Early schools faced steep learning curve

By Brent Johnson, for the Redoubt Reporter

In 1864, a Russian Orthodox priest, Father Nicholas, founded a small school in his home at Kenai. This became known as the “Igumen’s school” (“abbott” is an English equivalent to igumen). Thus began the Russian Orthodox Church schools on the Kenai Peninsula.

Little information exists in the written historic record about those schools until about 1900, but between 1864 and 1900 the changes in Kenai were certainly more than between 1964 (the year the Kenai Peninsula Borough formed) and 2000.

When the U.S. bought Alaska in 1867, the firm of Hutchison, Kohl and Company, including Hayward Hutchison, William Kohl and Louis Sloss, bought the Russian-American Company. In 1868, it was reorganized as the Alaska Commercial Company (the same one still operating in many parts of Alaska today, one of the longest-operating chain stores in history).

In a sense, fur harvesting and trading simply transitioned to an American firm. The Russian Orthodox Church, on the other hand, had nine churches, 35 chapels, nine priests and two deacons in Alaska in 1867. They stayed, but the sale was a shock to them and many Natives, who were speaking Russian. Certainly, not all Russians had been Orthodox Christians.

For instance, Alaska’s last Russian chief manager, Adolph Etolin, was a Swedish-speaking Finn, as were many employed by the Russian-American Company. He was born in Helsinki and worked in Sitka for the Russian-American Company in 1818. He eventually became chief manager between 1840 and 1845. He also was a Lutheran who had imported a Lutheran Church to Sitka. In 1870, Metropolitan Innocent (previously Bishop Veniaminov) formed the Russian Imperial Missionary Society to give aid to the Alaska Mission.

Over time, the harsh evils of the Russian fur traders faded and many Natives looked more upon the more lasting Russian tradition on the peninsula — the Russian Orthodox Church.

Disease is a villain on this stage of change. Between 1836 and 1840, smallpox swung a sickle from Sitka to Bristol Bay, killing thousands. Hundreds died on the Kenai Peninsula. Flu blew through the latter area in 1884. It had the hand of Herod on young children. In 1894, Kenai had a population of 150. That winter 40 people died.

Meanwhile, salmon canneries had come and so had prospectors. The Klondike Gold Rush peaked in 1897, as did the Nome Gold Rush in 1900. Even the Kenai Peninsula experienced a gold rush, in 1896, based on what turned out to be modest finds in the Hope-Sunrise area. Politically, in 1900, Congress enacted a Civil Code for Alaska. It brought courts and judges and made provisions for schools.

Information from an 1896 diary entry made by Father John Bortnovsky gives an idea of what might have been typical houses for that era. Father Bortnovsky was the Orthodox priest in Kenai around the turn of the last century, and also taught school. He writes that Seldovia had 17 houses, not one of which had a chimney. They were made of boards and covered with grass, in the style of the fairly well-made, Alutiiq-style houses of the time. In most other places, and probably Seldovia, as well, houses were log construction.

By 1898, the Russian Orthodox Church had 43 schools in Alaska. The 1900 U.S. census records offer information about the students in five of those schools and their communities. (Note: Nearby communities are lumped together and ranked by size, not counting seasonal workers. The date is that of the census, and the final number is a count of the prevailing tribe, race or profession.)

  • Population 156, Fort Kenai, April 15, 23 students (10 boys, 13 girls ages 8-16), 69 “Kenaitzies.”
  • Population 30, Old Kenai, April 16, three students, (one boy, two girls ages 9-15), 25 “Kenaitzies.”
  • Population 129, Kenai, Pacific Steam Whaling Cannery, April 18, all males above the age of 18, 57 Chinese.
  • Population 149, Seldovia, May 1, students 26, (11 girls, 15 boys ages 7-17), 129 “Kenaitzies.”
  • Population 87, Tyonek, April 9, no students, 67 “Tyonek.”
  • Population 20, Old Tyonek, April 10, no students, 20 “Tyonek.”
  • Population 20, Tyonek, U.S. Steamer Dushesnay, April 22, seven “U.S. Army.”
  • Population 99, English Bay, 18 students (7 girls, 11 boys ages 7-22), 80 “Aleut.”
  • Population 77, Hope City, no students, 15 “Knick,” 46 miners.
  • Population 51, Ninilchik (Munena), April 26, seven students (all boys ages 8 to 14), 51 born in Alaska, no tribe listed.
  • Population 50, Seward, April 25, two students (both girls ages 8 to 9), eight “Chilkat.”
  • Population 26, Homer, April 28, no school-age children, two women, one baby, two toddlers, 11 miners.
  • Population 15, Kalifonsky, April 19, no students, three school-age children, 15 “Kenaitzies.”
  • Population 14, Resurrection Bay, February 24, no students, one “Aleut,” 14 members of the Lowell family.
  • Population seven, Kasilof, April 20, 1 miner, two women including Mrs. Irene Kelly, six cannery affiliates.
  • Population 16, Kasilof, steamer Centennial, April 21, all men including the captain and 12 seamen.
  • Population 136, Kasilof, Alaska Packers Association Cannery, April 22, one woman (Mrs. Alice Weatherbee), 92 Chinese.
  • Population nine, Iniskin Bay, Alaska Petroleum Co., May 8, all men, eight born in the U.S.

The National Register of Historic Places notes that Tyonek had a school in 1900. There were 10 students and the teacher was A. Demidoff. The census offers 44-year-old Alexander Demidoff at Fort Kenai as possibly that instructor. However, “Seldovia, Alaska” by Susan Springer, provides conflicting information. Springer says that,

“Bortnovsky then reviewed the students, and found that although the recitation and reading of prayers in Russian and Slavonic, and the singing was quite good, performance in all other subjects was generally poor. That year the school operated from September 1899 through March 1900, with a break at Christmas. School ran from 8:30 a.m. to noon with an average of 22 students in attendance. They were taught ‘The Law of Our Lord,’ Russian, Slavonic, and English Languages, as well as arithmetic and singing by Alexander Demidoff.”

Since the school got out in March, Demidoff probably went to Kenai in time for the mid-April census.

According to the National Register, Ninilchik School had 14 students and the teacher was I. Kvasnikoff. The census lists 52-year-old Ivan Kosnekoff at Ninilchik. English Bay had 20 students taught by I. Munin. The census reveals 78-year-old Ivan Munin in English Bay.

Alcohol abuse was a devastating scourge in 1900 and had ill effects on the schools. To fight it, John Bortnovsky started temperance societies. And change continued after 1900. Bortnovsky asked to the U.S. government to build a school at Seldovia, and the Russian school there closed in about 1906.

Finally, the Russian Revolution of 1917 overthrew the czars and their state-sponsored church. In America, the Russian Orthodox Church continued its work, but the schools closed. The school in Kenai was one of the last, closing in 1921.

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


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Filed under Almanac, history, schools

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