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Grigor Ivanich Shelekhov: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Grigor Ivanich Shelekhov

EA-Biog
(Hector Chevigny)

GRIGOR IVANICH SHELEKHOV

Grigor Ivanich Shelekhov (1747 - 1795), Siberian merchant, founder
of Russian colonies in Alaska. A decisive personality in North Pacific
history, Shelekhov is nevertheless a shadowy figure, the principal out–
lines of his life being traceable only with some ingenuity of inference,
and even the accounts of his better known exploits suffering from his own
misstatements and the detractions of his enemies. He was born in Rylsk,
in the government of Kursk, in the Ukraine. At what age he decided to
seek the virgin trade-field of Siberia is not known, but he would seem to
have been in his mid-twenties.
Shelekhov's earliest employment appears to have been as a customs
official at Fortress Mai-Mai-Cheng, on the Chinese side of the Siberian
border. By the old trade treaty of 1669 between the Russian and Chinese
empires, trade between them could be carried on at only two points, of which
Mai-Mai-Cheng eventually became the only important one. Here, the Siberian
commercial houses sent furs and at a yearly fair met the Chinese merchants
who had brought tea, nankeens, medicines, and other products across the
trade route over the Gobi Desert. In Irkutsk, the Chicago of Siberia in
those days and gateway to the trade with China, Shelekhov made friendships
and business alliances which in future years were to form the cornerstone
of his wealth and authority.

EA-Biography, Chevigny: Grigor Ivanich Shelekhov

Tea had come to be a necessary commodity to the Russian people. The
Russian economy afforded little hard money with which to buy it and anyway
the Chinese preferred furs, which the wealthy used in great quantities as
articles of clothing. To pay for Muscovy's huge purchases of tea, the
promyshlenniki, the Russian backwoodsmen, had hunted the Russian sable so
effectively that the animal, along with many other species bearing furs
marketable to the Chinese, had become almost extinct. In a desperate effort
to keep up the trade, furs were being bought in London of the Hudson's Bay
Company, and resold in Mai-Mai-Cheng to the Chinese. Then the return of the
men of Bering's expedition from the North Pacific with a fortune in sea-otter
skins opened the way to a new solution, which the proximity of the Aleutians
to the Siberian coast made feasible. To outfit the expeditions setting out
in all kinds of strange and unwieldy craft in search of furs on the Aleutian
Islands, Irkutsk changed into a shipping-insurance center. Merchants of the
first class belonged to guilds which were autonomous in each Russian city.
The Irkutsk guild became a sort of Siberian Lloyd's.
Shelekhov's first experience in the new sea trade were on a scale some–
what smaller than that required for expeditions to the Aleutians. In the 1770's,
the record shows, he was busily building and despatching vessels to trade
among the Kurils, the northern Japanese islands. He seems to have contem–
plated the project of persuading Japan itself to open her ports to Russian
trade. He never quite forgot this intention of trying something at which
many important European diplomatic missions had failed, and we trace the
continuity of his d r eam on through to Commodore Perry almost a century later.
For, thirty years after these events, Shelekhov's son-in-law, Nikolai Rezanov,
approached Japan with the panoply of imperial Russian might, but failed in
the attempt, and Perry, as he laid the strategy of his own approach on behalf

