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    Grigor Ivanich Shelekhov

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

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    (Hector Chevigny)


            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.

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    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

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    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


            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

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    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

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    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


            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


            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

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    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.

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    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

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    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


            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

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    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,

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    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

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    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


            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

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    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.

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            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.

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    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,


    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

    (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


    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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