Traps That Caught An Empire
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE first serious interest taken in Alaska concerned Alaska's fur; and just as John Smith's 1614 voyage and return with a profitable cargo of fish and furs gave title of New England to the northeastern wedge of America, so Bering's men, returning with sea-otter pelts, made Catherine claim her fur-piece in the northwest segment of the continent. Fish and furs still continue, and have long continued, two of the main sources of the Great Country's richness and revenue.
Fur trade in Alaska has been cut to the same pat-tern that determined the early chapters of New England and inner Canada. In i600 Chauvin obtained exclusive rights to the fur trade in " The New Land" ;in 1614 Nicolet the fur trader, under Champlain, worked his way up the Ottawa River and Great Lakes into Wisconsin. In 1670 Charles II granted a charter to Prince Rupert and seventeen other noblemen and gentlemen, incorporating them as the " Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay," securing to them " the sole trade and commerce of all the seas, straits, bays, rivers, lakes, creeks and sounds, in whatsoever latitude they shall be, within the entrance of the straits," and with this grant went complete over-lordship and entire legislative, judicial and executive control, within these vague limits. In almost the same words, more than a century later, Catherine II by Imperial ukase gave a charter to the Shelikof-Golikof Company granting exclusive trade and exclusive control in the regions they already occupied, and in 1799 the feeble-minded Paul I created the Russian American Company, which owned Alaska and ran it as a great fur factory. Up to the purchase of Alaska and for more than thirty years thereafter, traffic in furs was the chief intent of the new territory. Mining was incidental, for Alaska's great mineral wealth was unguessed and unknown.
The Shelikof-Golikof Fur Company in Alaska was merged with several other independent companies and individuals who had been trading in the new world—" promyshleniki ", Russian freebooters and coiffeurs de bois who hunted on their own account and at their own risk. Thus was formed a great monopoly like the Hudson Bay Company, with similar delegated military and civil powers in the colony. Several members of the Russian royal family, as well as the Imperial Government itself, were heavy shareholders, and this company held unbroken grip on Russian-American trade until just before Alaska's transfer. In sea otter Russia had found a fur precious enough to colonize a continent; for Alaska is a continent, as well as a peninsula—as Europe is a peninsula of Asia.
Several of Captain Cook's officers and men had traded trifles from their kits for sea-otter peltry, with the natives of Alaska. On their way home after his death they sold these skins in Canton for ten thousand dollars! The mandarins, too, for their state robes, as well as the fair Catherine, had a keen eye for the beauty of these exquisite seal-like pelts, with fur of silky wool that dropped so softly, dense, varying in color from pale gray and rich brown to deepest black. Their heads were like sable caps of velvet, when swimming, their fur was sprinkled unevenly with frosty hairs in points, their pelage gleamed like lustre of old silver upon antique bronze. News of these fabulous Chinese prices went flying around the world with Cook's far-sailing men, and Winship, Cleveland and Rowan, Meares, Portlock and Dixon, Quadra, Martinez and Caamano,—" republicans of Boston and America," as Baranof called them, " King George men " as well as " Russ men," and others under the Spanish, Swedish, French or Portuguese flags—scoured these bays and inlets and warped into every cove for the sea-beaver, morskie bobri, most valuable fur in the world market. During the closing years of the eighteenth century and the opening decade of the nineteenth, it is estimated that from eight to ten thousand sea-otter skins were taken to Asia each year from the southern waters of Alaska. Hence—Baranof, the Iron Governor!
