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Long-Forgotten Greek Alaskan
by Steve Frangos

Reprint from The National Herald

Eustrate Ivanovich Delarof, the first documented Greek explorer and merchant, to arrive in Alaska, is a shadowy figure in Greek American historical accounts. Why this should be the case escapes all explanation. True, few documented sources deal directly with Delarof's career and activities in Alaska. Yet in all those readily available sources each praise Delarof as an able administrator and wily adversary.

Unfortunately Greek American accounts have tended to exaggerate Delarof's role in the Russian expansion into the North Pacific. While Eustrate Delarof was certainly a partner and one of the key figures in the Shelikhov-Golikov Company trading interests he was not director of all Russian trading operations in the Aleutian Islands and coastal Alaska. The situation was far more complicated. At no point in the public records, I have discovered, is Delarof described (as he is in many Greek American accounts) as de facto governor of Russian-America.

This does not mean Eustrate Ivanovich Delarof is not a figure of historical interest or considerable consequence. The true story, while more intricate in its details, serves this intrepid Hellenic seaman, explorer and trader much better than fancy ever could. If we consider no other standard than worldly success Delarof was destined to become one of the richest most powerful men in Russia.

In support of this position is the fact that Eustrate Delarof is far from a forgotten figure in Alaska. An island chain, a harbor, a fort, a street and even a U.S. transport ship were all named after this merchant explorer. Yet Delarof has been pushed off the stage of history by the later and more commanding figure of Alexander Baranof.

Presenting Eustrate Ivanovich Delarof's documented activities and accomplishments in the early history of the Russian exploration in Alaska provides the dual service of reinstating this man not only into Greek American historical accounts but those of world history as well.

The expansion of Russians into Siberia and then along the Sea of Okhotsk is not usually covered in standard histories of the United States of America. This is indeed unfortunate. For as the Russian explorers founded one settlement after another around the Kamchatka Peninsula they were inevitably led to the Komandorskye Island group. From there Danish explorer Vitus Jonassen Bering (1680-1741), sailing under the Russian flag, was to cross what would become known as the Bering Sea and discover the Aleutian Islands in 1741. Reaching what is today Kayak Island (58 degress 30 minutes N. lat) Bering's ship the St. Peter was wrecked and the Dane along with most of the crew perished.

There were two vessels in his expedition. The St. Paul commanded by Alexei Iljich Chirikov (1703-1748), drifted apart from Bering's vessel, in a storm and one month later landed near the entrance of a large sound, surrounded by forested mountains, beneath the towering majesty of a cone-shaped peak. Since there seems little doubt that Chirikof's landfall preceded Bering's, Sitka has been accepted as the site of Alaska's discovery by Russia on July 15, 1741.

1741 then marks the year of Muscovite domination of Alaska until the sale of the territory to the United States in 1867. The nearly incalculable wealth of the luxurious sea otter skins drove the Russians across the north Pacific and then down along the coast of California.

Delarof was a fair and just trader in an Age
that could well be called the European
Invasion of the West.

Within two years, Siberian fur hunters began to arrive on an annual basis first in the Aleutian Islands and then along the mainland of the American continent in search of the valuable sea otter skins. These Russian fur hunters, or promysloviki, as they eventually were called soon pushed as far east as possible in their annual hunts for pelts. And here lies the main problem in the various accounts I have read. Rival companies began reporting disputes over the territory they hunted. Published accounts mirror these conflicts in offering different years for the formation, disbanding and merging of the various companies.

Eustrate Ivanovich Delarof worked for different companies at different times. Consequently, care must be taken when the actions of this lone Greek are discussed.

In 1780, we know that two wealthy traders, Grigor I. Shelikhov and Ivan Golikof, relying on home influence, chiefly that of Nicolay P.Rezanof, Chamberlain to the Emperor, (and son-in-law to Shelikhov) formed the Rossiysko-amerikanskaya Kompaniya (Russian-American Fur Company). In 1792, Catherine II granted a trade monopoly in Alaska to this one company with a fixed annual percentage being paid to the royal treasury. The Russian-American Company, like other European joint-stock companies (Dutch East India Company, Hudson's Bay Company, Northwest Fur Company, British East and West India Companies), was given tasks to perform that went beyond the realm of trade. Shelikhov established a colony at Three Saints Harbor on Kodiak Island in late July 1784 thereby creating the first permanent settlement of the Russians in Alaska.

