the alaskan Fur Trade

The Northwest Coast during the maritime fur trade era, around 1790 to 1840.  From

The Northwest Coast during the maritime fur trade era, around 1790 to 1840. From

cash and destruction

Commercial fur trade dominated the economy of the Alaska Territory for more than 150 years, beginning in the 19th century. Following Vitus Bering’s Second Kamchatka Expedition (1741-42), the Russians took control of Alaskan waters and began trading sea otter and other fur pelts harvested by Alaska Native hunters. China became a key market for fur trade due to the popularity of luxurious, waterproof fur garments, sought by the Chinese aristocracy. Noticing the economical benefits of fur trade, the United States and Great Britain entered in competition in this market. The international fur trade made disastrous impacts on Alaskan ecology and Alaska Native communities. 

Bones and All

Long before Russia's first encounter with Alaska territories, interregional fur trading was culturally and economically important for the Alaska Native communities. Fur-bearing animals living in boreal and colder ecosystems were of higher value because of the animals’ grooming habits, which prevented the fur from molting. Sea lions and sea otters were especially profitable due to their thick, dark fur. While the fur itself provided warmth for Alaskans living in harsh climates, different parts of the animals served as food and were useful as tools: “The hide was used as boat covers, the sinew was used for cordage, the blubber was rendered into oil for heat and lamps, and the bones were used for tools” (Benner). Much of the animal processing was conventionally led by women, who would stitch skins together and create garment pieces or waterproof covers.

Unangan hunters in gut-skin jackets. Aleutian Islands, Alaska.  From

Unangan hunters in gut-skin jackets. Aleutian Islands, Alaska. From

Russian merchants watch as Alaska Natives hunt sea lions.  From

Russian merchants watch as Alaska Natives hunt sea lions. From

Global Trade Tribulations

Trade was also politically useful in forging alliances. The commercialized Alaskan fur trade began with the arrival of Russians in the north Pacific around the mid-1600s. The upper classes of China became a large consumer due to the popularity of luxurious, waterproof fur garment. Around the late 1700s, the Russians began receiving pressure from competing American and British trading companies: “By 1779, both the British and the Americans were running 25 hunting expeditions per year to the Pacific Northwest” (Benner). The Chinese, noticing the growing tensions, decided to take advantage of the trading disputes by cutting the price for furs in half. With the decrease in revenue, the Russians proposed a treaty with the Americans. The Americans rejected it. In 1821, Tsar Alexander I of Russia issued an order preventing foreign ships from coming within 100 nautical miles of Russian-controlled coasts, an area that spanned from the Aleutian Islands to Siberia. With opposition from both the United States and Great Britain, a new treaty was adopted in 1824 which redefined the boundaries and allowed Americans and British to trade in Alaska. Although the three trading countries could never agree completely, they often worked together to harvest dwindling fur reserves. 

A drowning Business: The Decline of Fur Trade 

The success of the fur trades led to drastic change in Alaska Native communities and culture. With the exchange of fur for European goods such as alcohol and metal, traditional tools and jewelry were enhanced alongside indigenous art. At the same time, ruthless Russian frontier merchants (promyshlenniki) exploited the labor of indigenous Alaska communities. Unangan hunters were indentured and held hostage as ransom to harvest fur pelts, in a system of Native slavery and human trafficking. Russian presence in Alaska also introduced an epidemic of new diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis, and syphilis. In time, the fur trade began to diminish, due to the decimated populations of fur-bearing animals, as well as shifting international fashion trends. The colonial and political effects remained, and still remain.

Related Pages:



Benner, Dana. "History Lesson: The Alaskan Fur Trade." Real World Survivor. Athlon Outdors, 15 Feb. 2016. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.

"Native Peoples in Alaska." Meeting of Frontiers. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.

Oleksa, Michael (1992). Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission. St Vladimir's Seminary Press. p. 82. ISBN 978-0-88141-092-1.

Reynoldson, Fiona (2000). Native Americans: The Indigenous Peoples of North America. Heinemann. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-435-31015-8.