From the Baltic to Russian America, 1829-1836
Review By Bruce Watson
November 4, 2013
BC Studies no. 138-139 Summer-Autumn 2003 | p. 207-8
ALIX O’GRADY’S From the Baltic to Russian America, 1829-1836 should be of interest to BC historians concerned with the broader aspects of the Pacific Slopes fur trade in general and of Russian colonial history in particular. O’Grady, a native of Riga, Latvia, brings to life the historical conditions during seven years in the life of Elisabeth von Wrangell, the wife of Russian American Company (RAC) administrator Baron Ferdinand von Wrangell.The book covers their journey to, stay at, and journey from Russian America, a Russian outpost paradoxically dominated by Baltic Germans and Finns. The book focuses on the life of Elisabeth, part of which is told by the baroness, the rest through the journals and letters of others.
The first section of the book, spoken mostly in the voice of Elisabeth, covers eighteen months of the von Wrangells’ trip through Russia, Siberia, and across the North Pacific to the Russian-American colonies to Sitka (Novo-Arkhangersk). The educated feminine voice remains strong throughout the description of this trip by coach from St. Petersburg to Irkutsk, riverboat to Yakutsk, horseback to Okhotsk, and finally to Sitka (Novo-Arkhangel’sk) by boat. The Wrangells follow the standard route covered by Russians and Western European RAC employees alike (some of whom went on to join other companies on the Northwest Coast) on their way to Alaska and the reverse route of many others (such as George Simpson and John DeWolfe). Particularly interesting are Elisabeth’s decidedly feminine observations about her two visits over the border to China as they may throw light on the realities and difficulties of the Russia-China trade.
The second part of the book covers the baron’s five-year-term administration of the RAC at Sitka. During this period, Elisabeth’s voice grows silent after the death of their daughter, and, with the exception of one letter addressed to her mother, her writing ceases. Instead, background information such as a letter from the baron to her parents, extensive entries from Ferdinand’s diary, and later comments by Hudson’s Bay Company officers, and others predominate this section. Of particular interest to Pacific Slopes scholars is the baron’s description of the treatment of Native and mixed-blood peoples and their obligations. The third part of the book, about the voyage home, is presented almost entirely through the baron’s writings and is followed by illustrations, a bibliography, and a glossary.
This publication is one of many put out by Richard Pierce’s Limestone Press championing the history of Russian America. He has spent years translating original and published Russian sources. From the Baltic builds on Pierce’s research and is enhanced by O’Grady’s translations of letters. Her writing is clear and engaging, and the story remains vital due to her careful treatment of context.
The book’s shortcomings are few and can be overlooked because of the overall value of the work. More maps could have been provided of the Russian-Siberian journey. Further, some errors of pagination in the index could perhaps be corrected in the next printing. In short, Alix O’Grady’s From the Baltic to Russian America, 1829-1836 is a welcome addition to Pacific Slopes research.