Almanac: History lesson — Kenai home to one of the oldest schools in U.S. history

By Brent Johnson, for the Redoubt Reporter

George Vancouver entered Cook Inlet on April 12, 1794, and spent a month mapping the area. He put Kenai’s first school on the chart. Upon anchoring off the Kenai River, Russians from the nearby fort invited the Englishmen to visit. Vancouver found the lack of solid waste planning remarkable.

“… On our landing we met some Russians, who came to welcome and conduct us to their dwelling by a very indifferent path (up the bluff), which was rendered more disagreeable by a most intolerable stench, the worst, excepting that of the skunk, I had ever the inconvenience of experiencing; occasioned I believe by a deposit made during the winter of an immense collection of all kinds of filth, offal, and etc., that had now become a fluid mass of putrid matter, just without the railing that enclosed the Russian factory, over which these noxious exhalations spread, and seemed to become a greater nuisance by their combination with the effluvia arising from the houses.”

Of course, the visit being in April, amid winter breakup, likely didn’t help visual or olfactory impressions.

A 360-foot square stockade of 12-foot-high poles enclosed about 24 buildings. The largest had estimated dimensions of 135-by-35 with a “thatch” roof and windows, “which we supposed to be a thin membrane from the intestines of a whale,” Vancouver wrote.

This structure “was appropriated to the residence of 36 Russians, who … comprehended the total number of Russians at this station, all of whom excepting the commander reside in this house.”

The absence of crops or domestic animals was noticed. And then Vancouver details a meal served to him:

“The only refreshment they had to offer, was some cold boiled halibut, and raw dried salmon intended to be eaten by way of bread. This very homely fare produced us no disappointment; for had it been otherways, and consisting of the greatest niceties, we should not have been inclined to have partaken of the repast, in a place, where the atmosphere we inhaled was so extremely offensive, that every sensation that is unpleasant was excited, excepting that of hunger.

“This occasioned the shortening of our visit as much as common civility would allow, and as we prepared to seek the relief of a purer air, we were attended to by our two leaders in taking a view of the rest of the settlement.

“We found it to consist of a smaller house … in which Mr. (Stephen) Zaikov the commander resided, and two or three and twenty others of different dimensions all huddled together without any kind of regularity, appropriated to the depositing of stores, and to the educating of Indian children in the Russian language and religious persuasion; they were also the residence of such of the natives as were companions, or the immediate attendants on the Russians composing the establishment.”

We can couple Vancouver’s descriptions with what we know from other sources and make some guesses.

For example, we know that whales hardly ever volunteer their stomachs for windows. So it might be fair to suppose someone hunted whales. From other sources we know that the Russian fur traders did not champion human rights. During Russian domination the Aleut population declined from about 25,000 to a mere 2,000.

The slogan, “God is in heaven and the czar is far away,” is a harsh legacy. Why would such people trouble themselves with a school for Native children?

Possibilities abound. The school probably relates to the children of the Natives who were companions, living in the small buildings. Though 1794 was two years before a Russian Orthodox priest reached Kenai, the fur company would benefit by having Natives who spoke their language, and schooling in colonial days was often a way of conforming — and, thus, controlling — Native populations.

A certain Potap Zaikov, (Stephen) Zaikov’s brother, headed up a 1783 expedition from Unalaska to Prince William Sound. One share of the expedition’s profits was to be for, “the Church and the orphans at the school in Okhotsk.”

Grigor Shelikhov (Russian spelling) was the majority owner of the Shelikhov Company, from which the Russian-American Company formed and became a rival of the fur company that built the fort at Kenai. Shelikhov had a school for Native children at Kodiak in 1784. But his schoolchildren were also hostages, taken with their mothers and kept until he received a sufficient number of furs. Shelikhov’s school may have also fulfilled a public relations purpose. He wanted to obtain a monopoly in the Alaska fur trade and he wanted to show the czar and government officials how he was helping the Alaska Natives.

Now, the Russians invited the Englishmen to visit. Like Shelikhov, public relations might have been on their minds. Having a school displays a civilized society. We don’t know if the children were local Dena’ina Native, or Aleuts who came with the Russians.

Whatever the case, this school was early on the education frontier. The first mission school of California was built in 1769, the first school of Oregon Territory began in 1831 and the first public school in California started in 1846.

The Kenai school must have closed within a few years of Vancouver’s visit. The rival Russian-American Company receiving its monopoly in 1799.

Brent Johnson, of Clam Gulch, is a former president of the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association.

1 Comment

Filed under Almanac, history, schools

One response to “Almanac: History lesson — Kenai home to one of the oldest schools in U.S. history

  1. james C. Hornaday

    Sister Victoria describes several Russian and American schools in Kenai in her article “The Russian Experience” in the book, The Native, Russian and American Experiences of the Kenai Area of Alaska, a compilation of the articles of the l974 Conference on the Native Russian and American Experiences of

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