Story last updated at 5/29/2013 - 2:07 pm
American Bay, across Kaigani Strait from the Native village of Howkan, was briefly the home of a Northwest Trading Company post. It chose this bay on the east coast of Dall Island in 1883 to attract the fur seal hunters of the Native villages especially Howkan and Kaigani, the latter at Cape Muzon.
When Eliza Scidmore toured Alaska in the IDAHO that year, writing for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the ship stopped to unload the company's first load of freight. She wrote, "Only a small clearing had been made, and two buildings put up." Nearby, in the trader's home, they met "Russian Count Z...." and his pretty black-haired countess whom he had married in Sitka.
This was Count Joseph Zuboff, years later called "the best known Russian in Alaska," according to one newspaper.
He truly was from Russia and when he spoke of his earlier life, he mentioned his family descended from royalty. He said his family had rich estates in the province of Kostronis, near Moscow, and his uncle was the director of the Imperial theatres under the Czar. He spent his early manhood in the Russian military service and was given a commission as lieutenant when he served in the Imperial Artillery during the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78.
In Alaska everyone knew he was in political exile. He told a reporter, "Political complications arose that made it advisable for me to leave Russia - I went rather than face persecution." Scidmore says, "exiled for Nihilistic tendencies." About that time a revolutionary movement started where some Russians believed that destruction of the existing political and social institutions would improve the future. It was dubbed Nihilism. He did not elaborate in any interviews other than to say he was an active figure in the movement. He felt it was impossible to return to his homeland and became very proud of being an American.
Scidmore thought he came across the Aleutian chain. However Zuboff said he became a traveling representative of a New York merchant once he reached America, escaping through Germany. "I was in reduced circumstances," and apparently took any job he could find. When he reached San Francisco, the company had gone bankrupt. He drifted to Alaska and Sitka.
In Sitka he met his "black-haired Countess." Her father, Colonel Vachromaeff worked for the Russian American Company, first at St. Michael post near the mouth of the Yukon River. After three years, the Vachromaeff family returned to Russia, crossing the wilds of Siberia on horseback with two small children. Mrs. Zuboff was born in Tosna. Eventually the family returned to Sitka by way of Hamburg, Germany. In Sitka, the colonel passed away, and his wife remarried a Mr. Sepiagni. By 1911, Mrs. Sepiagni still lived in Sitka, but he had passed away.
The "black-haired" woman must have been the perfect match for the Count - a woman who was familiar with his country and background.
During his time in Sitka, Count Zuboff was approached by the Northwest Trading Company. It had been incorporated in March 1880 in Portland, Ore., to go into the herring and whale oil industry and the transportation business. The next year it leased a wharf in Sitka, then bought the steamer "FAVORITE." Some of the company men sailed in search for places to build a trading post and a factory. Places mentioned were Killisnoo, Kenesnow Island, Hoonah, and Chilkat Inlet. In September 1881, it decided on Killisnoo as its base and manufacturing plant. It hired two boats to catch whales and soon after was in the herring reduction business that continued long after Northwest Trading Company ceased to exist.
Perhaps this is why the Victoria, B.C., newspaper speaks of a whaling station at American Bay, although I've not found any other mention of that. In March of 1883, Mr. Purdy, the trader at American Bay, drowned when his canoe overturned. Perhaps Zuboff was the nearest person to send to the remote bay near the southern end of Alaska.
I haven't found when the Zuboffs left except it was after 1884; nor when the trading post was abandoned. The outpost lasted only a few years. The company went out of business in 1888.
Zuboff's next adventure was with the Killisnoo operation, and he was living there by 1887. He said that he became interested in the operation run by a new company, and his obituary in the Juneau newspaper mentions he was a stockholder. He and Carl Spuhn built up a substantial fertilizer business, but Spuhn is always listed as the manager. How long Zuboff lived in Killisnoo and where he went in the off-season isn't apparent. However, he was the notary public for the village in 1902 and 1907: there was no such official in Killisnoo during the intervening years.
Zuboff apparently lived in San Francisco in later years and sometimes visited Killisnoo. On one of his trips he contracted acute asthma and soon after had a heart attack. On his last visit in 1911 he was taken seriously ill, and when he reached Juneau, he was carried to the hospital on a stretcher. After extensive treatment at Saint Ann's hospital by Dr. L. O. Sloane, he was sent to Seattle with no hope of recovering.
Count Joseph Zuboff shot himself in the Hotel Barker in Seattle in December 1911. He was 62 years old. He left a wife and daughter in San Francisco.
When Scidmore visited the American Bay trading post, she was introduced to the Zuboff's big blue-eyed baby. The infant is never mentioned in written sources again. Years ago, Gilbert McLeod , who knew Dall Island well, asked Sondra and Jim Costales of Craig if they would be the caretakers for the Zuboff baby's grave in American Bay. The pair searched but could not find it. Sondra enlisted Kathy Peavey's help. They and their Craig friends, Barbi Armstrong, Dolores Owen, Deborah Head, rode in Kathy's boat to the bay.
The women scoured the woods along the shoreline of the bay. It was Barbi who came upon the grave in a small clearing. There was a headstone with a piece of marble to mark the end of the grave. The engraving is weathered but still can be read: "Josie Zuboff, died Aug. 20, 1884." The women gently tended the grave and decorated it with shells and beach glass.
"We felt honored to have helped Gilbert McLeod with his wish," Kathy said.
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at email@example.com.