Before Alaska was American it was Russian and these are some of the best historic sites to see that heritage.
It is well known that the first Europeans to claim Alaska were the Russians. Later it was sold in the growing United States and today it is completely American. So what remains of Alaska’s old Russian heritage? There are remarkable places in Alaska where one can visit and see Russian history.
If one is interested in history, they should be added to his ultimate list of things to see and do in Alaska. When the first Russian explorers arrived in 1741, they were in a race to claim territory in the Americas before the English, French and Spanish could get ahead of them. Russian interests in Alaska were primarily sea otters, fur seals, and fox furs.
The History of Russian Alaska
According to National Park Service, Russian settlers would go to the Aleutians and kidnap Unangax (Aleut) women and children. This would force the men to harvest these names en masse and hand over their pellets if they wanted to see their families again.
- Early Russian Explorers: Arrived in 1741
The first permanent Russian post was established here in 1784 on Kodiak Island. This period saw the Russian colonizers alternate between fighting with the indigenous peoples and relying heavily on them for food.
- First permanent Russian colony: Founded in 1784
By 1799, all Russian interests in Alaska were controlled by the Russian-American Company, and there were as many as 23 Russian trading posts in the area. In 1794, the first of the Russian Orthodox missionaries began to arrive in the region.
- St. Paul Island and Sitka: Were the booming Russian cities of the period
The first Russian church (Church of the Holy Resurrection in Kodiak) was built in 1795. Today many in Alaska continue to follow Russian Orthodoxy.
After the Crimean War between the United Kingdom with France against Russia, Russia sought to sell its territory of Alaska. She had owned it for many years but few Russians had ever settled there, and had her rival Britain chosen to take it, it would have been difficult to defend.
So they looked for a buyer, Britain wasn’t so interested as they already had access to the Pacific Ocean via Vancouver and Russia didn’t really want to deal with them anyway. So that left the United States. The treaty was ratified in 1867 and the United States purchased it for $7.2 million.
- To buy: $7.2 million
- Dated: 1867
After the sale, most of the Russian settlers left and there were very few people there until the Klondike Gold Rush in 1896.
- Independence: It became a state in 1959
Old Sitka National Historic Site
Old Sitka was established in 1799 and named Fort St. Michael. It was a permanent Russian fur trading colony and marked the southernmost expansion of the Russians into Alaska. But it was only short-lived. The native Tlingit armed themselves with firearms and ammunition from American and British trading ships. They then attacked and burned the Russian fortified post in 1802.
Two years later the Russians returned and won a decisive victory over the Tlingit, but they never rebuilt Old Sitka.
Church of the Holy Ascension
The Church of the Holy Ascension is one of the most famous monuments of Russian colonization. He is associated with Father Ioann Veniaminov, who served in the Aleutians and Sitka for 15 years and was later canonized as Saint Innocent of Alaska. He also developed a Cyrillic alphabet for Unangan (an Aleut dialect) so that he could translate the Gospel and other texts into their language.
The current church was built between 1894 and 1896 on the site of the original 1826 church. To see the finest Russian Orthodox cathedral architecture, visit St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square.
- Bell tower: Three floors
- Built: Between 1894 and 1896
Other Historical Sites in Russian Alaska
The following sites are all listed as National Historic Landmarks by the National Park Service. Today, some of the best places to see Alaskan history are:
- US Flag Raising Site: Where the Russian flag was lowered and the American flag hoisted on Castle Hill, October 18, 1867
- New Russian site: Learn about the friction between the Yakutat Tlingit and the Russian colonialist in the colony of New Russia
- Russian Episcopal House: Visit the historical house of the Russian bishop
- Fort Durham: This fort symbolizes the struggle for this part of the Americas between England, the growing United States and the Russian Empire
- Bering Expedition Landing Site: Discover where the Russians first landed in Alaska, opening up understanding of the land to Westerners
- Church of the Holy Ascension: See an iconic Russian Orthodox Church
- St. Michael’s Russian Cathedral: Built between 1844 and 1848, it was the main representative of the Russian cultural influence in the region
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