Mr. Clay to Mr. Seward

No. 163]

Sir: I herein transmit to you a memorandum descriptive of the Russian imperial system of Russian America, (portage.) division of property, &c, marked AA.


Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.

[Page 396]

Translation of the Russian memorandum marked AA.


Explanatory memorandum in answer to the communication of the ministry of foreign affairs, department of interior relations, dated August 31, 1867, No. 5,790 pursuant to the communication addressed by Hon. W. H. Seward, Secretary of State, August 6, 1867, to St. Petersburg, to the American envoy near the imperial court.

To the question concerning the system of division and measurement of landed property which was adopted by the imperial government in the late Russian American possessions;

The question, as stated by the government of the United States of America, has to be solved in two relations: first, in relation to the natives who occupied of yore the lands which composed the Russian American colonies; and, second, in relation to the colonists who had settled in that country after it had been included into the limits of Russian empire.

Adverting first to the natives or aborigines, we may divide them into two groups: the islanders and the inhabitants of the American continent. The islanders, on their part, must be again subdivided in two sections: the dependent and peaceful inhabitants of the Aleutian islands, and the independent inhabitants of the islands of the far north—that is, the islands Ookeevock, St Lawrence, and Noonivock. Upon these three last islands there never existed any Russian settlement; the intercourse of Russians with those tribes was wholly confined to the limits of retail trade, for which purpose vessels of the Russian American Company were but occasionally sent thither, and, therefore, neither the imperial government nor the company ever had any influence upon the mode of division of lands between said natives, who, to the present time, use such lands in perfect freedom, without any foreign interference or restrictions. Exactly in the same way, (owing to the character of the object which was constantly pursued by the agents of the company,) neither the government nor the company had any interest to interfere with the distribution of lands between the inhabitants of the Aleutian islands. All these islands, the boundaries of which are fixed by nature itself, are held and used by the Aleutes by right of prescription, and never interrupted by any foreign violation or interference. The division of lands between the Aleutian settlements was established at a time anterior to the Russian occupation, and continues to be inviolably preserved according to usages prevalent of all antiquity amongst the natives. Neither the imperial government, by authority conferred to the Russian American Company, nor the agents of the company, by the strength of imperial grants, ever interfered with the internal division of lands between the indigenous Aleutes, and if the local administration occasionally undertook the examination of their mutual claims, it exceptionally happened in cases of misunderstanding and contests between the natives themselves, and never otherwise than upon application of the interested parties and persons, when the local Toyunns, or elders of villages, had failed to satisfy the respective claims of parties by their own authority. To the preservation of such order in the colonies particularly contributed the peaceful and submissive character of the inhabitants of Aleutian islands, and, therefore, the immutability, or, as it were, the stagnation in that respect, must not be attributed to the indifference of local administration to the interests of that country; on the contrary, the position, itself of the Aleutian islands gave birth to such immobility in the mode of turning to account the territory of these islands. Competition alone, either between the natives or on the part of foreign settlers from abroad, might have modified the existing system of land-keeping, but none of the two cases did happen, and in fact, could not have taken place. The native population of each separate island is so very insignificant, that the inhabitants of any one could not meet with the slightest cause of collision of interests in the use of lands; in addition to this, the soil itself being perfectly barren, and unfit either for agricultural or grazing purposes, there was no reason why the natives should endeavor to extend the limits of their lands; if they value their grounds, it is exclusively on account of streams abounding in fish, or of coast sites, designated by the local name of Liyda (Layda) for the Aleutes being neither agriculturists nor cattle breeders, live exclusively upon fish and shell fishes thrown ashore by the tide, so that the welfare of the native is measured by the abundance of sea fruits supplied by the tide, and the prosperity of Aleutian settlements is calculated by the riches of the “Liyda,” exactly in the same way as the prosperity of continental settlements is chiefly calculated by the productiveness of the ground.