In 1786, Gerassim Pribilof, an employee of the company, discovered the vast seal rookeries in the Bering Sea. This discovery occasioned the reopening of Russian trade with China. Holland and England, by their greater industrialization had driven Russia from the Chinese market. The Chinese, who had found the secret of plucking and dyeing the skins, especially prized the fur of the seal and a lucrative trade was the result.

Delarof was initially employed by the Panov Company. He must have saved or invested wisely since by the very early 1770s he was a full shareholder in several ventures. When Shelikhov returned to Russia in 1787, he left Delarof in charge. Delarof remained in charge of Shelikhov's interests until Baranof's arrival in 1791. After Shelikhov death (1795), the group merged with three others.

Alexander Baranof (1747-1819), who, in 1790, became general manager of the company, was for more than a quarter of a century the presiding genius of a commerce which extended to California and the Sandwich Islands as well as to China. Baranof established the company's capital at Sitka, on Baranof Island, where a new center of Russian activity was established.

Delarof's direct involvement and movements between various trading companies and combines falls between the presence of the two giants of Russian-America Grigory I. Shelikhov and Alexander Baranof. So it is to Delarof's career and the period roughly between 1787 and 1791 that we will now turn.

During the entire tenure of his command Eustrate Ivanovich Delarof succeeded in keeping the British, French, and Spanish explorers out of the Alaskan territory and so maintained it as a Russian province. This being the case Delarof finds himself in the most contemporary historical accounts on the Russian expansion into the north Pacific. As Lydia T. Black, anthropologist at the University of Alaska (Fairbanks), the most noted scholar in this field of study reports:

Delarov was a Greek by origin, born in Peloponessus. He came to Russia as a young man, settling in a Greek colony in southern Russia (now part of the Ukraine) Russia. He was in his twenties when he came to Kamchatka and began to sail first as a hand, then as a crew chief, and finally as skipper in the North Pacific. He completed over ten voyages. For the most part, until 1786, he was employed by the Panov brothers. He must have saved his capital, as by the early 1770's he was a shareholder in several ventures.

Greek American histories of Delarof draw exclusively upon Hubert Howe Bancroft's History of Alaska 1730-1885 (New York: Antiquarian Press, 1959). Delarof was the odd-man out for Bancroft. In trying to understand the differences between Delarof and the other merchants Bancroft provides us with the fullest descriptions of this otherwise elusive historical figure:

Delarof's administration at Kadiak (e.g. Kodiak island) won him the good-will of all under his command, both Russians and natives, and he received well merited praise from all visitors, Spanish, English, and Russian. In all reports concerning Delarof, prominence is given to his justice to all, and his kindness to the natives; but just and amiable men are not usually of the kind chosen to manage a monopoly. In this instance Delarof was too lenient to suit his avaricious and unscrupulous partners (315) Meetings with Native Americans were to be expected. Bancroft recounts this one brief incident Delarof related to a visiting Englishman. Unfortunately, this story bears all the main features of Western-Amerindian contact:

On arriving at Prince William Sound a number of canoes surrounded the vessel and on one of them they displayed some kind of flag. I hoisted ours, when the natives paddled three times around the ship, one man standing waving his hands and chanting. They came on board and I obtained fourteen sea-otter skins in exchange for some glass beads; they would accept no shirts or any kind of clothing; they conducted themselves in a friendly manner, and we ate, drank, and slept together in the greatest harmony. They said that two ships had been there some years previously, and that they had obtained beads and other articles from them. According to their description these vessels must have been English (they referred of course to Cook's expedition); the natives had knives and cooper kettles which they said they obtained by making a 14 days' journey up a large river and trading with other natives who brought these goods from some locality still further inland (A Hudson's Bay Company post?) Suddenly, on the 8th of September, the natives changed their attitude, making a furious attack on my people. I have no doubt that my people were the aggressors.

