Primary sources on St. Peter the Aleut

Given the recent discussion about St. Peter the Aleut, I thought it might be worthwhile to publish some of the primary sources we have for his story. As I explained on Monday, there are four main sources:

  1. The 1819 transcript from the deposition of Keglii Ivan, the only known eyewitness to St. Peter’s martyrdom.
  2. The 1820 report of Russian official Simeon Yanovsky to his superiors in St. Petersburg.
  3. The 1820 report of the head of the Russian-American Company to the Tsar.
  4. The 1865 letter of Yanovsky to the abbot of Valaam Monastery.

We don’t yet have a copy of the 1819 deposition. The 1865 Yanovsky letter has been widely circulated, but is almost certainly the least reliable of the four sources. That leaves the two 1820 accounts, which I will reprint here. I have taken them from a paper by Jesuit priest Raymond A. Bucko.

First, the February 15, 1820 Yanovsky report:

Here is an example of the inhumanity and ignorance of the Spanish clergy: In June 1815, on the coast of California near the Mission San Pedro, they seized 15 baidarkas of Kadiak men under Tarasov, of whom two Kadiaks fled to Il’men Island (possibly a Russian name for San Nicolas Island – Ed.) where one of them died, and the other, Keglii Ivan, lived with the natives of this island until by chance the Russian-American Company brig Il’men came in March, 1819, when he appeared before the commander of the vessel, Mr. Banzeman, and was taken to Fort Ross. I enclose the original testimony of this Aleut taken by Mr. Kuskov. He has now been sent here on the brig Il’men and tells me the same thing. He is not a type who could think up things. The Spanish tortured his unfortunate comrade, who until the very end replied to his torturer that he was a Christian and wanted no other faith, and with these words he died. One must note that this victim though baptized like the others was not taught Christianity, probably did not even know the dogmas of the faith except God the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. 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.

Here is the report from the main administrator of the Russian-American Company, sent to Tsar Alexander I “sometime before December 20, 1820”:

A Company promyshlennick, a native of the island of Kodiak by the name of Kykhklai, who had been taken prisoner by the Spaniards in 1815 and returned to our settlement at Ross and then to the headquarters of the colony on Sitka Island in 1819, gave the following account of inhuman treatment by the Spaniards of one of the Company promyshlenniks.

In 1815 a Company servitor named (Boris) Tarasov was on Ilmen Island, which did not belong to any nation. He was the leader of a group of promyshlenniks who were there to hunt. Since they were unsuccessful there they decided to set out with fifteen dependent islanders from our Kodiak colony to go to the other islands, Santa Rosa and Ekaterina (Catalina?). During the voyage his baidarka began to leak, and he had to proceed to the coast of California. They stopped at the bay on Cabo San Pedro, where bad weather detained them until the next day. While they were there a Spanish soldier came to them from the mission of San Pedro and informed Tarasov that in exchange for some gifts, he would bring to him two of our Kodiak men who had previously run off from another such hunting party and were presently in the mission.

When the soldier left, although the weather was calmer and they could proceed on their projected route, the desire to see and to free their fellow islanders persuaded them to remain there longer. On the fourth day of their stay they were suddenly attacked by some 20 armed horsemen, who tied up all of our people and wounded many of them with their sabers. One of the Kodiak islanders named Chunagnak was wounded in the head. The attackers looted all their possessions and all the Company trade goods. The prisoners were then taken to the mission of San Pedro where they actually did find the two Kodiak islanders who had fled from the island of Clement from another party of partisans. When they reached the mission, a missionary who was head of the mission wanted them to accept the Catholic faith. The prisoners replied that they had already accepted the Greek Christian religion and did not wish to change. Some time later Tarasov and almost all the Kodiak people were taken to Santa Barbara. Only two of them, Kykhklai and the wounded Chunagnak, were thrown into prison with the Indians who were being held. They suffered for several days without food or drink.

One night the head of the mission sent the runaway Kodiak islanders with a second order for them to accept the Catholic faith, but again they remained steadfast in their own faith.

At dawn a cleric went to the prison, accompanied by Indians. When the prisoners were brought out, he ordered the Indians to encircle them. Then he ordered the Indians to cut off the fingers from both hands of the above mentioned Chunagnak, then to cut off both his hands; finally, not satisfied with this tyranny, he gave orders that Chunagnak be disemboweled.

