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Furs and Frontiers in the Far North

Furs and Frontiers in the Far North: The Contest among Native and Foreign Nations for the Bering Strait Fur Trade

John R. Bockstoce
Foreword by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 512
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  • Book Info
    Furs and Frontiers in the Far North
    Book Description:

    This comprehensive history of the native and maritime fur trade in Alaska during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is without precedent. The Bering Strait formed the nexus of the circumpolar fur trade in which Russians, British, Americans, and members of fifty native nations competed and cooperated. The desire to dominate the fur trade fed the European expansion into the most remote regions of Asia and America and was an agent of massive change in these regions.

    Award-winning author John R. Bockstoce fills a major gap in the historiography of the area in covering the scientific, commercial, and foreign-relations implications of the northern fur trade. In addition, the book provides rare insight into the relationship between the Western powers and the Native Americans who provided them with fur, ivory, and whalebone in exchange for manufactured goods, tobacco, tea, alcohol, and hundreds of other things. But this is also the story of the enterprising individuals who energized the Alaskan fur trade and, in doing so, forever altered the region's history.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15490-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

    Furs were the black gold of the far north in the pre-industrial era of global trade. Russians called them “treasure of the land of darkness.” Europe demanded huge amounts, but China craved even more. Because the balance of trade between China and the West heavily favored the Chinese—and continued to do so, while the gap gradually narrowed, until the second half of the nineteenth century—any product saleable in Chinese markets attracted European merchants. Furs were of critical importance because Westerners had so little to offer the Chinese. From the sixteenth century to the late eighteenth, they struggled as...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. A Note on Names
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xix-xxii)

    • 1 The Opening of the Maritime Fur Trade at Bering Strait
      (pp. 3-40)

      As a summer fog lifted in Bering Strait on July 21, 1819, the American trading brigGeneral San Martínlay near the towering, flat-topped island that would be known as Big Diomede. Twenty-five miles to either side rose the great headlands that are the gates of the Arctic Ocean—Cape Dezhnev, the easternmost point of Asia, and Cape Prince of Wales, the westernmost point of continental North America. TheGeneral San Martínhad sailed north from Hawaii on an audacious voyage to scout the potential of the Bering Strait region for the fur trade. The brig was more than 3,000...

    • 2 Trapping and Hunting for Marketable Furs
      (pp. 41-69)

      The markets of Asia received a wide variety of furs and commodities from the Bering Strait region. Each type of furbearer had unique habitat preference and behavior, factors that were central to the devices and techniques that the hunters and trappers employed to capture the animals. The skills employed by the hunters and trappers were not only the result of careful attention to their elders’ practices and a close study of animal behavior but also of painstaking trial and error in the field.

      Fox skins probably made up the largest number of furs to cross Bering Strait westbound. “Foxes in...

    • 3 The Russian Expansion toward Alaska
      (pp. 70-102)

      The robust intercontinental fur trade that Eliab Grimes found at Big Diomede Island in 1819 was, in fact, a comparatively recent development in the Bering Strait region. The Chukchi and Eskimos had been vigorously involved with this trade for only about thirty years, a commerce which developed as a result of a Russian trade fair that began on a tributary of the Kolyma River in 1789. This fair was one of the last elements of the Russian expansion across northern Asia, an expansion that began a thousand years earlier and 4,000 miles to the west.

      The early stirrings of a...

    • 4 Marketing the Furs
      (pp. 103-114)

      Russian traders in northeastern Asia acquired their furs from several sources: at the Ostrovnoe fair and other native trade fairs, from elsewhere in Siberia, from Russian America, and a few from Canada via London and St.Petersburg. Nevertheless, a substantial amount of furs—fox, beaver, lynx, river otter, marten, and other skins—arrived from the vast forested regions of central Alaska via the native trade at Bering Strait. In fact, the only types of Alaskan furs that did not reach the Asian markets via the Bering Strait trade were sea otters and fur seals: the pelts of these two animals were...


    • 5 The Russians Move North
      (pp. 117-128)

      The Russian commercial expansion to Alaska began in August 1742, when the survivors of Vitus Bering’sSviatoy Pyotrreached Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, from their winter of starvation on the Commander Islands. They brought the skins of the animals whose meat had sustained them: seals, arctic foxes, and 900 sea otters, for which “the Chinese at the Kiakhta border usually pay a price of 80 to 100 rubles,” wrote Gerhard Friedrich Müller. Despite the wretched state in which the men returned, their cargo of furs was a powerful enticement for others to push east across the northern North Pacific, and the following...

    • 6 The British Response
      (pp. 129-166)

      With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the British government was as sensitive to Russia’s activities in the North Pacific as the Russian government was to Britain’s. One result was that Britain’s Royal Navy, like the Imperial Russian Navy, devoted a substantial portion of its energies to surveying and exploration, and one objective was the discovery of a northwest passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.¹

      In London, John Barrow, the ambitious and energetic second secretary of the Admiralty, was concerned about the Russians’ efforts to find a northwest passage. He wrote in 1817:“The Russians have for some time been...

    • 7 Mikhailovsky Redoubt
      (pp. 167-178)

      While Beechey was at Bering Strait with theBlossom,a Russian naval expedition was also under way to the North Pacific. In August 1826, theMoller,commanded by Mikhail Nikolaevich Staniukovich, and theSeniavin,commanded by Fyodor Petrovich Litke, a widely experienced arctic navigator, left Kronshtadt for the Pacific Ocean. Among other tasks, theMollerwas to survey the Aleutians and Alaska Peninsula, while theSeniavinwas to concentrate on the Bering Sea and eastern coasts of Asia. The government sent this expedition to carry out hydrographic surveys of the coasts of Russian America and northeastern Asia, but just as...

