Alaska's Heritage


Fur trade dominates early American economic activity in Alaska

In the years between 1867 and 1890, mining and fishing followed trading and trapping furs in economic importance in Alaska. Following the purchase of Alaska in 1867, some American traders replaced the Russian-American and the Hudson's Bay company traders at some posts. A number of Russian and British traders chose to remain and work for American trading companies. For a brief period, there was an increase in the number of traders and firms competing for furs. The fur trade in Interior Alaska expanded. While Russian and British traders had dealt with a toyon or chief, American traders dealt with any individual who had furs to sell. The Russians had preferred beaver pelts. The American traders were interested in a greater diversity of pelts.

American traders encourage Native people to change

Because American trappers dealt with individuals, the extended family became the basic economic unit among Native people for trapping. Native families began to locate areas they annually traveled to for trapping. Gradually, local residents identified specific areas of land with the family that trapped there.

Competition among fur purchasers sometimes meant higher prices for furs. It also meant that in some areas more trading goods were available. The Native fur trappers did not always benefit. Prices remained high for goods received in return for furs.

The traders encouraged the Native people to trap more and to sell the furs for supplies. The animals taken for their fur were often not ones the Native people had trapped for food or clothing. Trade items, once considered luxuries, became necessities. These included things such as cotton fabric, gunpowder and shot, tea and sugar, combs, soap, flour, tobacco, butcher knives, and pocket knives. Tobacco that cost a trader 30 cents might be exchanged for a marten pelt valued at five dollars.

Although steel traps and wire snares had arrived through Native trade channels many years earlier, some Natives preferred to use their spruce snares. Another innovation was more readily accepted. Non-Natives introduced harnessing dogs to sleds to haul freight. This meant that trapping could be extended over a larger territory. As a result, more furs could be taken. In 1880, Natives along the Yukon River sold 75,000 pelts to traders.

The Alaska Commercial Company dominates the fur trade

By 1870, the Alaska Commercial Company dominated the fur trade in Southcentral, Interior, and Western Alaska. The company had taken over the former Russian posts on Kodiak and the Aleutian islands, around Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, and along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. The company increased the number of fur trading posts in Interior Alaska. By 1880, it had stations along the Yukon River at Anvik, Russian Mission, Andreafsky, Kotlik, Shageluk, Nulato, and Fort Yukon.

Two men drawn to Alaska by the promise of gold were among those who helped to extend the Alaska Commercial Company's influence. Jack McQuesten and AI Mayo trapped and prospected through Canada. Thinking that the gold-bearing mountains of the Canadian Yukon extended into Alaska, they entered the territory but soon ran out of supplies. McQuesten and Mayo agreed to act as traders for the Alaska Commercial Company. In 1874, the two men followed the Yukon upriver from Fort Yukon, taking a ton of supplies. They opened Fort Reliance, south of present-day Dawson in Canada, and traded with area Athabaskans for furs.

After the Alaska Commercial Company successfully drove a competitor, the Western Fur and Trading Company, out of the Yukon River area in 1883, the company lowered the prices that it paid for furs. Prices for supplies, however, were not reduced. The situation caused hardship for Natives who had come to depend on trapping fora living. In 1891, a New York newspaper reported that a year's supplies from the Alaska Commercial Company on the Yukon River cost $500 to $700. Competition, the article went on to say, could cut the cost in half.

A new company successfully competes with the Alaska Commercial Company

In 1892, a new company, the North American Trading and Transportation Company, challenged the Alaska Commercial Company's dominance of trading on the Yukon River. The new company opened a post on the upper Yukon River in the vicinity of the Alaska Commercial Company's Fort Reliance. The rivalry between the two companies meant lower prices, better quality, and a larger selection of merchandise.

The new company did not extend credit. Because it did, the Alaska Commercial Company continued to be more popular with trappers and prospectors. Both companies, however, profited from their posts, especially during the Klondike gold rush years. After the boom, the Alaska Commercial Company reorganized as the Northern Commercial Company and once again dominated the Yukon River fur trade. The North American Trading and Transportation Company went out of business.

Non-Natives begin commercial trapping

Beginning in the 1880s when prospectors began to enter the upper Yukon River area, some of them chose to spend the winter there and trap animals instead of returning to Sitka or Wrangell. The Secretary of the Treasury had issued a regulation that restricted trapping fur-bearing animals in Alaska to Natives or individuals married to a Native. The regulation, however, was impossible to enforce. Later, it was rescinded.

