Saint Peter the Aleut
Martyr Peter the Aleut († 1815) was a young Aleut who was born and raised on one of the islands of the Kodiak Archipelago. In 1815, as a young man, together with thirteen fellow Aleuts, fishermen and hunters, he sailed to the shores of California where he was captured by the Spaniards. There he suffered a martyr's death, refusing to betray his Orthodox faith. Thanks to a friend who witnessed the torment and death of the young man, we know about this feat of devotion to Christ. There is not much information about the life of this boy - his life was short-lived. But this is the fate of a hard worker and a true Christian.
Today it is difficult to find out the exact place, date of birth and even the ethnic origin of St. Peter, although even in the XIX century it would have been a difficult task. The islands of the Kodiak Archipelago were part of Russian America, and the Kodiak Island where Peter was thought to be born is located south of mainland. After the purchase of Russian America in 1867, this land became the "Department of Alaska", and later the State of Alaska. The region was inhabited by several small tribes, and the Russians called all the locals Aleuts. In one of the families of the indigenous residents of this northern land, a boy was born who was destined to glorify his people with his special love of God and Orthodoxy.
Small nations had their own traditions and beliefs. But they naturally and trustingly accepted Orthodoxy from Russian missionaries, and not just from them. Even before the arrival of official Russian trading companies and Orthodox missionaries to Kodiak, Russian border guards in the Bering Sea and the Aleutian Archipelago were in touch with local residents and catechized them. Traders traveled in small boats and hunted for furs. The indigenous people of the islands talked to them, and helping each other fight the elements, they gradually joined the Orthodox Christian faith. Soon all these nations received Holy Baptism. They built churches, prayed to Christ, and preserved their culture and mother tongue.
The Kodiak Archipelago
It is known that Peter was a young man at the time of his martyrdom. He is believed to have been born between 1795 and 1802. It is known that in everyday life the young man was called Kunganyak, and Peter in the church.
In 1794, a group of missionary monks under the leadership of Archimandrite Joasaph (Bolotov) arrived in Kodiak from the Valaam Monastery. The indigenous population willingly accepted baptism.
Like many other local young men, Peter began working for the Russian-American Company (RAC) at an early age. He was taken on expeditions, which included going to California. There, RAC was engaged in fishing, as well as hunting animals for their valuable fur.
In 1812, the Russian-American Company founded Fort Ross in California for the agricultural needs of Russian Alaska. It became the southernmost settlement of Russian America, about 80 km (50 miles) north of San Francisco. The region was then called "Alta California" with the capital in Monterey; it was a province of the Viceroyalty of New Spain of the Spanish Empire. The Spanish colonists were drawn to this area because of its strategically advantageous location, but a new settlement caused outrage. The Crown of Spain laid claim on Upper (Northern) and Lower California, the missionary territories of the Franciscans and Dominicans. There was a fear on their part that the Russians might launch an attack from Fort Ross to try to capture San Francisco. Therefore, the new governor, Lieutenant Pablo Vincente de Sola, ordered to stop all trade, fishing and agricultural activity in the area in 1815. This ban also applied to any Russian shipping along the coast, and no ship was allowed to approach any Spanish colonial port.
Shortly after the ban on shipping, Governor de Sola ordered the arrest of Russians and Aleuts who disobeyed orders to leave Alaska. They were taken hostage by the Spanish military. In exchange for the release of the captives the authorities demanded various Russian supplies. Hostages were held in San Francisco and elsewhere and were used as slaves. They were mistreated, often beaten and placed in premises unsuitable for habitation.
Aleuts dressed in traditional costumes
Russian traders hired Kodiak Aleuts for fishing and catching seals and otters. In 1815, near Fort Ross, a group of 14 men hired by the RAC worked under the leadership of a certain Mr. Boris Tarasov. They searched for prey around the islands of Santa Rosa and Santa Catalina in the Channel Islands west of Los Angeles. The weather suddenly deteriorated, and the sea hunters’ kayaks were carried far south. The Aleuts landed in the San Pedro Bay area, near Los Angeles Harbor, and were immediately captured by Spanish soldiers. By order of the Spanish authorities the captives were taken to the north.
