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Capital University News, California State University, Sacramento

October 22, 2003

Professor lands NEH grant for biography

Alexander Baranov 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 him.

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.”


California State University, Sacramento • Public Affairs
6000 J Street • Sacramento, CA 95819-6026 • (916) 278-6156 •
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California State University, Sacramento • Public Affairs
6000 J Street • Sacramento, CA 95819-6026 • (916) 278-6156 •