REVIEW - OPENING OF THE MARITIME FUR TRADE AT BERING STRAIT

Bockstoce, John R., Opening of the Maritime Fur Trade at Bering Strait. American Philosophical Society. Softbound. 59 pages + bibliography and index. Black and white illustrations, three maps. $24.00.

Instead of the usual sole reliance on the accounts of the European explorers, Arctic expert Bockstoce gives us the exploits of fur traders like John Jacob Astor’s associates John Ebbets, Peter Dobell, and their peers. All of these sailed around the Pacific, picking up foodstuffs in the Philippines, sandalwood in Hawaii, and furs in Siberia. They worked for Astor and other companies, and occasionally purchased ships and traded for themselves.

The Russian American Company, like all major corporations, did not freely release information to the general public. Consequently, when Otto von Kotzebue, whose voyage was privately funded, printed his book and maps concerning his discoveries in the Bering Straits, the RAC was very angry. The American traders thought Kotzebue’s report disclosed excellent opportunities for obtaining furs.

They ran into problems in Kotzebue Sound and other points in Alaska. The Siberians and Alaskan Inupiat and Yupik had traded and fought and generally enjoyed themselves for centuries. They were not pleased when interlopers showed up. While at first not overtly hostile, it was made clear there was little to trade. Later, when the Inupiat found their numbers were superior, they became quite threatening, a characteristic of most people.

Bockstock excels at putting the American fur trade into context. Besides the lengthy quotes from the traders, he brings up the Russian ban on trade along Alaska’s coast by foreigners in 1821 and the increased Russian exploration of her only colony.

Overall, an excellent read for those interested in the subject, and a "must" read for the serious scholar of Russian America.

D. L.

 

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