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Shields, James

A British naval officer in Russian service, James Shields (d. 1799) has a special place in the history of Russian America, as shipwright of the first vessel built by Russians in Alaska. The three-masted frigate Phoenix was launched from the Russian shipyard in Resurrection Bay in September of 1794. Shields’ sketches of the ship and shipyard and the constructional plan of settlement in Resurrection Bay are the only representations of this Russian establishment. The Russian shipbuilding facility here was the first shipyard on the Pacific Coast of North America.  Another pencil drawing made by Shields is the 1798 view of Peter and Paul settlement (nowadays Kodiak). Shields is also credited as an author of drawings of Kodiak Island kayaks illustrating Archimandtie Ioasaf’s description of Kodiak. The image of a three-hatch kayak is particularly interesting, since it shows two individuals sitting back to back in the middle cockpit, one of whom wears the headgear of a high-ranking native chief. 

Shields came to Russia in the late 1780s and served first in Ekaterinburg, and then in Okhotsk, where he built the brig Severo-vostochnyi orel (Northwest Eagle) for the Shelikhov Company. In 1792, Shields sailed the Orel loaded with shipbuilding materials to Kodiak. The search for timber appropriate for shipbuilding took him to Resurrection Bay. In the winter of 1794-1795 he built two more ships – Del’fin and Olga. In 1798 Shields took the Phoenix to Okhotsk. On the return voyage the ship perished, taking the lives of 88 men including the newly ordained bishop of Russian America Ioasaf. The exact location of the loss was never determined.  She was last sighted on October 28 near Unalaska. At the end of May 1800, pieces of wreckage washed ashore on Kodiak Island. In the autumn of the same year, the ship’s rudder was discovered near Sitka. Wax candles, barrels and leather bindings of the liturgical books were collected in various settlements of Russian America.

Sources and Literature:

Pierce, Richard. Russian America: A Biographical Dictionary. Kingston, Ontario and Fairbanks, Alaska: The Limestone Press, 1990.

Solovjova, Katerina G. and Aleksandra A. Vovnyanko, The Fur Rush: Essays and Documents on the History of Alaska At the End of the Eighteenth Century. Anchorage, AK: Phoenix Press, 2002.