Under him, redoubts—odinatischka—were built, and fleets of hundreds of bidarkas combed the sounds. As the Russians said : " When the cod are all gone from Archangel, then the morskie bobri may go from Alaska." Today, by federal law, no sea-otter killing is permitted in Alaskan waters; but to-day there are practically no sea otters left to kill. I doubt if a hundred white inhabitants of Alaska have seen a sea-otter pelt. I doubt if ten have seen a live sea otter. The animal is almost extinct, thanks to those bucko mates who " traded with cannon, shotted with grape." Dr. Stellar, the ardent naturalist who accompanied Bering, told that in his day " they covered the shore in great droves. . . . We killed upward of eight hundred of them, and if the narrow limits of the craft we constructed had permitted, we could have killed three times as many.” Today the sea otter is a scattered fugitive and al-most a myth, where once it was so thickly plentiful about the broken reefs and kelp patches. Sea otter was to the Russian Court what ermine has been to other princely European powers, and sea otter built the early Russian churches of Alaska. A single pelt has been sold for five thousand dollars, and sea otter provided the golden fleece of Alaska's first argonauts. For sea otter in early Alaska days took the place of beaver in the early Northwest, of sable in Siberia—" an immediate worth-while prize of trade and wealth."
The Alaskan Indians had not considered it highly, before the Russians came. They made some garments of its warm soft fur, but hair seal and sea lion had a better meat, and their hides were better rain-coat material for the moist and drippy climate of the southern coast. But Catherine found the fur "monstrous becoming," and sea otter were soon rated at a premium above gold in Imperial taxes. Today its pelt is truly more than worth its weight in gold, and you cannot walk into even the best of fur shops and say, " I'd like to see a sea-otter skin." If you do, they'll probably smile at you—and call the manager! The only pelts I've seen are either precious keepsakes of Russian emigres, or dangerously poached and smuggled skins, two of which I was once shown in a lonely beach cabin of Alaska—behind locked doors, under a pledge of absolute secrecy.
For many years the transfer of Alaska to the United States merely changed commercial fur managers for the country. The Alaska Commercial Company secured a lease of the seal islands for twenty years, took over many of the old Russian-American trading posts in middle and western Alaska, and continued the rule of fur, discouraging settlement by whites.
It is claimed that a hundred thousand seal skins were taken from the Pribilof group in a single year under this lease, and in 1885 Lieutenant Allen found that the Alaska Commercial Company was furnishing scattered traders on the Yukon with supplies at twenty-five per cent. above San Francisco prices and charging a fixed amount for transportation up the river. In return the traders must agree to transfer to the Company all furs they could obtain, and at prices about one half of the San Francisco prices. The Indians had to take out their price in trade, so that here again was handsome profit; and half-breed Russians, who could see how the natives were being cheated and overcharged, led frequent revolts. The whole western part of Alaska and the vast Interior were for long years under the thumb of a great monopoly which, as Father Kashevaroff says : recognized no law but its own gain. . Volumes could be written about the abuses practiced, the oppression akin to slavery meted out to the natives and the people who came under its rule. The poor people, who heard of the transfer of the Territory to the United States and expected better conditions, were sorely disappointed. The first taskmasters under the Russian rule were unscrupulous in their treatment of the people under their control. Having come from the ranks of exiles, criminal and political prisoners, they knew no mercy to the weaker ones. They kept the people in ignorance and slavery. The second masters, the American monopoly under the guise of successors to the Russian Company, were very little better.
The fur seals which make their home on the Pribilof Islands in Bering Sea belong to a species distinct from any other fur seal, and this Alaskan herd comprises, it is safe to say, ninety per cent. of all existing fur seal in the world. The number in the Pribilof herd when Alaska was purchased has been estimated at from two to five million. During a period of forty years, following upon 1870, the right to take fur-seal skins here was leased by the United States Government to a private corporation. Pelagic sealing, however, soon developed into such proportions and was pushed with such greed and lack of foresight that the very existence of the herd was threatened. It was evident that unless something very drastic was done, fur seals would go the way of sea otters and become practically extinct.
