Tracing the Assets of the Russian-American Company, 1867-1943
Copyright © 2003-2013 by Steve K. Lloyd—All Rights Reserved
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PRIVILEGED AND CONFIDENTIAL
Copyright © 2003 by Steve K. Lloyd
What follows is a preliminary timeline and description of the succession of ownership interest in the assets of the Russian-American Company after the American purchase of Alaska in 1867. Citations are included at the end of each paragraph. Anything not in quotation marks represents my comments or interpretations. All-caps headings attempt to summarize the date and activity (sale, merger) that may be of interest to us.
THE LOSS OF THE KADI’AK
The 500-ton bark Kadi’ak was bound for San Francisco under the command of Captain Illarion Ivanovich Arkhimandritov with a cargo of ice in March 1860 when it struck a reef. Although the vessel was badly damaged, the buoyancy of the cargo floated the ship long enough for all hands to escape. Several days after the accident, the Kadi’ak sank in shallow water near the Russian Orthodox church that still stands on the island.
“On 27 February 1860, Arkhimandritov left Sitka for Woody Island with the bark Kadi’ak, and a cargo of construction timber for a new ice house. He took on a cargo of 365 tons of ice, but on 30 March struck an underwater rock off Spruce Island. All personnel were saved, but the vessel and everything on board were lost. The vessel drifted to Spruce Island and sank directly in front of the chapel with just one mast above water and a yard which made it look like a cross. Some said that supernatural forces may have been involved, as when Arkhimandritov had sailed the Kadi’ak the first time, the wife of Governor Voevodskii had asked him to hold a Te Deum in the chapel on Spruce Island near the place where Father Herman was buried, and he had not done so.” [Pierce, Richard A. Russian America: A Biographical Dictionary. Kingston, Ontario: The Limestone Press, 1990, pp. 10-11.]
The Kadi’ak’s captain was a long-time employee of the Russian-American Company. The vessel was engaged in the business of the company, and operated from the company’s facilities (saw mill and icehouses). There is no mention of competing firms on Kodiak at this time. My conclusion is that the Kadi’ak was unquestionably a vessel that belonged to the Russian-American Company.
RUSSIAN-AMERICAN COMPANY SELF-INSURED AFTER 1853
“In 1844 the [Russian-American] Company had reserve capitol of 132,511 silver rubles 41 kopeks and floating capital, accumulated over many years, of various company assets worth 451,837 silver rubles 87 kopeks. Besides this, beginning in 1853, a special insurance capital was formed. Until then company ships and cargoes had been insured abroad and in Russia. In eight years’ time 155,038 rubles were spent for this purpose, without loss. In order to save unnecessary expense, the company decided to limit insurance to important items only, such as, furs shipped from the colonies to Asia and tea shipped from Shanghai to Kronshtadt. The amount that would have been spent on insuring cargoes and ships was set aside to form an insurance capital which earned bank interest. Accidental losses were to be reimbursed from this capital and in case the losses exceeded it, the shortage would be paid from the reserve capital. In nine years the insurance capital increased to 144,372 rubles and 96 kopeks. According to the last audit, which took place 1 January 1862, the [amount of the insurance fund was] 174,372 rubles and 96 kopeks.” [Tikhmenev, P.A. (Trans. by Richard A. Pierce & Alton S. Donnelly) A History of the Russian-American Company. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978, pp. 391-392.]
TERMS OF 1867 TREATY OF CESSION DO NOT INCLUDE NON-REALTY ASSETS OF THE RUSSIAN-AMERICAN COMPANY
The terms of the Treaty of Cession of Alaska to the United States by Russia make it clear that the purchase includes “all the territory and dominion now possessed by his said Majesty [the Emperor of all the Russias] on the continent of America and in the adjacent islands, the same being contained within the geographical limits herein set forth.” [15 Stat. L. 539. cited in Lautaret, Ronald. Alaskan Historical Documents Since 1867. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 1989, p. 1.]
