wouldn't let them.
The Tlingit Indians moved down to the coast at some unknown time, but
certainly long enough ago that they adapted completely to this fertile
environment. The ocean provided everything they needed except berries,deer,
and wood for houses, canoes, implements, and fire. These are found in
abundance on the island.
Tlingits are maritime people. They had the wonderfully tippy dug-out
canoes for everyday use and the great war canoes for trading and war with the
Haidas to the south and the Chugach Eskimos to the north, and, of course,among
themselves from time to time.
Since men are physically stronger than women, it might be thought this
was a man's world. That would be
very wrong. Man and women are traditionally equal. Yes, high caste marriages
were arranged, but if a man mistreated his wife, her brothers would come
calling. If he were really brutal, she would go home to her family, to his
everlasting shame and disgrace.
If a woman decided marriage with her husband was too much of a burden,
she could place his few possessions outside the door to serve notice he was to
Overall, of course, divorces and mistreatment were quite unusual as
breaking up a marriage arranged by parents carried a real stigma.
When boys got a little older, they were sent to their uncles, their
mother's brothers, for training. Girls stayed with the mother while the
aunties and grandparents supervised.
While the stories of the wars emphasize the men, women also played a
significant role. When the first Russian settlement at Old Sitka was attacked,
two old women led the way and set fire to the barracks kitchen, thus beginning
George Vancouver, exploring and surveying the coast in 1794, spoke of
Tlingit women in trading and even in a hostile situation.
1793 and 1794, when Vancouver was surveying along the Southeastern
coast, were at the height of the fur trade. The Indians had learned that some
of the traders were completely unscrupulous men who not only traded inferior
goods but sometimes lured a chief aboard, then threatened to hang him if a
heavy ransom of furs wasn't paid.
Vancouver was regarded with particular suspicion because his people
weren't there to gather furs. They traded for fish and other provisions, but
primarily were there to surveying the intricate coastline.
Not knowing why they were behaving so oddly, the Tlingits sensibly took
In September of 1793 the explorers were along the northern tip of
Prince of Wales Island in southern Alaska, near today's Point Colpoys, when a
contingent of Tlingits came out in canoes to sing and trade. The next
morning an even larger group came to the ships.
This addition was principally of women, who, without the assistance of
a single man, conducted two or three middling sized canoes, and used their
paddles with great dexterity.
The visitors also noted the importance of women in trading. In all the
commercial transactions the women took a very principal part, and proved
themselves by no means unequal to the task.
Nor did it appear, that either in these or in any other respect they
were inferior to the men; on the contrary, it should rather seem that they are
looked up to as the superior sex, for they appeared in general to keep the men
in awe, and under their subjection. (Vol. II, pp. 408-409)
When Lieutenant Whidbey and his men visited the Chilkats at the head of
Lynn Canal they were met with some hostility.
The whole of this party, which had been collected at a very short
notice, seemed to be fighting men, or persons of that description, there being
neither striplings nor women amongst them, excepting five principal ladies,
each of whom...steered and conducted one of the five large canoes, the station
allotted to them in all warlike enterprizes.... (Vancouver, da Capo, Vol. 3 p
In addition to the warrior women, there was the story of the Hudson Bay
Company trader on the upper Stikine River. He had become separated from his
party when he unexpectedly encountered a party of Stikine Tlingits and found
them very hostile. He was sure he was dead until a woman suddenly started
scolding and threatening the men. They put down their weapons and presently
his group caught up and all was calm.
There is little information on creole women, the children of Russian
fathers and Native mothers. When Petr Chistiakov, an unmarried Chief Manager,
left in 1830, he provided for his mistress, Matrena Fedorovna Artemev, by
arranging for a house for her and marriage that summer to a
gunsmith who had trained in Russia and presumably was well paid. Petr
also left her the 2,500 rubles he was owed by the company, with the proviso it
be spent at 500 rubles per year on their two sons.
The perception, however, that the creole and native women were always
misused by the Russians is quite wrong. By 1805 Nikolai Rezanov, one of the
leading directors of the Russian American Company, wrote a lengthy essay in
which he pointed out the creole children were the hope of the company. It was
conscious RAC policy to encourage their men to marry into the native
communities, since it would increase the number of Russians in Alaska and also
pacify the tribes. The company also paid for the education of the children.
One of the strangest and most tangled stories of old Alaska is that of
Pelageia Larionov. When the Yakutats decided they wanted to rid themselves of
the nearby Russian settlement of Novorossiisk (New Russia) in 1805, they
spared a few women and children. Among these was Pelageia. It's not known how
old she was at the time, but while her father, Sefan Grigor'evich Larionov,
the commandant, was killed, she was taken into the village. A geologist, H. J.
Holmberg, who stayed in Sitka a few months in 1850-51,wrote that Larionov had
married a Yakutat woman, abandoning his wife and children in Kodiak, and years
later a half-brother came to Yakutat looking for his sister. Holmberg wrote
that he had the story from the half-brother.