Tortured in this manner, Chunagnak breathed his last after the final procedure. The same punishment would have awaited the other Kodiak, Kykhklai, had it not been for the fact that the cleric received a timely piece of paper. When he read it, he ordered that the man who had been killed be buried, and that Kykhklai be returned to prison; several days later they sent him to Santa Barbara. There was not one of his comrades there who had been taken prisoner with him. All of them had been sent off to Monterey. Kykhklai was assigned to the same work as other Company promyshlenniks who had been taken prisoner by the Spanish.

Wanting to escape from a life of such torture, Kykhklai and another man conceived the idea of breaking away. They stole a baidarka and went in to the bay on Cabo San Pedro, and from there to the island of Catalina, then to [Santa] Barbara [Island] and finally to Ilmen, where one of them died and where Kykhklai was taken aboard the Company brig Ilmen, which had come to the island and then went to the Ross settlement. The others who had been taken prisoner at the same time were freed on the insistence of our captains Hagemeister and Kotzebue.

This incident, just one of many, is a striking example of the inhuman way in which the Spanish treat Russian promyshlenniks. Many who had previously been in their captivity were so exhausted with labor and so abused from beatings that they will carry the results with them to the grave. The suffering inflicted on the poor Indians is impossible to conceive without shuddering. Not only do they not consider the Indians human beings, they consider them below animals. The Spanish take great pleasure in beating innocent Indians then bragging about it to other Spaniards.

17 Replies to “Primary sources on St. Peter the Aleut”

  1. A comment had been made somewhere about the lack of a San Pedro Mission in CA as additional evidence against the veracity of the St. Peter the Aleut history. The 1820 report of the head of the Russian-American Company to the Tsar given above mentions Catalina Island off the coast of CA near Los Angeles. This reminded me of the town of San Pedro, CA which is now within the City of Los Angeles. San Pedro is on Los Angeles Harbor. The following brief history of San Pedro and the LA Harbor might be pertinent to assessing the identity of a San Pedro Mission:

    “The first official documentation of the harbor was by Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. On October 8, 1542, Cabrillo came across a marshland and natural harbor at the northwest end of San Pedro Bay and named the area Bahia de Los Fumas or “Bay of Smokes” after the smoke that rose from the nearby hillside of Native American hunters. This fairly desolate area remained largely intact until 1769, when Spanish officials and missionaries set their sights on colonizing the U.S. West Coast. This led to the first commercial ventures in San Pedro in the mid-1800s. The rest, as they say, is history.

    The harbor in San Pedro was used as a trading post by Spanish missionary monks from Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. The monks met ships at the water’s edge with provisions from Spain. The first American trading ship to call at San Pedro was the Lelia Bryd, in 1805. At that time, it was illegal to conduct business with any other country but Spain. Because of the distance and loose regulations, however, trade with other countries thrived. In 1822 an independent Mexican government lifted the Spanish restrictions on trade. That led to a surge of settlement and commercial ventures in San Pedro. By the time California joined in the Union, in 1848, business in San Pedro harbor was flourishing.”


  2. Here are some other potentially interesting facts regarding San Pedro from the L.A. Almanac’s ‘Headline History, Los Angeles County, 1800 to 1847′:


    Torrential rains flood out El Pueblo, forcing it to relocate to higher ground. The Los Angeles River changes its outlet to the sea from San Pedro to the Ballona wetlands. A Russian trader, Boris Tarakanaf, is the first foreigner jailed in El Pueblo. José Antonio Rocha, born in Portugal, becomes the first foreigner to settle in El Pueblo.


    The Los Angeles River changes its outlet back from the Ballona wetlands to San Pedro.


    Wilmington and San Pedro are annexed by the City of Los Angeles.

    BTW, locally in Los Angeles, San Pedro is pronounced “San PEE-droh” not “San PAY-droh”.

  3. Matthew, as you know, Bucko simply cited “Before December” for the second. It is possible that Ianovskii wrote that one as well. They may both come from Ianovskii. Of course, it is possible another staff person wrote it or that it is from Muravyev, the next administrator after Ianovskii. I’m honestly not sure who wrote it at this point, but I’ve been treating it as a second rendition by Ianovskii.

    The geography is a little hazy, but Tarasov’s hunting party was not down by LA in 1815 (though I believe he and his fellow captives did go south–but not to the LA area as I recall–for their period of forced labor). The Tarasov party seems to have been captured at the port San Pedro and taken initially to the San Gabriel Mission and then later to Santa Barbara (at which point the Fr. Jose letter enters the discussion).

