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The Russian American Company and its trading relations with foreigners in Alaska until 1839 McIntosh, John Duncan Lawrence

Abstract

The purpose of this paper is two-fold - to trace the development of Russian American Company relations with foreigners in Alaska and to assess the effects of foreign trade there on the competitive position of the company. The closing year for this study, 1839, is the year in which the Russian American Company made definite arrangements to receive much of its provisions from the Hudson's Bay Company in order to resolve its long-standing problem of supply. As to the first aspect of this theme, this account of Russian American Company foreign relations follows in broad outline the existing works dealing with the history of the company. However, some corrections and new material based on a careful study of unpublished sources in America and the Soviet Union have been added concerning the details of foreign visits to Alaska. Various subject relevant to the development of foreign trade are considered: its beginnings, the evolution of company and government attitudes to relations with foreigners, and the development of Hudson's Bay Company trade in the area. The financial prosperity of the Russian American Company is reassessed and revised downwards on the basis of some relatively unexploited archival material, with the inflationary decrease in the value of the paper ruble being taken into account. Particular attention is paid to the events leading up to the lease of the Alaska panhandle (lisière) in 1839 in order to determine the essential significance of the agreement in terms of the foreign trade and further development of the Russian American Company. The main conclusions of the thesis can be stated briefly as follows. Although small in comparison with the total income and expenditure in the colony, foreign trade was absolutely necessary to the survival of the company in Alaska unless and until some reliable alternative source of vital provisions and supplies could be devised. The final decision to regularize and perpetuate the Russian American Company's dependence on foreign trade signified a final acceptance of the view that there was no feasible alternative. Whether this view was completely valid cannot be answered definitely on the basis of the available evidence. It seems clear that the decision was not made on the basis of economic feasibility or political considerations alone. In any case the principal result of the lease agreement was that the Russian American Company's prospects for economic progress or even for holding its own financially practically disappeared.

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