REVIEW - TLINGIT INDIANS IN RUSSIAN AMERICA, 1741- 1867
Grinev, Andrei Valfterovich, The Tlingit Indians in Russian America, 1741-1867. Trans. Richard Bland and Katerina Solojova. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press. Hardbound. 373 pages, plus index. Page maps. $55.00.
All during the Cold War, the few people strongly interested in the history of Russian America, that is, Alaska prior to 1867, worked under a heavy disadvantage. The Russians had the records and documents, although many were destroyed upon the demise of the Russian American Company. Non-Russians could be in Alaska, but were denied access to the records in Russia. Russians were unable to travel to Alaska. So both groups were at a heavy disadvantage. When the Russians and the United States became friendly again, at last this could be reversed. However, distance and money still figure heavily in the cross-pollination of information.
Dr. Grinev has found numerous documents and letters pertaining to people and events in Alaska during this period. To the interested, these are exciting additions to our body of knowledge. The translations are smooth, but sadly, there are problems. There are numerous small errors. Rocky Mountains are not the Coast Range that divides Southeastern Alaska coast from the Interior. Tlingits did not traditionally work copper or iron with heat. There was not a grand chief of a village; the heads of the clans were the authoritY. Oddly, the first encounter of the Russians and Tlingits, when the Yakutat men mistakenly attacked Baranov and his party in Prince William Sound, which de Laguna wrote about in Under Mount Saint Elias, is missed by the author.
Some errors are a bit more serious. It is hard to take seriously the claim that the Kogwaantaan built a fort near Sitka in 1818, armed with ten cannons. It seems more likely the reference was to Killisnoo on Admiralty Island. There is also a reference to the Russian settlement of Mikhailovskii, or St. Michaels, which is at the mouth of the Yukon River, far from Tlingit Country as is it is oddly claimed. Ozerskii Redoubt, todayfs Redoubt south of Sitka, was only a tiny place for simultaneously salting fish and keeping malcontents safely out of town.
However, these are holes in the fence. The stockade itself, the main book, contains so much material new to English accounts, it remains tall and sturdy. Itfs great to find solid evidence of E. Purtovfs initial foray into Southeast Alaska; 180 baidarkas came down as far as Yakutat in 1793. That is the first documented Russian appearance in this area. The internal problems that beset the attempt to establish an agricultural community at Yakutat are gone into in greater detail due to newly found documents, as are some of the various disputes during trade after the 1804 taking of Sitka by Baranov.
The most interesting bits of the books are the appendices. These consist purely of documents and letters and thus avoid the pitfalls of wrong conclusions.
The main problem with this book lies not in the accounts, but the conclusions. It is very difficult to form opinions at a physical distance from the place where the events occurred. Letfs hope Dr. Grinev can visit Alaska himself and then perhaps revise the book. So much good new information deserves it.