Growing Hemp in Alaska:



The Development of Russian America


Known by some historians as the “Russian Columbus,” Grigory Ivanovich Shelikhov was in large part responsible for the discovery of and development of trade on the Alaskan Islands.[i] He entered the game at a time when many Russian companies were competing to gain market share in the lucrative fur trade, which had taken Alaska by storm. And profitable it was; each vessel returning to the Eurasian mainland brought back 300,000 rubles worth of peltry.[ii] Shelikhov and his circle of merchants soon realized that the surest way to get ahead of the competition was to gain government support while still operating independently. They could do that by promising to create permanent Russian settlements on the islands where they operated, instead of simply exploiting the islands and leaving them as other companies did.[iii] As S.B Okun, author of The Russian-American Company, writes, the Russian government, “not wishing to take the risk of international complications which might result from the official annexation of the American colonies to the Russian Empire, saw in the creation of a mighty monopolistic company a way to mask its own expansion along the shores of the Pacific.”[iv] In other words, the creation of the company would be a way to colonize Alaska unofficially and silently; the company could have the favor of the government (even direct communication with the Empress of Russia) and amass a substantial fortune while gaining territory for Russia.

 Shelikhov first applied for governmental support (he needed loans for all the supplies) in 1775, but it was not until 1783 that his enterprise was given approval by the hesitant empress and his ships set sail. When he arrived at Kodiak Island, he immediately sent out armed troops and brutally massacred the Native forces. Although unprovoked violence against Natives was punishable by death under Russian law, it is suspected that Shelikhov was relying on the Siberian officials he had bribed to keep quiet.[v] Paradoxically, Shelikhov had spent a decade trying to get government support for his project, only to break an important law upon arrival. After his return from the colony, Shelikhov, dispensing bribes and grossly exaggerating his achievements (and concealing his treatment of the Natives), decided to ask the government for more than approval; he wanted a monopoly, along with authorization to independently colonize North America for Russia and conduct trade with foreign countries. He believed that a single company, sponsored by the government, could be more effective than scattered independent traders in warding off enemy ships, which posed a growing menace to Russian commercial interests; indeed, three Spanish warships had entered the waters claimed by Russia, and the unallied fur traders were defenseless.[vi] 

Instead of consenting to the new terms, which would certainly have monetarily benefited the government, the Empress became infuriated at the notion, and called for an investigation into the company’s operations, as well as greater government control.[vii] Nowhere is the discrepancy between the idealized orders of the Imperial government and historical realities more obvious than in a document written in 1794 by Ivan Pil, the governor of Siberia, by order of the empress, titled The Instruction of Shelikhov. Through this document, the Russian government attempted to regulate all aspects of the colonization of Alaskan islands by Shelikhov’s company and to make sure that the brutal treatment of natives and ruthless exploitation of the 1783 Kodiak voyage were not repeated.

The Instruction of Shelikhov deals specifically with the establishment of agricultural colonies as bases of permanent residency for families exiled to Siberia and now offered the opportunity to colonize Alaska.[viii] Unlike the fur trading enterprises, these colonies were intended to offer footholds for the Russian Empire, where Christianity and Russian Culture were established among the Native Peoples. An agricultural presence also effectively laid claim to the land. The first part of the document describes in detail the construction of a fortress, intended not only for defense against the natives, but also as a show of military presence to other European powers, should they appear. Domestic details like care for livestock and the construction of homes and gardens take up the first part of the document. A whole paragraph deals with the creation of wheat fields, which, in good years, are expected to produce enough wheat to sell back to the Mother Country and Japan (despite Shelikhov’s descriptions of the islands as fertile land, most agriculture was for basic sustenance, not trading, although it did create stability in the colonies)[ix] and another describes the soap and leather making processes as additional ways of making money. The city, as an outpost of Modern Russia, must, according to the governor, have straight streets and grand plaza squares as areas for future grand civic buildings and monuments. This order mirrors Shelikhov’s vision of the Alaska settlements as “cities, where commerce, trades, crafts, and art would flourish, with all sorts of cultural amenities, fine architecture, music, cathedrals, wide streets, and spacious plazas.”[x] The governor also suggests that the settlers find sources of metal and grow flax and hemp for sails and clothing (The governor was obviously unaware of the Alaskan climate). In other words, the government is asking Shelikhov to create a self-sufficient, permanent, idyllic colony rather than one based on commercial exploitation.

