The Founders

The key individuals who were instrumental in the creation of the Alaska Commercial Company were Hayward Hutchinson, Louis Sloss, Lewis Gerstle, William Kohl, Leopold Boscowitz, Gustav Niebaum and August Wasserman. Sloss and Wassermann, became the first president and vice-president, respectively.

Hayward Malcolm Hutchinson (1832-1883) formed Hutchinson, Kohl & Company, the foundation for the Alaska Commercial Company. He came from a family of businessmen who had done well during the Civil War as sutlers (civilian merchants selling provisions to an army), and manufacturers of iron stoves and other kitchen equipment. He traveled by ship with the U.S. government commissioner, General Rousseau, who was to take formal possession of the Russian colonies in 1867. Stopping in San Francisco he met with potential financiers to discuss the possibilities of doing business in the new acquisition. He then traveled to Portland and met with the largest furrier in the Oregon Territory, Leopold Boscowitz. The final stop of this fateful journey was Sitka, where he met Captain William Kohl, a shipowner who ran cargo vessels on the West Coast. Most importantly, Hutchinson carried on a successful negotiation with the last Russian American Company representative, the former Governor, Prince Dimitrii Maksutov, purchasing all the assets of the departing company for the asking price of $350,000. He and Kohl formed Hutchinson, Kohl & Company whose stockholders by 1872, included the Williams, Haven and Company, and the Parrott group. The original Hutchinson, Kohl group had added John F. Miller and replaced Leopold Boscowitz with Mark Livingston. The resulting partnership was quite mixed in backgrounds. Sloss, Gerstle, Greenewald, Wasserman and Livingston were Jewish; the remaining members were Catholic, Lutheran, Quaker, Congregationalist, and Protestant. Relations among the participants are said to have been extremely harmonious.

Hayward Malcolm Hutchinson. Portrait from Johnston, Samuel P., Ed. Alaska Commercial Company.

Lewis Gerstle. Portrait from Johnston, Samuel P., Ed. Alaska Commercial Company.

Lewis Gerstle (1824-1902) was a Jewish immigrant from Bavaria who, in the 1840s, worked his way across America. In 1850, he landed in the gold rush tent city of San Francisco with just enough pennies to start a fruit stand. He then tried his hand as a miner and failing that went down the Sacramento River where he met up with fellow emigrant Louis Sloss and began a life-long successful mercantile career. Business and family combined when the men married the sisters Hannah and Sarah Greenebaum. After the disastrous floods of the Sacramento River the Gerstles and the Slosses moved to San Francisco in 1862. Their company diversified to selling mining stocks, dealing in hides and furs, and shipping interests as well as capitalizing on other entrepreneurial enterprises. Sloss and Gerstle were life-long associates in all their ventures. Sloss usually functioned as the traveler and negotiator for the firm, and Gerstle as the draftsman of business documents and letters. With the formation of the Alaska Commercial Company and the attainment of a 20-year exclusive lease to harvest seals in the Pribylov Islands, Gerstle’s hard won business acumen and his philanthropy helped mold the development of the Territory of Alaska.  

Louis Sloss (1823-1902) came to America as a young Jewish immigrant from Bavaria, first settling in Kentucky. Within a few years, he joined the gold rush of 1849 where he ended up selling livestock and mercantile goods to other miners. In 1850, he partnered with Simon Greenewald and Lewis Gerstle to operate a wholesale grocery business in Sacramento. They were so successful that, upon moving to San Francisco, they used their disposable income as venture capital to invest in other merchants’ enterprises. Sloss had also teamed up with Lewis Goldstone in a business bringing ice down from Russian America. By the late 1860s, the two men were well known as financing entrepreneurs. They were aware of the upcoming purchase of Alaska and so upon meeting H.M. Hutchinson in San Francisco in 1867, agreed to provide him with a substantial letter of credit. Within a year, Sloss and Gerstle had decided to buy out Hutchinson, Kohl & Company to form the Alaska Commercial Company.

 

Louis Sloss. Portrait from Johnston, Samuel P., Ed. Alaska Commercial Company.

Gustave Niebaum. Portrait from Johnston, Samuel P., Ed. Alaska Commercial Company.

Gustave Niebaum (1842-1908), a Finlander, served the Russian American Company as a merchant mariner’s mate on various vessels. Niebaum purchased the brig Constantine when Prince Matsukov was disposing of Russian American Company assets. He sailed to the Seal Islands and around the Aleutians with both Prince Maksutov and Hayward M. Hutchinson aboard as they visited the former Russian stations now belonging to America. His skill navigating the treacherous Aleutian and Kodiak Islands had gotten him promoted to captain of the steamer Aleksandr. Niebaum knew Kohl, and probably Wasserman and Boscowitz, in the course of his voyages on behalf of the Russians transporting their furs south and goods northbound. When the cession occurred, he purchased the Constantine and sailed as the first American citizen to the Seal Islands where he purchased 11,000 seal skins to take to San Francisco. When he arrived in the spring of 1868, he was persuaded by Kohl and Boscowitz to join the new Hutchinson, Kohl, and Company to carry on his career.

William Kohl (1820-1904) arrived on the West Coast in the 1849 California Gold Rush. Kohl’s vessels plied the coastwise trade from Sitka, where his vessel the Fideliter frequently docked, to San Francisco. Kohl’s extensive shipping experience built the Alaska Commercial Company into the largest merchant fleet in the Pacific by the end of the 1890s. Variously operating sawmills and a wholesale butcher operation for miners, he finally settled on building ships—among them the first San Francisco ferryboat Contra Costa. In later years, Kohl moved to San Francisco where he continued to operate the many shipping interests of Hutchinson, Kohl & Company with an office in the Alaska Commercial Company complex at 310 Sansome Street until his death in 1893. He managed the logistics for shipping furs from the Komandorski Islands seal fishery where  he and Hutchinson had a concession from the Russian government to export pelts. He also oversaw the day-to-day business including the whaling venture involving the Carlotta, which was destroyed in the ice in 1871.

William Kohl. Portrait from Johnston, Samuel P., Ed. Alaska Commercial Company.

August Wasserman, a German-Jewish immigrant, made his living as a wholesale fur and hide dealer, financier, and shipper in Sacramento when Sloss and Gerstle were building up their wholesale grocery business. In the 1860s the men worked together in their respective trades. Then they joined to form Wasserman and Sloss, a wholesale grocery company. Wasserman speculated and invested in various other concerns as well as shipping. When the Alaska Commercial Company was formed, Wasserman became one of the original stockholders. He also worked with Hutchinson, Kohl and Company in moving their Kamchatka seal skins to the fur auctions held in London

Leopold Boscowitz (1830-1871?) was a Jewish immigrant from Bavaria who parlayed his training as a master furrier into the largest fur trading enterprise in the Oregon Territory by the 1860s. Thoroughly familiar with West Coast trade, he often shipped furs aboard the ship Fideliter owned by Captain William Kohl, and consigned his pelts to San Francisco fur dealer August Wasserman. Together with his brother, Joseph in Victoria, B.C., he created a business that rivaled that of the Hudson Bay Fur Company, which lost its concession in the Russian colonies in 1863. He won the bid for the former United States Revenue Cutter Service vessel Joseph Lane as a principal for Hutchinson, Kohl and Company and renamed the vessel H. M. Hutchinson. He provided introductions to Hayward M. Hutchinson, building the network of merchants who would coalesce into the most successful corporation in early California history. 

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