Out of this short outline of the condition of the islanders it is not difficult to realize the reason why, for the time of Russian dominion over that country, we do not meet with any government regulations which would be calculated to establish amongst the natives any certain system of acquisition or occupation of land. There was even less ground for the enactment of any particular regulations in view of immigrant settlers. Who can ever have a mind to settle in that country, where permanent fogs and dampness of atmosphere and want of solar heat and light, leaving out of the question any thing like agriculture, make it impossible to provide even a sufficient supply of hay for cattle, and where man, from want of bread, salt, and meat, to escape scurvy must constantly live upon fish, berries, shell-fish, sea caobages, and other products of the sea, soaking them profusely with the grease of sea beasts? The Aleutian islands may attract transient traders, but no permanent settlers; to inhabit them [Page 397] one must be an Aleute; and if it were not for the sea surrounding the islands, this country, owing to its unfavorable climatic conditions and the sterility of its ground, would have never been inhabited at all; and, therefore, the American government will have, as the Russian imperial government had, to protect the local natives against arbitrary taking of possession and violence, not in the interior of the islands, but from the sea, because unsparing foreigners, prompted by avaricious hope of easy temporary gain, will, before all, endeavor to take advantage of the local population, which, being scarce and rather fond of smong drink, will not long resist temptation, and shall perish, together with all those branches of trade for which islanders are alone fit, and particularly the Aleutes, those ancient, permanent, and practiced inhabitants of the ocean.

But if we do not meet with foreign settlers upon the islands of Russian America, the colonial administration began at a sufficiently early period to colonize some islands with the so-called colonial settlers.

The imperial government, while granting to the Russian American Company, for a determinate period, the exclusive possession and use of our territory in America, conceded to the company the right (statute, chapter 8, section 2, 228) “to settle upon fitting grounds those of the old servants who would be willing, and to supply them with dwellings and implements at the cost of the company.” Otherwise, as to the apportionment of lands to such settlers, there were no particular regulations, restrictions, or formalities. Usually the chief administrator, conforming to the statute, ( 162,) at the installation of an applicant for settlement, or of his family, assigned a place for the new settlement according to his own better understanding; and this simple designation of whereabouts gave the settler a right to occupy and use such area of land and trading grounds as he could or thought it necessary to occupy for his housekeeping and fishing requirements; only, in order to avoid contestations between the settlers and the natives, particular attention was paid to the division between them of streams and other trading places, so that neither the natives nor the colonists could have any right to fish or hunt upon grounds to them not assigned. Under this system of distribution of lands and trading grounds the first occupation and using of a certain locality, whether by an individual or by a community, nothwithstanding the lack of formalities, conferred unquestionable right of possession, and, therefore in case that these territories would have to revert from out the competency of the company into the hands of the imperial government, said right would be recognized and formally confirmed for the future as right of property. Such settlers exist in the districts of Kadiak, Atkha, and Ounga, and belong, all of them, owing to the character of their housekeeping and trade, to the section (register) of country inhabitants. Moreover, there is a certain number of individuals who hold like right of possession in the port of New Archangel. Some of them possess but houses and yards in the limits marked upon the plan of the port of New Archangel; others possess, in addition, field grounds. Upon the whole, the settlers who live in New Archangel, considering the local conditions of their life, cannot be properly counted to the number of citizens, as well as the port of New Archangel itself cannot be properly called a city.

If, at the actual transition of the territory under the rule of the United States government, a division of land estates and a formal recognition of property rights together with the fixing of boundaries, should be deemed necessary, then, in reference to existing settlers, either aliens, that is, colonial citizens, or creoles, (denominated by colonial registers “colonial citizens,” ) it would be equitable to adopt, as basis of definition of limits, certificates attested by local colonial authorities, wherewith some lots, as, for instance, yards and gardens, would be, if necessary, recognized as private property, and other, as shores, meadows, woods, streams, &c, as communal property of the settler of each separate locality.

