Deserters and Fugitives in Russian America

Andrei V. Grinëv and Richard L. Bland


Desertion, as a specific social phenomenon, occurred over the extent of almost the whole period of existence of the Russian colonies in Alaska (18th century–1867). Some attempts at desertion were successful; others suffered failure. At the same time, “external” desertion, outside the boundaries of Russian America, absolutely prevailed. Sometimes fugitives voluntarily returned to Alaska; other times they were brought by force. Deserters usually acted alone or in small groups. Their goal in most cases was passive flight, not representing a real threat to other people or danger to the colonies, though there were exceptions—three cases are known when potential fugitives intended to seize a ship by force and flee beyond the borders of Russian America. However, all such attempts (in 1781, 1794, and 1809) ended unsuccessfully. The peak of desertion occurred in the first half of the 1850s, when about 20 people fled from the capital of the colonies Novo-Arkhangel’sk and ships in California and Hawaii. Although, based on the scale of its demographic impact, desertion yielded noticeably to such factors as illness, accidents, and military actions, it nevertheless played a definite role in the history of Russian America, periodically exerting a destructive socioeconomic and psychological impact on the life of colonial society and the activities of the Russian-American Company, which managed the colonies from 1799.

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