EA-Biog. Chevigny: Grigor Ivanich Shelekhov

of the United States, studied in detail the reasons for Rezanov's failure
in order to profit from them.
About 1780 Shelekhov contracted a marriage that allied his talents with
money and political influence. This would seem to have been his second
marriage. Ivan Golikov was a fellow Ukrainian, from Kursk, who had come to
Siberia as an exile. Golikov had been a tax collector in Russia, was a man
of mature years and great business ability and, in Irkutsk, had established
himself anew. The status of Siberian exiles has been much misunderstood
and much romanticized. Unless banishment were meted out as a punishment for
serious crimes, an exile on coming to Siberia functioned as a free citizen
in everything but the matter of returning to Russia. Perhaps it was Shele–
khov who interested Golikov in the American fur trade. At any rate, the two
formed a partnership for the financing of expeditions to the Aleutians. The
alliance was cemented in Shelekhov's marriage with Natalya Alexyevna who was,
as the record has it, "a kinswoman" of Golikov. One is tempted to think the
gifted Natalya was Golikov's daughter. Golikov had other interesting relatives.
The name of one Lavrentii Zoubov shows up on the articles of partnership of
the first corporation. There was another Zoubov in St. Petersburg, Plato,
the last lover of Catherine the Great, whom her Majesty took from the ranks
of the army when he was a twenty-three-year-old corporal and made Prince of the
Crimea and even Chancellor of the empire. However, the advantage to Shelekhov
of these new relationships did not end here. Natalya Shelekhova was an unusual
woman for her day. She was bold, ambitious, and gifted with no little business
ability.
The profits from the trading ventures into the North Pacific were tremendous.
Sea otter, then as now, was the world's most prized fur and a good skin brought
tea to the value of three hundred gold rubles. But each year the voyages cost

EA-Biog. Chevigny: Grigor Ivanich Shelekhov

more and were attended with greater dangers, for as the yearly wave of
fur hunters advanced along the Aleutian chain they left the islands barren
of animals, necessitating further penetration eastward toward the American
mainland. There seemed little point in establishing permanent bases. Despite
the discoveries and claims of Bering, the imperial court had never been
friendly to the idea of including the American islands in a Russian political
orbit. Indeed, Empress Catherine made it clear that she desired no part of
the world beyond her borders when, in 1769, she dictated to Panin, her minis–
ter, that "I renounce forever all possessions in America." Repeated attempts
to get her to change her mind failed. Promyshlennikis were sent to the court,
with imperial ransoms in furs as gifts, to tell the stories of their exploits
on the unknown islands and voice their pleas that she extend her sway. She
always refused. On hearing of England's troubles with her American colonies,
she mad a tart remark to the effect that it was Britain's own fault for
having been so ambitious colonially. Catherine felt that her empire was
as yet too unsettled, too uncolonized, to talk of overseas ventures. But
she was not unwilling that her merchants should profit if they had the courage
to penetrate to remote places. Catherine was a dilettante student of the
theories of the French liberals. She adopted, deliberately, the policy of
laissez faire for Russian business. She released merchants from the former
prohibitive taxation that had hampered their efforts to expand beyond Musco–
vite borders, and gave permission for trade away from home. In the same
decree of 1769 in which she renounced foreign possessions she said, "It is
for traders to traffic wherever they will. . ."
Despite Catherine's attitude, however, the Siberian merchants persisted
in looking on the Aleutians and what lay beyond as Russian soil by right of
Bering's and their own discoveries. Accordingly, when, in 1778, they heard
from their traders and hunters of the exploratory voyage of Captain James Cook

EA-Biog. Chevigny: Grigor Ivanich Shelekhov

in Alaska waters, and understood that he was making charts and inquiring
as to the extent of Russian penetration, they were profoundly disturbed.
They were familiar with British maritime history and knew that it would
only be a question of time until they lost their footholds on the rich
islands, unless the hand of St. Petrsburg were in some way forced to their
aid.
The chancellories of Europe had been as disturbed by the activities of
the Russian merchants as were the merchants by theirs now. The world had
settled down to rest after the tremendous exploratory ventures of the pre–
vious century. The discoveries of Bering had aroused no notable jealousies
for the reason that, Peter the Great being dead at their conclusion, the
Russian court itself paid them little heed. For fifteen years after 1745
the encroachment of the traders on the American mainland seemingly remained
unknown in Europe until the English clergyman, Coxe, dug up the evidence and
published it. It seemed to the European chancellories incredible that
St. Petersburg was not harboring some dark scheme. As a consequence a rash
of exploratory voyages broke out in the Pacific — Spanish, French, and
British, of which Cook's voyage was one — all having, as part of their
object, examination of the Russian operation. The Russian merchants were
correct in their estimates of foreign intentions. Cook, despite the obvious–
ness of the Russian occupation as evidenced by the numerous outposts he saw,
charted the coast line and gave bays, inlets, rivers, and mountains, English
names which they still bear and which, in many cases, the Russians themselves
adopted.
Shelekhov saw the need for vigorous and independent action. He would
found a permanent settlement in America, and thus perhaps force the hand of
St. Petersburg. The only source for much of the story of the success of this

