Natalia Shelikhova: Russian Oligarch of Alaska Commerce

Natalia Shelikhova: Russian Oligarch of Alaska Commerce

by Dawn Lea Black, Alexander Petrov

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Natalia Shelikhova: Russian Oligarch of Alaska Commerce by Dawn Lea Black

This volume makes available for the first time in English a variety of primary source materials relating to the life and work of Natalia Shelikov, a pioneering nineteenth-century Russian-American businesswoman. As a principal of the Russian-American Company, Shelikov worked in Alaska, and her business acumen and wide-ranging connections—including the empress of Russia and a swathe of northern leaders—were crucial to the growth of Alaska’s economy, as well as to the welfare of the Native people, in whose life and culture she took a strong interest. The letters, petitions, and personal documents presented here will be indispensable for students of Alaska and nineteenth-century women’s history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781602230668
Publisher: University of Alaska Press
Publication date: 05/15/2010
Series: Rasmuson Library Historic Translation , #15
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 250
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Dawn L. Black is a former teacher and businesswoman who currently owns and manages a family estate in Kodiak, Alaska. Alexander Petrov is a historian at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

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Natalia Shelikhova

Russian Oligarch of Alaska Commerce


ISBN: 978-1-60223-073-6

Chapter One

Husband and Wife

Natalia and Grigorii Shelikhov expressed their emotions, and this expressiveness appears to have led to a healthier emotional and business life in the long run. Their marital emotions seem to have run the gamut from possibly violent anger and jealousy to passionate love and admiration. It seems that their relationship matured and mellowed with the years. In their time, the Shelikhovs were minor celebrities in Russia, and as also occurs with well-known personalities today, scandalous gossip circulated about them.

Baron Shteingeil came to Siberia almost thirty years after Natalia and Grigorii had returned there from America. He heard and wrote about some gossip attributed mainly to an eyewitness, Evstrat Delarov, Grigorii's company manager and later partner. The gossip was centered on the idea that Natalia had never gone to America and had planned to marry an official in Okhotsk when she thought that Grigorii might have died during the last part of his (really their) trip from America back to Irkutsk. This supposed death would have occurred near Kamchatka after their ship, manned by a very sickly crew of twelve Russians and some relatively healthy Alaska Natives, was blown offshore by the notoriously strong Kamchatkan winds and went on to Okhotsk, leaving Grigorii behind.

Shteingeil wrote: "Aided by his brother Vasilii, his wife was ready to marry the official when suddenly, inopportunely, came a letter stating that Shelikhov was alive and would go from Kamchatka to Okhotsk. In this critical position the wife decided to poison him upon arrival, but Shelikhov was warned, all was revealed, and through his workers he had his wife and brother publicly punished. Not content with this, he wanted on going to Irkutsk to give his wife over to the criminal court, insisting that she be given the whip.... But in this case, Baranov, then his [Grigorii's] salesman, persuaded him to spare his name and forgive the guilty woman [Natalia]." (Shelikhov, Voyage, ed. Pierce, 142, 145, citing Shteingel, "Zapiski," in Semevskii, Obshchestvennyi, v. 1.)

This narrative, presented by Shteingeil, contains at least two obvious errors: the place where Natalia might have thought that her husband had died, thus making her free to marry another, and Baranov's occupation at the time (1786). Baranov did not work for the Shelikhovs until 1790, although they were friends for several years before that and cooperated in trade and in sending fur-hunting expeditions. If the Shelikhovs did have marital problems in 1786-1787, they seemed to have overcome them.

All Natalia's letters to her husband were full of love, respect, and care, even in the two letters in which she deals very circumspectly with Grigorii's temper and jealousy. In one she tries to show her husband that his probable jealousy is unfounded, and in the other she mentions a sort of dream sequence in which they are mutually expressing their anger toward each other. Natalia does mention that a servant might be taught in Grigorii's way, meaning, apparently, that the servant might be given corporal punishment. From this, as one example, we can infer that Grigorii resorted to physical violence, which was not unusual during this period in history. In another letter Natalia revealed that she was not opposed to a teacher's spanking of an Alaska Native student who did not come up to the mark, but she planned to discontinue studies and spanking if he couldn't learn.

With the exception of the letters of June 25, 1792, and July 20, 1789, there is no other trace of major discord between Natalia and her husband. There is definitely no mention that she ever intended to do him any harm. In fact, she frequently warned him to be careful with this or that person. She was honest with him, explaining sometimes in detail her conversations with merchants with whom her husband dealt. There is no indication in their letters that their relations somehow changed during the period of 1789-1794. Natalia was very open in her letters, sometimes sounding almost poetic. Natalia's feelings toward Grigorii seem very stable. In 1793 she concluded a letter with almost the same demonstrative expression she had used four years before: "I kiss and hug you a hundred times."

Logbook of Grigorii Ivanovich Shelikhov, Rylsk Merchant (an extract)

Started November 10, 17831

The sum total, written in for receipts of stored goods from the master for Sapozhnikov's own account, during the voyage, in excess of the valovoi contract.