The terms of the transfer were clarified in Secretary of State William H. Seward’s instructions to General Lovell H. Rousseau, who was dispatched to Sitka to receive the formal transfer of the territory. “Pursuant to the stipulations of the treaty, the transfer will include all forts and military posts, and public buildings, such as the governor’s house and those used for government purposes; dockyards, barracks, hospitals, and schools; all public lands, and all ungranted lots of ground at Sitka and Kodiak. Private dwellings and warehouses, blacksmiths’, joiners’, coopers’, tanners’, and other similar shops, icehouses, flour and saw-mills, and any small barracks on the island, are subject to the control of their owners, and are not to be included in the transfer to the United States.” [Message from the President of the United States in relation to The Transfer of Territory from Russia to the United States, August 7, 1867, cited in Lautaret, Ronald. Alaskan Historical Documents Since 1867. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 1989, p. 6.]
THE DISPOSITION OF THE ASSETS OF THE RUSSIAN-AMERICAN COMPANY
At about the time of the foregoing correspondence [March 3, 1868], any question regarding the Russian America Company buildings at Sitka passed out of the field of international relations. In a letter to [William Henry] Seward from the Governor of California, Henry H. Haight, dated April 13, 1868, it was said that the firm of Hutchinson, Kohl & Company, of San Francisco, had "purchased the assets and rights" of Russian American Company and had "succeeded to all their relations with the Russian government, and assumed all the obligations of the Company (House Miscellaneous Document No. 130, 40th Congress, 2d session, serial 1350; see also Andrew, The Story of Alaska, 4th ed., 127-28.) [Miller, David Hunter Miller. The Alaska Treaty. Kingston, Ontario: The Limestone Press, 1981; p. 28.]
An American businessman, H.M. Hutchinson, of Hutchinson, Kohl & Company, of San Francisco, purchased the buildings, ships [emphasis added], and other movable properties of the Russian-American Company from Prince Maksutov, its chief manager.
[Claus-M. Naske, Claus-M. & Herman E. Slotnick. Alaska: A History of the 49th State. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987, 2nd edition; p. 65.]
“The Alaska Commercial Company, with its headquarters in San Francisco, had been formed to take over the trading posts which the Russians relinquished with the land. The company was given exclusive rights to choice sealing grounds and controlled all trading in the territory. The Fireman’s Fund wrote insurance on the company’s hulls and cargoes from the beginning. In addition, the Alaska Packers fleet, which in later years carried the men and provisions necessary for the rich salmon harvest, was and still is insured by the Company.” [Bronson, William. Still Flying and Nailed to the Mast: The First Hundred Years of the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1963, p. 68.]
“General Rousseau’s good friend, Hayward M. Hutchinson of Baltimore, left with him for the West Coast… Hutchinson, considering various businesses, met a wealthy Sacramento and San Francisco merchant, Louis Sloss… [who] mentioned that a friend of his in Portland, Oregon had been considering the purchase of accumulated Russian supplies up at Sitka… Hutchinson and Sloss hurried to Portland to meet with Leopold Boscowitz, long a fur customer of both Hudson’s Bay and the Russians. Boscowitz took them up to Victoria, B.C. to meet Captain William Kohl, a prominent trader plying Russian-America ports. Through the cigar smoke of the Victoria conferences, the firm of Hutchinson, Kohl & Company was organized to bid for and purchase everything possible from the Russian-American Company sale… By three o’clock [in the] morning [of October 11, 1867], Hutchinson, Kohl & Company had bought for $350,000 cash in gold, the stores and supplies, station buildings, ships and ‘goodwill’ of the old Russian-American Company.” [Kitchener, L.D. Flag Over the North: The Story of the Northern Commercial Company. Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1954, pp. 30-32.]
ORIGINS OF THE ALASKA COMMERICAL COMPANY
“Hutchinson and Sloss decided on two business moves: first, to develop mercantile trade; second, to obtain a sealing lease on the Pribiloffs… [On] September 17, 1868, the owners of Hutchinson, Kohl & Company [formed] the Alaska Commercial Company, formed under the laws of California… For $1,729,000, the Alaska Commercial Company took over all assets of Hutchinson, Kohl & Company, leaving the latter firm a name for possible later use. Alaska Commercial acquired stock-in-trade at Sitka, Kodiak, Kaluk, Nushagak, St. Paul Island, St. George Island, Unalaska, Unga, St. Michael and 41 other stations, for $200,000; furs on hand at trading stations, $870,000; buildings, $80,000; wharves, boats and fixtures, $20,000; coal and salt, $34,000; the steamers Alexander, Constantine and Fideliter, $195,000; fishing vessels and barges, $30,000; and goodwill, $300,000.” [Kitchener, L.D. Flag Over the North: The Story of the Northern Commercial Company. Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1954, pp. 34-35.]