EA-Biog. Chevigny: Grigor Ivanich Shelekhov

undertaking is Shelekhov's own two-volume work, Rossiiskavo kuptsa imenintavo
Rylskavo grazhdannina Grigoya Shelekova pervoe stranstvovanye s 1783 po 1787,

published in St. Petersburg in 1793. It is, in many respects, an untrust–
worthy account, but the main outlines seem accurate. Shelekhov was inclined
to claim credit for much that he did not do and to overemphasize the importance
of some things he did so. However, he also slights phases of his work that,
on the face of the record, must have presented appalling difficulties and which
were, by the mere virtue of the fact that he undertook them all, remarkable.
Three ships were built at Okhotsk large enough to transport a colony of
192 men and crews and with supplies enough, including domestic animals, for
a permenent post in the New World. All three of these vessels remained in
Pacific services for a decade. The record of the difficulties of building
two vessels of comparable size by Bering in this region indicates that the
scope of the project. Even the iron for the anchors had to be transported
up the Lena from Irkutsk and across the Stanovoi Mountains by horse. Never–
the less the three vessels we r e built. Two were galiots, the third a sloop.
The flagship was named Three Saints , the second galiot, St. Michael Archangel.
The sloop was named God's Friend Simeon and Anna his Prophetess , variously
rendered St. Simeon , Simeon and Anna, and simply, the Simeon. Taking his wife
with him, Shelekhov and his men set sail on August seventeenth, 1783.
(All dates in this article are New Style.)
Shelekhov had ample opportunity to see for himself the hazards of North
Pacific seamanship. Early in the voyage the St. Michael was separated from
the fleet in a storm and, after a fruitless search for her which advanced the
season to the danger point, it was decided to winter on Bering Island. From
here, after a season of the best discipline ever maintained over a crew so
far seen in these parts, Shelekhov set sail in June of 1784 with his two vessels.

EA-Biog. Chevigny: Grigor Ivanich Shelekhov

In a fog off Unalaska, the God's Friend disappeared, but by now Shelekhov
knew better than to waste time in useless searchings, and kept on, being
rewarded by seeing the missing sloop reappear on his course.
Stepan Izmailov, the most experienced skipper in the trade, was master
of the Three Saints . On August fourth a pleasing stretch of grassy coast
was sighted and here, in a convenient bay, it was decided to land and found
the colony. The place was named Three Saints Bay, and it was the first per–
menent white settlement north of the California Spanish missions.
If Izmailov thought he had guided his employer to a place on the mainland,
however, he was mistaken, for this was the southern coast of huge Kodiak Island.
Shelekhov remained there two years. There is little doubt that he was an
excellent organizer and a strong driving force. He constructed a village
consisting of several houses in the Russian style, a counting house, a small
foundry, a ropewalk. On the mainland, in Kachemak Bay on the Kenai side of
Cook's Inlet, he planted an outpost, naming it Fort Alexander in honor of
the Empress's grandson, and giving it a semblance of style with a carved
wooden coat-of-arms over the gates which he flanked by two small cannon.
It is difficul t to estimate the real degree of his success with the Aleut
natives, however, for it is in this department that he is guilty of both
exaggeration and misrepresentation. Wishing to represent himself as the
savior and protector of the Aleuts at the imperial court, he claimed to have
Christianized them in droves and to have set up schools for their education.
His secret correspondence comes closer to giving the real picture; he saw
them as a source of forced labor.
In the spring of 1786 the St. Michael providentially reappeared, after
an improbable series of wanderings through the islands, much battered but
serviceable. Shelekhov rightly interpreted this as another sign of his good