  4. Well, hold on a second. In the paper “Russian Sea Otter and Seal Hunting on the California Coast, 1803-1841” by Adele Ogden, published in the California Historical Society Quarterly 12:3 (Sept. 1933), the author discusses the 1815 raid on Tarasov’s ship in some detail, using almost exclusively Spanish sources. In the raid in which St. Peter was captured, Tarasov and 24 “Aleuts” “were seized and taken to prison at Los Angeles.” Ogden cites September 22, 1815 letter from Sergeant Guillermo Cota to Jose de la Guerra y Noriega, the commander at Santa Barbara.

  5. This is why I posted some of the background material on San Pedro.

    San Pedro was a port that was under the jurisdiction of the San Gabriel Mission. Since San Pedro was later annexed by Los Angeles, one can assume a writer in 1933 might simply reference the then contemporary name of the area in question (Los Angeles, of which San Pedro is basically a neighborhood).

    This is seen in NYC, too, where Brooklyn was an independent city of its own until its consolidation with New York City in 1898 and is variously referred to as New York, NY or Brooklyn, NY; New York City is another example itself as the City was originally only at the southernmost tip of Manhattan island with other towns and villages (e.g., Greenwich Village) scattered across the island (some of which were destroyed in the creation of Central Park). In fact, areas within both New York City and the City of Los Angeles have postal addresses of the old cities/towns/villages/neighborhoods since annexed by the larger entity (e.g., Sherman Oaks, Astoria).

  6. Oh, I forgotten that and I had read the article (though a while back)! We need those sources. Did Ogden say that because that’s what he thought San Pedro referred to or is that where Tarasov ended up for forced labor. I know he ended up down south. We really need to get ahold of those letters, don’t we? I think those other letters discussing Tarasov will be very important for at least two reasons:
    clarifying questions like these and determining what happened to his group.

  7. Ogden was actually a woman — Adele, I think. In the footnote, she indicates that the Cota letter (which was one of several) was sent from Los Angeles.

    I’m still trying to piece together the geography, but the Spanish sources seem likely to resolve the confusion in the Russian sources.

  8. Boy, I’m really messing up tonight. Too many things going on. Can’t even get genders right.

    Orrologion may be on the right track here. I definitely think we need the help of the Spanish sources for the geography. We really need to get ahold of them. Ogden has a nice footnore, from what I remember, in which she (!) says where to go for all the various sources. It will take a while to gather them all–time and money is something I know I’m short on.

  9. Check out this from Footnote 69 in the Ogden article:

    “There is a wealth of correspondence on the subject of the treatment and return of the Russian and Aleutian prisoners taken in 1814 and 1815. Such letters may be found in the following. The expediente cited above. Documentos para la Historia de Mexico, MS, Biblioteca Nacional, Mexico, IV, No. 8. Provincial State Papers, XIX, XX. Guerra y Noriega, Jose de la, Documentos para la Historia de California, MS, Bancroft Library, II, III.”

    At the very least, it shouldn’t be too hard to contact the Bancroft Library in California and see what they have.

  10. Another source to check out is the (apparently unpublished) University of Pittsburgh doctoral dissertation by Michael George Kovach. It is referenced in a (rather decent) 1981 article on St. Peter, which has been reprinted here:

    According to the OCA website, Kovach is a retired priest attached to Christ the Saviour Church in Harrisburg, PA. See:

    UPDATE: The dissertation was written in 1957, and is entitled, “The Russian Orthodox Church in Russian America.” Here’s a link to the appropriate page on the University of Pittsburgh library website. Not sure if they’ll lend it via ILL, but it’d be worth a try.|library/marc/voyager|1009675

  11. FWIW, locally in Los Angeles, San Pedro is pronounced “San PEE-droh” not “San PAY-droh”.

    I wonder if it’s possible that Peter was accidentally named for the place he was martyred (San Pedro). This could easily have happened if you are a Russian and don’t recognize (and can’t pronounce) his native name but recognize the ‘of San Pedro’ or “Pedroskii”. Such things aren’t unheard of in Orthodoxy and Russian. I think St. Petersburg is simply referred to as “Peter” (see Figes, Natasha’s Dance), and there is a tradition of ‘renaming’ a saint after his location, e.g., St. Damascene.

    Matthew has written that, “As far as I know, the earliest source to mention that name [Peter] is Yanovsky’s 1865 letter. The two 1820 documents don’t include it, and the only name we have prior to 1865 is his native name. Interestingly, I read somewhere that, in Alaska, they have hymns to Peter in his native language, and they use his Alaskan name (and not Peter).” Not sure how we’d confirm it, but it makes a lot of sense.

