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A forgotten link in American history

Massachusetts is frequently painted as the cradle of American history but there was a unique partnership between the young state and Imperial Russia that the history books don't mention. Through extensive research in Russian and American archives, Peggy Coleman has unearthed a once rich and vibrant trade history that spanned decades, oceans and continents. These ancient documents reveal that Russia, a country with abundant raw materials, supplied the fledgling experiment in democracy with hemp, sailcloth, iron and tar from the Smolny Pits for its ever-expanding fleet of ships. In fact, it's fair to say that in the late 18th century, Russian raw materials kept American ships afloat.

New England ships bobbing in Cronstadt Harbor

On any given day if you were to take a stroll along the Mole of Cronstadt (the fortress protecting St. Petersburg, the capital of 18th century Russia) you would see ships from the port cities of Beverly, Salem, Newburyport, Marblehead, and New Bedford Massachusetts anchored there alongside ships from other New England port cities such as Portsmouth, NH, Bristol, Newport and Providence, RI, as well as New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Charleston, SC. The holds of these ships were packed to the brim with the valuable and necessary raw materials from St. Petersburg that would help America become the country she is today.

Here's a quick quiz:

1. Where did young America buy its poods of hemp to build the rigging for its ships? 2. Where did it purchase its iron for nails and sail cloth? 3. What about the tar to make the ship tight and seaworthy?

If you answered "Russia" for all three then you get an A. And there's more. We imported Russian candles, soap, tallow and millions of quills, which served as 18th century pens. In 1829, Boston's Russia Wharf welcomed over 39 ships alone, carrying millions of these quill pens. It is amazing to think that all of young America's new laws were signed with Russian quills and that our Constitution may have even been penned and signed using Russian quills!

American ships with Russian names

American ships built with Russian raw materials were also named after Russian places. Manchester, Massachusetts sea captain Thomas Leach began his illustrious sailing career in 1816 when he was 9 years old and for the next 51 years sailed on ships named the "Tsar," "Ladoga", and "Strelna" - all Russian names. Leach also captained a Russian-owned ship called the "Nicholas 1st" in 1850. Other American ships with a Russian-flavored name include the "Cronstadt", "Petersburg", and "Peterhof." Further proof that young America had no problem acknowledging its dependence, perhaps even her admiration for Russia.

A mutual history, an historic bond

Knowing this, we can safely say that the symbols of America-the USS Constitution and its Constitution, a document that has endured and served our country well for over three hundred years-are not purely American, but partly Russian. Flash forward three hundred plus years later to post-Soviet Russia and we can see how the new symbols being born in Russia are made of pieces of America. By looking backwards in time, can we go forward together? Can the activity that took place on historic Russia Wharf in Boston be repeated for the benefit of both countries? Certainly the cultural wealth of Twentieth Century Russia can now be imported in to historic Russia Wharf and so allow for America's better understanding and appreciation of the positive contributions that the Russian people have made and continue to make.

The Russian American Cultural Center at Russian Wharf, Boston is dedicated to being a "home" for Russian culture in Boston. The Center strives to articulate the past connections between America and Russia and the endless possibilities that have opened up with the end of the Cold War. Visit us and get a taste of a forgotten piece of Russian-American history.