EA-Biog. Chevigny: Grigor Ivanich Shelekhov

luck and prepared to leave. He put the old trader, Constantine Samoilov
in charge, giving him written instructions which were models of the kind.
They called for enforcing sanitation, preventing scurvy, treating the natives
with humanity, pushing exploration as far as latitude 40° N., and for ex–
cluding rival traders from the occupied territory "by peaceful means, if
possible."
Back in Irkutsk the Shelekhovs found important changes after almost
four years in the uttermost reaches of the world. Plato Zoubov was now
Prince Zoubov, apparently secure in the aging Empress's affections and
certainly high in power. Old Golikov, perhaps as a favor from this branch
of the family, had been pardoned and allowed to return home to the Ukraine.
Shelekhov hastened to send him copies of his charts and narratives in the
hope he would find means of presenting them in high places. Golikov, for–
tuitously, managed to bring them to the attention of Her Majesty in person.
She was returning through the Ukraine from a triumphal tour of the Crimea,
and on stopping at Kursk, received Golikov in audience. She heard the story
of Shslkhov's achievements, received Golikov's petition [: ] to reconsider her
stand about extending Russian sway into America and his request for ex c lusive
trade privileges in the territory as a reward for these deeds. Her answer was
a request for Shelekhov to come to St. Petersburg to present his case in person.
In view of the well-known character of Catherine, this would seem to be
a curious reversal of a former decision for her. She had, however, an audience
of peculiar importance to her on her journey through the Ukraine. Her com–
panion was the Comte de S e é gur, the French ambassador, who had witnessed her
amazing tour of the Crimea and to whom she was most anxious to show off her
method of government and of dealing with hrer her subjects. This fantastic
Shelekhov tale and its exponent might well have been dramatically used by

EA-Biog. Chevigny: Grigor Ivanich Shelekhov

Catherine. We can only conjecture in the light of the facts, and we know that
de S e é gur was a witness.
Shelekhov arrived in St. Petersburg armed with his records, the promise
of backing from Siberian governor-general Jacobi, and a marriageable daughter
Anna. Perhaps because there was now no Grench ambassador before whom to dis–
play the prowess of her subjects, Shelekhov gained no audience directly with
Her Majesty, but did receive the most careful attention of the College of
Commerce, a body on which Her Majesty depended for advice in such matters.
Shelekhov retold his achievements, dwelt on the importance of a permanent
settlement in the New World, and asked for exclusive privileges of trade in
the area for his company. Jacobi put in a strong plea, calling Shelekhov
a human man who had proven his patriotism and adding that the old question
of traders' cruelty toward the natives could only be answered by placing
their welfare in the hands of such a man.
At first the College of Commerce found for Shelekhov. There was a recom–
mendation of a subsidy for him of 200,000 rubles, without interest, and of
giving Russian interests in the Pacific the protection of a portion of the
naval fleet stationed in the Baltic. But Her Majesty approved none of these
hings. The usual interpretation is that Shelekhov ruined his own case by his
lies, in several of which he was discovered. His stupid claim to have dis–
covered Kodiak Island was, of course, quickly shown to be false in view of
the well-known record of previous explorations. His assertion that he had
received the Aleut population of Kodiak into the Church was shown to be
impossible. It is probable, however, that even had he seemed entirely plausible,
Catherine would have been unmoved. Her attention was directed toward the
affairs of Europe, toward Turkey and finding a way of opening a route for the
Russians to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. She was German, not Russian,

