Half-Baked Alaskan History

by Karl Krotke-Crandall

Alaska’s history is a quagmire. Working alongside burgeoning historians of the Pacific Northwest, I am often left pondering why Alaskan history exists in the historical journals of the region. Americanists routinely submit their works to publications such as Pacific Northwest Quarterly on topics which merely scratch the surface of the history of our northernmost state. 2017 marks the sesquicentennial of the sale of Alaska to the United States from Imperial Russia in 1867. Such a significant milestone presents an opportunity to visit the question of who is writing the history of the forty-ninth state.

As historians, we divide our interests between nations, both past and present, to offer works that neatly fit into well-defined fields. The profession also gives us defined time frames in which to place our studies- as modernists, early modernist, or perhaps as ancient historians. This concept allows students to specialize themselves into a field in which they may only need to familiarize themselves with one nation, continent, language, or society. Contemporary histories of Alaska place it geographically within the field of American history, and this has created a professional conundrum. Alaska’s history does not fit neatly into one area, but the preponderance of Americanists writing this history has muted a rich history of a region whose past does not begin in 1867 and is now affecting the education of Alaskan history in the Alaska public school system.

Two prominent Alaskan historians can serve as sufficient examples of why this subject of research has become problematic. Ted Hinckley and Stephen Haycox are American historians that have extensive publications to their credit on a variety of Alaskan topics including the Russian colonial period. For example, Hinckley’s work The Canoe Rocks Alaska’s Tlingit and the Euramerican Frontier 1800-1912 (1996) is based largely on the Russian colonial period.[1] Hinckley is open about his lack of reading the Russian language—admitting that his analysis rests on the work of other Russian scholars.[2] More troubling is his confounded cultural history of the native population because of his omission of available sources in the Russian language. 

In one instance, Hinckley discusses why the Koloshi natives (the Russian name given to the Tlingit) did not attend the church in Sitka.[3] He argues that the Koloshi were bribed into baptism and thus not truly faithful.[4] To explain his assertion, Hinckley focuses on the exchanges between the Tlingit and Russian-American Company workers because these are sources in English and passes over other Russian-language materials. Those Russian materials outline the trusting relationship built over time between the Koloshi and Russian Orthodox Church. It had been a long-standing policy of the Church, not to force conversion or foster an environment of mistrust with the natives in Alaska.[5] Thus, Hinckley makes questionable assertions because he is selective in the sources available to him at the time of publication.

Hinckley’s research also presents an underlying bias against Russian sources. This tone stems from his heavy usage of Hubert Howe Bancroft’s history of Alaska as secondary source material. Modern historians contend that Bancroft was unaware and unenthusiastic towards the Russian colonial era, leading to skewed research. His lackluster approach may explain some of the issues within Hinckley’s analysis, but he is not the only contemporary historian whose research has become problematic. [6]

Stephen Haycox’s book Alaska an American Colony (2002) devotes more than one hundred pages to the colonial time-period.[7] His source material for the five chapters on Russian-America is predominantly secondary work. Like Hinckley, Haycox uses works by Russian historians translated into English and limited primary sources. He tries to encompass the overall history of the colonial period, but provides mostly information on political and economic history.[8] The book is devoid of the deep cultural history and under develops the influence of the Imperial Government, the Russian-American Company, or the Russian Orthodox Church.

The larger issue with Alaska an American Colony is the reach it has in the Alaska public school system. In the past, the State of Alaska has mandated that teachers receive training in Alaska history before entering the classroom. As such, education majors have been required to pass a seminar in Alaska history for more than twelve years. Haycox’s Alaska is the textbook for the seminar that educates hundreds of young educators in the state. Since his retirement, Haycox continues to make headway as an influential voice in Alaskan topical discussions.

Haycox’s emeritus status has now provided him a reputation as a public opinion-maker on Russian-Alaskan topics. Since May of 2017, he has published two pieces with the Alaska Dispatch News on historical topics related specifically to Russian-American history.[9] The public responses to his articles are contentious as he provides minimal information on how his opinions are formed. This notion is quite troubling given his past representations of Russian topics in his research. Thus, his viewership now reaches even further, and his scholarship does not appear to have changed.

