I had the pleasure of meeting Roger in NYC at a book reading and he’s got a story to tell! Love the great outdoors, history, and some romance? You should check out Master of Alaska, Roger’s book. I was fortunate enough to get a firsthand talk on the book and the history behind it, and Roger’s modesty and sense of humor really shine through when he talked about the book. He read us a chapter and by the end of the reading, I think everyone in the room was leaning forward in their chairs. He’s a master storyteller and I hope you will grab a copy of his book and find that out for yourself.
Master of Alaska
by Roger Seiler
2017 is the sesquicentennial, the 150th year, since the U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia. It is a purchase that never would have happened, were it not for Russia’s first governor of Alaska, because he stabilized the colony and prevented the British from snatching Alaska away from Russia. This Russian governor’s name was Aleksandr Andreievich Baranov.
Master of Alaska is the rip-roaring saga of Baranov, a charismatic Russian leader, who left his family in 1790 to sail to Alaska as colonial chief manager. He was age 43, short, wiry, energetic and intelligent. At that time, George Washington was president of the U.S. and Catherine the Great was Tsarina of Russia. Baranov knew that Alaska would be full of wilderness and challenges. No matter. He had always been up to any challenge with his intelligence and tough resolve.
On the way to Alaska, Baranov was shipwrecked. He survived a harsh wilderness, motivated Aleuts to help him, and finally made it to the Russian base on Kodiak Island. His assignment there was mainly to run the fur trading business in Russia’s Alaska at a handsome profit, and do it for just 5 years. But until 1818, everyone sent to replace him would die on the way, so Governor Baranov would be stuck on the job in Alaska for 28 years! There’s more. Soon after he had first arrived at the main Russian community on Kodiak Island, a huge earthquake and tsunami had destroyed the Russian’s main settlement. He rebuilt, then faced erupting volcanoes, giant bears, British schemes to take over Alaska, and the hostility of the Tlingit Indians in southeast Alaska, who were being armed by the British.
Two years after Baranov’s arrival, food supplies were almost gone because no supply ships had arrived due to North Pacific storms. He went to a local Native chief and asked to borrow food until supplies arrived. The chief said that the only way he’d give the Russians food would be if Baranov married his daughter. “I can’t because I have a wife in Russia,” answered Baranov. The chief shrugged and said, “So, you need a wife here in Alaska.” Baranov demured. He knew what the chief wanted was an alliance by marriage. He’d have to think this over a while.
Days passed. His men were beginning to starve. There was no choice. He married Anooka in a Native ceremony and got food for his men. She was an exotically beautiful 19-year-old. But to his surprise, she also had a bright mind and strong ethical convictions. And she had an engaging gift of empathy that would later help Baranov make peace with hostile Native tribes in southeast Alaska – a peace that was necessary to the success of Russian colonization. He renamed her Anna as a sign of his taking charge of her. But within a few weeks, it was she who would define their relationship.
Because Anna had been to the foot of distant Mt. Denali with her father, Baranov had her guide him and a small Russian expedition to Denali to bury copper plates there proclaiming the Russian ownership of that part of Alaska. He saw this as a necessity, because the British to the south were pushing hard to grab Alaska away from the Russians. Baranov’s expedition would prove the extent of the Russian presence with this “marking.” Up Kenai Bay (now Cook Inlet), Anna led the group in two large rowboats up the meandering Susitna River. After the group was several miles up river, they went on land to follow a Native trail.
Anna, pointed and said, “Denali that way.”
Baranov studied where she was pointing and said, “I don’t see a trail.”
She looked at him indulgently and replied, “Big trail. I lead blind men.”
He shrugged and chuckled. She led the way, and he soon learned from her how to recognize the trail. The sky was overcast, so only the low foothills of Denali could be seen as they approached the base of the great mountain…
After a harrowing encounter with a grizzly that killed a Russian, the expedition arrived in the fog at the foothills of Denali, where they made camp on the crest of one of the hills…
A strong gust blew the remaining fog away, and the huge majestic grandeur of snow-covered Denali suddenly appeared with glacial fingers in its lap. 20,320 feet high at its summit, it was the highest peak in North America and a magnificent sight…
A Russian artist quickly set up his easel to paint Denali and document not only Russia’s reach, but the most awesome sight he had ever seen. The day was spent by others burying copper plates in locations carefully plotted on a map. Let England’s mad King George try to deal with that!…
After supper, Baranov laid out blankets for a bed and climbed in. He looked at Anna, sitting across the campfire. Denali was lit behind her by a sunset glow. She poked the fire with a stick, well satisfied with her achievement in guiding the expedition. He stared at her for a moment, then said, “You’re amazing.”
