The Russian merchant and explorer Aleksandr An dreievich Baranov (1747-1819) was the manager of the Russian American Company and governor of Russian America from 1799 to 1818.
Aleksandr Baranov was born in Kargopol, a small town near the Finnish border, on April 16, 1747, where he received a rudimentary education. He worked for a German merchant in Moscow as a youth and then returned to his home to marry and become a merchant. In 1780 he left his wife and emigrated to Siberia, where he became manager of a glass factory at Irkutsk and a fur trader.
Many fur-trading companies were operating in the Aleutian Islands, and in 1790 Baranov accepted the position of general manager of the American interests of the Shelekhov-Golikov Company on Kodiak Island, at Three Saints Bay. For the next 28 years the development of Russian America was furthered by his aggressive administration. At first Baranov engaged in ruthless competition with the other fur-trading companies, establishing his reputation and making dividends for his company. In 1793 he launched the first ship built of native timber in Russian America, a crude vessel of about 100 tons.
In 1799 Czar Paul I and his Board of Commerce decided to establish a single powerful company in the Russian American colonies to better protect the natives and resist foreign penetration. An imperial charter was granted to the newly formed Russian American Company, giving it a trade monopoly on the American coast from latitude 55° to the Bering Strait, including the Aleutian, Kuril, and other islands in the northern seas. Its task was to discover new territories, occupy them as Russian possessions, and serve as the agent for the Russian government in America. A board of directors supervised affairs from St. Petersburg, but because of the long distances involved and Russian involvement in the Napoleonic Wars, Baranov, as manager of the company and governor of Russian America, exercised a great deal of independent authority.
Baranov overcame tremendous obstacles to become successful in the Alaskan frontier. He transferred company headquarters in 1808 from Kodiak Island to Sitka, where he built a fortified post and named it New Archangel. He was faced with the problems of hostile Native Americans, who were able to purchase firearms from traders, and shipping— bringing in food and supplies and sending furs out of Alaska. The colony, criminals from Siberia and natives who were little more than slaves, was short on manpower and food and racked with disease. Baranov began to rely more and more on American traders, including John Jacob Astor, who sent in food and items to trade with the Native Americans and took out cargoes of fur.
After 19 years in Alaska, Baranov requested a replacement, and after 9 more years one appeared. In November 1818 he finally left Alaska on a ship bound for European Russia, but he became ill when the ship stopped at Batavia. Baranov died on April 28, 1819, a few days after leaving port, and was buried at sea.
The best biography of Baranov is Hector Chevigny, Lord of Alaska: Baranov and the Russian Adventure (1942); his Russian America: The Great Alaskan Venture, 1741-1867 (1965) devotes several chapters to the Baranov period. The American view of the Russian American Company is presented in Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of Alaska, 1730-1885 (1886; many later editions), and Clarence Charles Hulley, Alaska, 1741-1953 (1953). For a Russian view see S.B. Okun, The Russian American Company (trans. 1951). □