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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

Alaska Fur Trade

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

Until major new sources of wealth were developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the fur trade dominated the economy of Alaska for more than 150 years. Following Bering's Second Kamchatka Expedition of 1741-42, the Russians began to barter sea otter pelts from Alaskan waters. China ultimately became the key market, where the upper classes sought luxurious pelts for their clothing.

The trade initially was conducted by Russian frontier merchants known as promyshlenniki, who indentured native Aleut hunters to procure furs for them. In time, larger Russian joint-stock companies replaced the activity of individual trappers and traders. The most influential of these corporations, the Shelikhov-Golikov Company, received a charter of monopoly from the tsar in 1799 and thereafter became the Russian-American Company. Although primarily a commercial entity, the company took on the responsibilities of Russian colonial government and became an outpost in the Pacific for the Imperial Court in St. Petersburg. The focus of the company remained on fur, however, as it maintained some forty trading locations throughout Alaska.

Although the Russians pioneered the fur industry in the North Pacific, competition soon arose in the regional trade with China. Following Captain James Cook's third voyage in 1776-79, other countries began operations along the northwest coast of North America. British and American (known as Boston Men) fur traders were the most active rivals, with as many as twenty-five hunting expeditions per year. Unlike the Russians, who sent their furs mainly through the town of Kiakhta on the northern Chinese border, British and American merchants brought their trade directly to the Chinese port of Canton.

The Russians initially tried to exclude other powers from the North Pacific, but eventually sought accommodation. In 1824 and 1825 the tsarist government concluded separate treaties with the United States and Great Britain that established boundaries and broad commercial regulations. Direct trade between the Russian-American Company and foreign vessels increasingly became the norm, with American ships even bringing Russian fur shipments to Canton. In 1839 the Russian-American Company also concluded a cooperative agreement with its greatest rival, the Hudson's Bay Company. Trade also expanded inland, as the Russian-American Company extended its reach up several river systems and worked with native and Russian trappers in the interior of Alaska. The legacy of the northern fur trade continued after the sale of Alaska to the United States, which granted a monopoly to the Alaska Commercial Company to harvest fur seals on the Pribilov Islands in the Bering Sea.

Hunting and Trapping

Among Alaska's most valuable natural assets were extensive populations of wese and European markets. The fur trade operated so effectively that many types of animals were driven rapidly to the brink of extinction. The region's native inhabitants hunted seals and walrus, from which they acquired meat, cooking oil, and skins that were used for clothing and shelter. Upon their arrival in Alaska, Russians, English, and Americans all sought to profit from the abundance of fur-bearing animals they encountered. Beaver and sea-otter pelts, in particular, brought extremely high prices in China.