Alaska's Heritage


Furs are basis of Russian America economy

Russians had been interested in furs for centuries before they came to Alaska. Russians' interest in furs continued as they expanded their empire from European Russia through Siberia to the Pacific coasts of Asia. Then, following Vitus Bering's second expedition, they left the shores of Asia to go to the Aleutian Islands in search of furs. Between 1743 and 1799 over 100 Russian fur-hunting expeditions sailed into Alaskan waters and returned 187,000 pelts worth 8 million rubles (about 6 million dollars).

Initially, individual Russians' chief reason for coming to and staying in Alaska was the fur trade,. This is true even though they also built and sailed ships, farmed, fished, logged, manufactured, mined, ran sawmills, and whaled. They did most of these things only to support the fur trade. In later years when the fur trade declined, however, they attempted to expand some of these other activities into money making ventures.

Natives get furs and Russians trade them to the Chinese

In the fur trade beaver, fur seals, sea otters, foxes, and other mammals found in Alaska provided the furs. Alaskan Natives, either to obtain goods from the Russians or because the Russians forced them to, hunted the fur-bearers. The Natives took the pelts of the animals they killed and passed them to the Russian fur traders.

The Russians' first major interest was in sea otters. The pelts of the sea otters, which are found only along Pacific Ocean coasts from Alaska and Siberia south to lower California and Japan, were highly desired by Chinese with whom the Russians traded.

Aleuts and Alutiiq Eskimos hunted the sea otters for the Russians. They killed them at sea. The best time for hunting the sea otters was in late spring when the weather was relatively calm.

Fur seals were also taken, but at first only in small numbers in the eastern Aleutians, at sea, as the animals migrated to and from the Pribilof Islands. When the Russians learned of the Pribilof Islands in 1786 they forced Aleuts to live there and kill the Pribilof Island fur seals on their breeding grounds. The harvest became more intense in 1797 when the Russians learned that the Chinese had found a way to pluck the coarse guard hairs from fur seal pelts to make a velvety fur that became very popular.

Other Alaska Natives traded land animal furs to the Russians. These animals included beaver, river otter, fox, bear, lynx, wolves, wolverines, bear, muskrat, mink, and squirrel.

The Russians gave the Natives various trade goods for the furs. Usually, they gave the Natives goods worth much less to the Russians than the price which the furs would bring them. They also set the value of the goods they gave to the Natives much higher than the price they had paid for the goods.

A Russian trader might obtain a squirrel parka from an Aleut woman by giving her goods worth seven rubles. The Russians might then trade the parka to an Aleut hunter for furs valued at 10 to 15 rubles. Then the Russians might trade the furs they got from the hunter to Chinese merchants for tea, silk, and spices worth 60 to 70 rubles when sold in Russia.

The prices paid for furs varied at different times and places. A sea otter pelt might have brought an Aleut hunter 10 rubles worth of goods in 1804. A few years later a similar pelt might have brought a Tlingit hunter 145 to 154 rubles worth of goods. One reason for this was that no one competed with the Russians for the furs brought to them by the Aleuts. The Hudson's Bay Company, which operated in Canada and in adjacent Alaska territory, on the other hand, competed with the Russians for furs that the Tlingits might trade. As a result the Russians paid higher prices for furs brought to them by the Tlingits.

Furs go many places

After the Natives had traded their furs to the Russians, the furs had to be prepared to be shipped to distant places. To do this, the skins were usually scraped of grease, stretched, and dried. Then the skins were smoked, or salted, to preserve them.

Company ships took some pelts only as far as Siberia. From there the Russians sent them overland to Kiahtka, a town on the Russian-Chinese border. At Kiahtka the Russians traded the furs for tea, silks, and spices. Normally the whole sea otter catch, some beaver pelts, and some fox pelts went to the town on the Chinese border. Other beaver furs went to Canton, a Chinese sea port on the Pacific Ocean, or to the United States. River otter and fox furs went to other places in Russia. Muskrat, mink, and squirrel parkas were sold at Sitka. Some land mammal skins were also used in internal Alaskan (Russian-Native) trade. For example, some wolf and wolverine skins went to the Russians' Fort Saint Michael in northern Alaska to be traded to the Natives there.

Furs taken by Alaska Natives and traded to the Russians were put to a variety of uses. Fine furs traded through Kiahtka and Canton trimmed the robes of Chinese lords and ladies. Other furs from Alaska became coat collars or hats in Europe and America.

By-products of the fur trade such as walrus ivory, whalebone, and beaver castor--oily substance used in making perfume-were sold wholesale in Moscow and Saint Petersburg and many other Russian and European trading centers. Even the whiskers of sea lions were used, for the Chinese used them as toothpicks.

Fur trade prospers, then declines

The Russian-American Company prospered. In the early 1800s the company's annual expenses were about 1,000,000 rubles each year. This left a profit each year of over 500,000 rubles to be divided among the company's stockholders.

This prosperity did not continue. Several factors caused a decline in the catch of furs and in the market for furs that were taken. The catch of furs declined because in the early 1800s too many fur-bearers were killed. The populations of fur seals and sea otters did not replenish themselves and there were not as many to catch. The Russians recognized the need for conservation measures by 1817 and limited the number of seals and otters that could be killed.

The number of Native hunters declined too. Aleuts did most of the hunting for fur seals and sea otters. When their numbers decreased, there were fewer hunters to go after furs. Beginning about 1810, the decrease in the number of sea otters and desire to diversify the market caused the Russians to pay more attention to harvesting land animal furs.

The land animal furs were worth less than the sea mammal furs but cost more to obtain. They were worth less because there was not as much of a demand for them, except for beaver, as there was for fur seal and sea otter furs. They cost more to obtain because the Russians had to establish and maintain new inland fur-trading posts.

While the problem in Alaska of declining fur-bearing animal population was occurring, problems outside Alaska also affected the Russian fur trade. Some of the problems were in Russia and some were in other countries.

In 1804 a financial crisis in Moscow caused many bankruptcies and hurt the fur trade. Thousands of pelts were lost at sea on their way to market. In 1807, for instance, 30,000 pelts on their way to China aboard the Neva had to be thrown overboard during a storm. Then felt hats became more popular than fur hats and this decreased the market for furs.

Wars and political trouble also affected the fur trade. Kiahtka was closed to the Russians as a place to trade in 1849 because of troubles in China. Although Kiahtka trade reopened in 1853, the Crimean War which broke out between Russia and Turkey, France, and England in 1854 made the seas unsafe for Russian ships. Although the war ended in 1856 other troubles followed.

In 1862 the Russian government revoked the import tax on tea being imported into Russia. This decreased Chinese interest in trading their tea for furs. With the tax in effect, they could make more money trading their tea to the Russian-American Company for furs. In that way, the Chinese did not have to pay import taxes on the tea to the Russian government. Without the tax in effect, the Chinese could take their tea into Russia themselves and sell it there. In the last two decades of Russian activity in Alaska (1847-1867) Alaska fur seal and sea otter catches declined. While the catch of beaver and other land mammal furs increased, fur-trading profits declined. During this time, the company tried to expand other economic activities to compensate for decreasing fur trade profits.