EA-Biog. Chevigny: Grigor Ivanich Shelekhov

and such distances as the Shelekhov dream connoted she was unable to grasp.
She granted Shelekhov and Golikov swords and gold medals and signed documents
attesting to their noble deeds, and beyond that nothing more tangible toward
a solution of the real questions involved than the right, which she did grant
the Shelekhov-Golikov Company, of exclusive possession of such places as they
might occupy. This was something, at least. It offered a means of excluding
other traders from choice places.
Shelekhov could return to Irkutsk knowing also that strong forces were
at work on his behalf. Zoubov was powerful and could grant them important
secondary favors. Shelekhov's daughter, Anna, had become affianced to a
rising young nobleman named Nikolai Rezanov, who was secretary to Gabriel
Derzhavine, the celebrated poet, whom Catherine had made director of the
Bureau of Petitions. But perhaps more important, Shelekhov had interested
the Church on his behalf. On a visit to Valaam Monastery he told the Archi–
mandrite Iosaph Bolotov of the benighted condition of the Aleuts and promised,
if missionaries could be sent to their aid, to pay for their passage to
America and support them in their work. In view of the unfitness of Shelekhov's
colony to support even itself without difficulty, it is hard to believe that
Shelekhov was sincere in this intrigue. Perhaps he did not really believe
the priests would ever go. However this may be, it was a shrewd move and
certain to be discussed in the highest quarters.
It is difficult, in appr ia ai sing such a man as Shelekhov, to separate the
entirely selfish from purer motives; his motives were far from clear even to
himself, as his letters reveal. There were easier ways to wealth, open even
to a merchant such as Shelekhov in his time and country, than these which he
now pursued. As with the character of John Jacob Astor in America, whom
Shelekhov in many ways closely resembles, a better understanding is arrived

EA-Biog. Chevigny: Grigor Ivanich Shelekhov

at if we do not insist on regarding him as either all black or all white, but
if instead we impute to him together with his obviously selfish motives, a
genuine concern for what he felt to be the interests of the Russian Empire.
He certainly saw the advantage that was being lost to Muscovy in the Pacific
far more clearly than official St. Petersburg. Within the nationalistic bias
of his thinking there was more genuine statesmanship in his view than in
Catherine's. He saw that if the front doors to Russia were closely guarded
by her enemies, no one at all stood at the back, or Pacific, door; that, indeed,
it was wide open, but might some day be closed. The episode of the colony of
serfs is illustrative of the ambivalence of his thinking.
Through the machinations of Zoubov, he succeeded in acquiring some
thirty-five serfs and their families from a bankrupt estate. His company
had had much trouble finding men of good calibre to go to the colony. It
was almost impossible to find any who would agree to stay permanently.
Shelekhov knew the importance of permanent residents. By the nature of his
orders to his Kodiak overseer about the serfs we know he intended them to
be dispersed about the colony at various tasks. But he ran a grave danger.
Catherine, who was interested in the fashionable French liberalism of the time,
was sensitive about the institution of the serfs. She protected them, and
guarded the laws that forbade their sale to anyone outside the Russian Empire
or their use for any purpose other than agriculture. To get them out of the
country, Shelekhov had to promise faithfully to use them only for agriculture,
and it was his official intention to use them in founding a new colony in
Yakutat.
The hollowness of this pretense is evident to anyone who knows the dis–
advantages of Yakutat as a farm colony. Too, the place was in the midst of the
most truculent natives of the Northwest coast. The overseer, on receiving the

