The First Finn in Alaska

Finns did not only arrive in the Americas in the east but also in the west.  The first Finn to come to Alaska was probably Aleksanteri Kuparinen.  He arrived in Alaska in 1794.  He was a carpenter traveling with Russian Orthodox monks.

These were not the first that Russians or even Russian Orthodox monks that had set foot in Alaska.  Russian Orthodox monks had traveled with the first explorers, Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikov, as part of the Great Northern Expedition.  That group explored and claimed Alaska and the Aleutian Islands for Russia in 1741.

For the next 50 years, small hunting and trading posts, for seal and sea otter pelts, would emerge.  One of those would be the settlement Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island, managed by Grigory Shelikhov.  Much of the labor would come from the native Aleut.

In order to improve conditions in the village, Shelikhov made a request to the Most Holy Synod, the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church, to provide a priest for the natives.  Catherine the Great instead decided to send an entire mission to Alaska.

On December 25, 1793 at the Monasteries of Valaam and Konevista, on Lake Ladoga in Karelia, a group of missionary, lead by Archimandrite Joseph, would depart for Alaska on Catherine the Great’s orders.  The missionaries would also include four hieromonks, one hierodeacon, and two lay monks.  Two of the monks would later become saints, St. Herman and St. Juvenaly.  The group was rounded out with two servants.  One was Aleksanteri Kuparinen, the carpenter or timber-man  from Viborg.

While most of Finland was under control of Sweden at this time, Sweden had seceded Karelia to the Russians with the Treaty of Nystad in 1721.  So by this time Finns in Viborg would have been Russians for 72 years.  The rest of Finland would not become part of Russia until 1809, 16 years later.

It was an 8,000-mile 273-day journey across the landmass of Asia.  First they traveled to Moscow, leaving there on January 22, 1794.  Next traveled across Siberia to Okhotsk. First stopping in Irkutsk from March 16th to May 2nd.  They reached Okhotsk on July 12th. Once they reached Okhotsk they boarded a ship, Three Saints, with others bound for Alaska.

It was here the missionary group meet their first natives, nine Chugach, on a return trip to Alaska.

Shaelikov was also returning to Alaska bringing along serfs. “Thirty families who are agriculturalists, selected from the unfortunate ones” to help develop the settlement.

During the Great Northern War (1700-1721) many defeated Finns were part of the groups marched through Moscow on their way to Siberia.  Kuparinen could have been one of this groups but most indications are that he came from Valaam.  But there could have been additional Finnish descendants from the Great Northern War in this group considered the “unfortunate ones”.

On the passage they briefly stopped in Unalaska before reaching Kodiak Island on September 24, 1794.  When they arrived they did not find the church they were promised.  Was it luck or faith that they had brought along the Finnish carpenter.  Quickly a school was built and later a school.

Reports on conditions for the natives on Kodiak Island vary from quite good to horrible. But we do know that conditions were terrible on Unalaska, where one of the monks was later sent.  He would take natives all the way to St. Petersberg to make their case.  The monks “quickly spread the light of the Gospel” to the natives converting 12,000 of them to Christianity.  The children were then educated in a new school.

I was able to find very little evidence of Aleksanteri Kuparinen. But he would not be the last Finn to leave a mark on Alaska.  The Russian-American Company would be formed in 1799, whose role it was to develop Alaska for the Russian Czar.  Ten years later in 1809, Czar Alexandar I would declare the Grand Dutchy of Finland.

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4 comments

  1. What a fantastic post. You mentioned in Your post: “Monastery of Valaam”. I want to visit it someday. During WWII 190 monks from the Valamo Monastery (Monastery of Valaam) in Karelia were evacuated and the new monastery was erected in Heinävesi. If You visit Finland someday, so it is a must:

    My post:

    Monastery of New Valamo.

    Happy blogging!

    • First, thanks for following the blog.

      I would like to do a trip to New Valamo (along with someday Valaam) and will probably do it on a cruise between Kuopio and Savonlinna. Unfortunately the “summer season” is so short in Finland that I keep missing many of the “tourist attractions”.

      There was also a New Valaam on Spruce Island in Alaska where St. Herman spent the last of his days. I found that there are pilgrimages made there on occasion. There is little more than steps remaining at the site. Might be an interesting side trip for some.

      If you ever do get to visit the Monastery of Valaam, please ask about the Finnish carpenter. I found little about the rest of the party that left Valaam other than the mention of two servants. And strangely, there’s no email address for the Monastery.

  2. You are so right when saying that our summer is short – too short. To cruise between Savonlinna and Kuopio is great idea. I have posts presenting two hours cruise. I guess that You know Olavinlinna castle in Savonlinna.

    Question: Are going to do posts from South America? In Brazil there is place called

    Penedo.

    I have visited there twice and brought with me old Finnish music. The best there is dances on Finn Club. It is so nice to see how Brazilians dance old Finnish dance.

    The page is in Finnish, but You can easily translate.

    Have a great day!

    • Thanks for the link to Penedo. My thinking is looking at the “New World” so South America is on my list. I’ve run into some of the Utopian communities like Colonia Finlandesa and of concentrations of Finns in Cordoba but little more in terms of details.

      I run into a lot of language issues when doing my research. I’m not just looking at English or (slow read for me) Finnish. Portuguese and Spanish just add to the complexity. Fortunately I have Google Translate. I really find nuggets of information by looking at the “native” language.

      I’m torn right now between Canada or South America next and it’s all coming down to what research I can discover. So again thank you for the link.

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