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Capital University News, California State University, Sacramento
October 22, 2003
Professor lands NEH grant for biography
is not a household name. As the first governor of Alaska, Baranov directed the
operations of an immensely profitable, multicultural Russian colony that stretched
from the Aleutian Islands to Fort Ross on the Sonoma County coastline, and westward
to the Hawaiian islands. But few in the lower 48 states know anything about
That will change if Ken Owens has anything to do about it.
Owens, a retired CSUS history professor with several books to his credit, recently
received a $75,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to fund a comprehensive
research project on Baranov and his times. The research effort will stretch
from archives in Russia and the Ukraine to Sitka, Alaska, and across the United
States to the Library of Congress and the Russian Orthodox Church archives in
New York state.
Owens will be working with professor Alexander Petrov of Moscow State University.
The two scholars will have their work cut for them because most official records
concerning Baranov were destroyed in the 19th century.
“All of the headquarters’ records of the Russian-American Company
were taken to the St. Petersburg dump and burned when Alaska was sold to the
United States in 1867,” Owens said. “We are looking mainly for personal
papers and similar non-government materials concerning Baranov and those who
knew him well, to give us a wider view of his activities in North America.”
Baranov was the Russian-American Company’s first chief manager in Alaska,
holding the position from 1791 to 1818 and guiding the development of Russia’s
colonial empire. He was very successful as an administrator and businessman,
generating huge profits for the Czar of Russia and arousing the envy of naval
officers anxious to build their own fortunes.
He is also a controversial figure in colonial history. His treatment of the
Alaskan natives has been labeled both oppressive and benevolent. Some historians
credit his harsh policies as leading to an uprising of Tlingits that wiped out
the first small Russian settlement at Sitka in 1802. Owens said, however, that
Baranov also crossed cultural boundaries. He married the daughter of a Kodiak
chief and fathered two children, then aided his children to be accepted within
Russia’s aristocratic caste system. “He was quite interested in
promoting the education of the mixed population,” Owens said.
At the end of his career Baranov found himself under politically motivated scrutiny
that may have led to his death. “Naval officers spent two years investigating
Baranov’s administration and they didn’t find a single ruble out
of place,” Owens stated. “Nonetheless, they suspended him and ordered
him back to Russia.” On the voyage home Baranov became ill, died, and
was buried at sea in April 1819, virtually unmourned.
According to Owens, the best account of Baranov’s life was written by
a contemporary. Since then, little of scholarly merit has been done—particularly
not in English. Language barriers, as well as access to records in the former
Soviet Union, have made research difficult, Owens said. Working in close collaboration
with Petrov, the two can bring together a synthesis of the best sources.
Once the research is finished, the two will write a book that Owens expects
to be the definitive biography of a man who deserves more than a footnote in
the history of European expansion and colonization in North America.
“He has been neglected,” Owens said. “We’re going to
bring him back to some of the fame he deserves.”
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