Up to this point, it may appear that this author has a personal vendetta against these two historians. Dear reader, have no fear because Russian historians are just as much to blame for this problem. By and large, contemporary scholarship on the Russian colonial period has been left to two groups- anthropologists and scholars of Alaskan Native issues. Father Michael Oleska and Professor of Linguistics Richard Dauenhauer have well-established publication careers in the areas of Alaska Native history and the influence of Russians, but neither come directly from the historical tradition.[10] Dr. Lydia Black of the University of Alaska Fairbank is an ethnographer who has written a well-crafted textbook on the Russian period, but again it lacks the historical analysis that scholars look for in a monograph.[11] 

Images from author
In the past, some scholars from Russia did dabble in the history of this period. One of the first was P.A. Tekhmenev who published a comprehensive, two-volume history of the Russian-American Company in 1861 and 1863 respectively. These works utilize the archives of the Russian venture and have since been translated into English.[12] Around the same time as the English publication, a Soviet historian S.B. Okun published an additional work on the company.[13] Okun’s research is sound, but historians must read it in the context of his Marxist lens. A common theme with this type of scholarship is that it abruptly ends in 1867 with the sale of Alaska, despite the continued influence of Imperial Russia well into the twentieth century. When the empire pulled out of the region, it left behind its religion, language, a creole population, and an educational system. Those elements did not disappear nor should they from the historical analyses produced today. Perhaps a solution can be found in the research of another empire.

In their discussion on the history of the British Empire, historians John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson explain that imperialism was a flexible force dependent upon time and place.[14] In the case of the Russian Empire and its former colony, the flexibility comes in the legacy of influence which finds itself fully intact in the forty-ninth state to this day. To borrow a title from a famous Bolshevik, Что делать? (what is to be done?) The solution is two-fold. It requires Americanist historians interested in Alaska to embrace multi-lingual research and incorporate readily available sources in American archives. It also needs Russian historians to drop the pretext that Russian colonial history ends because the United States acquired a swath of land in the nineteenth century. We must remember that Imperial history is flexible in time, place, and scholarship.

About the author: Karl Krotke-Crandall is a PhD student working with Dr. Brigit Farley. His research examines the experiences of Russian Jews from Late Imperial Russia through the Soviet period. He received his MA in History from the University of Arkansas in 2015 and a BA in History and Journalism from the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2006.

[1] Ted Hinckley, The Canoe Rocks Alaska’s Tlingit and the Euramerican Frontier 1800-1912, (Lanham, NY: University Press of America, 1996).

[2] ibid., Preface.

[3] ibid., 35-38.

[4] Hinckley’s work has numerous examples of quoted text with limited citations.

[5] For an English-translation of this source see Michael Oleska trans., “Letter from Archbishop Innocent Veniaminov to the Ober-Procurator of the Holy Synod, 1868,” in Alaska Missionary Spirit (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2010), 251-252

[6] Stephen Haycox, “Russian America: Studies in the English Language,” Pacific Historical Review 59, no. 12 (1990): 231-233.

[7] ibid., 37-146

[8] Gordon B. Dodds, “Review – Alaska: An American Colony,” Pacific Historical Review 72, no. 4 (2003): 635-636.

[9] Stephen Haycox, “Russian Extremists Want Alaska Back,” Alaska Dispatch News, May 18, 2017. https://www.adn.com/opinions/2017/05/18/russian-extremists-want-alaska-back/ and Stephen Haycox, “Alaskans may be fond of our Russian neighbors, but neither the US nor Russia are looking so great these Days,” Alaska Dispatch News, June 15, 2017. https://www.adn.com/opinions/2017/06/15/alaskans-may-be-fond-of-our-russian-neighbors-but-neither-the-us-nor-russia-are-looking-so-great-these-days/

[10] Michael Oleska, Alaskan Missionary Spirit (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2010) and Richard Dauenhauer, “Conflicting Visions in Alaskan Education,” Occasional Paper No. 3, Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, University of Alaska (Fairbanks), 1980.

[11] Lydia Black, Russians in Alaska 1732-1867, (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2004).

[12] P.A. Tikhmenev, 1978. A History of the Russian-American Company, Edited and Translated by Richard Pierce and Alton Donnelly. (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1978)

[13] Okun, S. B., The Russian-American Company, Edited by B. D. Grekov. Translated by Carl

Ginsburg. (New York: Octagon Books, 1979).

[14] John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson "The Imperialism of Free Trade,” Economic History Review 6, no. 1 (1953): 1-15.


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