Tuesday, December 14, 2010

sources on St. Peter

Peter the Aleut is perhaps the most obscure Orthodox saint associated with North America. Very little is known about him, except the account of his martyrdom. And even that is a bit fuzzy, having originated with the testimony of one eyewitness, and recorded in a handful of written reports.

Unfortunately, the transcript of the 1819 eyewitness testimony does not appear to have made it into English yet. It is supposed to have been published in the first volume of the Russian collection Russia in California (ed. by J. Gibson, A. Istomin, V. Tishkov; 2005), with a planned English translation to follow. But I can't find any indication that the English translation has appeared, and since I don't read Russian, it wouldn't do me any good to track down a copy of the original.

A copy of his testimony is said to have been included with the earliest formal report, sent back to St. Petersburg in 1820 by Simeon Ivanovich Yanovsky, chief manager of the Russian Colonies from 1818 to 1820. It would appear that the written testimony was in fact included, since the administrator of the Russian American Company sent a much longer account to Tsar Alexander I later that year. Yanovsky, who eventually became a monk, wrote 45 years later in a letter to Igumen Damascene of Valaam Monastery about his relating the event to St. Herman. It is this last account that is usually repeated in lives of St. Peter.

Yanovsky's 1865 letter is a logical choice for this purpose, not only because it feels more hagiographical than the other accounts, but also because it cites St. Herman himself acknowledging Peter's sainthood. From a historical standpoint, this endorsement may not mean much, but his reaction of simple faith can serve as an example for the rest of us.

Both of Yanovsky's letters are reproduced in The Russian Orthodox Religious Mission in America, 1794-1837. His superior's longer report was published a decade later, in The Russian-American Colonies, To Siberia and Russian America: Three Centuries of Russian Eastward Expansion. All three are quoted in an article by Raymond A. Bucko, S.J., which is helpfully available online, though quite negatively slanted.

A special problem with Peter's martyrdom is identifying the actual location. Both of the 1820 reports indicate that the hunting party was taken captive somewhere on the Bay of San Pedro in 1815, and the eyewitness returned and gave his testimony in 1819. There is no evidence of a mission at San Pedro, so they may have been taken 30 miles north to San Gabriel. From here we're told that most of the party was taken 100 miles west to Santa Barbara, but that only two were placed in prison. It is unclear whether this means they were left imprisoned at the original mission, or were taken on to Santa Barbara with the others and imprisoned there. The former scenario seems more likely, since we're told the eyewitness was taken to Santa Barbara after Peter's death.

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