Is the St. Peter the Aleut story true?

Well, this has been interesting. Last week, I posted a link to an article Fr. Oliver Herbel wrote, entitled, “St. Peter the Aleut Did Not Exist.” As you can imagine, this sparked a very strong response from many readers, who challenged Fr. Oliver on several points. Some took issue with his historical arguments, while others were simply scandalized that an Orthodox priest would call into question the existence of a canonized saint. Personally, I have learned a great deal, on both sides of this debate, in the past few days.

I have to say, I have never been more indecisive about an American Orthodox historical matter than I have with St. Peter the Aleut. I honestly do not know whether he existed or not, and if he existed, whether his martyrdom story is true. The past few days have really forced me to reevaluate my view of St. Peter. When I first read Fr. Oliver’s article, my reaction was, “Gosh, that’s a little bit bold, but I tend to agree that St. Peter’s martyrdom story is a fiction.” Then I read all the reactions — and boy, were there reactions. A lot of people made a lot of compelling comments, on both sides. Some of those commenters are friends of mine.

And in the end, my mind was changed. No, I haven’t moved from “he probably didn’t exist” to “he definitely existed,” but I’ve come back to the middle. I am now an agnostic, as far as St. Peter the Aleut is concerned: I just do not know.

What to do, then? It might be worthwhile to revisit Fr. Oliver’s original six arguments against St. Peter’s existence, and discuss their weaknesses. I’ll summarize them, but I would highly recommend that you go read his original article if you haven’t already.

1. Unlike so many Alaskan Orthodox stories (e.g. St. Juvenaly), the St. Peter story has no supporting oral tradition.

At first blush, this seems like a big problem, given the centrality of oral tradition in Native Alaskan culture. Then again, St. Peter is a lot different than, say, St. Juvenaly, whose martyrdom was witnessed by a whole village and was considered a momentous event in their history. The communal memory was preserved through oral tradition, but in St. Peter’s case, there is no communal memory — just a single eyewitness. Even assuming word of his martyrdom eventually reached St. Peter’s village, it would have been at least five years (and probably more) after anyone had last seen him. And unless the eyewitness himself was from the same village, or visited it and told his story, it’s possible that the villagers never actually heard it. I don’t think the lack of oral history is damning, in this case.

2. Fr. Michael Oleksa virtually ignores St. Peter’s martyrdom in his published work on Alaskan Orthodox history.

It’s true — as far as I’m aware, Fr. Michael’s only published reference to St. Peter is a passing mention in Alaskan Missionary Spirituality. But it’s just as true that Fr. Michael has spoken at length about St. Peter in public lectures, and he has reportedly theorized that Spanish government officials, rather than Roman Catholic missionaries, were responsible for St. Peter’s death. This really doesn’t score any points against St. Peter’s story.

3. There are no corroborating accounts of Spanish-Russian violence in California around this time, or accounts of Spaniards torturing natives to convert them to Roman Catholicism.

Well… not exactly. One of the best articles on St. Peterwas written by a Jesuit priest, Raymond Bucko, who himself seriously questions the martyrdom story. But in Bucko’s article, he does point out that part of the St. Peter story is true — there was an 1815 Spanish raid on a Russian-American Company ship, and Native Alaskans on board were taken into Spanish captivity. Also, I think it’s premature to say that there are no corroborating accounts. Only a few researchers have paid even the most cursory attention to St. Peter’s story, and it seems to me that we need to do a thorough check of the Spanish records before we can say that no corroborating accounts exist. At this point, we can merely say that no corroborating accounts of the martyrdom are known to exist.

4. Roman Catholic evidence contradicts the martyrdom accounts.

In support of this claim, Fr. Oliver cites an 1816 letter from one Roman Catholic mission priest to another. This source, which also comes from the Bucko article, suggests that the Roman Catholic approach to Native Alaskan captives was one of relative tolerance and indifference, rather than persecution. It seems to contradict the idea that the missionaries would torture an Alaskan Orthodox prisoner in an effort to convert him to Catholicism.

The problem here is, this is but one piece of evidence. Someone needs to dig into the archives of both the Catholic missions and the secular Spanish authorities to determine how they treated Native Alaskan captives. If we can establish a pattern of tolerant behavior, it does undermine the idea that St. Peter was martyred by Catholic missionaries. But that gets to the bigger problem: we need to comb the Spanish archives for evidence. This 1816 letter, while helpful, is hardly definitive.

5. There is no evidence that St. Peter and his alleged persecutors could converse in the same language, undermining the accounts of an exchange between them.

Well, okay, but how much of an exchange was there, really? The two extant 1820 accounts (one by the Russian official Yanovsky and one by the administrator of the Russian-American Company) say nothing about a lengthy exchange between St. Peter and the Spaniards. They merely tell us that Peter was told to accept Roman Catholic baptism, and he refused. This would be easy enough to communicate, even if the two parties couldn’t understand each other’s words. But there’s more: in the most comprehensive of the 1820 accounts, we are told that the Spanish missionaries used runaway Kodiak Islanders as intermediaries when dealing with St. Peter and his companion. So St. Peter may very well have been able to understand his captors, and they him.