Perhaps the most drastic element of this self-sufficiency is the governor’s statement that “there should be no need to send any craftsmen or farmers from Russia.” No reinforcements? How will that work? Intermarriage with the Natives, of course! The governor makes clear that natives are to be treated with “friendliness and affection,” and to begin the bond-forming process, he mandates that each Russian family take in a Native American to live with them and learn the way of life of the good Russian people. Once the Natives are “Russian” enough, intermarriage can begin. Indeed, the governor asks that all single men and women, as well as widows, find Native husbands and wives, to create bonds between the two cultures. The governor asks the Russians to create a model colony, free of swearing or bad behavior (and when colonists misbehave, they cannot be punished in front of a Native audience), to make the Natives see Russian culture as the very best, and assimilate. Unlike Britain, and like Spain, Russia fostered a “Frontier of Inclusion,” and attempted to turn the Native inhabitants of colonized lands into a labor force that would willingly assimilate. Indeed, the governor asserts that once the Indians get a taste of Russian culture, they will become so jealous of the Russians that they will convert to Christianity with much pleasure. On top of that, the Native children are to be sent to schools to learn the Russian language, mathematics, and navigation, so that they may work as captains and crew members on Company voyages. Contradicting most European doctrine, this document refers to the Natives as “talented” people who could be of great service if attracted to Russian culture. Many historians claim that the Russian government wished to create a Native labor force to make importation of laborers from Russia, where serfs were fighting to break free from their owners, unnecessary, and thus stop Russia from becoming a refuge for the Russian equivalent of an escaped slave.[xi] Whatever their intentions, the Russians’ attitudes toward colonization were truly unique.

The orders given to Shelikhov seem too good to be true: A model city is to be created, permanent peace with the Native population established, flax and hemp to be grown. And, to be sure, by all indications, the plan outlined in the document is incredibly unrealistic. Still, the idealism of the governor clearly demonstrates that the Russian government was more interested in establishing permanent outposts to promote the “great Russian Culture” than it was in creating lucrative commercial alliances, an attitude that appears strikingly different from that of Russia’s mercantilist rivals (although it is important to note that Russia never had a merchant fleet, or a transport system back to Europe, to accommodate a trade empire like that of Great Britain, and that the remoteness of Alaska, halfway across the globe from the administrative capitol of St. Petersburg, made it difficult to administer).[xii] Alaska was never as successful as the colonies of Britain, France, and Spain—the white presence was always minimal, and by the 1830s permanent Russian settlement in Alaska was outlawed, but it served as a testing ground for all sorts of idyllic notions.[xiii] The idealism of people like Ivan Pil and the great moneymaking visions of Shelikhov reflect the multifaceted potential Alaska held for these great leaders. Even today, 250 years later and in the hands of a different country, the debate over a perfect Alaska rages.

Photo: Shelikhov’s Settlement, <>

[i] S.B. Okun, trans. Carl Ginsburg, The Russian-American Company (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951), 22.

[ii] Okun, 23.

[iii] Lydia T. Black, Russians in Alaska (Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press, 2004), 106.

[iv] Okun, 24-25.

[v] Black, 107.

[vi] Glynn Barratt, Russia in Pacific Waters (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1981), 101.

[vii] Black, 113.

[viii] Ivan Pil. "Instruction to Shelikhov 12 May 1794," 12 May 1794, Meeting of Frontiers

<> (22 September 2009). 

[ix] James R. Gibson, Imperial Russia in Frontier America: The Changing Geography of Supply of Russian America, 1784-1867 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 98.

[x] Black, 111.

[xi] Black, 209.

[xii] Barratt, 101-102.

[xiii] Black, xiii