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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

American Early Development

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

By the early nineteenth century, America was becoming a commercial force in the Pacific. Merchant ships sailed the northwest coast of the continent in search of furs and the North Pacific became a region of interest to businessmen, explorers, and statesmen alike.

At the same time, Russian power in the region contracted and became more focused and consolidated. Inefficient, distant, poorly defended and provided for, Russian Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million. Although some Russian statesmen opposed the sale, others realized that Russia was overextended in Alaska and that despite Alaska's potential, the future of Russia on the Pacific lay through the fertile Amur valley and not Alaska.

Without a major economic lure, colonization of the land--and the Americanization of Alaska--proceeded slowly. Although Alaska was brimming with wildlife, the fur trade had long been in decay. The North Pacific had rich seal fisheries, but international competition threatened to destroy the harvests. The abundant salmon fisheries provided the first American economic boom in Alaska. In the 1880s, canneries spread from southeastern Alaska to the northwest, and production exploded from some nine thousand cases in 1881 to 714,000 in 1888. By 1900, forty-two canneries packed 1.5 million cases annually, and by 1917 the industry produced one-half of the canned salmon of the world.

Salmon Industry

Europeans initially focused their attention on the fur trade. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, a lucrative commercial fishing industry was also well established. To facilitate the harvesting of salmon, which had always been a staple in the diet of the region's native population, canneries soon dotted Alaska's coastlines. By 1898, no fewer than fifty-five canneries, employing primarily Chinese workers, were exporting more than a million cases of canned salmon to destinations around the world.