Four nations were interested, and for many years had been keenly interested, in the fur-seal industry and the very moot question of " pelagic sealing." This term, which has been the subject of such hot international dispute centering about Alaskan waters, should be defined, I think. " Pelagic " sealing means " the killing of seals while they are in the water," and those familiar with Greek will recognize here the old root word meaning " open sea." While the United States permitted the killing of seals by its leasing company when the seals were on the islands for purposes of breeding, Great Britain, Russia and Japan had been killing seals in open Bering Sea and the North Pacific, where a large proportion of the animals killed were not secured, but lost. Also, when killed in the water, both males and females were taken, and this was economically wasteful. The young were born upon the Pribilofs, and remained there while the mother mammals went to sea, hunting for food. If the mother was killed while absent, the pup was left alone upon the islands to starve to death, and thousands of seal pups had been so starved to death there in a single season. On the other hand, Sovereign Powers claimed their perfect right, under the law of nations, to hunt and kill seal in the open sea.
At the suggestion of Lord Salisbury each of the Powers concerned in this pelagic controversy named two arbiters, and the President of France, the King of Italy, and the King of Norway and Sweden each named one. The sittings of the tribunal began in Paris in 1893, and the' United States argued here that:
Seals had some of the characteristics of domestic animals, and could therefore be the subject of something in the nature of a right of property. They were so far amenable to human control that it was possible to take their increase without destroying the stock. Sealing upon the land was legitimate sealing, and the United States being the owners of the land, the industry was a trust vested in them for the benefit of mankind. On the other hand, pelagic sealing, being a method of promiscuous slaughter, was illegitimate; it was contra bonos mores and analagous to piracy. Consequently the United States claimed a right to restrain such practices, both as proprietors of the seals and as proprietors and trustees of the legitimate industry.
The final result of this discussion was a four-power treaty, entered into between the United States, Great Britain, Russia and Japan, entirely prohibiting pelagic sealing in the North Pacific and Bering Sea. When the second sealing lease expired in 1910, the United States Government itself took over the entire management of the sealing industry on the Pribilof Islands. The size of the herd has now increased to nearly a million head once more, only three-year-old males of the best fur-bearing age are killed, and then only at the most favorable time of year. A quarter million skins have already been sold by Uncle Sam himself at the St. Louis fur market, and the profits turned into the United States Treasury—a certain fraction of this sum being divided between Japan and Great Britain to compensate them for their " hands off " agreement. The only open-sea hunters now allowed are the Pacific Coast natives, who are permitted by the treaty to " carry on pelagic sealing in canoes or undecked boats propelled wholly by paddles, oars or sails, and not transported by or used in connection with other vessels, and manned by not more than five persons each, in the way hitherto practiced by the said Indians, Aleuts, or other aborigines, and without the use of firearms."
The Pribilofs are the natural chosen breeding grounds of the fur-seal herds, and here each summer their young are born. After the breeding season is over, the seals leave the islands in the fall on their annual sea migration, going south—some as far as southern California. The fur seal is a strong believer in polygamy, and the breeding males are huge, five hundred pounds in weight, while the cows average less than ninety pounds. As the males do not breed until they are seven or eight years old, and the females bear their first pups when they are but three years old, it is easy to see that it is a great saving of animal life, and a very simple matter when regulated, to select the animals that are to be killed from the young male seals, which do not associate with the breeding animals but keep to themselves in care-free bachelor groups in separate parts of the islands.
The adult animals are of a grayish-brown color, but the new-born pups are jet black and do not turn grayish until after they take their first swimming lesson, when about six weeks old. They grow so rapidly, however, that they are well able to leave the islands in the fall with the older seals, on their going-south journey. Strangely, the only place in Alaska where the fur-seal herd ever comes ashore is on these Pribilof Islands. Between times they ply the North Pacific sea-lanes. In early summer, about a month before the cows come north, the males proceed to the fog-shrouded breeding islands, where each bull seal establishes his plot of land, much as settlers did in the famous land-rushes of the West. He squats on it, and he fights for it! Free-for-all scrimmages and torn and ruined pelts are the order of the day, just as soon as the cow seals begin to appear, and for this reason the skin of an old bull seal is worthless as fur.
A harem selected, fought for, and established, housekeeping is next set up, pups are born, are fed, and the youngsters taught to swim. This takes all summer, and all this time the young bachelor crowd are kept jealously sequestered to one side, where they spend their days in light-hearted sports, tumbling, flipper-cuffing, and fancy diving. Their healthy youth, their fine fur all unblemished of scars, one hapless day will bring a swift tap on the head by Uncle Sam's own agent, and soon you or I have a lustrous coat, made of eight or ten of him—a fur that will stand wear and tear, year in and year out, and a more permanent investment than is almost any other pelage. After the skins are removed they are preserved in salt; and when thoroughly cured, they are packed in barrels and shipped to the public fur auctions where, before sale, they are dressed, dyed, and prepared for making into fine garments. More than a hundred distinct processes are used in treating each pelt, and the least time required is two months, so that the result, which perhaps seems costly, is a dressed skin of the greatest beauty and durability. Many of the processes and formulas involved in dressing, dyeing, and machining the skins are closely-guarded trade secrets, and only a very few groups of fur-workers in all the world know how to handle these pelts in the way which best brings out their remarkable qualities. The fur is dyed either a black or the now more fashionable (as it was in my mother's girlhood days!) log-wood brown," Bois de Campeche."
To many people Alaska is still looked upon as a vast fur farm (which it is—though it is so much more), and as most of my friends who have visited me in Alaska have asked first about the typical Alaska furs and how to select them, I'll suggest a few of the most distinctive skins to be sought in the Great Country. Each type has special qualities, for service or beauty, which sometimes only the experienced fur-wise person realizes.
Climbing partly out from the water on Alaska's fur scale we come to muskrat, or " musquash," as the English people prefer to call this hard-service, relatively durable fur. Only far northern " rats" have the deepest, glossiest coats, southern rats are far less beautiful in pelage color, and western rats do not wear so well, I'm told. Assure yourself, if possible, that you have true northern skins before you invest in a muskrat coat. I have one that I have worn continuously each winter for twenty years, and recently I was offered more than I paid for it originally—which goes to prove that in selecting furs it pays to buy only the very best. The compact body of the muskrat in his native northern haunt is completely covered with a dense, soft, gray under-fur, guarded by shiny, long and dark brown water-hairs. Pluck those long guard-hairs, shear the under fur evenly, dye it black, and you have " Hudson seal "—but a less durable fur than true sealskin. The musk-rat will never be found far from water, and many a distant corner of Alaskan forest echoes to his splash as, with a leap and fling, his flat scaly tail strikes upon the stream.
The water-hairs of beaver are either cut level with the rest of the fur (unplucked) or entirely removed (plucked beaver). Here is an extremely durable fur, heavy-skinned and long-wearing like all aquatic pelage. Deeply-furred pelts are most prized, and such are found in this far corner of Uncle Sam's attic, for they are evidence of hard winters sturdily survived. You would expect " the engineer " to have a well-built double-service coat, as well as his cunningly contrived two-story house, and these he surely has.
Land otter is another far northern fur, and common land otter—as distinct from the rare and costly sea otter—is found all over Alaska except on the extreme north and west coasts. He, too, prefers a combination of timber and stream. With a rather large skin, of dark and richly glossy dense brawn fur, he has a deep layer of fat under that strong hide which feeds the thick pelt and also protects him from the cold when swimming in his ice-cold waterways. A handsome, sportive fisherman is Otter—" The joyful, keen, and fearless otter "—with a sturdy gentlemanly pelage, extremely durable.
Fox ranching is the latest game in Alaska, and white (" Arctic "), blue, red, cross, black and silver are all to be found here. The fox farmer can have no close neighbors, however, and if he has not an island all his own he must go to the expense of putting up costly woven-wire fences, that must go down as well as up, for "foxes have holes!" In general, the colder the climate the longer and denser the fur, and Alaskan foxes are also said to be the largest in the world.
