Shaping Alaska

What do a rifle and the shape of Alaska have in common?

Barnett percussion rifle, 1821-1880s, 2010.78.01

This Barnett percussion rifle was commonly referred to as an Indian Trade Gun. When the Russians sailed to Alaska, they brought with them trade beads and inexpensive goods to trade with local Native populations for furs. But the Russians were not alone on the Pacific Coast.  American and British ships competed with Russians and they came much better equipped for trade with rifles, like this one.

American and British trade tactics threatened Russia’s fur trade in Alaska.   In 1810, Russia proposed to let Americans trade at Russian settlements if they would stop using arms, ammunition, and alcohol as trade goods.  The deal was refused, so Tsar Alexander I issued an order in 1821 forbidding non-Russian ships from coming within 100 miles of its coastline.  Immediately, the United States and British governments filed protests.  In 1824, negotiations between Russia and the United States set the southern boundary of Southeast Alaska at 54 degrees 40 minutes North latitude, a boundary that continues to separate Southeast Alaska from Canada at Dixon Entrance.  The next year, Russia and Britain agreed to the 141st meridian as the eastern boundary.  So, what do a trade rifle and the shape of the state of Alaska have in common?  Plenty!

By: Kristy Kay Griffin, Curator of Collections & Exhibits
Date: May 2017