September 24 is the feast date in the Orthodox Christian tradition of Peter the Aleut.
As one might infer from his sobriquet, Peter the Aleut* — Chukagnak, to call him by the name of his birth — was a North American indigene whose canonization story features cultural collision all the way down.
Come the early 19th century the Russian-American Company that was Moscow’s chartered vehicle in the colonization game had pressed south seeking more favorable climes** with a fort in northern California supplying a network of outposts that stretched far south as Bodega Bay,† near the present-day San Francisco area.
Russia’s southerly excursions would collide with Spanish exploration pressing north: in their intersection lies the context for Peter the Aleut’s martyrdom.
The story in a nutshell is that a party of Alaskan natives in California under Russian colors was caught out hunting seals or otters by Spanish soldiers who took them captive. Peter and another Alaskan native convert called Ivan Kiglay were eventually left imprisoned together in a Spanish mission and ordered to convert to Catholicism on pain of death. When they refused, Peter was indeed slain — horribly tortured to death by having his extremities cut away while living, before finally being disemboweled.
Ivan Kiglay is the eyewitness source of this information, spared from sharing Peter’s chalice for unclear reasons. The blog OrthodoxHistory.org has done yeoman coverage of this controversial event or “event” and its overview post “Is the St. Peter the Aleut Story True?” is well worth exploring.‡ In 2011, the same site posted a rare English translation of the original Russian-language Ivan Kiglay deposition, excerpted (lightly tidied) below:
Missioners and the leader of the named above mission (whose name he does not remember) made a request to all the Kodiak dwellers to convert to the Catholic religion, to which they replied that they have already converted to a Christian religion on Kodiak, and they do not want to convert to any other religion. In a short time, Tarasov and other Kodiak dwellers [i.e., all the other Alaskans] were transferred to Saint Barbara. Though he (Kiglay Ivan) and wounded Chukagnak, were left in the mentioned mission, were kept with Indian criminals in the prison for several days, without food and water.
[One night] the chief of the mission brought the order to convert but they did not comply, despite the critical situation that they faced. On the sunrise of the next day a religious clerk came to the prison, accompanied by betrayed Indians, and called them out of the prison; Indians surrounded them, and by order started to cut (chop) Chukagnak’s fingers by articulations, from both hands and [after that] arms, and in the end cut his stomach (abdomen), by that time, he was already dead. That should have happened also to Kiglay, but at that time to the priest was brought a paper (he does not know from where and from whom). After reading that, [the priest] ordered to bury the body of the dead Chukagnak from Kasguiatskovo in the same place, and he [Kiglay] was sent back to prison.
Ivan Kiglay himself only delivered this information in 1819, four years after the alleged events, because he had ultimately to escape from a period of Spanish enslavement. In 1820 the Russian-American Company official Symeon Ivanovich Yanovsky forwarded the same report to a monastery in the motherland along with his endorsement of Ivan’s credibility (“He is not the type who could think up things”).
Unless you’re cocking an eyebrow at the convenient and mysterious last-second reprieve, there’s no particular reason to doubt the sincerity of the original deposition or of Yanovsky as interlocutor. However, there’s also no apparent corroboration of the incident known from Catholic records and the forced conversion backed by such an outlandish murder seems at odds with Spanish behavior on this particular frontier. A much later sentimental embroidery by Yanovsky from 1865 blurs the Peter story into outright hagiography. The documentary trail is so thin and questionable that everything about Peter the Aleut down to his actual existence has been hotly debated since.
Russia’s probes of California came to naught, of course — and Spain’s too for that matter, considering the Mexican War of Independence already in progress in this decade. All this land, and Alaska too, were marked for a different empire rising on the far side of the continent … and Russia’s Alaskan evangels would not in the end extend the Third Rome into the New World, but instead form the germ of the Orthodox Church in America. Today, St. Peter the Aleut is honored by Orthodox communities throughout the United States as the “martyr of San Francisco” (although this proximity for the martyrdom is also uncertain).
* The descriptor “Aleut” was applied indiscriminately here, but by now it has the blessing of tradition. A more discriminating ethnography would reckon Peter and his Kodiak origins not an Aleut (from the Aleutian Islands) but an Alutiiq.
† Arriving there long before Alfred Hitchcock.
‡ Our grim site does not pretend an opinion on whether and how religions ought to enshrine their saints … but for those curious about how St. Peter’s questionable historicity plays vis-a-vis his canonization, OrthodoxHistory.org has you covered.