Saint Peter: The First American Born Martyr
The holy martyr Peter the Aleut (or Cungagnaq in his native tongue) was a native aleut of Kodiak Island, Alaska. When missionaries came from Russia, the Aleutians were baptized by the hundreds, and at baptism he was given the name Peter. St. Peter is believed to have been baptized by Saint Herman himself, since he knew the Holy Saint personally.
In 1815 a group of Aleut seal and otter hunters, including Peter, were captured by Spanish sailors while on an excursion near fort Ross. The Roman Catholics took them to Mission Dolores in San Francisco for interrogation, as they were angry with the Russians for encroaching on “their territory.” With threats of torture, the Roman Catholic priests in California attempted to force the Aleuts to deny their Orthodox faith and to convert to Roman Catholicism.
When the Aleuts refused, the priest had a toe severed from each of Peter’s feet. Peter still refused to renounce his faith and the Spanish priest ordered a group of California Indians to cut off each finger of Peter’s hands, one joint at a time, finally removing both his hands. They eventually disemboweled him, crowning his life with martyrdom. They were about to torture the next Aleut when orders were received to release them under escort to their monastery in Monterey.
Upon receiving the report of Peter’s death from Simeon Yanovsky, St. Herman back on Kodiak Island was moved to cry out, “Holy new-martyr Peter, pray to God for us!” Peter the Aleut was formally declared a saint as the “Martyr of San Francisco” in 1980. We have the account of St. Peter’s martyrdom from Simeon Yanovsky as related him by St. Peter’s cellmate who escaped torture. Simeon Yanovsky ended his life as the schemamonk Sergius in the St. Tikhon of Kaluga Monastery), and is the author of The Life of St. Herman of Alaska.