ALASKA COMMERCIAL COMPANY MARINE TRADE ASSETS, 1868-1901
“Alaska Commercial Company, 1868–1918. Established in 1868 with the intention of obtaining exclusive rights for taking seal furs from the Pribiloff Islands, the Alaska Commercial Company (ACC) is credited with helping to open up the Alaska Territory to settlers and to various commercial enterprises immediately following the U.S. purchase of the territory from Russia. The founders of the Alaska Commercial Company were among the pioneering Jewish families of San Francisco. Louis Sloss was the company’s first president, and Lewis Gerstle its vice-president. The original stockholders also included Simon Greenewald, Hayward M. Hutchinson, Albert Boscowitz, William Kohl, August Wasermann, Gustave Niebaum, and General John F. Miller. [http://www.lib.duke.edu/forest/eharchives.html.]
“The business of Hutchinson, Kohl, and Company had obtained equipment, stores, and other property relating to the fur sealing business from the Russian government shortly before Alaska was purchased by the United States. The ACC then purchased these assets from the Hutchinson firm in 1868. ACC also became the sole and exclusive agent for the Hutchinson firm to take seals from the Komandorski Islands in Siberia. In 1870 General John F. Miller (who later became a U.S. Senator) was elected the company’s new president and held this office for 12 years. Amidst fierce competition for leasing rights, ACC was awarded an exclusive twenty-year lease under certain restrictive conditions, by the acting U.S. Treasurer in 1870. The lease gave the company the rights to take 1,000,000 seals from the Pribiloff Islands in the Bering Sea from 1870–1889. The seals from these islands constituted about 90 percent of all fur-bearing seals and had a superior grade of fur that commanded a high market price. [http://www.lib.duke.edu/forest/eharchives.html.]
“While the main business of the company from its inception was its lease with the U.S. government for fur seals, large numbers of land furs were secured along the Aleutian Islands, the Seward Peninsula, the Yukon Valley, Kusoquim Valley, and the district around Bristol Bay, Kodiak, and Cook’s Inlet. Other skins included ermine, mink, wolf, wolverine, marten, lynx, beaver, land otter, fox, bear, and sea otter. All skins were shipped to San Francisco for counting by U.S. Treasury officials, then shipped to London for auction by the firm of C. M. Lampson and Company. By 1890, ACC had branched out into many other ventures in Alaska. They had built 6 salmon canneries; each organized as separate corporations with their own staff and fishing fleet. They also maintained an extensive chain of trading posts, located at various points on the mainland coast, the Yukon River and its tributaries, the Aleutian and Komandorski Islands in Siberia, and in the Yukon Territory in Canada. The stores provided the natives, miners, and prospectors with staple foodstuffs, clothing, tools, and tobacco. [http://www.lib.duke.edu/forest/eharchives.html.]
“ACC chartered the Excelsior, the first steamer to leave San Francisco in 1897 after the start of the Klondike stampede, and transported passengers to Alaska throughout the gold rush years. The company built four steamboats to carry passengers to Alaska, and during its peak years, operated ships of all descriptions. By 1901, severe competition among Yukon Valley businesses made profit impossible. ACC merged with two rival trading firms, the International Mercantile Marine Company and the Alaska Goldfields, Limited. With its new associates, ACC organized two subsidiary corporations: The Northern Commercial Company, which took over almost all of the mercantile activities of the group, and the Northern Navigation Company, to handle transportation. In 1902, ACC sold to the Northern Commercial Company all of its mercantile assets except sawmills and mining claims. At the same time, ACC sold to the Northern Navigation Company all of its floating property except ocean steamers, in addition to fuel, ship stores, supplies, and goodwill. ACC became little more than a holding company during its last years. [http://www.lib.duke.edu/forest/eharchives.html.]