On March 22 [1786] [Sapozhnikov] took from the khoziaika five pounds of food for three rubles.... Totaling [at the end of the voyage] sixty-eight rubles twenty-six and a half kopecks.

For receipts during the voyage, from the partner Shelikhov: Upon completing the voyage [Sapozhnikov is] to pay the sum of sixty-eight rubles twenty-six kopecks. Petr Merkulev [possibly the father of Vasilii Petrovich Merkulev] wrote down his [Sapozhnikov's] requests ...

For receipts during the voyage from the partner Shelikhov: upon completing the voyage, Egor Baranov [a crewman who is probably not related to A. A. Baranov] is to pay the sum of fifty-eight rubles thirty-seven and three-quarter kopecks. Vasilii Shelikhov wrote down his [Egor's] requests.

Lebedev-Lastochkin to Grigorii I. Shelikhov and Natalia A. Shelikhova (an extract)

Sent from Irkutsk on August 2, 1788 Received in St. Petersburg on unknown date

[W]e have heard recently of the arrival there of the beneficiary Ivan Varfolomeevich [Iakobi, the Siberian Governor-General]....

[T]he mail from Okhotsk has arrived here, and there are no official letters, but it has been heard that your Americans have arrived at Yakutsk....

On Estimating Shelikhov's House

May 5, 1789

To Irkutsk Treasury Department from Irkutsk City Assembly, via correspondence so that it will be agreeable to estimating Rylsk honorary citizen and sea associate Grigorii I. Shelikhov's own wooden house that is in the parish of Tikhvenskaia Church, according to the city's estimates, and this estimation should be submitted very soon to the Treasury Department.

Secretary Egor Dmitrevskoi The head of the desk, Mikhail Sibiriakov

In accordance with the authority of the above-mentioned request, the head of the Irkutsk Guild called today for the city's estimators to have them estimate the house of the above-mentioned Rylsk honorary citizen, based on the price it would cost, and to give a balanced estimate and to send it to the local assembly soon.

May 5, 1789, the public clerk, Nikolai Zyrianov

On the above-mentioned request of the above-mentioned honorary citizen Shelikhov: his own house and all construction and deeds have been estimated.

May 8, 1789, head man Mikhail Zashchikhin

May 8, 1789, the estimators, Irkutsk citizens Ivan Andronov Lychagov, Semen Branov/Brianov, and Petr Kuznetsov, estimated Shelikhov's house at three thousand rubles.

Natalia A. Shelikhova to Grigorii I. Shelikhov

Sent from Irkutsk on May 27, 1789 Received in Okhotsk on July 16, 1789

Gracious sire, dear friend, Grigorii Ivanovich,

On May 26 I and our dear children received your joyful letter dated the eighteenth of May. I would like to thank you very much for this letter. I have the honor to tell you that before opening the letter from you, I was filled with a variety of thoughts about you, my dear friend, while I was having dinner with the children. I was so touched that I couldn't keep myself from lapsing into lamentations and tears. My tears and lamentations stopped as soon as I heard your lines [being read to me] that you safely arrived in Kachug. I pray to God that you will arrive in Okhotsk according to your expectations.

With the last mail dispatch I received three letters from our friends, namely: one from Schmit and two from [Nikita N.] Demidov. I opened but did not read them and took all necessary measures to find out whom these letters were from. I am sending all these letters in my envelope in order to avoid additional payment due to weight.

I would also like to inform you, my dear friend, that when I received the letters from you Shmatov came to me and tried his best by sweet-talking me to get me to open and read those letters in order to cheat me. When I did not agree to this, he asked me if he could send the letters himself. I told him that I could send the letters myself by mail dispatch. Zhelezniakov sent a servant to me with the same request, hoping that I would trust him to read the letters. I answered this courier with the following, "Please inform him that I do not agree with this, and I am not a small child to be cheated in this manner." The courier departed with that.

As for Sharapov's promissory note, he does not pay according to its dictates, but finds various excuses, such as, "I have a special payment plan with Grigorii Ivanovich." Shmatov visited me and told me that Sharapov is not abiding by the promissory note, although he received a promissory note [payment] from Krasnoyarsk from Porokhovshchikov. He could not pay it off because he did not get eight hundred rubles to cover the whole sum so he would have to add in his own money.

I also should tell you, my dear friend, that the carpenters are working in our house rather successfully and without any laziness. They are finishing the covering on the upper roof. I could not find trim boards and cover boards for the doors or materials for the windows and shutters. I will keep you informed about the final results.

From the money you left me, I gave twenty-five rubles to the carpenters and fifty rubles for the house renovations. The rest of the money was kept in the house for various expenses. I do not know what to do. I have not received a single kopeck from the promissory notes.

I intend to send braid and brushes with Vasilii Mikhailovich Rokhletsev who will depart soon from this place.

I sent shoe cream and leather for saddles along with the letter with Stepan Fyodorovich Kiselev.

I would like to inform you for the second time that there was no two vedro of white wine. I do not have a single keg of red wine, and I cannot recall if I have had any. I do not think that there was any. Kindly compare, with the invoices, how much wine you had such that there should be: ten bottles of white wine, thirteen bottles of English beer, and thirteen bottles taken by Ivan Andreevich Kuznetsov.

