SELECTED WOMEN IN EARLY ALASKA         

         

            SELECTED WOMEN IN EARLY ALASKA          4232 words

            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 built outside.

            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.[1]

            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, 1830.

             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 the visit.

            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 Equator.

            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 leave.

            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 the assault.

            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 extra precautions.

            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 252)

            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 produced.

            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 around 1950.

            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 blanket.

            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 good works.

            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 present.

            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 offered.

            Whether they were Tlingit, creole, or Russian, they were strong women devoted to their families.

Dee Longenbaugh

Juneau, Alaska


Wrangell, 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

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