russians in America – 9/8/21

Today's selection -- from Merchant Kings by Stephen R. Bown. The Russian American Company found its way to Alaska in the 1700s and immediately began exploiting the furs of the plentiful sea otters in the region:

"All the [Russian] officers and mariners cheered and congratulated each other on discovering the new land. …

"The most populous creature they observed, and the most important in the history of the Russian American Company, was the sea otter, a friendly, communal animal that lived close to shore all along the coast. 'Altogether in life it is a beauti­ful and pleasing animal,' Steller wrote, 'cunning and amusing in its habits ... Seen when they are running, the gloss of their hair surpasses the blackest velvet. They prefer to lie together in families, the male with its mate, the half-grown young and the very young sucklings all together. The male caresses the female by stroking her, using the forefeet as hands, and places himself over her; she, however, often pushes him away from her for fun and in simulated coyness, as it were, and plays with her offspring like the fondest mother. Their love for their young is so intense that they expose themselves to the most manifest danger of death. When their young are taken away from them, they cry bitterly, like a small child, and grieve so much that, as I came to know on several occasions, after ten to fourteen days they grow as lean as a skeleton, become sick and feeble, and will not leave the shore.'

"The great otter climbed out on a pinnacle of rock just showing above the kelp" by Charles Livingston Bull

"The sea otters were playful creatures that elicited amuse­ment from mariners until someone realized that their skins were extremely valuable. Their furs were worth a fortune in China, and throughout the summer the men hunted thousands of them and stripped them of their skins. Hardened by years of harsh life in Kamchatka and the dreadful sufferings of the past winter, the hunters saw the otters as their ticket to a life of ease and went 'raging among the animals without discipline or order,' clubbing them, drowning them and stabbing them until the large herds had all but disappeared from the eastern side of Bering Island. In the spring they constructed a makeshift boat from salvaged planks, loaded it with mountains of otter skins and sailed west, back to the Asian mainland. Bering had, along with dozens of his unfortunate mariners, perished miserably of scurvy during the winter. The survivors, however, brought back the tale of their incredible voyage -- and of the fortune that awaited others hardy enough to brave the journey.

"The fur hunters who extended the reach of Imperial Russia across the Pacific Ocean, and who eventu­ally became the nucleus of the Russian American Company, lost little time in exploiting the valuable resources of the new land. When the first mariners returned from Bering's ill-fated voyage, the tales they wove of the wealth of sea otters in the Aleutians and Alaska had an immediate impact. The following year a shipload of hunters returned with a cargo of sixteen hun­dred sea otters, two thousand fur seals and two thousand blue foxes. Soon thousands of hunters annually crossed the Bering Sea in their quest for the velvet booty. Financed by merchants as far away as Moscow, traders became rich overnight, prompting even more to enter the bonanza. Within fourteen years, Bering Island's treasure of sea otters, sea lions, fur seals and foxes was gone. The hunters moved farther east, where they occasionally engaged in bloody battles with the coastal natives, after which they forced them into servitude as hunters.

"Soon the hunters' forays became a vicious wild-west-style slaughter as they moved from island to island, attacking and capturing natives and engaging in massive harvests of sea otters. One expedition in 1768 returned with forty thousand seals and two thousand sea otter pelts, fifteen thousand pounds of walrus ivory and vast quantities of whalebone."



Stephen R. Bown


Merchant Kings


Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2009 Stephen R. Bown


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