RUSSIAN AMERICAN COMPANY: THE LOST CAMP
The Russian American Company, not unlike the East India Company in many ways, was a Russian Government sponsored company. In short, the purpose of the company was to financially benefit from the natural resources of Russian owned American territory. It functioned as a monopoly.
The year was 1805 when the Russian American Company established a fort in what is now known as Yakutat, Alaska. Commander Alexander Baranof quickly set up operations harvesting sea otter pelts. The post was staffed by Russian convicts.
Accounts as far back as the late 1790s indicate the presence of the Russian American Company. Their behavior was not pleasing to the Tlingit people inhabiting Yakutat. They claimed the Russian American Company restricted their travel, refused to allow the Tlingit to fish, took control of the salmon fishing, enslaved the native people and were even known to abduct their children.
As you might suspect, the tactics of the Russian American Company were despised by the Tlingit people and the fort only accelerated the hostilities.
It was later in 1805 that the Tlingit people put action behind their frustration and waged war with the Russian American Company, destroying the fort and killing the occupants of the fort.
The history books leave the story here. Beyond this point, fact and fiction becomes lost in a fog. It is here we follow little known accounts. Working from snippets of details recorded in various writings and oral accounts from the elderly native population, duly noted in various diaries and other written accounts, we strive to piece together the history, realizing we must connect the dots along the way. Sometimes the dot we connect with is far removed from the previous dot. Imagine trying to offer full details of a movie when all you have are a number of single frames for reference. This is, indeed, our situation.
The reality remains so clouded primarily because the players were Russian convicts, people without clear records as they were expendable. Thus, the convict population at the fort was ‘invisible’ as far as records went. As the fort was destroyed and all the people there perished at the hands of the Tlingit people, the fort’s records were also destroyed. There would be no official account of the scouts being sent off before the battle.
“From all accounts, the Tlignit were riled up and ready to stand in defense of their lands.”
“When the fishing season was starting, a scouting party headed by two of Baranof’s trusted men and a number of men (convicts) were sent off to establish a new location for the fort"
It seems Commander Baranof sensed the hostilities. The local population had not been very bothered by those that ventured there before the fort was constructed. Once the Russian American Company set up the fort, they began tactics that caused unrest. As it appeared the fort could be threatened with violence Baranof quickly sent a troop of sixteen men from Yakutat to scout for a new site for operations.
The desired area would have good wildlife and natural resources to make the new location as self sufficient as possible. Establishing initial contacts with native peoples and establishing a makeshift camp were priorities. The troop was to scout an area, make a decision on the best location and send word back to Yakutat. This was done, although the precise location of the new camp remains an untold fact, we must take clues to come to an assumption of the location.
It was about three months after the scouts decided on a location four members of the troop were sent back to Yakutat to report the findings. There is no further record of these four. We ponder if they were killed by the Tlingit people or if they discovered the fort destroyed and chose not to return.
The new camp would likely have been around Point Baker or Port Protection. We know from a memoir that the area had plentiful timber, wildlife, fresh water, a hot spring, stained rock indicating mining potential and plentiful aquatic life. It is noted some gold was found along the shoreline. Specifically, a variety of berries was noted, especially blueberries. Fresh water was obtained from one of two fresh water streams that were thought to be spring fed. Wildlife was plentiful and hunting trips were never disappointing.
An account said the natives were eager to trade and seemed to be nomadic, coming to gather fruit and fish in the warm months. A great effort to be friendly with the local population was a priority of the troop after seeing the attitudes of the local population toward the fort and its occupants. We understand the troop sought to act as a buyer for items the native population desired to trade. Glass beads were a favorite but the supply quickly ran short.
“…the locals are nomadic and seem amicable. Our company has made great efforts to establish favorable relations…”
The lack of evidence of the scouting trip meant the 12 men of the troop sent from the fort at Yakutat were presumed dead by the Russian American Company. With no record remaining at the fort of their departure to find a new site, what else could be presumed. We feel the troop gradually realized they were long lost and forgotten.
The camp was intentionally situated on a gravel spit and the population resided in tents on this spit of land. Before winter set in, small shacks were constructed. By the next summer, most of the men had either taken wives or had hired native women or children to tend to domestic chores.
One might have presumed this remote outpost would have been easily unknown to the outside world, but even at this early date, there were a number of people exploring and exploiting the riches of the region. In the summer, several would appear to fish. It was noted that 60 to 70 fishermen would appear during the season. At times others would show up with pelts or gold and silver to exchange for needed supplies. The Commander of the troop (his family name unknown) established a trading post. Fishermen would sell their fish at the Trading Post. Others would exchange their wares for food, lumber or silver and gold. While not a brisk trade, the Trading Post had a fair number of customers and was able, through trading, to supply the local population with a fairly diverse selection thanks to it being the only trading post in the area.
One could claim the troop became ‘domesticated’ as they functioned as more of a community in cooperation with the native population. The community was spread out with two or three homes in a clearing and two or three more in a nearby clearing, perhaps a quarter mile away. The center of the community was the hot spring that was improved for bathing. The spring offered a 100+ degree bath for those of the community and times were established for men and for women to enjoy the spring as it would have been improper for the sexes to mix at that time.
“…All the men have taken women and labor together for the mutual benefit of the company without need for protocol …”
The Trading Post was named Sloverossia, according to local legend.