6. The accounts of St. Peter’s martyrdom are “highly suspect.”

There are four known accounts of the martyrdom, all stemming from the same eyewitness testimony:

  1. The transcript of the deposition of the purported eyewitness, taken by the Russian official Kuskov. I don’t know anyone who has ever seen this account, although I’ve heard that it was published in Russian a few years ago. See the postscript at the bottom of this article for the possible references.
  2. Yanovsky’s report dated 2/15/1820, which gave a very brief summary of the martyrdom story. The summary was brief because, according to the letter, Yanovsky also enclosed the deposition transcript. Yanovsky also notes that, after the eyewitness was deposed, he was sent to Yanovsky. Having interviewed the man himself, Yanovsky concluded, “He is not the type who could think up things.” Also — and this will be of interest to those who suspect that Yanovsky may have been trying to stir up anti-Spanish sentiments — Yanovsky wrote, “I suggest that the Government intervene so that the Spanish do not do the same with the rest. But we have to keep in mind that the colonies cannot get along without grain from California.”
  3. A report submitted by the main administrator of the Russian-American Company to Tsar Alexander I “sometime before December 20, 1820.” This account is much more detailed than Yanovsky’s earlier version, and it appears to draw on the original deposition transcript.
  4. Yanovsky’s 1865 letter to the abbot of Valaam Monastery.

While the 1820 accounts have the tone of official reports, the 1865 version reads like hagiography. Yanovsky didn’t have the old 1820 documents in front of him when he wrote that 1865 letter, either — we know this because Yanovsky can only remember Peter’s baptismal name, but not his Alaskan one. One might argue that Yanovsky’s inconsistencies are evidence that the original story was fabricated. I think it’s more likely that Yanovsky believed that what he was saying was true, but in the intervening 45 years, exaggerations and embellishments had crept into his memory. Is this really so unbelievable? A 32-year-old man hears a remarkable, memorable story, retains no written account of it, and when he’s 77, he tells the same basic story but with added drama and detail? Seems to me that this is the most likely scenario.

The bigger problem, as I see it, is that we are relying on the testimony of one man, about whose character we know nothing besides Yanovsky’s judgment, “He is not the type who could think up things.” Did the Russian officials Yanovsky and/or Kuskov fabricate the story? If so, why? I understand that there may have been tensions between Spain and Russia over fur trading and the like, but this isn’t the sort of story you just make up out of whole cloth. And the purported eyewitness seems to have even less of a motive to lie.

THE STORY

What do we know? Let’s try to break down the story, point-by-point. We’ll use as our main source the 1820 account by the main administrator of the Russian-American Company, which, in my opinion, is the best version (in the absence of the original deposition).

  1. In 1815, a party of Native Alaskan hunters, led by Boris Tarasov of the Russian-American Company, was raided and captured by the Spanish. According to Bucko, this essential fact is corroborated by Spanish records.
  2. One of the Alaskans, Chunagnak of Kodiak Island, was wounded in the head during the raid. Spanish records agree that some of the Alaskans were injured in the raid.
  3. The captives were taken to a Roman Catholic mission. There, they encountered two runaway Kodiak Islanders. The head of the mission wanted the new arrivals to become Catholic, but the Alaskans said that they were already Orthodox and did not want to change.
  4. Eventually, most of the prisoners were taken elsewhere, and only Chunagnak (Peter) and Kykhaklai (the eyewitness, called “Keglii Ivan” in the 1820 Yanovsky account) remained. They were imprisoned with other Indians (not Alaskans).
  5. The Spanish missionary sent a message to Peter and his companion by way of the runaway Kodiak Islanders (that is, in a language Peter could understand), again ordering them to become Roman Catholic. Peter and Keglii Ivan refused. Up to this point in the narrative, nothing particularly extraordinary has happened, and all this seems perfectly believable.
  6. The next morning, a Spanish cleric and a group of Indians came to the prison. The cleric ordered the Indians to encircle the two Alaskans, torture Peter (cutting off fingers and then hands), and then disembowel him. The Indians did all this, and then someone approached the cleric with a paper. After reading it, the Spaniard ordered the Indians to bury Peter and return Keglii Ivan to prison.
  7. Keglii Ivan was transferred and then enslaved by the Spanish before escaping. Several years later, he was picked up by a Russian brig and taken to Fort Ross. According to the 1820 Yanovsky account, he gave his testimony to Kuskov, who then sent him to meet with Yanovsky.