The captured Aleuts were tried. Many prisoners were injured by soldiers' sabers, Peter was severely wounded in the head. The trial was an act of inquisition. The Franciscans urged the captives to convert to Roman Catholicism. But the captives refused, confirming their devotion to Orthodoxy. The Aleuts were put to prison, two in a cell. It was the young man who shared the hardships of prison with Peter, his friend Ivan Kychaly, who became the witness to his martyrdom. The Franciscans did not stop. Verbal attempts to persuade the captives to renounce Orthodoxy were unsuccessful, so the "missionaries" resorted to torture. Peter had his fingers and toes cut off one phalanx at a time, his friend Ivan being forced to look at it. The martyr was bleeding heavily. He firmly professed Orthodoxy, repeating: "I am a Christian." The torturers showed extreme cruelty to the Orthodox young man, cut off his arms and legs, and opened his stomach. He died, but he did not betray his faith. The circumstances of his martyrdom resemble the torture of St. James of Persia (27 November).
They did not have time to execute the other young man – there came an order from the Spanish authorities in Monterey to release all captives. Ivan was taken back to his cell, and Peter was hastily buried, possibly in one of the Indian mass graves in the cemetery of Dolores Mission in San Francisco.
Ivan Kychali was the only witness to the martyrdom of St. Peter in 1815. The Lord kept him so that he could tell the world about the feat of the saint. The young man's ordeal continued for four years. In 1819, he escaped from Spanish captivity, with great difficulty reached Fort Ross and, with the help of the Russians, was transported to Novoarkhangelsk (now Sitka), to Baranov Island. There he told Mr. Janowski, the governor, what death Peter had to endure. Having listened to the young man, Simeon Yanovsky was shocked by his story and told of the martyred young Aleut in St. Petersburg, having compiled a detailed report to the authorities.
Chapel of the Holy Trinity at Fort Ross, Alaska
St. Peter the Aleut is mentioned in the Life of St. Herman of Alaska. There is a possibility that Kunganyak-Peter was his spiritual son. For a more complete picture of the events, I would like to cite fragments of the records of Simeon Yanovsky, who ended his life as schema monk Sergius in St. Tikhon’s Kaluga Monastery. His report, compiled as "fresh in his mind", states:
«... The Spaniards in California imprisoned fourteen Aleuts, and the Jesuits (actually Franciscans) forced them all to convert to the Catholic faith. But the Aleuts would not agree under any circumstances, saying, "We are Christians." The Jesuits said, "You are heretics and schismatics. If you do not agree to accept our faith, we will torture you all to death." <... > That evening, the Jesuits came to the prison with lanterns and lit candles. They again tried to persuade the two Aleuts in the cell to convert to the Catholic faith. "We are Christians," the Aleuts replied, "and we will not betray our faith." Then the Jesuits began to torture them, first the one, and his comrade was a witness. <... > Blood was shed, but the martyr endured everything and firmly repeated one thing: "I am a Christian." He died in suffering due to blood loss. <... > That night an order was received from Monterey stating that the Aleut prisoners should be immediately released and sent there under escort. So, in the morning everyone was sent to Monterey, except for the dead Aleut. This was told to me by a witness, the same Aleut who escaped torture and who was a friend of the tortured Aleut. I reported the incident to the authorities in St. Petersburg. When I finished my story, Father Herman asked, "What was the name of the tortured Aleut?" I replied: “Peter. I do not remember his last name." The Elder reverently stood in front of the icon, made the sign of the Cross and said: "Holy New Martyr Peter, pray to God for us!"
We know very little about St. Peter. We know that he was young, just beginning to live, and that he genuinely loved Christ. Much can be assumed about the young Aleut’s life. But it is documented and known exactly how he died. In his suffering and steadfast confession of Christ, Saint Peter is equal to the martyrs of antiquity, as well as to the New Martyrs who shone forth in later times.
In 1980, Peter the Aleut was glorified as a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and locally glorified by the Alaskan Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America as the Martyr of San Francisco. Saint Kunganyak-Peter is the first saint of North American descent and the first indigenous North American saint. The memory of the Holy Martyr Peter the Aleut is on the 7th of October, as well as on the 13th of December.
In the Akathist to all the Saints who shone forth in the land of America there are these words:
"Rejoice, young Peter, Protomartyr of the Aleuts, who suffered from heretics before the enlightenment of the American country by the true faith of Christ." May God, through the prayers of the saint, give us a faith from which it is impossible to depart even for the sake of saving one's life.