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01:37 | Aug 16 | 2011

Yakut History of America

From the moment the Lensky region was included into the orbit of Russian statehood it became an outpost for further development of Siberia, North-East Asia and the Far East. In the second quarter of the XVIII century Yakutia became a support base for moving forward and reinforcing the Russians on the north-west coast of America.

The region and its people played a significant role in the organization of scientific expeditions to study natural resources and peoples of the American continent, the supply of Russian forts in Alaska and California, the colonization of overseas territories. A piece about the presence of the Yakut people in the population of the Russian colonies is an interesting and little-known page in the history of Russian America.

Russians from Fort Ross

The first reliable archival data on the presence of the Yakuts overseas refer to 1820. Three Yakuts are mentioned in the “Register book of people of Russian, Kadyatskoe and other tribes of male and female sex in the village and fortress Ross”, dated June 1, 1820. In July of that year, another Yakut Jacov Ohlobkov arrived by brig Ilmen which got into a shipwreck to the north of the fort, and in December 1820 Egor Zakharov also came there.

Our compatriots were mainly engaged in the traditional cattle husbandry and hunting for fur seals, in carpentry and shipbuilding. Their names appear in the list of persons who had received monetary compensation for the construction of the ship Kyakhta. Two out of seven first class carpenters were Yakuts – Gerasim Popov and Jacov Ohlobkov. They received the highest pay for their work – 100 rubles each. The list of the builders of the ship Volga featured the main carpenter Gerasim Popov – his reward was 125 rubles, carpenters Jacov Okhlobkov (75 rubles) and Petr Popov (50 rubles). It is known that the Yakuts were famous as the best carpenters in Siberia, and the Russian-American Company (RAC) later hired them.

According to historians’ estimates, 16 Yakuts, including 12 men and 4 women, visited Fort Ross (California) from 1820 to 1838. In the early years only men worked in American colonies, then their wives and children began to arrive.

Four Yakut families and two Yakut-Indian families lived in Fort Ross. Egor Zakharov, a native of Meginsky ulus, married Natalia, a baptized Indian woman. They had a son named Simeon. In 1837 Egor was sent to Russia. Perhaps, he returned to his homeland while his wife stayed in America.

Petr Popov married Katerina Stepanova, a Californian Indian. In 1829 they moved to the Alaska town of Sitka (New Archangelsk). They had two daughters, Matryona and Irina. According to the historical data, in 1831 Matryona at the age of 14 and Irina at the age of 7 were sent to Sitka.

In the service of the RAC

Documents on the presence of the Yakuts in Alaska in the middle of the XIX century are kept in the National Archives of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia). Some of them were first introduced to the scientific community by historian A.S. Parnikova. In an archival document issued on August 31, 1860, which is a “Decree of the Yakutsk state court of Boturussk foreign municipal council on the Yakut’s tenure in the service of the Russian-American Company in Alaska”, there are 24 names of Yakut people from Boturussky and Meginsky uluses, i.e. the uluses adjacent to the Okhotsk Route – the road connecting Yakutsk with the Okhotsk Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

Cargos of Russian-American Company were transported through this route until the middle of the XIX century and it was served mostly by the Yakuts. In order to transfer RAC’s cargo and government expeditions to North America in the XVIII century the local population was assigned a gruelling tax – they had to allocate over 6 thousand horses annually. Later, the Russian-American Company which was obligated to operate the Okhotsk Route contracted transportation services to the Yakuts from surrounding uluses – Boturussky, Bayagantaysky, Borogonsky, Dyupsinsky, Meginsky, Kangalassky and Namsky.

The Yakuts were usually hired on seven year contracts by the RAC – they lived in Sitka, on Kodiak Island and in other places. The deceased Yakuts were also listed as the company’s employees. For example, Semyon Nikiforov, who came to Alaska in 1836, died in 1851, Grigory Poselsky, Alexey Ivanov, Alexey Berezkin, Philip Grigoryev, and others also died there.

Only temples have left

Yakutia and its local population made a significant contribution to the promotion and strengthening of Russia’s Far East and Pacific lines. The main burden of supporting scientific research and Russian America colonization was devolved upon the shoulders of the local government and residents of the province. Okhotsk and Ayansk routes ran through the territory of Yakutia and were used to transport goods. The Yakuts worked in ports of the Pacific Coast, owned by the RAC.

As Russian citizens, the Yakuts actively participated in the development of Russian America. They were highly valued as cattle-farmers and hunters as well as unsurpassed carpenters. Some of them intermarried with the locals – the fate of their descendants is certainly of considerable scientific interest. Many of our fellow citizens have forever remained in a strange land.

Nowadays everything that is connected with the events of those years is passing. Only Orthodox churches, Russian names of settlements in Alaska and California, and the historical traditions of Kashaya, Yupik, Tlingit, Miwok and other Indian tribes remind of the Russian past of this part of the North American continent. Local people honour the memory of the territory first settlers, who were representatives of many nations of Russia, including the Yakuts,  who contributed to the history of exploration of Russian America. 

Saardana Boyakova, 
Doctor of History, 
Divisional Head of the Institute of Humanitarian Research Problems of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences