Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods

Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods: The Maritime Fur Trade of the Northwest Coast, 1785-1841

Copyright Date: 1992
Pages: 452
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  • Book Info
    Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods
    Book Description:

    Before contact with white people, the Northwest Coast natives had traded amongst themselves and with other indigenous people farther inland, but by the end of the 1780s, when Russian coasters had penetrated the Gulf of Alaska and British merchantmen were frequenting Nootka Sound, trade had become the dominant economic activity in the area. The Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Nootka, Salish, and Chinook Indians spent much of their time hunting fur-bearing animals and trading their pelts -- especially the highly prized "black skins" of sea otters -- to Russian, British, Spanish, and American traders for metals, firearms, textiles, and foodstuffs. The Northwest Coast Indians used their newly acquired goods in intertribal trade while the Euro-American traders dealt their skins in China for teas, silks, and porcelains that they then sold in Europe and America. This traffic continued for more than half a century until, in the early 1840s, the Northwest trade declined significantly because of depletion of the fur-bearing animals due to over-hunting, depopulation of the Indians by disease and warfare, and depression of the market for furs. While previous studies have concentrated on the boom years of the fur trade before the War of 1812, Gibson reveals that the maritime fur trade persisted into the 1840s and shows that the trade was not solely or even principally the domain of American traders. He gives an account of Russian, British, Spanish, and American participation in the Northwest traffic, describes the market in South China, and outlines the evolution of the coast trade, including the means and problems. He also assesses the physical and cultural effects of this trade on the Northwest Coast and Hawaiian Islands and on the industrialization of the New England states. Gibson's new interpretations derive in part from his use of Western primary sources that have been largely ignored by previous investigators. In addition to being the first to use many Russian-language sources, Gibson consulted the records of the Russian-American, East India, and Hudson's Bay Companies, the unpublished logs and journals of a number of American ships, and the business correspondence of several New England shipowners. No more comprehensive or painstakingly researched account of the maritime fur trade of the Northwest Coast has ever been written.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-8202-6
    Subjects: Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiii)
  4. [Figures]
    (pp. xiv-2)
  5. Introduction: The Northwest Coast
    (pp. 3-11)

    The Northwest Coast is more definable in cultural than physical terms. Admittedly, the entire coast is damp and mild, but the high mountains, deep fiords, thick rain forest, and numerous islands of the northern half are much more muted in the south, which also has somewhat warmer winters. Culturally, too, the coast displayed not a little variation; for example, women played a more influential role among the northern Indians, who, moreover, were usually considered by Euroamerican visitors to be less swarthy and more handsome, intelligent, and industrious than their southern brethern.¹ On the whole, however, the Northwest Coast was one...

  6. 1 The Russian Headstart and the Spanish Sideline
    (pp. 12-21)

    The Russians were the first Euroamericans to make contact with the Northwest Coast Indians, although technically speaking they were not the first to enter the coast trade, owing in part to their preference for hunting to trading. In 1741, after eight years of arduous and costly preparation, the Vitus Bering—Aleksey Chirikov expedition finally left Kamchatka in two small ships to probe the “big land” across the Bering Sea. Chirikov’s party made two landfalls on the Alexander Archipelago, where fifteen well-armed crewmen disappeared; they were likely seized by wary Tlingits — an omen of the future uneasy state of Russian-Tlingit relations....

  7. 2 The British Disclosure
    (pp. 22-35)

    Spain’s retreat from the Northwest Coast was signalled by the Nootka Sound controversy (1789—94), an international territorial dispute which arose from the Spanish seizure of four British trading vessels in what Captain James Cook had named King George’s Sound. It was Cook’s third (and fatal) voyage that brought his country into the Nor’west trade before all others.¹ In 1778 his two ships, Resolution and Discovery, were refitted for a month in Nootka Sound, where his crewmen bought sea-otter skins — literally off the Indians’s backs — for scraps of iron; more were purchased later in Cook Inlet for glass beads. They...

  8. 3 The American Takeover
    (pp. 36-61)

    The Northwest Coast trade was opened at a highly opportune time for New England’s merchants, for it enabled them to escape the depression that followed the Revolutionary War, when their main markets for the cod and whale fisheries - the British Isles and the West Indies - were lost. Also, before the American Revolution the Thirteen Colonies had received Oriental goods in amounts and at prices beyond their control, and during the War of Independence very few such goods were available on the Atlantic Seaboard. As soon as the Peace of Verseilles ended the conflict between Britain and her breakway...