The twelve men worked the area for the resources in more of a cooperative sense than the rigid structure of life, like that of the fort. It is believed the community prospered. One ‘old timer’ said the head of the scouting party offered to seek a pardon for the convicts in the group. He said ‘Peter’ was the name of the man who was sent forth to find the new location. Peter, it seems, was a fair and honest man who quickly earned the respect of those in his party. He was seen as a natural leader who felt a responsibility for the welfare of those under him. The old timer never provided a family name for “Peter” but added he ran the store, had a wife and children.
All went well over the next few years although the group had no contact with the Russian American Company. We must ponder this, as it would seem someone would have gotten word to the Russian American Company of this group. Then again it has been said the most clever hiding place is within plain sight.
After a few years a smallpox epidemic hit the community. The native population left the area claiming it to be cursed. The toll of the epidemic was crippling as many died from complications of the disease. It was about this time the community unraveled.
One account says one of the troop, crazed by the epidemic, claimed everything must be burnt to end the sickness. During those frenzied hours, single handedly, he burnt every building in the community, leaving the survivors ailing or exposed to the elements. Oral tradition says several died in the fires and the man responsible was hunted down and killed by a posse of able bodied men. We do not know the number that died from the epidemic but the community dissolved around this time.
“…the native people, many with the sickness left one night en masse…many of the children and some women succumbed to the small-pocks (sic) as did a few of the men…a man who lost his wife and daughter to the sickness suffered such grief he lost his mental capacity and took to burn the whole of the settlement…a posse of men was sent to find the man and he was brought back and questioned. He was blindfolded and a firing squad of four men pronounced sentence…”
From what we can uncover, a few of the community set out and settled in the Waterfall area. We assume this as the same coins have been found in this area as were found in the area near Point Baker. Although we could be mistaken, the number of these tokens found seems to indicate a leader among the original troop likely resettled here. We know there was an area with about half a dozen small wood structures built with a cleared area in the center, a trait that indicates it was a small town. One building was suspected to be a store while another building was thought to double as a school and church although unadorned as such.
At some point, once the small hamlet in Waterfall had been established for some time, Alaska became a part of the United States of America and the Russian American Company properties were sold to an American group. As of this writing, we have uncovered no record of the American group identifying the Waterfall village as an asset.
At this point, records and accounts end. We may only wonder where the descendants may reside today and we may only wonder about the fate of the tiny village. Nature has reclaimed the old town and like many, where there is no clear record, is frequently lost to time, a mystery safeguarded by both time and mother nature. Perhaps they were found by the Russian American Company. Perhaps they just moved away after some time. Most likely their children went to the bustling towns, built families and lives elsewhere and as the old died, so did their history. Some think typhoid or the influenza epidemic in the early 1900s might have taken the whole community. We simply do not know.
As for local ‘official’ historical accounts, it seems Point Baker’s history between its discovery in 1793 and the first floating fish processor in 1919 is ’missing’. Our research brought up numerous accounts, all unconnected in some way, making us try to build our story without many of the pieces of the story. Waterfall’s history is blank prior to the salmon cannery in about 1912 and nothing more is found except for a letter and an account of one lady, noted in a local historical writing. We must admit Point Baker and Waterfall are merely the nearest named modern day settlements to these locations but the Yakutat troop was in both localities in the 1800s as per what we discovered, and possibly in the early 1900s as well.
POINT BAKER/WATERFALL RUSSIAN AMERICAN MONEY
The coins from this troop were issued in .999 silver, approximately 1/10 ounce of silver and in gold at about 60 to 65 percent purity, weighing about 1.3 grams more or less, mostly more. The gold coins seem to be made from unrefined gold. It is possible the gold coins were made from gold found along the beaches. Neither coin carries a denomination. It would seem a denomination would be a moot point. In the wild frontiers of Alaska at this time, it would have been the value of silver and gold that was the denominator for the value of the coin.
Each coin is clearly marked Russian American Company with either the double headed eagle emblem or St. George slaying the dragon for the reverse. The coins were clearly hand struck and some carry an imperfection, a sign of minting by hand and a clear sign of the use of the coins exceeding the need for a flawless, mirror-like finish. Certainly this was necessary money, akin to notgeld after World War I.
The gold coins are the same weight of the Ruble at about that point in history (the 1700s). We can only question if it might have been considered a local Ruble at that time or merely a certain weight in gold.
The coins have been found in both the Point Baker area where a small jewelry box contained a good number of the coins and a glass jar of coins was found in a metal chest in the remains of what was thought to have been a store in the Waterfall area. Since both findings involve the same coin, we presume the survivors relocated here from the Point Baker area.
A limited number of coins have been discovered. The silver coins, obviously, were more plentiful than the gold version. Even so, these are a rare find representing a people lost to time.
References: Our story is based on various oral accounts recorded in personal letters, diaries and other writings, presented in the chronological order we have set, based on the information at hand. All references were checked against the established recorded history of the localities. The chronological order has some details appearing twice. We consider two sources offering the same detail as more likely to be accurate and thus, present our writing in this manner. While we feel this writing is accurate based on our information, we must be open to revision should additional details become available. At best, we offer an incomplete history that is subject to revision. Bill Turner, 2011