Russia's Great Voyages
Russia's Great Voyages

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The People You May Visit

  Dance Headdress illustration
Dance Headdresses of the Inhabitants of California, Louis Choris, 1822. Headdresses similar to these were later collected on Northern California by Voznesensky for the Museum of Peter the Great. Hand-tinted lithograph. University of Alaska Fairbanks, Rasmuson Library.

With regard to the people you may visit, you will observe their dispositions...their government...industry...ceremonies, and superstitions...their traditions, education, and manner of treating their women...habitations, utensils, carriages, and vessels...modes of hunting...making war...and treatment of domestic animals...You will also try to procure the dress, ornaments, instruments, and arms of these people, or cause them to be drawn.

Over the course of 140 years, Russian mariners and their scientific colleagues recorded their encounters with the peoples of Siberia, Japan, the Kuril and Sakhalin Islands, Alaska, and California. Siberia became part of the Russian Empire in the 17th century and Alaska in the 18th. A small outpost in California at Fort Ross, north of the Spanish base at San Francisco, was Russia's toehold in the south. It was added to the American colony in 1811. Throughout these years of expansion, Russia also scouted Japan and the island chain that linked it to the Kamchatka Peninsula.

During these years of exploration and exploitation, mariners and scientists met many cultural communities in the North Pacific region. They collected trunks of artifacts. They also painted and wrote about these ancient cultures, although they sometimes did not fully understand or appreciate them. The wide range of their collections and the detail of their visual and written descriptions provide some of the earliest European views and artifacts of the peoples of the North and California at the time of early contact with Western Europe.



The People of the North

  Native of Copper River
Native of Copper River, 1818. This single figure, shown in two poses, has striking facial ornamentation and is decorated with feathers and down. He holds what appears to be a large piece of copper ore. Watercolor by Mikhail Tikhanov. Scientific Research Museum of the Russian Academy of Arts, St. Petersburg.

Russia's contributiion to knowledge of the people of the far north is weighted heavily on the Siberian side. Information and artifacts from the Kamchadals [Irel'men], Buriar, Chukchi, Tungus [Evenk], Yakurs, and Siberians Yup'ik were amessed by scientists associated with the major voyages. Joseph Billings and Gavril Sarychev explored briefly on the Alaskan side in 1790 in the Norton Sound region, and Otto von Koztebue charted Kotzebue Sound in 1817. Despite other brief explorations looking for the Northeast Passage, Russia did not focus on the Far North in America until the 1830's. In 1838, Alexander Kashevarov was sent to chart the coast. Kashevarov traveled along the Arctic Coast with Inupiat guides to 30 miles past Point Barrow and kept a meticulous journal of his encounters with the Inupiat people.

The 1817 voyage of Otto von Kotzebue to Alaska had introduced Russia and the West to Inupiat culture. Kotzebue's was a purely scientific voyage, commissioned by a wealthy patron of science, Count Nikolai Rumiansev. As a result, it had a full compliment of scientists and a talented professional artist, Louis Choris, to act as visual recorder. Although Kotzebue's artifcat collection has been widely dispersed, the images by Choris from St. Lawrence Island and Kotzebue Sound provide striking views of Native cultures before European influence.


The People of the Islands and Prince William Sound

Russian mariners encontered the people of the Aleutian and Kodiak Islands on their earliest voyages. It is these island people with whom they maintained the longest relationship. Ships going to North America from Russia visited the Aleutian Islands and Kodiak, bringing back not only furs but natural lore, beautifully crafted artifacts, and vivid paintings and descriptions.

The peoples of the Aleutian Islands, Kodiak Island, and Prince William Sound came under the political and economic domination of the Russians during the late 18th century. Until 1818, when the administration of Russian America came under the rule of naval officers, they were treated as a servile population. After 1818, their situation improved; conscription and hostage-taking ended, and education and opportunities for advancement were introduced.

From earliest contact, the Russians had a high regard for these skillful hunters and mariners. Their boat, tools, and clothing were perfectly adapted to their life and ideally suited to the hunt. Their expertise also served the interests of the Ruling Russian-American Company's fur trade. Governors, naturalists, and naval officers alike praised the accomplishments of the people of the islands, and many lamented the inevitable cultural losses that came with Russian contact.



  Inhabitants of California
Inhabitants of California. Louis Choris, 1822; hand-tinted lithograph. The Rurik spent October 1816 in San Francisco. During that time, expedition artist Louis Choris painted many Californians. This is a montage of individuals from several tribes, including the North Valley Yokut (top right) and the Coast Miwok (bottom left).


Games of the Inhabitants of California
Games of the Inhabitants of California, Luois Choris, 1822; hand-tinted lithograph. "Their games consist of throwing little pieces of wood which have to fall in an even or an odd number..." Louis Choris was the first trained European artist to depict the daily life of the several tribes of central California. During his visit in 1816, he recorded a game of chance at Mission Dolores.


Boats in San Francisco Bay
Boats in San Francisco Bay, Louis Choris, 1822; hand-tinted lithograph. Californians used boats made of balsa lashed together with cordage made of grass or hemp. Their paddles were double-bladed. Some European mariners disparaged these seemingly flimsy craft, but V.M. Golovnin thought them extremely practical for people who moved from place to place.


Aleut Man
Everyday scene at Rumiantsev Bay (Bodega Bay), 1818; watercolor. Mikhail Tikhanov was the only artist to record the life of the Bodega Miwok people of central California in the early contact period. He recorded in this painting a number of valuable details of domestic life, including a man smoking a straight pipe, a woman using a pestle to pound seed in a mortar, another woman nursing a child with a cradleboard behind her. A basket with mush is being stone-bioled while a fire nearby is used for heating rocks.


Tlingit Ceremonial Mask
Ceremonial mask, Tlingit, c. 1810. This mask was collected by F.P. Wrangell, Cheif Manager of the Russian-American Company from 1830 to 1835, at its headquarters in Sitka, Alaska. Wood, pigment. Estonian State History Museum, Tallinn.


Abalone Shell Necklace

Abalone shell necklace, Costanoan, 1806. This is one of several ceremonial items collected and illustrated by Georg von Langsdorff while visiting San Francisco on Russia's first voyage to California. Abalone pendants, clam disc beads, and fiber. Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Munich.


Various Artifacts Illustrated
Various objects from New California and Norfolk Sound, Alaska, Georg von Langsdorff, 1803-1807. Langsdorff's drawings illustrate his journal, which was published in English in 1813-1814. Drawing on paper, ink and wash. University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library.


Ceremonial Basket
Ceremonial basket collected by Voznesensky in the 1840s in Northern California. A similar basket is pictured in the Langsdorff drawing. Grass, roots, and shells. Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera), Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg.


Pomo Dance Headdress
Dance Headdress, Pomo, California, c. 1840. This ceremonial headdress was made from the wing feathers of a vulture and crowned with tufts of eagle down. Eagles and vultures are birds with enormous symbolic power, and this headdress was believed to offer its wearer protection against destructive forces. It was collected Voznesensky. Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera), Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg.


Inhabitant of Rumiantsev Bay (Bodega Bay) in New Albion (California)
Inhabitant of Rumiantsev Bay (Bodega Bay) in New Albion (California), Mikhail Tikhanov, 1818; watercolor. This woman of the Bodega Miwok Tribe near Fort Ross in California (New Albion) carries a basket filled with fish, probably surf smelt. She has an incised bird bone in one ear lobe and wears a necklace of clam shell discs and magnesite beads. A small child is crouched in the background—a playful addition typical of the artist.



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