Excerpt: Richard Pierce on St. Peter the Aleut

Editor’s note: The late Dr. Richard A. Pierce was among the foremost historians on Russian Alaska, and his many books remain standards in the field. In 1990, he published Russian America: A Biographical Dictionary (Kingston, Ont., Canada: Limestone Press). Among the many entries in the book is one on St. Peter the Aleut (pages 397-398). I’ve reprinted that excerpt below. While Pierce himself regards St. Peter’s martyrdom as “probably a fabrication,” he points to some very intriguing sources and other incidents that warrant further study.

Petr the Aleut, Saint. (d. 1815?), in June1815 the RAC [Russian-American Company] brig Il’mena took on supplies at San Francisco and then sailed south to poach sea otters along the California coast. In August, 8 baidarkas under the Russian fur hunter Boris Tarasov came ashore at San Pedro, but the Spanish authorities ordered them off. On 17 September, Tarasov landed again, and he and 24 Aleuts were seized. In 1817, Governor Sola delivered 15 prisoners to the Russians, and promised to get others who were being held at the southern missions. Those who had married California women and accepted Catholicism would be allowed to stay.

In March 1819, the Il’mena, under Benzeman, visited “Il’mena Island” (evidently one of the Santa Barbara Channel islands, probably named by the Russians after the vessel), and rescued a Kad’iak Island Aleut, Ivan Keglii (or Kykhliaia or Kychlai) and took him to Fort Ross, where the commandant, I.A. Kuskov, interrogated him. Said to be “not a type who could think up things,” Keglii said that he was among those captured by the Spanish in 1815. The Spanish priests, he claimed, had tried to persuade him and one of his comrades, named Petr (or Chungangnaq), to become converts to Catholicism. Keglii and his friend refused, so the priest returned the following morning accompanied by Indians, had the pair brought out and “then he commanded that Chungangnaq’s fingers should be cut off at the joints, and then his arms at both joints. Finally, not satisfied by this act of tyranny, he commanded that his intestines be opened up. At this last torture, Chungangnaq, thus a martyr, expired.” The same fate awaited Keglii, but was deferred and Keglii, who had watched his friend’s torture and death, later escaped with another Kad’iak man to “Il’mena Island” (perhaps Santa Cruz Island, the closest to Santa Barbara). His companion died, but Keglii lived with the Indians on the island until rescued in 1819.

On hearing of the “barbarous deed,” the Emperor Alexander I at once asked that his charge d’affaires in Madrid be instructed to make inquiries, which was done (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Paris, 29 August 1821:4254, Nesselrode to Pozzo di Borgo). Nesselrode, I.A. Kuskov, Chief Manager S.N. Ianovskii, the venerable Father German [St. Herman], Father Ioann Veniaminov [St. Innocent], and the company historian P.A. Tikhmenev all believed Keglii’s gruesome tale, and the martyred Chungangnaq became revered as St. Petr the Aleut. However since Keglii’s story is unconfirmed by other sources, features a degree of compulsion uncharacteristic of the mission fathers, and resembles no other case reported among Aleut hunters captured by the Spanish and later delivered to the Russians, it was probably a fabrication. The priests at Santa Barbara and most of the other California missions were Dominicans, but in later versions of the story the culprits are said to have been Jesuits. Since the extermination of Indians on “Il’mena Island” by Aleut hunters led by the Russian Iakov Babin, there with the RAC brig Il’mena, occurred at about the same time as the alleged martyrdom of Petr the Aleut, discovery of additional facts on the one may help explain the other.