MARITIME ASSETS OF ALASKA COMMERICAL COMPANY (PROBABLY) TRANSFERRED TO NORTHERN NAVIGATION COMPANY IN 1901
“In 1901, no transportation company in the North broke even. Alaska Commercial reasoned that the impossibility of profit for any concern could eventually put them all out of business… Alaska Commercial effected a merger with the International Mercantile Marine Company and Alaska Goldfields, Ltd. Two corporations resulted, the Northern Navigation Company, exclusively for transportation and shipping, and the Northern Commercial Company, exclusively for mercantile trade.” [Kitchener, L.D. Flag Over the North: The Story of the Northern Commercial Company. Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1954, p. 46.]
My assumption is that any ownership rights in the Kadiak that might have been transferred from the Russian-American Company to Hutchinson, Kohl & Company in 1867, then to Alaska Commercial Company in 1868, would have transferred to the Northern Navigation Company in 1901 as the spin-off company devoted to marine commerce. For that reason, I will follow that branch of the road. But it’s interesting to note—and pertinent to Kodiak Island history—that some of the old ACC boats were sold to a former employee, W.J. Erskine, who operated the Alaska Coast Company shipping line between Kodiak, Valdez and Seattle. In 1911 Erskine purchased the Northern Commercial Company store at Kodiak, as well as trading posts located elsewhere on the island. Could the terms of the sale of these assets to Erskine have included all property located on Kodiak or relating to the Kodiak trade? And if so, what happened to ownership of the Kadiak at the time of that sale?
In his 1962 book dealing primarily with the 1912 Katmai eruption and its affect on Kodiak, Erskine’s son writes, “My father, through the assistance of his friends in the upper echelon of the parent company’s organization [Alaska Commercial Company], managed to purchase the company’s Kodiak establishment… When my father bought the Kodiak property he acquired many of the old Russian landmarks. There was the old stone quay upon which the modern piling dock was built.” Erskine’s purchase also included the three-story house built by Baranov, which became known for many years as the Erskine House. Today it houses the Baranov Museum in Kodiak. [Erskine, Wilson Fiske. Katmai: A True Narrative. London: Abelard-Schuman, 1962, p. 25.]
NORTHERN NAVIGATION COMPANY PURCHASED BY AMERICAN-YUKON NAVIGATION COMPANY (SUBSIDIARY OF WHITE PASS RAILROAD) IN 1914
In 1901, “the White Pass [and Yukon Route] expanded its transportation services. It bought the John Irving Navigation Company which served the Atlin-Bennet Lake region and the Canadian Development Company which operated a winter stage line from Whitehorse to Dawson. Included were several sternwheelers. To operate them the White Pass formed a river division, British Yukon Navigation Company, or BYN as it was soon called.” [Downs, Art. Paddlewheels on the Frontier: The Story of British Columbia and Yukon Sternwheel Steamers. Seattle: Superior Pub. Co., 1972, pp. 148-149.]
“By 1911 the balance of traffic along the Yukon had clearly shifted… Within two years the White Pass formed another river subsidiary, the American Yukon Navigation Co… In the spring of 1914, Northern Navigation agreed to sell out to Alaska Yukon Navigation and leave the Canadians in charge of the river. With the sale went 42 steamboats, 54 barges and all marine facilities on the entire Yukon system, including the sidestreams.” [Anderson, Barry C. Lifeline to the Yukon: A History of Yukon River Navigation. Seattle: Superior Pub. Co., 1983, pp. 65-66.]
“In the fall of 1913 a meeting was held at Chicago between officials of the White Pass & Yukon and William H. Fairbanks, general manager of both the Northern Commercial Co. and the Northern Navigation Co., and Volney Richmond, then Alaska superintendent for the Northern Commercial Co. In April, 1914, as a final result of this conference, it was announced that the Northern Navigation Co. had been purchased by the White Pass & Yukon [Railroad], through its subsidiary American Yukon Navigation Co., the sale including ‘not only all steamers and appurtenances thereto used in the carrying trade on the Yukon river, but those plying all tributaries also.’” [Newell, Gordon (ed.) The H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle: Superior Pub. Co., 1966, pp.238-239.]