Delarof's deft handling of visiting British, French and Spanish explorers is legendary. As if to emphasize this point Mark Myers, the prominent maritime artist, has used one of Delarof's fabled encounters as the subject of a recent painting. In, They asked if we were Spanish Myers depicts Delarof's visit to the Spanish vessel the San Carlos off Three Saints Harbor on June 30, 1788. At a time when Russia and Spain were nearly at war over conflicts stemming from disputes between their world wide colonies Delarof not only charmed the ship's captain but freely offered him useful navigational information about local waters.

Bancroft's final appraisal of this Greek merchant's career in Russia-America is clear:

I have said of Delarof that he was strict in his sense of justice and of fair administrative ability. The contemplation of this amiable Greek's character affords a pleasant relief form the ordinary conduct of the Russians in America. Had there been more such men, I should have less to record of outrage, cruelty, and criminal neglect; had Delarof been bad enough to please his directors Baranof might have remained at home (320-321).

But Delarof did not disappear from world affairs. As Professor Black reports in her article, Unga: The People and the Community An Ethnohistory, in the summer of 1791:

[Delarof] sailed a vessel belonging to Shelikov, the Sv. Mikhail, to Okhotsk. He became very active (and must have invested heavily) in Shelikhov's Company. Beginning in December 1796, after Shelikhov's death, he was one of the two men in charge of the Company affairs in Irkutsk, the major mercantile center of Siberia. When the Russian American Company was formed, Delarof was one of the shareholders and a member of the Board of Directors. He served in the latter capacity until his death in 1806.

We can judge Delarof's management of the Russian American Company's interests by virtue of the fact that upon his retirement the Russian government honored him with the rank of Commercial Councilor.

No other Greek sojourner to the Western Hemisphere has as many locations named after him or her as Eustrate Ivanovich Delarof. Delarof is the only Greek to have an island chain named in his honor. These are the Delarof Islands in the Aleut Island chain. The seven principal islands of this group are: Gareoi, Ogliugal, Unalgal, Kavalgal, Iiak, Ulak, and Amatignak.

Located on Unga Island we can still find Delarof Harbor which was first called Delarof Redoubt. Unga lies on the southeast coast of Unga Island, in the Shumagin Islands of the Aleutian Chain. It was an Aleut village first reported as Delarov in 1833, with a population of 116, and then as Ougnagok in 1836. The Ounga post office was established in 1888, and changed its name to Unga in 1894. The post office closed in 1958. Unga is no longer occupied year-round.

Sometime in the 1770s, the inlet of the Gulf of Alaska was named Delarof Harbor. In 1792, Alexander Baranof selected this harbor as the site for the construction of a new fort and shipyard. Since Baranof arrived in the bay in the early spring close to Easter Sunday he renamed the settlement Voskresenskaia gaven, which still retains this name but in its English translation as Resurrection Bay.

The next time you visit Kodiak Island be sure and find Delarov Street.

And if you begin to surf the Internet you will soon discover the World War II troop ship the USAT Delarof. Far from a forgotten vessel in a remote corner of the world in March 1945 fourteen men aboard the USAT Delarof in the area of the Aleutian Islands saw a dark spherical object rise out of the water, circle their ship and fly off to the south. This brief report is one of the first UFO sightings ever recorded.

For reasons as yet unclear Delarof is still a largely ignored character in Greek American historical accounts. Readily obtainable essays, books and other documents report on this early Hellenes' life and accomplishments. The history of Greeks in the Western Hemisphere is not difficult to locate. Eustrate Delarof as a fair and just trader in an Age that could well be called the European Invasion of the Western Hemisphere, is an oddly forgotten exception to a shameful period of exploitation.

Note from PAHH

For more information about Evstratii Ivanovich Delarov [Eustrate Ivanovich Delarof], refer to:

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