She looked up and, though not sure, sensed a compliment and smiled a bit shyly.
“And you’re mine. Come here, Anna.”
Her smile disappeared, and she looked back at the fire.
“I not belong to you. We part of each other.”
He pondered that a moment, nodded as she looked up, and held up the corner of his blanket. She crawled over and slid in. As he put his arm around her, he asked, “And what part of you am I?”
She looked up at him, amused by the question, hesitated a moment, then said, “You are toyon of my heart.”
“I am the chief of your heart?”
With a big smile, she answered, “Yes.”
He kissed her and said, “And you are toyon of my heart, too.”
On a sea otter hunt led by Baranov, a sudden storm wrecked 30 kayaks and 60 men drowned. He led survivors to a cove and watched the awesome power of nature. Leaning into the gale, he yelled, “Alaska, hear this, you savage beast! I will not be defeated! Not now, not ever. Never! Never! Never!”
In 1802, Tlingit Indians led by Chief Katlian, armed by the British, massacred the Russians at Sitka while Baranov was far away in Kodiak. He must retake Sitka, or the British would seize Alaska. Leaving for Sitka, he kissed Anooka and their children. Toyon means Chief, and her parting words would influence Baranov: “Toyon of my heart,” she said, “my love is with you, and God’s love, too. But remember, God loves the Tlingit also.” It was an idea that had never occurred to him.
The Battle of Sitka lasted five days until the Tlingit ran out of gunpowder, retreated and abandoned Sitka Island. A Russian captain told Baranov, “They are weak now. We can pursue, kill them all, and avenge the massacre.”
“No,” said Baranov. “There’s no profit in vengeance. No future in it either. The truth is, in this tough land, I admire them. And we can’t survive here, long-term, without peace with the Tlingit.”
Baranov built a Russian empire in the North Pacific and sought peace with the Tlingit, helped by his wife and teenage daughter. Baranov could have captured Chief Katlian and hung him for the Sitka Massacre. Instead, after Baranov built a strong fort at Sitka, he allowed the Tlingit people back on the island and met with Katlian to negotiate a peace. They agreed there had been enough bloodshed, and that the Russians and Tlingit people had more to gain from peace than by pursuing war. Baranov sealed the peace by presenting Katlian with an Allies of Russia Silver Medal. Thus, Baranov prevented a British takeover of Alaska so that years later the Russians could sell their colony to the United States. It eventually became the U.S.’s 49th state. It should be noted that during his rule, Baranov became widely known as the world’s greatest problem solver. But few knew of the important roles Anna and their daughter Irina played in his success. Together these three achieved his goals of peace and stability in Alaska.
At the Master Of Alaska Website you can see short videos from the author about this gripping historical novel and of his own life growing up in Alaska backwoods.
Roger Seiler, author & Filmmaker:
Award-winning filmmaker and author Roger Seiler grew up in Alaska from age three. His love of adventure comes from both his parents. His father Edwin was a civil engineer eventually becoming an Alaskan bush pilot. His mother Josefina was born in Puerto Rico and was a writer and Alaskan sport-fishing lodge manager with the hobby of Flamenco dancing. In his late teens, Roger was a king salmon sport fishing guide on Alaska’s Naknek River, and also a commercial salmon fisherman in Bristol Bay.
He attended Deep Springs College and graduated With Honors from UCLA with a BA in Theater Arts – Film. His first film work was for UCLA’s Automotive Collision Research project, including a film for TV, “Safety on the Road,” which he wrote, produced and directed. While attending UCLA, Roger also worked with actor Karl Malden and famed director Francis Ford Coppola.
Roger worked for IBM for several years as an in-house filmmaker involved largely in producing and directing motivational films for employee conventions. He has made over 30 documentary films. His IBM film, “The Inner Eye of Alexander Rutsch” had a special screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and won the CINE Golden Eagle Award, as did three of his other films, “Frontiers,” “Challenge Over the Atlantic,” and “Strategy of the Achiever.”
Roger currently lives in South Nyack, NY with his wife Sally. Roger is a devoted reader and supporter of libraries. In 1977 he was elected to the Board of Trustees of the Nyack Library (Carnegie funded in 1879) and has continued to serve for 40 years, 16 as Board President. Master of Alaska, a Historical Novel, is his second book and whose publisher North Face Publishing is subsidiary of Motivational Press Publishing.