Now, going over to the inhabitants of the American continent, we meet with phenomena completely different. Settlements nearest to the coast have many common features with the islanders, as well in respect of settled life as in respect of means of existence and trade; but, the deeper we advance into the continent of America, the more varies the character of the natives. The inhabitants of the coast, like those of the Aleutian islands, distinguish themselves by submissiveness, good-nature, and visible marks of social instinct; such are the Kenayans, the Tshugaces, Kooskokoimians, and the Aglegonutes; nearly all of them are Christians; they are of a rather gentle disposition, and live in good understanding and constant intercourse with the Russians, so that the Russian American Company, in order to entertain friendly relations, and to induce the natives to carry on fur trade, yearly provided, upon the Kenayan coast, a supply of about ten thousand youkola, or dried fish. On the contrary, the further from the coast, the more rough and independent the character of the savages; every symptom not only of social, but even of settled life, disappears, because these natives, having no other occupation but hunting, migrate in the track of game from one part to another, establishing but prí visional settlements for winter season; to this class of savages must be numbered the Caloshes, the Toondras, the Coltshans, the Magmutes, the Agoolmutes or Koossilvakians, the Aziagmutes, the Ma’emutes, the Anghelics, the Kooyou konians, and the Mednovetzes, and, generally, the tribes inhabiting the islands of the Caloshian archipelago, the banks along Stakhin river mouth, along the rivers Kvikhpak, Kooskok-vim, Kooyoucan, Shikhtalick, and their tributaries, and the shore below and above the Straits of Behring. Most of these tribes live in primeval forests of such thickness that the [Page 398] only ways of communication are rivers, along the streams of which they travel in their “bay-daras” (boats) during summer season, to trade, partly with neighboring savages, and partly with Russian redoubts and “odinotshkas,” situated along the sea-coast, and at the mouth of Kvikhpak and Kooskokvim rivers. During winter these people accomplish their travels –with “nartas” (sleighs) drawn by dogs, and reach as far as the grounds of the Tshuktches of Siberia, crossing upon ice the Straits of Behring. All these tribes are supplied with fire-arms and spirits, of which they are, like all savages, very fond—in part from English possessions, and in part by foreign transient ships. The Russian American Company hardly ever penetrated into the interior of the continent, and, owing to the wild character of its inhab-called redoubts and “odinotshkas,” were established along the coast, preferably, near the itants, never established there any settlements, only for trading purposes; small factories, bays and the mouths of large rivers. These factories generally consist of a roofed yard of moderate size, in which live the clerk of the company, with a few workmen out of the pacified natives, and where is stored a small supply of dried fish and some manufactured goods, wanted for the use of savages. Such is, in general features, the character of the Russian American continent. From all, what we said, it clearly appears, that in this region no attempts were ever made, and no necessity ever occurred, to introduce any system of land-ownership; the country occupied by savages is too vast; they used to camp in certain fit places, generally marked by mountains, rivers, and streams, each having its name, but no fixed boundaries whatever, and their migrations are guided by wild instinct and unbounded will. All this region has neither past nor present, and it may be confidently said of the future, that it is far and impenetrable. Every attempt of civilizing that country will stumble against unconquerable obstacles—the complete absence of local topography, the wild character of the savages, and no less wild character of nature; but, above all, the rigor and inconstancy of climate. To achieve any good results for the future of that country, by means of conquest and violence, would hardly be possible; to drive the savages further into the interior of the American continent, however difficult, would be possible; but this plan will be connected with irrecoverable money and material losses; the more so, that a civilized population will never be attracted to that country. There can be expected speculators, but no permanent settlers; there can be expected no civilized population, no permanent industry, but rather spoliators of the natives, and depredatory working out of the riches as well on the surface as in the womb of the earth. Such system can devastate but not organize the country. To civilize the savages would seem to be a surer although a more difficult way of turning to account the country and its population. This could be effected by two means, working at the same time: by acquainting the neighbors with objects of material comfort and luxury, as, for instance, the use of bread, tea, and wearing ornaments, and by imparting to them religious instruction; but, to this last end, missionaries familiar with local dialects are wanted. This system was lately adopted by the Russian American Company for the colonies nearest to the port of New Archangel, and although a decisive result was not yet attained, a visible progress in the intercourse with the natives was effected, so that Caloshes, one of the most savage and unyielding tribes, came to work to New Archangel, a fact which never happened before.

To the question concerning the system of lineal and square measures which were used in the colonies for measuring ground:

Now, in answer to the question, What square superficial measure was used in the Russian American possessions? it is to be stated that there was adopted the same measure which is in use in Russia—that is, the land was measured by “dessiateenas;” each dessiateena numbers 2,400 square “sajenns,” i. e., 30 sajenns of width and 80 in length; each sajenn numbers 7 English feet, consequently each Russian dessiateena contains 16,800 square English feet. [See note.]

Actual state councillor,


Note of the Translator.—The number of English square feet contained in each Russian “dessiateena” is not 16,800, as it is erroneously stated in Mr. Kostlivtzov’s memorandum, but seven times larger, viz: 117,600 square feet. The error of the memorandum consists in taking seven English feet as equivalent to one Russian square “sajenn,” whereas seven feet are equivalent to one lineal “sajenn,” and, therefore, one square sajenn contains seven by seven English feet; so that the number of square “sajenns” in one “dessiateena,” which is 2,400, must be multiplied by 49, and not by 7, as it is done in the memorandum.