    • 8 The Expeditions to Point Barrow
      (pp. 179-192)

      In the 1830s, both the Russian-American Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company continued to probe northward. As John Franklin had predicted in 1823 in proposing his expedition, the information he acquired in 1826 was indeed useful “for advancing . . . the fur trade,” and it sparked the interest of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the lower Mackenzie River and adjacent Arctic coast. In 1827, Chief Factor Peter Warren Dease, a veteran northern trader who had assisted Franklin’s expedition, was put in charge of Fort Good Hope, the company’s northernmost post on the Mackenzie River. One of Dease’s duties was...

    • 9 Zagoskin’s Expedition to the Yukon
      (pp. 193-202)

      The smallpox epidemic that struck Novo-Arkhangelsk in 1835 and 1836 reached the lower and middle Yukon while Kashevarov’s expedition was under way in 1838. Although the company vaccinated as many natives as possible, the disease spread to the southern and eastern coasts of Norton Sound, killing as much as half the population in some settlements. Four years later only 283 Eskimos remained alive on the coast of Norton Sound. The natives believed that this scourge had arrived via the Russians, and in spring 1839 a group attacked the outpost at Ikogmiut on the lower Yukon, killing the trader and two...

    • 10 The British Expansion Northwestward
      (pp. 203-224)

      In the latter eighteenth century the rivalry between the Hudson’s Bay Company and its principal competitor, the North West Company, which was based in Montreal, focused on developing new sources of furs. Whereas sables and, later, sea otters had driven the Russian expansion eastward, it was primarily beavers that drew the British traders west. The largest market for beaver skins was not for clothing but rather the hat industry, which used the pelt’s underfur in felt making.¹

      Because the Hudson’s Bay Company enjoyed a chartered monopoly over the lands within the Hudson Bay drainage, its competitors in Montreal, who at...


    • 11 The Search for Sir John Franklin
      (pp. 227-259)

      In 1845, with high hopes of capitalizing on more than three centuries of British efforts to discover a northwest passage, the Royal Navy sent Sir John Franklin, in command of two sturdy and well-outfitted ships, to complete the search. The expedition sailed into Baffin Bay and vanished forever, but because Franklin’s provisions were ample for three years—and could be stretched to four—there was little concern for the expedition’s safety until two years had passed without word from him. In 1847, with anxiety growing, the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty made plans to send searching expeditions to meet Franklin...

    • 12 Trading Activities from 1848 to the Sale of Russian America
      (pp. 260-295)

      Almost twenty-nine years to the day after two hundred Chukotkans confronted Eliab Grimes and the crew of theGeneral San Martínin Bering Strait, Captain Thomas Roys and the crew of the whaling barkSuperiorfound themselves in a similar predicament. On July 23, 1848, when theSuperiorlay becalmed near Big Diomede Island, forty natives in seven umiaqs headed toward the small whaleship. The approaching flotilla made Roys very uneasy because for all he knew they might be hostile—and theSuperiorhad no firearms except “one Blunt and Sims revolver that would not go unless you threw it.”¹...

    • 13 Chaos and Transformation in the Latter Third of the Nineteenth Century
      (pp. 296-323)

      News of the sale of Russian America reached Prince Dmitry Petrovich Maksutov, the chief manager of the colony, in Novo-Arkhangelsk in late spring 1867.Maksutov learned that on March 30 in Washington, DC, representatives of Russia and the United States had signed a treaty stipulating that Russia would sell its American colony to the United States for $7,200,000. Russia ratified the treaty on May 14, the United States two weeks later. “News of the sale took [Maksutov] by surprise,” wrote Molly Lee. “When the word reached him . . . Maksutov found himself in the unenviable position of not only breaking...

    • 14 The Last Decades of the Nineteenth Century
      (pp. 324-354)

      With such a sorry state of affairs it is not surprising that concerned persons spoke out, calling for governmental control in the North. In the 1870s newspapers on both the East and West Coasts of the United States carried letters and articles about the destructive influence of the foreign fleets upon the natives in Chukotka and Alaska. In 1878, for example, the following report appeared in San Francisco’sWeekly Bulletin:“The whaling vessels which are now dropping in to this port from the Arctic Seas are officered by very intelligent men, who have some clear perceptions of right and wrong....

    • 15 End of the Century
      (pp. 355-360)

      In the very last years of the nineteenth century the structure of the trade at Bering Strait changed yet again, a result of the massive invasion of foreigners seeking gold. During the 1870s a trickle of prospectors and traders had entered the Yukon, men who occasionally worked for—or in competition with—the Alaska Commercial Company. In the 1880s and early 1890s, miners made a series of small strikes near the Alaska-Canada boundary—at the same time that the Alaska Commercial Company and its competitors introduced several larger stern wheelers to supply their posts on the river.¹

      But the year...

  10. Appendix: The Introduction of Firearms to the Eskimos of the Bering Strait Region
    (pp. 361-362)
  11. Chronology
    (pp. 363-370)
  12. Glossary
    (pp. 371-374)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 375-410)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 411-446)
  15. Index
    (pp. 447-472)