Empire Maker: Aleksandr Baranov and Russian Colonial Expansion into Alaska and Northern California

Hardcover | May 26, 2015

byKenneth N. OwensAs told byAlexander Yu. Petrov

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A native of northern Russia, Alexander Baranov was a middle-aged merchant trader with no prior experience in the fur trade when, in 1790, he arrived in North America to assume command over Russia’s highly profitable sea otter business. With the title of chief manager, he strengthened his leadership role after the formation of the Russian American Company in 1799. An adventuresome, dynamic, and charismatic leader, he proved to be something of a commercial genius in Alaska, making huge profits for company partners and shareholders in Irkutsk and St. Petersburg while receiving scandalously little support from the homeland.

Baranov receives long overdue attention in Kenneth Owens’s Empire Maker, the first scholarly biography of Russian America’s virtual imperial viceroy. His eventful life included shipwrecks, battles with Native forces, clashes with rival traders and Russian Orthodox missionaries, and an enduring marriage to a Kodiak Alutiiq woman with whom he had two children. In the process, the book reveals maritime Alaska and northern California during the Baranov era as fascinating cultural borderlands, where Russian, English, Spanish, and New England Yankee traders and indigenous peoples formed complex commercial, political, and domestic relationships that continue to influence these regions today.

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A native of northern Russia, Alexander Baranov was a middle-aged merchant trader with no prior experience in the fur trade when, in 1790, he arrived in North America to assume command over Russia’s highly profitable sea otter business. With the title of chief manager, he strengthened his leadership role after the formation of the Russi...

Kenneth N. Owens is professor emeritus of history and ethnic studies, California State University, Sacramento.

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Format:HardcoverDimensions:360 pages, 9 × 6 × 0.98 inPublished:May 26, 2015Publisher:University Of Washington PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0295994592

ISBN - 13:9780295994598

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From the Author

Alexander Andreevich Baranov, physically short and stoutly built, became a towering figure in the history of early Russian America. A native of northern Russia, the oldest son in a prosperous merchant family, he was inclined from youth toward a career as a provincial trader and entrepreneur. Ambition and a taste for adventure led him to Siberia in the 1780s, when he was already approaching middle age. There he acquired and then suddenly lost a considerable fortune. His Siberian setbacks persuaded him to strike out for North America, accepting an offer to become the resident general manager for Russia’s most successful firm in the Alaskan maritime sea otter trade. When Emperor Paul I created the Russian-American Company (RAC) in 1799, Baranov stayed as its general manager, with enlarged authority that made him the virtual viceroy of Russia’s overseas empire. Despite his frequent grumblings about retiring and returning to Russia, he remained in this post until his forced removal in 1819 at age 72. This volume focuses on Baranov’s highly eventful American career, setting his life in the context of the development of Russian America. It emphasizes the cultural and social interactions involving Baranov and his men with the North American Native peoples most influenced by the Russian fur business and it imperial outreach. During the Baranov era, Russian America was a cultural borderland that offered striking examples of the "middle ground" phenomenon. Russians and Native peoples met and intermixed under highly variable conditions, with consequences sometimes comparatively equitable and mutually beneficial, and sometimes antagonistic, hostile, or brutally exploitative. Baranov sponsored and exemplified in his own domestic arrangements, with a Kodiak Alutiiq wife and two children, a remarkably enlightened policy of mutual cultural accommodation and social fusion. The result was the formation of a new, well-recognized cultural-ethnic hybrid, the mixed-race Creole population of Russian America. Despite his initial difficulties with a Russian Orthodox spiritual mission, Baranov also respected the role of the missionary monks and generously supported their work in educating and training young Creoles and Alutiiq converts who might enter the RAC’s service. Personally brave, bold, and astoundingly durable, Baranov directed a highly prosperous business operation that made the Russian empire a serious contender in the international competition for Pacific trade and territory during his time. Against great odds, with various calamitous setbacks and inadequate support from his homeland, he endured shipwrecks, military battles, rebellion among disgruntled Russian workers and settlers, a campaign of slander from a few missionaries, and opposition from rival traders: Russian, British, and American. When he learned that Emperor Alexander I had honored him with a grant of a gold medal on a silver ribbon, elevating him and his two well-loved Creole children into the ranks of the nobility, it was the proudest, most emotional moment of his long life. Ever since his death—the victim of yellow fever aboard ship while returning to Russia—the impress of Alexander Baranov’s accomplishments and his strong personality have remained evident. Honored and commemorated today both in Russia and in the widespread territories of Russian America, he merits this scholarly biography, based on exhaustive research, to provide the historical world with a balanced view of his key role in the making of Russian America.

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments

1. A Man of the North2. Siberian Merchant Capitalist3. Moving to America4. Taking Command5. Calamities and Catastrophes6. The Missionary Monks and the Chief Manager7. Government Men, Monks, and the Alutiiq Rebellion8. The Russian-American Company9. The Sitka Sound War10. Beyond Alaska11. Averting Disasters12. Closing the Baranov Era

Abbreviations: Russian Archival RepositoriesNotesBibliographyIndex

Editorial Reviews

A native of northern Russia, Alexander Baranov was a middle-aged merchant trader with no prior experience in the fur trade when, in 1790, he arrived in North America to assume command over Russia’s highly profitable sea otter business. With the title of chief manager, he strengthened his leadership role after the formation of the Russian American Company in 1799. An adventuresome, dynamic, and charismatic leader, he proved to be something of a commercial genius in Alaska, making huge profits for company partners and shareholders in Irkutsk and St. Petersburg while receiving scandalously little support from the homeland. Baranov receives long overdue attention in Kenneth Owens’s Empire Maker, the first scholarly biography of Russian America’s virtual imperial viceroy. His eventful life included shipwrecks, battles with Native forces, clashes with rival traders and Russian Orthodox missionaries, and an enduring marriage to a Kodiak Alutiiq woman with whom he had two children. In the process, the book reveals maritime Alaska and northern California during the Baranov era as fascinating cultural borderlands, where Russian, English, Spanish, and New England Yankee traders and indigenous peoples formed complex commercial, political, and domestic relationships that continue to influence these regions today.Aleksandr Baranov deserves to be known in the same company as John Jacob Astor and other frontier entrepreneurs whose enterprising efforts transformed North America in the age of imperial expansion. He reshaped the Pacific Rim and left an enduring mark on the geography and history of that far flung and diverse quarter of the globe. Exhaustively researched and elegantly written, Kenneth N. Owens’s treatment of this intriguing, colorful, and significant frontier figure will reward readers and reign as the definitive biography for decades to come. - Albert Hurtado, author of Herbert Eugene Bolton: Historian of the American Borderlands