“Does Russia own a piece of the US?”

That’s the title of my latest piece over at RealClearHistory. An excerpt:

The Russian-American Company was run through Saint Petersburg and thus had a strict racial hierarchical code in place, in conformity with the latest beliefs about race at the time. The neighborhoods of Fort Ross were segregated, but an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley, Kent Lightfoot, has produced excellent research at Fort Ross, showing how the Company’s racist charter was unofficially ignored, with miscegenation widespread (“creoles” was even created as an official race for documentation purposes) and interethnic activities commonplace. The people inhabiting Fort Ross preferred to follow instead something the anthropologist Jean-Loup Amselle calls “mestizo logics.”

Please, show me some love.

Kent Lightfoot can be found at NOL here. Jean-Loup Amselle can be found at NOL here. I also give a shoutout to Andrei Znamenski‘s work in the piece, so be on the lookout for that.

I didn’t get to delve as much into this piece as I’d have liked to. I wanted to get more into the inner workings of the Russian-American Company and compare it to the Dutch East India Company, but that sounds like a tall task even for a PhD dissertation.

I don’t think I did a good enough job of highlighting just how rich Pacific Rim trade was in the early 19th century. I tried in vain to sneak a reference to Hawaiian laborers that could be found throughout the Pacific world at the time of Fort Ross’ founding, but I’ve got a 600 word limit.

Also, I wanted to highlight the fact that Native Americans weren’t losers in the opening up of the Pacific to the world. They were active participants in the globalization of the Pacific Rim trade. They were powerful. I don’t know if I’d focus on California Indians to highlight Native American actors. I’d probably focus on an area a little further north, in the Puget Sound-Vancouver area.

At any rate, hope you enjoy the piece!


Strange Historical Facts

Not long thereafter, they erected the first sawmill in what was to become the state of Washington on a site by the lower falls of the Deschutes River. Much of the capital for erecting the mill apparently came from George W. Bush, Washington’s first black resident. The cut of this mill, it has been claimed, was marketed through the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Nisqually and found its way to Victoria and the Hawaiian Islands. The first shipment was supposedly made on the Hudson’s Bay Company steamer Beaver in 1848.

Um, wow. I don’t know where to begin. This excerpt comes from page 25 of a 1977 book by historian Thomas R Cox titled Mills and Markets: A History of the Pacific Coast Lumber Industry to 1900. Aside from the interesting anecdote quoted above, it’s not very good. I picked it up because of the possibilities associated with such a subject, but instead of a theoretical narrative on globalization, identity, state-building, and property rights, it is a book that reads a lot like the excerpt I quoted above (the local history aspect I have enjoyed, though; local history is one of my secret pleasures, the kind of stuff that never makes it into grand theoretical treatises but always lights up my brain because of the fact that places I know and places I have lived are the focus of the narrative).

I blame it on the year it was published, of course. 1977 was at the height of the Cold War, which means that scholarly inquiry was inevitably going to be policed by ideologues, and also that works appraising global or regional scales and scopes just weren’t doable. For instance, there was virtually no mention of Natives in the book. (See archaeologist Kent Lightfoot’s excellent, highly-recommended work – start here and here – for more on how this is changing.)