However, it would seem Holmberg was perhaps credulous if not overly
romantic. Khlebnikov, the biographer of Baranov, states [p. 58] Larionov's
wife and children survived although captured.
In 1807 the ship Kad'iak was sent to Yakutat in 1807 to capture
some Indians there and trade them for the Russian and Aleut captives. Captain
Bulygin reported he raised a foreign flag but the toyons were suspicious
anyway and sent out “...a scouting party of young girls in small boats.
Bulygin managed to capture two of them and begin negotiations that
resulted in the release of Larionov's wife and three young sons (no daughter
is mentioned). The cannons and other things were said to have already been
divided among the people and taken away, but a trunkful of papers was
The Yakutats not unnaturally took a different view of the massacre.
There is a thrilling account of the Tlingit hero Tanux', bursting into the
house and wrestling with Larionov, the Russian king, who was able to pull a
sword off the wall above the fireplace after Tanux', stabbed him in the heart
and found he wasn't injured. They fought some more, and finally the hero was
able to kill him. He then discovered a snuff box in Larionov's shirt pocket,
accounting for his magical armor. He kept the box, which was handed down in the family until it was destroyed in a house fire
According to Holmberg, Pelageia twice tried to escape rescue, since she
thought of herself as completely Tlingit. She was taken to Sitka and taught
Russian, but resisted being one. In 1845 she married Mikhail Kukkhan, a
prominent Kik'satti toyon. [Pierce bio p. 295]
At this point, we are left wondering if Pelageia ever existed. However,
she must have, since Dr. Pierce found the record of her marriage, although at
that time she must have been in her forties, not the teen-ager one would
think. As Tlingit women usually married in their early teens, perhaps she had
been married before. This is a story with as many loose ends as a Chilkat
Matrena Kuznetsov Burtsov's tale is far simpler and a bit more
straightforward. She was a creole girl, born in 1800, who was sent to St.
Petersburg in 1808 with several other creole children for education. This
achieved, she returned in 1817, not to her home in Kodiak but to Sitka where
she was to be the headmistress of a school for orphan girls. There are two
versions of her life then: one says she, the only girl who survived of the
children, married a shipmate, Kondrati Burtsov (Pierce bio p. 77) that year,
and in 1828 they were sent to Kodiak where she ran the school.
However, another version quotes the main office as suggesting she marry
a graduating shipbuilder, a creole named Burtsev, but then says the Alaska
Church Records state she married Timofei Samoilov, at Sitka June 4, 1818
and he died the next September. (Pierce bio. p. 287) Perhaps it was then that
she married Burtsev or Burtsov or both.
There are two great romantic stories concerning the men and women of
early Russian Alaska. One, the love (or not) of Nikolai Rezanov for the
daughter of the Spanish governor of California, Consuelo Arguello. As he was Russian Orthodox and she Roman Catholic, a
dispensation must be granted. On his way home, he either fell from his horse
or contracted an illnes; at any rate, he died. Consuelo, often depicted as
waiting for years for her lover's return, never married and devoted herself to
The cynical version points out there was regular communication between
Russia and California so Consuelo must have learned his fate in a year or
less. Also, at the time Sitka was suffering dreadfully from hunger and
California was forbidden to trade with other nations, but being the fiancé of
the Governor's daughter meant receiving everything the Spanish could provide.
The other great romance is explored in The Wreck of the Sv. Nikolai
by Kenneth Owens and Alton Donnelly. Nikolai Bulygin, an experienced captain
and skipper of the Kad'iak that had rescued the survivors from Yakutat,
was sent in 1808 to explore the coast of today's Washington for a possible new
settlement. Anna Petrovna, a creole woman, had just married Nikolai, and
accompanied him on the trip. Sadly, the ship was stranded and although the
crew safely landed, most of the cargo was lost.
Almost immediately there were problems with the Hohs, Quileutes, and
Makahs, who were accustomed to fighting each other and strangers who wandered
into their midst. Poor Anna was captured and her husband went insane, refusing
to give up his search for her, no matter how many of his crew died or were
captured. At one point she was brought back for ransom, but the price demanded
was the guns of the Russians. Without them, they would have no way of hunting
food or protecting themselves from the Indians, so, although Bulygin begged
his men, they refused and Anna was taken away.
In the spring, they finally were led to Anna, managed to take some
women themselves as hostages, and she could go free. To their horror they
heard her say “...firmly that she was satisfied with her condition, did not
want to join us, and that she advised us to surrender ourselves to this
people. The toyon, she explained, was an upright and virtuous man, widely
known along this coast. (Sv. Nikolai p. 59) Bulygin collapsed at the news.
Later he and part of the remaining crew surrendered to the Indians, where they
were traded around, sometimes to kind masters, sometimes to brutal ones. Anna
Petrovna died in August of 1809 while under a brutal man. Bulygin,
heartbroken, died the following
February. The survivors were
rescued by American fur traders in May of 1810.
Later in Sitka, Iulia Ivanova Kupreianov, the next manager's wife, had
a much easier time reigning over the capital, thanks to Elizabeth Wrangell.
