Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Creoles: A Social Experiment

Minerva B. Hansen married my first cousin twice removed, Alexander Eugene Muir, sometime before the 1940 census was enumerated. Her race on that census was listed as "white." However, she was born in Chignik, Alaska in 1916 and had been enumerated in two previous decennial census. In those census, which were taken in Alaska, her race was listed as "mixed." I discovered her father had immigrated to Alaska from Norway and her mother was the product of a white man from Oregon and an Aleut woman. I learned mixed race people in Alaska were historically referred to as Creole and they had quite and interesting social history.

Russians began exploring Alaska during the reign of Peter I "the Great." Soon after they established trading posts in order to acquire furs from the Native Alaskan people. Eventually, the Russian-American Company was established to maximize the economic potential of Alaska for the benefit of Russia. As a result most of the Russians, who came to Alaska, were men. Michele Morseth explains the Creole Estate in her book, Puyulek Pu'irtuq! The People of the Volcanoes:

"As the number of persons of mixed ancestry...with some education provided through the efforts of their fathers and grandfathers grew, the company established guidelines for a social experiment -- creation of a social stratum with loyalties both to Alaska and to the Russian culture and state. Thus, the Creole estate was officially established...The company recognized that children of Russian males and aboriginal females would create unbreakable bonds between the new colony and the old country. In 1816 the main office of the Russian-American Company explained the program:

'From a political point of view, the ties of the Russians with the Aleuts are nearly essential, both for exposing hostile schemes, and for permanent ties, for the resultant offspring willy-nilly join those Aleuts who are related to the Russians and the children, being christened, will be Russians, and not Aleuts, and so the new generation is permanently Russian...The lack of Russian people in the colonies can be compensated for...Creoles, brought up and educated at the Company's cost and effort, thereafter employed in the various capacities, or carrying on its business, can obtain food and livelihood.

Native Alaskans and Creoles arriving at the cannery in Chignik; courtesy of
the Alaska State Library

The Creoles comprise a particular class and enjoy all the privileges of the lower middle class accorded by Russian law. There is this difference -- they do not pay taxes and are not attached to the government by any formal tie; when they have been educated by the company, they must serve it for a period of ten years. The company has undertaken the education of this class with praiseworthy energy; many Creoles have studied at higher institutions of learning in St. Petersburg or have been instructed in various branches of the arts and sciences. Many have received their education in the colonies and are considered to be almost the equal of the Russians. Most of the Creoles hold responsible positions, among them, for example, are the post of bookkeeper, warehouse overseer, captain's assistant and the position of captain itself, church officials, etc. All Creoles are conversant in Russian, but not with the Aleut nor the Kodiak languages. Their way of life is the same as that of the Russians'."

Native Alaskan family at Chignik; courtesy of the Alaska
State Library

In reality the Creoles of Alaska were in a somewhat ambiguous position. Native Alaskans showed them disrespect as they were products of illegal unions with the natives. Toward the end of the Russian rule, they reversed their Creole policy and encouraged most Creoles to live a native lifestyle.

After the United States purchased Alaska in 1867, most Russian-born men returned home. Some Creoles joined them, but it is believed most stayed in Alaska. Soon after the transfer of Alaska to the United States, scientist, William Dall, referred to Creoles as "half breeds," saying they were "unfit to exercise franchise as American citizens." He failed to realize they were educated and had filled many important positions within the Russian-American Company.

Morseth, Michele. Puyulek Pu'irtuq! The People of the Volcanoes, (Hong Kong: National Park Service, 1998), pages 1-207

Cignik Bay, Alaska

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