The lovely red fox wears all the colors of burning autumn on his coat—yellow and orange, red and brown, black on leg and white on big fine tip of brush. Aside from the special white and blue fox, any fox not actually red or black (silver) is a " cross fox," and a fine cross can be a superb pelage of softly blended color. Prime silver or black foxes are next to sea otter in pelt value, and while $2,625 is a record price for a black pelt, $34,000 is said to have been paid for a live pair destined for fox farming. Foxes are always fashionable fur, for if the tan shades are being worn, then red and cross and beige-dyed Arctic are the rage; while if blue and gray and black are reigning colors, then Arctic, blue (real or taupe-dyed), silver or black foxes will be desired. Fox fur is fragile, because the long guard-hairs are brittle and easily broken. The further north you go, the larger grows the brush which Reynard tucks about his nose and pads at night when he curls down to sleep, and his coat, too, is developed by the cold.
The Alaska fox is clever, but another Alaskan animal is the very symbol of alert observation. The most beautiful building in Washington (a city of beautiful buildings) is, to my mind, The National Academy of Science, a subtle harmony of white marble and eruginous green. In deep relief about this building, composing the copper cheneau, are figures of the owl of Minerva typifying wisdom, and of the lynx, symbol of that sharp-eyed observation so necessary for scientific research. Alaskan lynx carries a very lovely robe indeed, and seems to me the finest of Alaska's furs for tailors' uses. Some dye it black to imitate black fox, but its natural soft tones are so beautifully blended and harmonize so graciously with almost any color, that to dye this fine northern species of lynx seems to fur lovers a crime. Lynx is found all over Alaska, except in the extreme west. He is catlike, soft and furry, is very large, and his enormous feet are really snowshoes, packed with hairs between the pads. His ears are marvelously pricked and high-tufted, and he wears a stately bib of long white fur under his throat, and very feline whiskers! Fine lynx is a pelage long neglected in the fur markets, but now fast becoming justly popular.
Wolverine is an Alaskan fur animal of extraordinary power for his size, a small bear in vigor and intelligence but far more " ornery " in disposition! He is truly the scavenger of the North, " the glut-ton," following bears and wolves to eat their table leavings. Fine wolverine fur is blackish brown, with paler brown bands that begin at the shoulders and meet on the tail, skunk fashion, making a striking de-sign. Seemingly this fur never wears out, and in my opinion it is fully as beautiful as most fox pelts. He is a tireless ranger, can live on one good meal a week, and, say old hunters, " a mother bear may at-tack, a mother wolverine will!" A wolverine will attack anything, of any size, and " lick its weight in wildcats!" Wolverine is found ranging the entire mainland of Alaska, wherever stands of spruce timber are found. He is a difficult beast to trap, a terrible camp robber, " devilishly clever," " a pest." Trappers hate him, for he ravages their trap lines.
But Eskimo women prefer wolverine above every other fur, for it is the only fur, they say, which will not frost with moisture from the breath. Wood-brown wolverine frames becomingly the copper faces of all Alaska's Eskimos, within their handsome parka hoods; and Muk-pi's necessity is the luxury of Fifth Avenue, for I have seen stunning wolverine-trimmed coats in the windows of the very finest shops there.
As we approach the aristocrats of furdom, surely mink must be considered first—generation-wearing, always coveted by fashion. Fur workers call it " an honest fur," for its life and quality are long. Fur trappers call it " dependable," for there is always a ready and eager market for fine dark mink skins. One of my trapper friends said to me not long ago, "We caught plenty of big dark mink this year, be-cause the salmon canneries at the mouth of the Yukon have been closed." Perhaps you ask, " What on earth have salmon to do with mink? " The answer is, " What have oats to do with horses?" Old trappers believe that the rich oily meat of the salmon, in forest-bordered rivers of Alaska, is to the silky coat of Alaska's mink what oats are to the blue-ribboner of the Horse Show. As a bay horse, well fed and well cared for, will have a smoother, oilier, darker-appearing coat than that same horse turned out to rustle on scrubby range—rough-haired and sun-burned dry—so the gloss and the glow of health and well-fed vigor, essential to fine mink peltries, seem to depend in good part upon diet. The trappers say :
" No salmon—no fine sable mink!" Fish diet has other by-products than brains, in the far North!