She also had custody of a new house built during her tenure, quite a grand
affair for New Archangel. In addition to private quarters it contained among
other things, a library, a cabinet of nautical instruments, and a museum.
Baranof's Castle, as the Americans later named it, stood on the kekur known
today as Castle Hill, and commanded a glorious view over the Sound.
Iulia also patiently bore the officers sharing the family quarters
every evening for dinner and billiards or cards, with dances and plays to vary
the monotony. Lieutenant Lavrentii Zagoskin, who had arrived a few months
earlier, found the New Year celebration of 1840 most memorable. He was
watching the children open their toys when the oldest Kupreianov child, a boy
of four, gave each visitor gifts his mother had made. The lieutenant was very
touched by this kind thoughtfulness.
The British Captain, Edward Belcher, R. N., who visited New Archangel
in 1837 and 1839, was quite impressed with Mrs. Kupreianov, writing, This lady
is of one of the first Russian families, and resembles the pictures of the
empress. She accompanied her husband, enduring great hardships, through
Siberia to Ochotsk on horseback or mules, in a most critical moment, in order
to share with him the privations of the barbarous region.
Iulia and her husband also established a boarding school for girls,
where they were taught housewifely chores as well as reading, and given
clerical instruction twice a week. [Zagoskin p. 73] Zagoskin encountered a few
graduates later during his exploration of the lower Yukon area and reported: the
newly married young women were not good at housekeeping, but ...could
all waltz skillfully, dance the French quadrille gracefully, all could
knit scarves very well, and little neckerchiefs and caps; all had read Gogol's
Dead Souls." [Zagoskin p. 258]
The last of the early grand ladies of the Russian occupation of Alaska
was the beautiful Margaretha Etholen. Margaretha
Hedvig Johanna Sundval met Arvid Adolf Etholen in 1839 when he was 40 and she
was 24. He had already received orders to proceed to Sitka as the new Chief
Manager, so they had a hasty courtship and were married that summer, arriving
in Sitka in 1840.
Etholen was not only an experienced sailor and captain, he was also
quite experienced in Alaska waters as he had spent ten years in the territory
exploring in the Bering Sea and captaining various Company ships. It is said
Baranov said, with tears in his eyes, when he met the young man, Why couldn't
the main office have found and sent me people like you earlier? Everything would have gone so much better!
Certainly Adolf was extremely capable. He, Wrangell, and Kuprieanov
were the greatest Chief Managers the RAC produced. Among other reforms he
rebuilt Krysopolis one more time (the logs rotted quickly in the damp
climate), this time using red lead on the iron roofs of the company buildings
and an orange ochre to preserve the logs. This not only gave the town an
exotic appearance but vastly extended its durability.
The Etholens traveled by Company ship. Margaretha's diaries speak of
the boredom, dampness, and the birth of her first son, Edward, on board ship
that April. The next May Alexander was born, but little Edward died in October
and is buried in Sitka.
They found Sitka once again a place needing a school for girls, so it
was revived. The subjects were Russian grammar, history, geography,
literature, and social skills as well as needlecraft.
Margaretha continued the tradition of hospitality, but she was a very
religious young woman who brought her own Lutheran priest, Uno Cygnaeus, to
minister to the family and the number of Lutheran Finns brought along for
their skill in carpentry. They not only helped rebuild the town, but built the
cathedral, the first Russian Orthodox cathedral in North America.
At any rate, Margaretha was now spared the duty of entertaining all the
officers. Her husband had a handsome clubhouse built nearby for the junior
men, although they were invited to dine with the manager when guests were
There were lots of guests since everyone who sailed in that part of
world visited Sitka. There were supplies to be bought, skilled workers for
repairs and even chronometer adjustments, as well as news of the Pacific to be
had. However, since Margaretha was pious and devout, it is likely she didn't
enjoy them. Her diaries are full of piety and prayers to become a better
person. This does not make for lively cocktail party chatter. The Etholens
left for home in 1845, crossing Siberia. He retired as a vice admiral and
became an important administrator in the company. He died in 1876 and
Elizabeth in 1894.
So we have a few glimpses into the lives of some of the women who were
in Alaska at the turn of the nineteenth century. The Tlingit women had the
advantage of being in their home territory, living a traditional life which
included a great deal of influence and, in the case of a high caste woman,
almost unlimited power.
The Russian women had the task of adjusting to a milieu completely
contrary to their home, going from the sophisticated world of St. Petersburg
to the crude little town of Sitka. They affected their world for the better,
from schools to religion. In a
time when European society offered little in the way of power to women, these
accomplishments are extraordinary.
The creole women were the bridge. They understood both Native and
Russian worlds, or at least the Russian world of Alaska, and brought up their
children to become some of the best explorers, priests, and traders Alaska
Whether they were Tlingit, creole, or Russian, they were strong women
devoted to their families.
Ferdinand, Ein Kampf um Wahrheit p.
71. Much of the material concerning the Wrangell family is taken from
Alix O'Grady's lively From the Baltic to Russian America 1829-1836.
Kingston, Ontario : Limestone Press, 2001