Arvid Adolf Etholen, one of many Finns in Russian Alaska, launched construction on St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral in present-day Sitka. Wikimedia Commons Photo.
During Russian colonization of Alaska, the country’s rule over Finland led to a community of Finns working and living in Alaska. The entirety of Finland came under Russian authority in 1809, just five years after Russia established New Archangel, which was later renamed Sitka. As a result, Finns were among the workers who traveled to Alaska with the Russian American Company. Several Finns rose to positions of prominence, including Arvid Adolf Etholen. Etholen was a Finnish naval officer who led trips into Russia’s American territories during the early 1800s. He eventually served as chief manager of the Russian American Company from 1840-1845.
During Etholen’s tenure, he oversaw improvements in construction quality and launched several major construction projects, including St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral. According to the National Park Service, he also attempted to improve strained relations with the Tlingits. The Russian version of Etholen’s name can be found in several places around Alaska, including Etolin Island.
When the United States purchased Alaska, many Finns didn’t return to their home country because of the cost of travel and a famine that was burdening Finland. Many instead remained in Alaska or traveled south to settle in California and the Puget Sound area. In the late 1800s, as many as 500 Sitka residents claimed Finnish ancestry.