October 11, 2014

"Our Americans:" When Unanagan people first met the 2nd Kamchatka Expedition in 1741

Petropavlovsk, 1741 Drawing by naturalist G.W. Steller of Avacha Bay, circa 1741.
In September 1741 an Unanagan community of the eastern Aleutians met a Russian-chartered exploratory venture that traveled on two ships, the St. Peter and the St. Paul. Nordic sailor Vitus Bering commandeered the party across the waters from Siberia to the Americas on a wayward course that brought them to Mount St. Elias from Icy Bay, Alaska. In returning to Russia the ships traveled southwest, spotting Kodiak Island. A fierce storm separated the vessels and Bering's St. Peter anchored along Bird Island in what are now called the Shumagin Islands, a cluster of 20 islands in the Aleutians East Borough southwest of the Alaska mainland. Crew member and naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller described that "unexpectedly and without searching, we got to see Americans." The crew of the St. Peter were weary and suffering from malnutrition and had hopes of finding quality food. Between their party and the shore of one of the islands they spotted two kayakers signaling them with hand gestures. Two months previous to this meeting and unbeknownst to the St. Peter crew, the St. Paul had made momentary contact with Native people along the southern coast of Alaska. The commander of this arm of the expedition Aleksei Chirikov sent two parties of men ashore, neither returned to the ship.

Steller accounted in his journal of the meeting, "We had just dropped anchor when, from the cliff lying south of us," he wrote, "we heard a loud noise, which at first we took for the roaring of a sea lion... But soon we saw two small boats being paddled from the shore to our ship. We all awaited them with the greatest eagerness and utter amazement to mark most carefully the boats’ mountings, shape, and design." Below is a rendering of the of one of the Americans drawn upon Stellars return to Russia.

First described as "Americans" when encountered by Steller, this is an drawing of "An Aleut in his baidarka," published in 1744.
"When they were still half a verst away," Steller continued, "the two men in the boats, while paddling steadily, began to deliver a long, uninterrupted oration to us in a high-pitched voice, not a word of which any of our interpreters could understand. We took it for either a prayer or a conjuration, the incantation of shamans or a ceremony welcoming us as friends." The meeting evidently proved to be an exciting one for both groups.

"As they paddled closer and closer, shouting continually, " Steller continued, "they began to speak to us to us with pauses between statements. But since no one could understand their language, we beckoned them with our hands to come closer without fear. But they pointed their hands toward the shore to signify that we should come to them there. They also pointed to their mouths and scooped up seawater to signify that we could have food and water with them."

Castle Rock, Shumagin Islands
Steller, an indigenous Koriak interprter, and 10 members of crew took a craft to the shore, meeting them. Due to the rocky nature of the shoreline 3 crew members waded ashore to congress face-to-face with the Americans whilst the others remained in their craft. Meeting about 9 Americans the group exchanged gifts, hoping they would supply the crew with well-needed sustenance. The Americans treated the crew members with great respect and signaled that they lived just over a hill and that they encouraged the others to join them ashore.

 Bendel Island, Alaska. Looking south from Taylor cabin on Bendel, showing valley grasses, tillable land, and surrounding hills. ASL-PCA-386 Identifier ASL-P386-26
One of the Americans paddled over to those in the craft and the crew members gave him a cup of brandy, of which he drank and rejected into the sea. They in return presented the sailors on shore with iron colored paint and whale blubber. Steller recounts that the Americans tried to keep the crew members as they tried to leave as well as holding on to the line of their boat that tied them to the shore. Scared to be pulled by the Americans the crew shot their guns into the air to scare them. The islanders quickly let go while the crew members on land ran into the drink, coming back to the boat.

"As funny as it was to behold their dismay," Steller wrote of this, "it was yet more curious that they all stood up again and scolded us that we had repaid their good-will so poorly." Many of the Americans waved their hands to as to wish them to be gone as they made their way back to the ship. Just as they arrived a rain began that lasted throughout the night. While the crew bunked in the dryness of the ship,"Our Americans," detailed Steller, "lit a fire on shore and made us think about this night what had happened."

From this moment would begin the 273 year history of Alaskan Indigenous experience under the territoriality of Russian and United States governance. In doing so, Native people would be brought into a wholesale extractive economy that would touch the lives of every community in the region that would be known as Alaska.

The islands have since been named the Shumagin Islands after one of the crew members, Nikita Shumagin, who reportedly lost his life to scurvy and was laid to rest on one of the islands.

Georg Wilhelm Steller, Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741-1742. Trans. Margritt A Engel and OW Frost. Standford, 1988. 97-102

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