  9. 4 The British Comeback
    (pp. 62-83)

    After the War of 1812, in the wake of the over-hunting of sea otters, American maritime fur traders took more and more beaver skins, which came via intertribal trade from New Caledonia, the northern interior of the HBC’S Columbia Department (the company’s administrative name for the Oregon Country). By the early 1820s American Nor’westmen were taking from 3,000 to 5,000 beaver pelts to Canton from the Northwest Coast annually.¹ This particular traffic did not trouble the rival British continental fur traders until the middle 1820s, when the HBC, enlarged by the 1821 merger with the NWC and rejuvenated by George...

  10. 5 The China Market
    (pp. 84-109)

    When the first British coasters made Whampoa with sea-otter skins in the middle of the 1780s, they added another link to a long chain of trade that had tenuously connected China with the barbarian world for at least two millenia. Cathay’s foreign trade had flowed via caravans on the Silk Road through Central Asia to the Roman Empire, via Arab dhows on the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean to the Near East, and via Chinese junks to the Spice Islands of the Southern Sea. After the European discovery of the sea route to India by the Portuguese in the...

  11. 6 Modes of Trade
    (pp. 110-136)

    Unlike the rulers of Manchu China, the Indians of the Northwest Coast were eager to trade with foreigners, but the Euroamericans had to adjust their operations to the seasonal round of their Native hosts. One observer of the coastal Indians noted that “they have several villages that they shift to at different seasons of the year” - the Nootkas, for example, moved five times during the year to fish “in accordance with the seasons at which they have had experience that the fish make similar changes,”¹ and they remained inland from the beginning of September until the end of February....

  12. 7 Obstacles to Trade
    (pp. 137-203)

    A trading voyage to the Northwest Coast from Boston, London, or even Okhotsk was seldom smooth sailing. The obstacles that faced the ship and its crew throughout the venture were more or less common to all long ocean voyages of the time, and included exasperating calms, fierce storms, unknown shallows, bloody mutinies, untrustworthy “savages,” obstructive officials, disabling diseases, sudden accidents, boring routine - all of which could reduce crews, lengthen voyages, and lower profits. Of the twenty-five men who left Boston aboard the Atahualpa in 1800, two were transferred to another vessel, one left the ship at Maui, one fell...

  13. 8 Changes in Trade
    (pp. 204-250)

    Like the price of skins, the coast trade was anything but static. From its inception until its demise traffic changed constantly and rapidly, especially during the period of greatest competition — from 1791 through 1802 — when over-pricing and over-hunting necessitated frequent adjustments. At first, following Captain King’s advice, trading vessels sailed in pairs to Nootka Sound, Cook Inlet, and Prince William Sound. These were the places where Cook had obtained furs and which he had charted.¹ After 1788, however, British and American traders avoided “Cook’s River [Inlet]” because by then the Russians “had got entire possession of the river,” and within...

  14. 9 The New Northwest Trade
    (pp. 251-267)

    In response to a variety of pressures — mainly biological and commercial — the maritime fur trade of the Northwest Coast became less and less monolithic, so much so that after 1800 it was no longer solely a sea-otter traffic and no longer confined to the Northwest Coast; only the maritime (shipping) element remained constant. A Northwest voyage became a congeries of ventures throughout the Pacific (and the toponym “Northwest Coast” even came to refer to the entire western coast of North America), and the shipmaster was given considerable latitude by the owners so that he could adjust quickly to the increasing...

  15. 10 The Impact of the Trade
    (pp. 268-296)

    The maritime fur trade involved - and therefore affected - four widely separated and very different regions and peoples: the Northwest Coast itself and its Indians, the Hawaiian Islands and their Polynesians, South China and its Cantonese, and New England and its Yankees (and, one might add, Russia and the Russians). It is easier to assess the sea-otter trade’s impact on the coastal Indians and the Hawanan Islanders because they were more isolated and hence subject to fewer economic and cultural contacts with outsiders than the South Chinese or New Englanders. Whereas the trade was but one of many such...

  16. Tables
    (pp. 297-318)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 319-390)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 391-414)
  19. Index
    (pp. 415-422)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 423-424)