Very few images of the Russian-American period depict scenes of the colony’s routine life. The artists working in Alaska were typically more concerned with ethnographic subjects or natural settings. An untitled watercolor from the collection of the Anchorage Museum is one of very few exceptions. An unidentified artist captured a party of thirteen men in the moment of setting up a camp: a large umiak is propped on its side and covered by canvas to provide a shelter, sailors collect driftwood and cook meals over the camp fire, a man dressed in a gut skin parka busies himself with kettle, and three officers enjoy their break. The treeless landscape is characteristic of northern Alaska, while the shoreline on the horizon indicates that the party is located on the shore of an island or a large bay. The social composition of the group and the presence of survey equipment clues the viewer that this is an exploring party, which in turn provides for its possible identification. While skin boats were often used in the Russian Alaska for short distance transportation of employees, there was only one documented occasion of utilizing them for scientific exploration – the 1838 Kashevarov expedition. The idea of using indigenous skin boats in search for the Northwest Passage was first proposed by Kruzenshtern, and later developed by Wrangell, who recommended using a twelve-oar baidara and five three-man baidarkas and to enlist at least half of the crew from “Kadiak” men. In summer of 1838 a group of eighteen men, which included both Russians and “Aleuts” headed by Russian-Unangan officer Alexander Kashevarov was brought by the brig Polifem to Kotzebue Sound. From there they sailed north, turning back just thirty miles short of Point Barrow. In September of the same year they were met by the Polifem near Chamisso Island in Kotzebue Sound and brought back to Sitka. Although the Kashevarov expedition did not have an official artist, one of the crew may have been amateur artist and the author of this watercolor.
Sources and Literature:
Postnikov, A., M. Falk and L. Black, Exploring and Mapping Alaska: The Russian America Era, 1741-1867. University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, 2015.
Vanstone, James W, editor, A.F. Kashevarov's Coastal Explorations in Northwest Alaska, 1838. Translated by David H. Kraus, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, 1977.