“By  the British Yukon Navigation Company was engaged in a rate war with Northern Navigation, the major U.S. firm still on the [Yukon] river… In 1914 the White Pass bought Northern Navigation.” [Downs, Art. Paddlewheels on the Frontier: The Story of British Columbia and Yukon Sternwheel Steamers. Seattle: Superior Pub. Co., 1972, p. 151.]
“On April 7, 1914, Northern Navigation was bought out by its competitor, the British-owned American-Yukon Navigation Co. (A-YNC), several years after steamboat traffic had began to decline as a result of the overall economic downturn in the Fairbanks District. The hard times were reflected in worn paint, weeds growing on the wharf, and the occasional For Rent sign on the office. As part of the agreement, the NC Co. was able to use the dock in connection with the operation of its stores and warehouses on the opposite side of Front Street. Despite the fact that A-YNC was the new owner, the ‘NC CO’ initials were never removed from the roof of the warehouse.” [http://www.northernlanduse.com/barnproj/report/CHAP4/Ch4S4.htm.]
STATUS OF AMERICAN YUKON NAVIGATION UNCLEAR 1921-1943
“In 1921 after completion of the Alaska railroad American Yukon Navigation closed its operation on the Yukon River below Tanana, sold the fixed property at St. Michael to Northern Commercial and movable stores to the White Pass and brought them from St. Michael to Dawson and Whitehorse on some of the old Northern Navigation vessels and used them up. (The stern-wheelers JULIA B. and SUSIE still were registered to the American Yukon Navigation Co. in 1941, although out of commission and in lay-up.)” [Newell, Gordon (ed.) The H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle: Superior Pub. Co., 1966, p.508.]
“In 1943 American Yukon Navigation sold five vessels and all of its routes in Alaska to the Alaska Railroad for $101,125.95. All Canadian operations on the American portion of the Yukon had now ceased. With the sale went the sternwheelers Julia B., Suzie, Schwatka, Seattle No. 3 and Yukon. Only the Yukon was fit for service; the rest were derelicts at St. Michael and Dawson.” [Anderson, Barry C. Lifeline to the Yukon: A History of Yukon River Navigation. Seattle: Superior Pub. Co., 983, p. 88.]
I’m going to stop the timeline here for now. There have already been so many twists and turns that even I am confused about the succession of various companies and interests that followed Hutchinson, Kohl & Company’s purchase of the assets of the Russian-American Company in 1868. As we leave the story in 1943, American Yukon Navigation has sold its Yukon River interests to the Alaska Railroad. Yet the other assets of the company (including, perhaps, the old Russian vessel Kadi’ak) may have remained under the ownership of the White Pass railroad following its 1914 purchase of Northern Navigation.
Alternatively, if our argument is that each time a company sold or merged its assets (i.e. lost shipwrecks) went with it, we can’t suddenly shift gears in 1943 and say that even though Northern Navigation sold to the Alaska Railroad, the Kadi’ak still belongs to the White Pass Railroad. This will be a question for an attorney, but wouldn’t the status and ownership of a lost shipwreck depend on the wording of each contract, beginning way back in 1868 with the Hutchinson, Kohl purchase?
August 12, 2003
My exploration partner Joshua Lewis and I were accused of planning to file an admiralty arrest of the Kad’yak in federal court. We later took that action to protect our interest in the S.S. "Aleutian" shipwreck, which I had found elsewhere off Kodiak the previous summer, and some of the players in the drama appeared very concerned that if I was acknowledged as the finder of this new wreck in addition to the Aleutian, they would be stripped of their share of the credit for the Kad’yak find.
An admiralty action on the 140-year-old Kad’yak wreck would likely have hinged partly on whether the wreck had been abandoned by its owners, and therefore belonged to the state of Alaska, or whether it had remained a lost shipwreck that could be claimed in federal district court by a legitimate finder.
Since I enjoy history and felt the need to cover all my bases, I prepared this confidential memo tracing ownership of the wreck. Who do YOU think owns the Kad’yak shipwreck?