EA-Biog. Chevigny: Grigor Ivanich Shelekhov

serfs, refused to be a party to the extremely dangerous deception which
might have involved them all in penal servitude if the Empress had discovered
it, and sent them as agreed to Yakutat, insisting they attempt agriculture
there. The sad finis to this episode is that in the Tlingit uprising of
1804 the serfs all met violent death.
The Church fared slightly better, after years, as a consequence of
Shelekhov's intrigues. The Holy Synod accepted Shelekhov's offer of support
for a body of monks, and sent them in command of the Archimandrite Iosaph
himself. Their hardships, at first, were extreme, for Shelekhov kept none
of his promises to them, but the wry fact is that the Orthodox Church, in
this first of its missionary fields, was the last Russian institution to
have power or influence in what had once been Russian America.
These things, together with the normal operationg cost of the colony,
proved an enormous drain on the company. New ships were needed to replace
the old fleet. It was plain that, in America, expansion ceased the moment
Shelekhov's back was turned. He deposed Samoilov, replaced him with a
Greek skipper named Delarov, who proved too easygoing; he finally selected,
in 1790, the famed Aleksandr Baranov to be his colonial manager. Baranov
proved trustworthy, clever and hard-driving, but blunt to the p i o int of
painfulness and intolerant of Shelekhov's political intrigues. There was
trouble with fellow-merchants. The Irkutsk guild, justifiably disturbed by
all these attempts to secure a monopoly, united against Shelek h ov, A rival
merchant, Pavel Lebedev-Lastotchkin, to take the bloom off the Shelekhov
achievements and pretensions, also established a permanent post on the main–
land and within a few miles of Fort Alexander on Cook's Inlet. The Lebedev
men attacked the Shelekhov men, and sowed dissension among the Indians.

EA-Biog. Chevigny: Grigor Ivanich Shelekhov

In 1795, on the eve of the death of the Empress Catherine and only
four years before his son-in-law, Rezanov, succeeded in creating the
Russian-American Company and getting for it all the power of which Shelekhov
had dreamed, he died. He was forty-eight years old.
Shelekhov lies buried in the courtyard of the girls' convent in Irkutsk.
His monument is a huge slab of white marble, graven in bas-relief with
representations of his ships, and maps of the lands he won for Russia. Also,
circling the tomb, is a long declamatory poem extolling his deeds, written
by the poet Gabriel Derzhavine.

EA-Biog. Chevigny: Grigor Ivanich Shelekhov

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Berkh, V.N. Khronologiskaya istorya otkrytya Aleutskikh ostrovov ili
podvigi Rossiiskavo kupechestva
(Chronological history of the
discovery of the Aleutian Islands, or the exploits of the Russian
commercial companies), St. Petersburg, 1823.

Politovski, N. Kratkoye Istoricheskoye Obozrenye Obrazovanya i deistvya
Rossiisko-Amerikansko Kompani
(Short Historical review of the
formation and proceedings of the Russian-American Company).
St. Petersburg, 1861.

Sauer, M. An Account of a geographical and astronomical expedition, London,
1802

Shelekhov, G.I. Rossiiskavo kuptsa imenintavo Rylskavo grazhdannins
Grigorya Shelekhova pervoe stranstvovanye s 1783 po 1787
.
(The first boyage of the eminent Rylsk citizen, the merchant
Grigor Shelekhov, from 1783 to 1787), St. Petersburg, 1793.

Tikhmenyev, P. Istoricheskoye Obozrenye obrazovanya Rossiisko-Amerikanskoi
Kompanii
(Historical Review of the formation of the Russian–
American Company), St. Petersburg, 1863.

Most of the important Russian encyclopedic works contain articles on Shelekhov.
English primary sources are nonexistent, the most important secondary sources
being:
Coxe, Rev. William. Account of the Russian Discoveries between Asia and
America, to which are added the conquest of Siberia and the
transactions between Russian and China
, London, 1787.
Important data exists in the manuscripts taken from Sitka in 1867 and
now at the National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Exhaustive bibliographies are by Golder, F., Guide to Materials for American
History in Russian Archives,
Washington, D.C. 1917, and
Wickersham, J. A Bibliography of Alaskan History , Cordova, 1927;
Yarmolinski, A. has made an important secondary contribution in the Bull .
N.Y. Publ. Lib., March, 1932.
Hector Chevigny
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