The number of trappers varied annually. The price paid for pelts had much to do with the number of trappers. The availability of other work affected the number. The availability of animals was also a consideration.

Trappers establish yearly cycle

Before the rivers froze in the fall, fur trappers moved to cabins near where they would set their traplines. They cut wood and got a supply of meat for the winter before the snow began to fall. After the first hard freeze they set traps and snares. Trappers began a routine of checking the trapline, returning to the cabin with the catch, skinning the animals, and stretching the furs. A number of the trappers remained at their winter sites until they could travel to the trading stations by boat. Many spent the summer months catching and drying fish for their own winter use and for dog food. Others spent the summer months prospecting.

World War I brings a new fur boom

Prices paid for furs rose dramatically during World War I. The war shifted the center of the world fur market from Europe to America. Clothing styles featured fur coats and collars. Higher prices for furs encouraged more trapping.

The number of fur-bearing animals alarmingly decline

During the 1920s, the number of fur-bearing animals in Alaska declined. Some areas had been over-trapped. Many of the people who had come to depend on trapping for much of their income suffered. Some individuals experimented with fur farms. The federal government began to regulate trapping in Alaska during the 1920s. The Alaska Game Commission was created. Regulations required trappers to buy licenses, limited the number of animals that could be taken, and prescribed permissible trapping methods. In order to assist Natives, they were exempted from these regulations.

Despite the regulations, the numbers of fur-bearing animals continued to decrease. The fur catch in Alaska did not return to the levels of earlier years until the late 1930s.

The Bureau of Education establishes cooperatives for the Native people

During the 1930s, the Bureau of Education became involved in marketing furs in Northwest Alaska. Bureau agents thought Natives could get higher prices for their furs if the local traders were eliminated. The agents also thought that if the Eskimos could obtain supplies at lower prices than those the traders charged, living standards would improve. The bureau opened Native cooperative stores at Wales, Gambell, Noorvik, and Wainwright. The bureau also opened a store in Seattle to sell furs and handicrafts for the Natives.

Technology changes trapping

Aviation had begun to change the fur trade in the 1920s. Airplanes made it possible for furs to be shipped to markets and supplies shipped to trappers during the winter. Trappers could reach formerly inaccessible areas. They could deal with fur buyers in Seattle or New York instead of the local trader. Often this meant they could get higher prices for their pelts.

Later, snow machines would cause changes in trapping. Traplines could be checked quicker and greater distances could be covered. A trapper could live in a village instead of in an isolated cabin.

Although expensive to purchase and maintain, snow machines came into general use. Trappers relied less on dog teams which were also expensive to maintain.

Trapping is a losing economic venture

During the great economic depression of the 1930s, the prices paid for furs fell. After, fur prices fluctuated haphazardly from year to year. Between 1940 and 1984, the Alaska fur industry experienced few prosperous times.

During World War II, many trappers joined the military forces or found war-related employment. Many did not resume trapping after the war ended. The post-war increase in fur prices proved temporary. A new federal luxury tax instituted during the 1950s hurt the industry further. The demand for furs declined. Still, an estimated 6,700 persons engaged in trapping in Alaska in 1957. Another 24,000 Alaskans engaged in subsistence activities that included trapping.

For a few years during the 1960s, prices paid for mink rose. Particularly in Western Alaska, more people engaged in trapping. During the 1963-1964 season, Alaska's export of 22,500 mink pelts was worth a half a million dollars. The trend reversed in the 1970s when environment-conscious individuals questioned the use of fur for fashions. Trapping declined to a new low point. The market improved only slowly thereafter.

Protecting the animals and permitting trapping become dual goals

When Alaska became a state in 1959, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game took over management of wildlife resources including fur-bearing animals. A state Board of Fish and Game replaced the Alaska Game Commission. The board continued to limit trapping seasons, to require licenses, and to prescribe permissible trapping methods. The dual goals were to preserve the animals and to allow trapping to continue.

Although many people trapped fur-bearing land animals in Alaska and sold them throughout the years 1867 to 1984, trapping did not provide a stable economic base either for the individuals or for Alaska. Yet many people did engage in trading and trapping fur-bearing animals for income.