That’s it; basically, that is the original story of St. Peter, as best I can tell. What observations can we make about this story? Well, for one, the involvement of the Spanish clergy is not quite as clear-cut as it might initially seem. Communications between the Spanish clergy and the Alaskan prisoners seem to have been through intermediaries (the runaway Kodiak Islanders). The wicked acts done to Peter were actually carried out by Indians from California — they weren’t directly done by Roman Catholic clergymen. Yes, the eyewitness said that a cleric ordered the Indians to do these things, but that just tells us what the witness thought. Was the persecutor really a cleric, or was he perhaps a Spanish official or soldier? Isn’t it possible that Keglii Ivan was mistaken about the man’s office? And even if the man was a member of the clergy, what are we to make of the letter he received after Peter’s death? Someone — we don’t know who, but presumably a superior such as the head of the mission — ordered the persecution to be stopped. Doesn’t this suggest that the cleric — if he was a cleric — was not carrying out any kind of official Roman Catholic (or Spanish) policy, but rather acting of his own accord? And is it so hard to believe that there might have been an overzealous, sadistic Roman Catholic priest operating in California in 1815?

I know that nobody has yet identified any other instance of this sort of torture in Spanish California in the early 1800s. This is really the biggest weakness of the St. Peter story — it’s just so outlandish, so extreme, that it seems incredible. Had the story ended with Peter’s death as a result of, say, a beating, rather than a gruesome and elaborate torture, I don’t think the account would raise nearly so many eyebrows. But dismemberment and disembowelment — that’s singular, really.

But while some see this as a reason to disbelieve, you could argue that it paradoxically lends credibility to the story. I realize this may sound absurd to some, and maybe it is, but hear me out. Yanovsky — he had no motive to lie, and he was definitely not interested in causing problems that would upset the grain supply from California. If the other Russian official, Kuskov, was a liar, why would he have sent Keglii Ivan to Yanovsky to be interviewed? Why not just take down Keglii Ivan’s “testimony” at Fort Ross, send the witness on his way, and then forward the deposition transcript on to Yanovsky in Alaska? That Kuskov sent Keglii Ivan to Yanvosky suggests that Kuskov had nothing to hide, and even that he wanted Yanovsky’s opinion as to the veracity of Keglii Ivan’s testimony. Yanovsky felt the need to explicitly tell his superiors in Russia that Keglii Ivan was a credible witness — that is, Yanovsky realized how crazy this story was, but he believed Keglii Ivan and was willing to put his own judgment and reputation behind the testimony. As for Keglii Ivan himself, why on earth would he make up something like this? What could he possibly have to gain by fabricating something this bizarre? In the end, to those who think that the St. Peter martyrdom is a fiction, I would like to ask, how do you explain the lie? Who lied, and why did they do it? That is as much of a mystery as the question of who might have been behind St. Peter’s gruesome murder.

None of this is to say that St. Peter was definitely martyred. Also, I have said nothing thus far on the merits of his canonization (by both ROCOR and the OCA’s Diocese of Alaska in 1980). Personally, I think that his canonization, at that time, was ill-advised, simply because those who canonized him lacked sufficient historical evidence for his story. But saying that he was prematurely canonized is NOT to say that he didn’t exist, or that the substance of his story is not true. I remain undecided on those questions, but it seems to me that those who would confidently declare St. Peter’s story false may themselves be acting prematurely. Now that this debate has been opened, let us work together to learn as much as we possibly can in an effort to determine what, if anything, can be verified and/or disproven by the primary sources which might survive.

This article was written by Matthew Namee.

Postscript: I understand that Yanovsky’s original 1820 report is published in The Russian Orthodox Religious Mission in America, 1794–1837, with Materials Concerning the Life and Works of the Monk German, and Ethnographic Notes by the Hieromonk Gedeon. This book was originally published in Russian in 1894, and was translated into English by Colin Bearne. The resulting text was edited by Richard A. Pierce and published by Limestone Press (Kingston, Ontario, Canada, 1978). The report in question appears on pages 80-89.

Also, I’m told that Yanovsky’s 1820 report (and possibly the much-desired deposition transcript) appears in the Russian-language collection Russia in California: Russian Documents on Fort Ross and Russian-Californian Relations in 1803-1850, volume 1, published in 2005. I’ve just ordered a copy of this book to be sent to my own law school library (actually, one of the other libraries at my university has it, so it won’t take long). We’ll need to get it translated, but as soon as possible, we’ll publish it.

Oh, and two final notes:

  1. St. Peter was not an Aleut — according to the 1820 sources, he was a Kodiak Islander. Both the name “Peter” and the description of “Aleut” come from the more questionable 1865 Yanovsky letter.
  2. While St. Peter is often depicted and referred to as a child in icons and hymnography, the original accounts give no indication as to his age. I believe the Russian-American Company employed Native Alaskans beginning at age 18, so calling Peter a “child” is rather misleading.

UPDATE: Fr. Oliver has offered a response to my article. Click here to read it. [The original link was broken; this link should work.]