January 1, 1697
The Kamchatka Peninsula is invaded by Russian Cossacks in 1697 and the natives are forced to turn to trapping for furs instead of living off of their highly carnivorous diets of fish and sea mammals such as seals, whales, or walrus.
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The Russian subjection of Siberian natives did not begin with the work of the two Kamchatka expeditions headed by Vitus Bearing, though these expeditions accelerated the process. In 1581 the Cossack Ermak led his followers across the Urals for their first plunders in the vast easten territories. Gradually, over the next 100 years, the Cossacks pushed on to exploit the fur riches and pacify territory for the Moscovite Empire. Southeastern advances along the Amur River were checked by the powerful Manchu forces of China, but there was no concerted resistance north of the Amur. Following the great rivers, the Ob, Irtysh, Yenisei, and Lena, the Cossacks subdued the primitive natives who stood in their way. Tribute in furs was exacted mercilessly. To resist was to be decimated.
Advances to the far northeast were slowed by the lack of easy river access and the forbidding climate. The Kamchatka Peninsula was not explored until 1696. A year later, Cossack Vladimir Atlasov led a party of 100 soldiers, conveyed by reindeer, to Kamchatka's east coast, where the Russians encountered Kamchadals for the first time. Soon after this, fur traders established themselves in Kamchatka to plunder and oppress the natives until they were driven to a desperate resistance. In 1731 the natives rose against their oppressors, but their rebellion was savagely crushed within a year. It was part of the assignment of the second Kamchatka expedition, officially called the Great Northern Expedition, to compile information on the people and resources of northeastern Asia. Much of this work was done by Georg Steller prior to his 1741 voyage with Bering to America, and by a young Russian scientist, Stepan Petrovich Krasheninnikov. Krasheninnikov, only twenty-five years old in 1737 when he arrived in Kamchatka, did the major portion of the investigation and, with the help of Steller's notes, produced his study, Explorations of Kamchatka, which was published by the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1755. This book has long been the classic source on the Kamchadals of southern Kamchatka and, to a lesser extent, on the Koriak and Chukchi peoples inhabiting the regions farther north. In the Explorations of Kamchatka we Bet an invaluable picture of the recently subjugated peoples of the Bering Sea frontier and, indirectly, an insight into the attitudes of their Russian overlords toward the region and its inhabitants. Krasheninnikor was not involved in the most exciting assignment of the expedition, the attempt to discover America from the west. His task was to provide a careful assessment of Kamchatka upon which the government could base its developmental policies. His temperament was well suited to the task. He was disposed to report the sober truth as he saw it, without exaggeration or inclinations to optimistic promotion. In weighing the advantages and disadvantages of Kamchatka, his report was balanced and careful. "The country has neither grain nor livestock. It is subject to frequent earthquakes, floods and storms. The only diversions are to gaze on towering mountains whose summits are eternally covered with snow, or, if one lives along the sea, to listen to the crashing of the waves and observe the different species of sea animals." 3 Considering this, Krasheninnikov commented, "it would seem more appropriate for this country to be inhabited by wild animals than by human beings."4 On the other hand, pure air, healthy water, the absence of diseases, a climate neither excessively hot or cold, make the country "no less fit to be lived in than other countries which may have an abundance of other things, but are exposed to all these ills and dangers." 5
Although Kamchatka might be "fit to be lived in," it did not attract large numbers of European Russians. A small number of colonists from other parts of Siberia were settled there among the natives, soldiers, and government officials, and plans were laid for a self-supporting agricultural economy. But attempts to achieve such an economy were sporadic and largely unsuccessful. Economic development remained a vision of government planners. Yet the region did provide riches for a few Russians who reaped profits from its most obvious resources, its people and its fur-bearing animals. Both were exploited shamelessly by mercenary interests. In time, the Kamchadals lost their identity as a distinct people, while the relentless hunting of sables, foxes, and other fur-bearing animals drastically reduced their numbers. Only the discovery of new fur resources to the west saved the land animals of Kamchatka from a total extermination.
The Kamchadals were a free, independent people before the Russians conquered them. Like that of their Eskimo neighbors in Alaska their social organization was loose and unstratified. No rulers or chiefs were recognized, though men esteemed for their wisdom and experience were highly regarded. Russians could appreciate some of the skills exhibited by natives- hunting and dog-sled driving in particular--but generally considered them barbaric and contemptible. "They are filthy and disgusting," wrote Krasheninnikov, "they never wash their hands or faces, nor do they cut their fingernails, they eat from the same bowls as their dogs and never wash them. They all reek of fish and smell like eider ducks." 6 Different standards of personal hygiene have always formed a barrier between peoples, though many Siberian travelers observed little distinction between Cossack and native habits of cleanliness.
Kamchatka's great wealth was in the numbers of fur-bearing animals to be found there. The dense, glossy pelts of foxes were esteemed in the fur trade and the sables, because of their size and beauty, were considered superior to those hunted elsewhere in Siberia. These animals as well as hares, marmots, ermines, bears, wolverines, and weasels were caught in traps, poisoned, or shot with a bow and arrow. Kamchadals were delighted when Cossacks offered a single knife in exchange for eight sable pelts and a hatchet for eighteen skins. "It is quite true," Krasheninnikov reported, "that when Kamchatka was first conquered, there were some agents who made as much as thirty-thousand roubles in one year." 7
All the natives of Kamchatka and northeastern Siberia, except for the Koriak reindeer herdsmen of the interior, used dogs for transport during the winter. Besides hauling sleds, dogs assisted in the hunt of mountain sheep and other land animals, and their skins provided a wide variety of clothing. Food for the dogs was easily obtained, consisting, primarily, of the salmon which abounded in Kamchatka's rivers. Great quantities of fish were taken in the summer and dried for winter use as dog food. Marine mammals were also hunted. Seals were taken off the coast in winter and from the rivers and estuaries in summer. Natives clubbed sleeping seals on land and harpooned them in the water. Seal skins yielded material for boots and clothing, their oil provided lighting and heat for native dwellings; their flesh and blubber were important sources of food and were sometimes preserved for later use by smoking. Other mammals could only be taken at sea. These included the sea lion, fur seal, sea otter, whale, and, in northern waters, the walrus. All these mammals contributed to the native economy to varying degrees. The Chukchis primary food source was the whale, which they hunted in the European manner, harpooning the beasts at sea from large boats and towing the whales ashore for butchering. Kamchadals, on the other hand, did not usually venture out to sea to hunt whales, but made good use of any that washed ashore.