Reading #14

Theme 2: Industry

Period: American (1867 - present)

The following information was excerpted from the National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for St. George Island, 1986.

In 1867 the Russian government sold the Russian-American Colony to the United States of America. Through the Army, the War Department administered Alaska from the purchase in 1867 until 1877, except for the Seal Islands, which were declared a special reservation for governmental purposes and placed under the control of the Department of Treasury. Consistent with American laissez-faire economic principles in 1870, the government granted the Alaska Commercial Company a twenty year lease for the exclusive rights to the resources of the Seal Islands. . . .

In 1890 the North American Commercial Company won the lease over the seal industry and the administration of the islands. . . . At that time the following buildings were reported on St. George: Twenty-one Native houses, one dwelling house with furniture, household effects, library, one store building, one warehouse and shop, coal storehouse, a slat house at Zapadni, and dwelling. Under the lease system the Company paid the Aleuts a piece rate, averaging about 40 or 50 cents a skin during the 1890s, equaling about three percent of the harvest. Beginning in 1894, Congress appropriated $19,500 annually for all but a year as a poverty reduction measure. During the moratorium, dictated by the Sealing Convention of 1911, the Aleut people were left without a cash income. Foreseeing the problem, the Convention also designated the United States Department of Commerce and its Bureau of Fisheries responsible for the welfare of the Aleut people. As a result, the Aleuts were paid in supplies from the government store and in coal. . . . With the end of the moratorium and the economic stimulus of World War I the seal harvest began again in 1918, and Aleut laborers were paid wages, supplies, and services based upon their position in the harvest and processing.

In 1912 "A Bill to create a Territorial Legislature in the Territory of Alaska, to confer legislative powers thereon and for other purposes" established a territorial form of government that lasted until statehood in 1959. The Pribilof Islands were again an exception. In 1903 the administration of the "seal islands" was transferred from the Secretary of the Treasury to the Secretary of Commerce and Labor, who placed the islands under the direct control of the Commissioner of Fisheries in 1908. The 1910 Fur Seal Act ended the private lease system and placed the Pribilofs under the jurisdiction of the Federal government. . . . In 1958 the industry was considered important enough that the Federal Government retained sovereignty over the Pribilof seals, agreeing to pay the new State of Alaska seventy per cent of the net proceeds from the seal industry. But the islands [themselves] became part of the new State of Alaska and the old pattern of administration disappeared.

At the time of the Purchase the seal herds were considered the only resource of real economic value in the territory. This industry alone repaid the American government many times over the purchase price of Alaska. During the tenure of the Alaska Commercial Company the seal industry yielded annual profits to the U.S. Government alone of $2,500,000. As an international industry, the profits extended from the company to the European fashion industry that purchased the processed pelts at London auctions. The North Pacific Sealing Convention of 1911 mandated a moratorium on sealing that eliminated the entire industry until after World War I.

In the 1920s the sealing industry boomed. As a result of the moratorium the herds increased dramatically in size. . . . Over the next decade [there] was an increase in the number of animals taken and a decrease in the number of breeders retained. . . . During the 1940s the annual yield of sealskins leveled off. By 1952 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists determined that the herd had reached, or was near, its peak of development numbering 1,500,000 animals. . . . In 1967 the industry was still profitable; the seal skins from the Pribilofs sold for $2,839,682.

In 1957 a new interim North Pacific Fur Seal Convention had been concluded between Canada, Japan, the USSR, and the United States, which remained in effect until 1985. For all practical purposes the commercial sealing industry ended with the expiration of the treaty. Sealing is no longer the primary concern on [the Pribilofs]. Community leaders on both islands are working to establish a diversified economic base. . . . St. George constructed a boat harbor and marine repair facility at Zapadni, and Tanaq Corporation is involved in fisheries and a limited tourist industry.

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