  12. I notice that ROCOR’s resolution regarding the commemoration of Sts Peter the Aleut and Juvenaly of Alaska says two things:

    1. They are to be commemorated (rather than canonized) because “their names were listed in the service to St. Herman of Alaska as holy martyrs”, meaning “a new decision on their canonization is not required.”

    2. It says that “In as much as the martyrdom of Peter the Aleut and Hieromonk Juvenalius is not in doubt…” meaning that if doubt is raised about their martyrdoms, the Resolution may no longer be to no effect, legalistically speaking.

    I wonder if that 1957 dissertation provides any insight into whether there was a pre-1970 awareness or veneration of St. Peter, or whether it simply translates and quotes the same three primary documents already available. It’s possible this dissertation is the source that brought these documents to the attention of The Orthodox Word, St. John Maximovitch or others. Heck, maybe that dissertation has a translation or excerpt from the 1819 transcript from the deposition of Keglii Ivan!

  13. 40 miles from San Pedro, the Mission of San Fernando el Rey de Espana has a Russian Bell:

    “A hundred-pound bell was unearthed in an orange grove near the Mission in 1920. It carried the following inscription (translated from Russian): “In the Year 1796, in the month of January, this bell was cast on the Island of Kodiak by the blessing of Archimandrite Joaseph, during the sojourn of Alexsandr Baranov.” It is not known how this Russian Orthodox artifact from Kodiak, Alaska made its way to a Catholic mission in Southern California. ”

    I’m not sure if Ivan Keglii/Kykhklai shows up here, a list of everyone recorded as stationed at Fort Ross

    As for the times, it has to be remembered that Spain was fighitig the Napolean Wars, Mexico was fighting for its independence, and California was awaiting its new governor (it’s last from Spain). The three remaining Jesuits in Mexico were getting ready to revive their Ortder restored in 1814, at a time when they had outworn their welcome in Russia by prosellytizing the Orthodox (the Jesuits were expelled from St. Petersburg in 1815, and expelled from the empire in 1820). It was not ordinairy times, no matter what the ordinairy treatment of the Spanish of captured Aleust, which seem to have been fairly common:”Such a case was reported by Fedor Lutke on a visit to Bodega Bay, while circumnavigating the globe on the Russian sloop Kamchatka in 1818. The man who interpreted for the Indians and the visiting Russians was an Aleut. He “had run off when Kuskov first went to the Port of San Francisco. [The Aleut] had lived with the Indians for nearly a year, but when the next group came to hunt, he reappeared and began hunting sea otters with the others.”
    “Interpretation of Culture Contact at Colony” Ross Daniel F. Murley
    The imperial foreign ministry’s archives had the following:”Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Pozzo di Borgo [a leading Corsican an rival of Napoleon and Joseph [I of Spain and the Indies 1808–1813] Bonaparte, in 1821 Russian ambassador to Paris] 1821, July23. No. 4254. Russian American Company has brought serious charges against the Spanish missions in California because of their cruelty to the natives.”
    The Czar had given the natives rights under the 1820 Charter.

    I seem to remember a lot of coveting of Southern CA by those involved in the Russian-American Company, in particular Santa Barbara being mentioned. The governor of Irkutsk had instructed that sovereignty medals be buried along the CA coast.

  14. Isa, this is great stuff! The anecdote about the Russian bell is just amazing. I found some more details at another website:

    “A bell hangs in the belfry of the church. Another bell, weighing 100 pounds and dated to 1796, bears inscriptions for both Mission San Fernando and a Russian Orthodox Church official of the island of Kodiak, Alaska. It is believed by some that the bell originated with Nikolay Petrovich Rezanov’s 1806 Russian trading expedition to Alta California.”

    My friend Eric Peterson owns a copy of Richard Pierce’s biographical encyclopedia of Russian America (I’ve ordered it through my university library), and he tells me that Pierce makes reference to this contact between Russia and Spain over the St. Peter allegations. It’s great to see another reference to this communication. We really, really need to get copies of whatever documents might survive in the Spanish archives.

    I couldn’t find Keglii Ivan (or any variation of his name) on that list of persons stationed at Fort Ross; however, the list appears to begin in 1820, and Keglii Ivan (and Peter) probably would have been there earlier, in 1814-15.

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