The Russian Period

The Second Kamchatka Expedition, led by Vitus Bering in 1741, established a Russian claim of the Aleutian Islands and mainland Alaska, and precipitated an expansive commercial operation. In 1750, the Russians introduced Arctic foxes from the Commander Islands to numerous islands without an indigenous fox population. This farming industry spread rapidly to include the Pribilof Islands and the Alaska Peninsula. Traders also exploited the sea otter; by 1762, the harvesting operation reached Kodiak Island. During these years of early expansion, Russians traded extensively with Aleuts and many Russian crews intermarried with Aleut women; however, trade relations were characterized by an increasing frequency of violence. Russians established a permanent trading post in Unalaska in approximately 1774, with male Aleuts often pressed into service, depriving their villages of hunters to fulfill subsistence needs. Russian harvesting operations by then expanded beyond the sea otter and included the fur seal, walrus ivory, land otters, beavers, wolves, and especially foxes.

British explorer James Cook landed at Unalaska on his way north in June of 1778 and again on his way south in his failed attempt to discover the North West Passage. Other imperial powers learned of the Russian expansion and profit through Cook's exploits, and the Aleutian Islands would shortly enter the world economy and the gaze of imperial science, with Unalaska as a crucial port of trade. The Russians mapped the chain by 1791 under the command of Captain Sarychev. By 1799, the Russian-American Company obtained a charter and a monopoly on Alaskan resources.

Managed by Aleksandr Baranov, company officials relocated many Aleuts for service in the fur harvest, including the Pribilof Islands. Slave labor ended in 1818, and Aleuts were considered to be Russian subjects, eventually converting to the Russian Orthodox Church. Aleut men helped Russians create more charts of the region, and from 1824 to 1828 the Russian-American Company instituted conservation efforts for the fur seals and sea otters, due to their depletion. By the early 1830s, fox farming had reached a peak. The exploding fox population feasted on ground-nesting birds' eggs, and many avian species would become endangered, such as the Aleutian Canada goose.

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