The notary has not taken a promissory note for Lomachevskii because it expired long ago, although he finally took it at his own risk.

I can't inform you of any local news, although I have heard that Ivan Alferevich [Pil] is expected here in the middle of June, but his convoy of carts arrived on the twenty-fifth of this month.

Ivan Antonovich von Linemann exhorted everybody to live long. After visiting with his guests he arrived back at his house and passed away on the twenty-second of this month with his wife as witness. He was buried with much ceremony on the twenty-fourth of this month.

We zealously implore you to write us more often and inform us upon your arrival. Fekla Iakovlevna [Kozhevina] asks that you honor her with your respects.

Completing this letter to you, my dear friend, I hope that God will be merciful and that your soul will be spiritually healthy on your journey and at your destination. Vouching for my own and our children's highest respect and blessings on you,

I remain your gracious sire's and dear friend's benevolent servant, Natalia A. Shelikhova Irkutsk, May 27, 1789

I would also like to remind you not to forget to take the annealed glass from Lovtsov upon your arrival in Okhotsk.

Natalia A. Shelikhova to Grigorii I. Shelikhov

Sent from Irkutsk on May 31, 1789 Received in Okhotsk on July 16, 1789

My dear friend, Grigorii Ivanovich,

I prepared this letter to send you on May 27 because I thought it could be sent by mail carrier, but then I was informed that Yakutsk mail dispatches would only be sent on the fifth and twentieth of June. That is why I am sending my letter that I prepared, as well as this letter along with two brushes and three pieces of braid along with this one, with Vasilii Mikhailovich Rokhletsev. I am also sending letters from our benefactor Nikita Nikitovich Demidov that I received on May 29.

I want to tell you, my friend, that I thank God that I feel well and am still alive and only our daughter Aleksandra Grigorevna is suffering from fits of coughing, diarrhea, and vomiting. Our servants are fine. They are fulfilling their duties properly, and everything concerning the house is carried out without laziness.

Ivan Ivanovich Skorniakov came to our house to say good-bye. He asked me to inform you upon his departure. He left Irkutsk on May 26.

I received payment of ten rubles on the promissory note from Petr Vasilevich the Greek, and he promised to pay the balance of eight rubles by June 8. I have received nothing from any other debtors.

I would like to inform you about the Americans [Natives]. Attaku was really sick after your departure, and he is still sick. His comrades also started to be absent. [Dr.] Varfolomei Fyodorovich, who visited Sashenka [Aleksandra Shelikhova], said that all the Americans were ill and are still alive, but it has been very difficult. I think through my sponsorship as before: I will have them baptized, all of them, because they already agreed to this.

Your beloved children, Anna, Ekaterina, Avdotia, and Aleksandra, and grandmother send their deep esteem, bow, and ask for your blessing.

I wish you all the best as you go on your way and upon your arrival.

God will help you. I hope you finish all your work and return home safely.

In the meantime, I remain a kind servant for my dear friend,

Natalia A. Shelikhova

Chapter Two

A Global Business

One of the major subjects in Natalia's correspondence with Grigorii and in her later documents was trade with China. Natalia and her salesmen were very active in the Kiakhta trade, as they were headquartered in nearby Irkutsk, and her letters detail much of what she was importing, including the highly desirable cottons and teas. Her interest in expanding trade with China is clear. The Chinese and others were willing to pay a high price for sea otter fur.

Possibly because an Iranian goddess was ascribed to have worn a sumptuous cloak of otter fur embroidered with gold, and the Iranians had a heavy influence on the early Chinese, there was a special fondness in China for otter fur, especially sea otter fur. Some Chinese had full coats (not just trim) and matching hats of sea otter fur. The Alaska Natives obtained the sea otter fur, which was particularly valued because it was in prime condition all year and had the densest fur of any animal, with sixty thousand hairs per square inch. It brought the highest prices in Chinese and other markets. One sea otter pelt was considered to be worth about nine beaver pelts.

A Chinese history by Wang Xi Long goes into considerable detail on the furs being traded with the Russians and the circumstances that disrupted the trade periodically. Due to a variety of disputes, Kiakhta trade was closed from 1764 to 1768, from 1778 to January of 1780, and from 1785 to 1792. This last seven-year closure partially coincided with the Shelikhovs' 1783-1786 trip to Alaska and wreaked havoc with their ability to trade directly with the Chinese.


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Table of Contents

Contents About the Authors Editor’s Preface Acknowledgments Introduction 1. Husband and Wife 2. A Global Business 3. Help from Demidov 4. Difficulties and Death 5. Natalia Takes Control 6. Last Struggles Appendices Vital Records Shelikhov Family Tree Birth and Death Dates of the Shelikhovs’ Children Family Heirs: Detailed Narrative Table 1. Comparison of the changing number of shares of the Shelikhov clan Table 2. Shares of the Shelikhov clan List of Names G. I. Shelikhov’s Houses in Irkutsk Notes Selected Bibliography Index

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