In July 1776, the same month that a congress of American rebels issued its Declaration of Independence, Capt. James Cook of Great Britain sailed north in an effort to locate the Northwest Passage for George III.
Cook did not find the elusive passage thought to connect the Atlantic and Pacific. He did, however, acquire the luxurious pelts of sea otters in trade - and, later, found them highly valued by Chinese traders.
Previously, the Bering expedition had observed Alaska's sea otters. When the expedition returned to Kamchatka in 1742, the sailors had sea otter pelts with them. One of the expedition's survivors was naturalist Georg Steller, who wrote of the otter, "Although it is a beautiful and pleasing animal, cunning and amusing in its habits, and at the same time ingratiating and amorous, [it] deserves from us all the greatest reverence."
Bering's sailors felt otherwise. They limped into Petropavlovsk in a makeshift craft loaded with 900 sea otter pelts. For each, Chinese traders paid the equivalent of a Russian clerk's annual salary.
Soon Russians were establishing settlements at Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands, on Kodiak Island and on Nuchek Island in Prince William Sound. Sea otters must be hunted from the ocean's surface because they are clumsy on land and rarely come ashore. Aleksandr Baranov (1746-1819) and other leaders of Russia's far-ranging Alaska fur trade forced experienced Aleut men into bondage as sea otter hunters, taking their families hostage.
Other countries competed for the valuable pelts, too. Writing about Southeast Alaska in the late 1800s, George Emmons noted in "The Tlingit Indians" that "The sea otter, the most valuable of all fur-bearing animals, was originally numerous along these shores. In ten days in 1786 La Perouse procured upwards of a thousand skins in Lituya Bay [in trade]. In fact, it was largely the quest for this fur that influenced the Russians to extend their operations from the Aleutian Islands to the continent, and then eastward along the coast to southeastern Alaska. Greed and lack of government regulations [until early in the 20th century] have rendered this animal virtually extinct."
The numbers tell the story. Baranov built a headquarters colony at Kodiak's Chiniak Bay in 1792, when George Washington was President. In 1793, an expedition of 170 bidarkas secured 2,000 skins in or near Yakutat Bay. The following year, a fleet of more than 500 bidarkas hunted along the Gulf Coast as far east as Yakutat Bay, procuring 400 sea otters at Icy Bay and 515 at Yakutat. The local Tlingit people promised the Russians many sea otters in 1795, but did not deliver, and the Russians sent out their own hunters, who bagged 400 before smallpox among two of the crew sent the rest of the party fleeing. In 1796, a fleet of 450 bidarkas took 1,800 otters in Lituya Bay and 2,000 more south at Norfolk Sound. Because of wholesale harvests like these, Emmons says that sea otters were virtually extinct in Russian America by 1827.
Frederica de Laguna, editing Emmons' work, notes that the attack on and destruction of Fort Mikhail at Sitka in June 1802 was "the climax of a long-planned attempt, involving clans from many tribes ... to rid themselves of the Russians and their Aleut sea otter hunters."
The attack was not the first occasion of Tlingit rejection of the Russian presence, however. In June 1792, as Baranov and his men camped near Montague Island, the Yakutat Tlingit and Ugaliagmiuts from Cape St. Elias surprised them at night. Baranov was able to fight off these assailants, but the experience made him cautious; he made no attempt to reconnoiter Yakutat Bay until 1794.
Sea otter fur is remarkable because of its denseness. Unlike other marine mammals, sea otters lack blubber to keep them warm. Their oily fur traps air between the hairs, so the skin of the sea otter never gets wet. A sea otters has up to one million hairs per square inch, in contrast to a human, who sprouts only about 20,000 hairs on his or her entire scalp.
The range of the sea otter population was originally an arc from Japan to the Kamchatka Peninsula, along the Aleutians, down the coasts of Alaska, Canada, Washington state and Oregon to the Santa Barbara Channel of California. Natural predators on the Russian/Alaskan otter (sub-species lutris) included sharks, killer whales, bears and coyotes. Bald eagles sometimes target pups left moored to seaweed at the surface while the mother searches for food. Predators of the California or southern sea otter (nereis) included great white sharks and killer whales.
Although the Tlingits were able to destroy Fort Mikhail in 1802, they were not able to hold their own fort in 1804 when Baranov arrived with cannon. After establishing this foothold at New Archangel (Sitka), Baranov moved his headquarters here from Kodiak and the Russian American Company dispatched its Aleut, Koniag and Chugach hunters into nearby straits and channels. They also went much further afield. In 1804, Baranov sent his first fur-trading parties to California on the Boston ship O'Cain, and in 1812 his assistant founded the settlement of Ross, 50 miles north of the Spanish port of San Francisco.
From 1803 to 1813, the Russian American Company made a series of agreements with American skippers to transport hunters to Southeast. However, according to an article by historian Jonathan R. Dean in Alaska History (Fall 1997), the Tlingits often harried hunters working the waters of the Alexander Archipelago. When the Russians moved to the waters of Dixon Entrance, they clashed with a new enemy, the Tsimshians. In May 1810 the Russian American Company entered into a commercial agreement with a Boston trading house to supply hunters for an expedition to the waters of Dixon Entrance. However, according to the log of the American vessel Otter, the Tsimshians attacked the Koniags and killed three of them, carrying away their heads as trophies.
Five Tsimshian oral accounts have been collected about these events, according to Dean. In one account, a Tsimshian nobleman urged his tribesmen to resist the hunters and their bosses:
"There is no good in what these white seamen are doing. We should chase them away. They are taking our lands. [The principal chief Legaic] was wrong when he encouraged the Hudson's Bay Company to settle here.... Now we should chase these men away and we should also drive away the [Aleuts] who are hunting our sea otter in their skin canoes."
The Tsimshians' feelings over incursions roiled, including a suspicion that Aleut spirit power might be behind the disappearance of the sea otter from its historical range. They concluded they must defend their territorial rights or lose access to these valuable animals.
Skirmishes continued for years. For example, Hudson Bay Company trader William McNeill of Fort Simpson recorded in 1855 that Tsimshian parties had been operating in Kake waters, and interfered with sea otter hunters on at least two occasions. On one of these occasions, a Tlingit hunter, "Mr. Small Fish," reported that he had been attacked and the crews of three other canoes were either killed or taken away as slaves.
The sea otter population began to recover in the 1950s. Historically, according to the Friends of the Sea Otter web site, there were 16,000 to 20,000 sea otters along California's coast, but the fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries nearly brought them to extinction. As of the spring of 2001, there were 2,161 sea otters along that coast.
Glenn Van Blaricom's "Sea Otters" (2001) estimates the sea otters in the North Pacific in 1741 at 200,000. Although the American sea otter population was reduced by commercial harvest to just a few hundred animals between 1742 and 1911, the population has recovered. The northern sea otter is now protected from hunting and harassment by the Marine Mammal Protect Act of 1972. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the population flourishing in Alaskan waters today is estimated at 100,000 to 150,000 of these graceful animals.
For relevant maps, go to:www.seaotters.org/Otters/index
Click on Otter Range Maps. You will see a place for clicking on a downloadable version. The map that includes Alaska is blue with yellow and red areas.
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