Saturday, April 29, 2017
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Polish Tracks in Alaska

Foreign crewmen have been common on the ships of most nations down through the centuries. Russia was no exception. Men of varied backgrounds manned her ships, including Poles.

Poles were among the crews of Vitus Bering, himself a Dane, and Alexei Chirikov, that discovered Alaska for the Russians in 1741. Research has identified the names of Poles in the ships' logs. Translated from the Latinized Russian are surnames such as Wielkopolski (Velikopolski), Buczowski (Butzovski), and Kozmian (Kozmin). And Jan Kozyrewski was a consultant to the Bering expeditions. Before Bering, ships under the command of Dmitry Pawlecki, a Polish Russian, in 1732 sailed the strait between Siberia and America and supposedly saw the shores of Alaska.

Later, Russian Alaskan sea captains of Polish descent included Stefan Wojewódzki, Dionizy Zaremba and Andrzej Klimowski. Klimowski was born in Alaska, the son of a Polish exile and a native woman. Russia did not banish prisoners to Alaska as they did to Siberia, but some of these Siberian exiles were able to secure positions with Russian Alaskan fur traders, particularly after their sentences were completed.

BeniowskiMaurice Beniowski, a Polish exile to far eastern Siberia, was able to escape with other exiles aboard a ship in 1771 and apparently traded with natives of the Aleutian Islands before heading south and making his way to Paris.

In 1809, ten Siberian ex-convicts in Alaska, including two Poles, hatched a plot to overthrow the head of the Russian operations, Aleksandr Baranov at Novoarkangelsk, present day Sitka. Inspired by the exploits of Benowski, they were to steal a ship and head for the south seas to form a settlement. But the Poles, Leszczynski and Berezowski, revealed the secret to Baranov, who quickly foiled the plot.

Another Polish captain sailing for the Russians was Szymon Janowski. He married Commander Baranov's daughter and became assistant manager for Baranov's successor. In 1816, he ordered a census of Russian America. The tally was 391 Russians and Europeans, 244 mixed race, and several thousand natives under Russian control. Seldom were there ever more than a few hundred Europeans in Alaska at any one time.

In 1817, a Pole named Korsakowski was sent on a mission to explore Alaska's interior along with Janowski. The party built a fort and looked for a legendary lost tribe of white men, but little was accomplished.

Filip Baranowicz (Baranovich) was a Pole important in developing a fishing industry in Alaska in the early 1800s.

The United States bought Alaska from Russia in 1867. Polish born Henryk Kalussowski translated from Russian for the U.S. all the official documents relating to its purchase. Polish American Civil War veteran General Wlodzimierz Krzyzanowski was in Alaska in 1873 as an agent of the Treasury department to enforce revenue laws and assess the general situation there. Some sources claim that he was the first governor of Alaska, but that is erroneous. The assertion may have stemmed form the that he was the only civilian governing official of any rank within Alaska for the time he was there, and a mistranslation of his memoirs.

From 1883 to 1891, Polish American Fryderyk Schwatka led research expeditions into interior Alaska and wrote about his adventures there. The Schwatka Mountains in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska are named for him. Sol Ripinsky was a Polish Jew and friend of Schwatka who settled in Haines and was a storekeeper, postmaster, customs officer and advocate for territorial status for Alaska.

The great American writer Jack London spent much time traveling through Alaskan wilderness in the 1890s. Inspired by its beauty, he wrote many tales of the north country. One of them, a short story called Lost Face, tells the brutal fate of a Polish exile in Alaska. London probably was inspired to write it after hearing about Poles who had made their way to Alaska from Siberia.

Poles involved in the mining industry in Alaska were Henryk Czeczott and Kazimierz Grochowski. The early twentieth century saw several Polish geologists exploring the territory, among them Karol Bohdanowicz, Józef Morozewicz, Eugeniusz Romer and Stefan Jarosz.

Jarosz headed three expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s and discovered and named Lake Pilsudski and Mount Krzyzanowski on Kosciuszko Island off the panhandle. He took many plant, animal and mineral samples back to Warsaw and published the story of his journeys.

Other places in Alaska bearing Polish names include Zaremba, Wojewodski and Baranovich Islands and Romer Glacier.

In more recent times, Pope John Paul the Great blessed Alaska with stopovers visits to Anchorage and Fairbanks in 1981 and 1984. And Polish Americans have held important positions in the state. Michael J. Kaniecki was Bishop of Fairbanks from 1985-2000. Frank Murkowski represented Alaska in the U.S. Senate from 1981-2002 and was Governor from 2002-2006. His daughter Lisa has been U.S. Senator since 2002. During the 2000 census, 13,268 Alaskans claimed Polish descent, about 2% of the population.

I recomment also My Name Is Million: An Illustrated History of the Poles in America, by Kuniczak.

and Lost Face - a story about Polish exile in Alaska, by Jack London

Check more books about Poles in America



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