Darkly-wooded river courses, rich in fish—these are mink's solitary habitat, for he is a great fisher and a great ratter, diving, swimming, living in holes and banks and streams. Dark brown, darker brown on back and nearly black of tail, with sometimes a white spot on his throat, he looks like a large well-furred rat, with short, close and even under-fur protected by glossy and strong top hair. He, too, is amphibious, and his water sports make his pelt more wiry and more durable than marten. Mink are being ranched successfully in many sections of Alaska, as well as trapped over all of the forested fresh-water areas.
Marten has a heavier-seeming body and a far bushier tail than mink, and is arboreal in his habit. His lovely aristocratic fur is a soft, silky brown, shading into blackish brown on tail and legs, grayish of head, with a white or yellow or sometimes brightly orange spot on throat or belly. The under-wool is close, warm and exceptionally soft, while the top hairs are fine and flowing. He lives all over Alaska except upon the farthest north and west unwooded coasts, for he is most at home and wears his best raiment in darkest, thickest spruce forests, which tend to make his coat dark and heavy, also. He doesn't like settlers, and resents and avoids the scent and mark of axe on clearings in his timberland.
" Sable," the last word in fur luxury, is trade name among fur men for the highest grade of dark-furred marten, and is the most expensive pelage, reckoned by square foot unit. But the word " sable " has been much abused by the trade. Because, though meaning merely " very dark " or " black " it still carries a connotation of Russian sable (and " Russian sable " is the trade name for darkest and silkiest of the marten family), dyed skunk has been ennobled by calling it in alias " Alaska sable "—an insult to both words! —and low-grade mink and yellow marten have been " sabled " or " topped " by tinting the long hairs with a dark dye, drawn through them on a comb. There are many tricks in the fur trade, and those who live where fine furs really grow are often amused and shocked to see the sports and subterfuges of the less scrupulous fur dealers Outside; but to most people the real fur world is unknown. A whole book could be written about fur substitutes and fur disguises, but two patent facts remain when all is considered: It is well never to buy furs except from an honest person or firm, one knowing fur; and—in spite of all the artifice and trading on the public's general ignorance, employed by the unscrupulous in both these trades—fine furs and precious stones remain among the choicest treasures of humankind, as they have for time immemorial and probably always will, so long as women love beauty in color and texture.
There is one truly regal fur found in Alaska which we have yet to mention, and that is ermine. This royal member of the weasel family is a turncoat, and yet this very quality is his claim to eminent distinction and not a stain upon his escutcheon. He merely adapts himself to his environment, does stoat, and in the summer merges with his drab and stony haunts by wearing a thin coat of tawn or beige. But when snow falls he dons a robe of sleek white samite. The tip of tail remains jet black year round, however, and when tiny ermine skins are made up into coronation robes for kings and symmetrically spotted over with black, the garment is said to be of miniver. The finest ermine comes from the far north, is always fashionable, but needs the care its regal formality de-serves.
Before the discovery of gold, before the development of fisheries, came fur, and many of our interior sections of Alaska are today quite as much fur lands as were sections of the West a century ago. This long-time home of mine lies upon the vast inner highway of the waters, and here and now this section is passing through a transition from scattered settlement to seriously attempted colonization; and here and now explorers, trappers " out looking for fur tracks," and home-makers are alike at work building up a future state, in different sections of The Great Country. We inherit still that passion of all first corners for furs—a craving that seemed fairly to flame in our forefathers, too, even when the oldest West was the Atlantic seaboard itself. The quest for furs that led them ever deeper and deeper into the retreating forests at last made open and desirable an entire continent, even with inexorable death forever stalking close beside them upon the trail. At one time the vanity of empresses and of courts, today—the vanitys of shop-girls and of post-war millionairesses-all this vanity of vanities is serving, by the subtle mystery of demand, to develop the rich fur trade in our present colony of the North; and because of the far-reaching tributaries of the Yukon, pioneers will for years to come keep passing on and up its wide-spread laterals, striking boldly into the dim forests that border all its waters, with eager patience setting their remote trap lines.