Early Times:

Pre-History to Arrival of Fur Traders

The First Peoples

The ancient peoples of Alaska are believed to have come from Asia to North America thousands of years ago during a centuries-long break in ice ages. Indigenous Siberian peoples, Koryaks and Chukchis, were among them. Their descendants formed tribal groups over the generations evolving into several distinct cultural groups: Unangax̂, or Aleuts, in the Aleutian Archipelago, Yup’ik in western Alaska, Inupiat along the Arctic waters, Athabaskan in the Interior, and Tlingit and Haida in southeast.

The history of the indigenous peoples has been handed down orally and in the crafting of their art, songs, and tools. They did not have a written language until the arrival of Western peoples who made phonetic-based dictionaries of their spoken words and translated them into Russian and English. The name Alaska is derived from the first Unanagan language dictionary. These maritime-oriented islanders literally described the mainland as Aláxsxaq, meaning ‘the object toward which the action of the sea is directed’.

 The first documented western voyages occurred as early as the 15th century when Russian and European voyages of trade and discovery, subsidized by their governments, crossed the North Pacific Ocean into the Bering and Arctic Seas. The Dutch formed the East India Trading Company in 1602. The English chartered the Hudson’s Bay Company as fur traders in 1670. The Russian Empress Catherine the Great granted trading rights to Siberian Russians who would form the Russian American Company in 1776. Last to arrive were the American whalers in the 1840s. During this time in history, the pelts of sea and land mammals comprised the most sought-after natural resource. The furs made from these animals became so valued they were sought after, not as individual pieces of clothing, but as commodity trade goods.  

 An Aleutian fisherman and bidarka hooking ‘treesca’ in Ooachta Harbor, Oonalashka Island, 1897.
An Aleutian fisherman and bidarka hooking ‘treesca’ in Ooachta Harbor, Oonalashka Island, 1897.
Fierce Competition for the Sea Mammals and the Impact on Native Life

The first to take advantage of North America’s sea mammals commercially were the Russians, who had a history of exploiting natural resources while subjugating the regional ethnic peoples to the harvest. The Russians took families hostage, forcing the Unanagan men of the islands, consummate hunters in their sea-going “iqyaks,” (kayaks) to harpoon the sea otter to extinction. By the time they decided to settle in the country in the early 1800s, thousands of Unangan had died from disease, overwork, and fighting off the competing companies of warlike Russian merchants who penetrated as far south and east as Northern California in their quest for the sea otter pelt.  

Encroaching on them from the south, from the Canadian country and east across the McKenzie River, the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company also attempted to subjugate the Native peoples as a means to obtaining furs, not by brute warfare, but with cheap trade goods and alcohol. Deadly diseases like smallpox, influenza, and syphilis came with the contacts. By the time the American whalers arrived in the 1840s chasing their prey deep into the Arctic Ocean, most of the indigenous populations were in steep decline despite the extraordinary wealth of natural resources of the sea and the land. As one species was eradicated, another was harried to its end. Following the decimation of the sea otter herds, fur seals were targeted. Already the herds of the Falkland Islands and the far South Pacific seal rookeries of New Zealand had been picked clean. The last great herds of fur seal were found only on a few isolated fog-bound islands in the Bering Sea and the North Pacific which Russia had claimed.

3D model of a traditional seagoing kayak or iqyax̂

click and drag to explore the 3d model

Sergei J. Sovoroff, Aleut, Unangan, 1901 – 1989. Model, Kayak: wood, gut, fur, thread, pigment, lead, ca. 1970.  Anchorage Museum.

Note: Model of a traditional seagoing kayak called iqyax̂ made by Sergie Sovoroff of Unalaska, in about 1970. They were made by Unangan who live in the Aleutian Islands. Each hunter built his own craft of wood and animal hide and skins and became one with it, literally as the kamleika, raingear, attached all around the hatch, keeping the hunter dry.

Seals on rocky beach. Elmer E. Rasmuson Library: Alaska and Polar Regions Collections & Archives (APRCA), Pribilof Islands Collection. University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Seals on rocky beach. Elmer E. Rasmuson Library: Alaska and Polar Regions Collections & Archives (APRCA), Pribilof Islands Collection. University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The Pribylov Islands Become the Focus

In 1786 and 1787, Russian navigator Gavriil Pribylov discovered the Pribylov Islands which were named after him. There they found the largest breeding ground of the northern fur seal, as well as sea otters and other mammals. Massive exploitation followed for decades. With the intention of creating a colony, he imported Aleut natives from Unalaska and Atka to the newly named St. George and St. Paul Islands to do the work involved in the harvest of the fur seals: herding, killing, removing and cleaning the skins, stretching the skins, placing them in drying houses, and tying them in bundles for shipment.  

The Russians did institute some conservation measures after uncontrolled killing of the seals caused a decline in their numbers: a halt from 1805 until 1810, from 1822-1824 on St. Paul, 1826-1827 on St. George, and 1836-1837 on St. Paul. Protection of the females began in 1847-1848. By the time of the cession, the herd had rebounded to more than two million.

The incursions of the Americans, English, and Canadians, together with losing another war in Europe, convinced the Russians to cede their Alaska settlements rather than lose them outright. In 1867, the United States, seeking to expand its own sphere of influence, offered Russia $7.2 million, hoping to keep the English at bay in the Pacific region. This change of regimes not only altered the balance of power on the world stage but would determine the future survival of the Natives of Alaska, and of the fur seals that would be at the center of future controversy and political tactics.


Fur seals in the surf.  Elmer E. Rasmuson Library: Alaska and Polar Regions Collections & Archives (APRCA), Pribilof Islands Collection. University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Fur seals in the surf. Elmer E. Rasmuson Library: Alaska and Polar Regions Collections & Archives (APRCA), Pribilof Islands Collection. University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Henry W. Elliott

During the 1860s, interest in Alaska was growing. Henry W. Elliott (1846-1930), later considered the nation’s leading authority on the northern fur seal, signed on as an illustrator for an 1865 Smithsonian expedition. There under the leadership of Robert Kennicott, scientist and founding member of the Museum of Natural History at Northwestern University, and Curator of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, Elliott traveled again to Alaska in 1872 as an assistant to the US Treasury Department agent for the Pribylov Islands, overseeing the licensed fur sealing operation as well as doing seal research for the Smithsonian; and again in 1874 investigating the reports of pelagic sealing. He was joined by Lieutenant Washburn Maynard whose task was to check on the Alaska Commercial Company (ACC). Elliott wrote and spoke positively about the ACC operation.

Up to the time of the leasing of the islands to the ACC in August 1870, the Aleuts lived in huts or sod-walled and dirt-roofed houses called “barrabkies” partly underground. The use of seal fat for fuel and light caused the deposit upon everything within doors of a thick coat of greasy, black soot, strongly impregnated with a damp and moldy odor. They used driftwood combined with blubber to make their fires, but if their driftwood failed them in winter, they “were obliged to huddle together beneath skins in their cold huts, and live or die, as the case might be.” (Slaves of the Harvest. TDX Corporation, 1983.) Lack of ventilation within the barrabkies often contributed to diseases of the throat and lungs, a situation that improved greatly with the arrival of the ACC. Prior to that, “they had no medical attendance, and whether they survived or died was a matter of indifference to their Russian masters.” (Lewis and Hannah Gerstle. Gerstle Mack, 1953.)

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