The Kodiak Hoard: Copper coins reveal Russia’s ‘American’ past

<p>ROBERT LEWIS KNECHT</p>

When I talk about history to Americans, I often find that we have an “us and them” attitude about other nations and cultures. It is a sad reflection on our educational system that it often does not teach us the connections between the United States and other countries.

For instance, we often think of Russia only in terms of the Cold War or USSR period; spy planes flying over Siberia or Moscow; Red Square; the KGB… all on a continent far away. But when was the last time we gave any thought to Russia owning and governing land in North America?

Have you ever heard of Kenai, Alaska? How about Seward, Alaska? “Kenai people” was the name Russian fur traders gave to the native Dena’ina people when they landed on the peninsula in 1741. It derives from a Russian word that meant “people of the flats.”

From 1733 to 1867 (just after the U.S. Civil War), the land we now call Alaska was known as Russian America and was a Russian colonial possession. During this time, Russian fur traders and the Russian-American Company (a fur trading company similar to the Hudson’s Bay Company), along with the Russian Orthodox Church, “colonized” the area (a politically correct term for conquered and subjugated the people).

While Catherine the Great (1762 – 1796) urged her subjects to treat the native peoples fairly, the traders at first forced the Aleuts (the name Russians gave the native Unangan peoples of the Aleutian Islands) to do the work for them and then later turned them into slaves.

Various tribes of native Alaskans revolted and had some victories. But the Russians always retaliated with greater brutality and strength. In the end, as much as 80 percent of the Aleut population was destroyed by conflict or Old World diseases for which they had no immunity.

Russians first explored the island of Kodiak in 1763, but it wasn’t until 1784 when fur trader Grigory Ivanovich Shelekhov made it the first permanent Russian settlement in Alaska.

By the mid 1800s, Russia and the Russian American Company were having financial difficulties. Russia had just fought the English during the Crimean War (1853-1856), and, while Alaska attracted little attention, British Columbia’s population was growing, due to a large gold rush in 1858.

The Alaska territory was vast and hard to defend, and Russian Emperor Alexander II feared losing it to England without any rubles or crowns changing hands.

Some speculate that Russia hoped to start a bidding war by offering it for sale to both England and America. But Queen Victoria and her countrymen weren’t having any, and the American Civil War disrupted any deals Russia had hoped for with the United States.

Enter the Seward connection. Described by a contemporary as “one of those spirits who sometimes will go ahead of public opinion instead of tamely following its footprints,” President Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward, believed in expanding America’s territories and engineered the purchase of Alaska.

After an all-nighter, an agreement was signed at 4 a.m. on March 30, 1867. Seward bought Alaska for about two cents an acre – totaling $7.2 million.

Not unlike Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory, critics lacking vision ridiculed the purchase, calling it “Seward’s folly,” or President Johnson’s “polar bear garden.” Of course, that changed with the Klondike gold strike in 1896 and the later copper and oil discoveries.

The copper five kopek coins found on Kodiak Island all date from the mid- to later-1700s and feature the coat of arms for the House of Romanov, the second and last czarist imperial dynasty to rule Russia.

The Romanovs reigned from 1613 to 1917, when they were brutally murdered during the Russian Revolution, which led to the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922.

The coins are large and heavy, weighing about 60 grams each, which is slightly more than two Spanish “pieces of eight,” or two U.S. silver dollars. The “Kodiak Hoard” also included examples of coins overstruck on earlier coins due to the shifting ratio and values of copper to silver.

Most of the coins were minted in Yekaterinburg, founded in 1723 and named after Peter the Great’s wife Catherine I (Yekaterina), not to be confused with the later Catherine II, better known as Catherine the Great.

Perhaps one of the things I love most about buried treasure is what it teaches me about a certain time in history, about people I have never met, but I am often connected to in interesting ways.

The kopeks discovered on Kodiak Island don’t know it is 2013. When they last saw daylight, Russia owned part of North America, and Catherine the Great’s rule was creating one of the greatest powers of Europe.


Robert Lewis Knecht is the owner of Cannon Beach Treasure Co. and can be reached at treasure@cannonbeachtreasure.com.

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