Reading #9

Theme 2: Industry

Period: Russian (1741-1867)

As the Introduction to this packet noted, there was no fur seal industry on the Pribilof Islands before the Russian discovery in 1786. From that year until 1799, a number of competing companies sent small work parties, called "artels," of Unangan and Russian hunters to the islands to obtain pelts. In 1799 a single company, the Russian-American Company, was given the monopoly over all trade in Alaska (then called Russian America). The company also served as the government in the colony, with rights to collect taxes, uphold laws, issue money, punish criminals, and eventually run schools and support the work of Russian Orthodox priests. The company appointed one man to be "baidarshchik" or hunt leader of each island, to oversee all the fur sealing operations. In addition, several other Russians were stationed on the island as blacksmiths, carpenters, and other workers, but the harvesting of fur seals was performed by Unangan men. The Russians appointed one Unanga{ to be leader or toion of the other Unangan. They sought a man who was well-respected and a natural leader in fact, who was a recognized leader in the Unangan society  to be in charge of organizing other hunters and harvesters.

At first the Unangan workers were forced to leave their homes on the Aleutian Islands for three or four-year terms while they worked on the Pribilofs. Eventually, however, permanent villages were established, wives moved into them, families were raised, and the workforce became permanent residents.

The first paragraph, following, was reported by Father Ivan Veniaminov in Notes on the Islands of the Unalashka District, 1984 (originally 1840):

Buildings here are a wooden chapel, dedicated to Saint George, a house and a store built of boards, barracks, and other subsidiary structures of ordinary earthen construction; all these structures, with the exception of one or two semi-subterranean ones, belong to the company.

Kyril T. Khlebnikov was manager of the Russian-American Company office in Novo-Arkhangelsk (today called Sitka) from 1818 to 1832. The following information is taken from his reports, collected in Notes on Russian America (Parts II - V, 1994, pp. 281, 289, 290-1).

[In 1825, the St. George] settlement is on the north side of the island. It . . . is craggy all around, and because of this little driftwood is cast up, and it is impossible to collect enough to build with. All the huts, both the house of the leader and the barracks for the Russians and the Aleuts, storage warehouses and other shelters are made of planks covered with earth.

Fur Seals
Fur seals come from the south in the middle of April. The males arrive first and lie in rocky spots along the coast of the island. The females arrive in the middle of May. A single male occupies a large area, and when the females draw near the shore, the male utters cries, and in response to the cries of each male, females gather and lie in the vicinity of each, thus forming separate families. The full-grown males have as many as 200 to 300 females; the weak or aging ones have one or two. Having settled down in this manner, the female does not leave the shore until she has given birth to a pup. From the month of June the male begins to mate with the females, once with each. On these occasions the jealousy of the full-grown males can be terrible, and as sometimes the females move from one herd to join another, the males attack each other, and it is not rare that one of them is killed. From constant observation it is reliably known that from April until July when the male is with all the females, he lies on the shore and does not go down to the water nor does he eat. Therefore, he becomes dry and weak.

Until the month of June the young seals crawl around on the rocks without going down to the water, but in June [nowadays, normally in July] they get down between the rocks and splash in the water. When the pup grows up a little, the female carries it not far from the shore and throws it into the sea, swimming beside it herself. In the meantime the pup tries to crawl ashore, and if it does get out, the mother once again grabs it with her teeth and drags it into the water, continuing this every day until it learns to swim. By August the pup has become a marine animal. They spend all night on the rocks, in the morning they go down into the water and swim for about four hours, about noon they return to shore, rest and then go back into the water for the same length of time.

The fur seals feed on fish and crabs in the sea. Experienced hunters assume, based on many observations, that the males live up to 20 years and the females up to 15. The size of a full-grown male fur seal is that of a two-year-old calf. The fur is dark grey, the length from the head to the middle of the body is longer than the back end, the chest is broad.

Fur Seal Hunting
When the newly born seals reach the right age and the time draws near for them to leave the islands, then, i.e., in the latter part of September and the beginning of October, the drive begins. This is done as follows: all the people are used to go along the edge of the shore, and all the seals are chased inland from the sea without discrimination. Having chased the whole herd onto flat land, the full-grown males, bachelors, and adult females are chased back to the sea. The young ones, which are to be slaughtered, are chased nearer the settlement. Care is taken to chase them slowly and give them periods of rest for if forced they soon tire and die, especially if there is no wind to refresh them. Having chased them to the settlement they are killed with sticks. The number of seals chased at one time on Paul Island is from 3,000 to 4,000, while on George from 500 to 2,000.

After the kill, the skins of the seal are removed, some of the meat is hung to dry for winter use, and some is salted down to be shipped to Novo-Arkhangelsk. The seal skins are stretched on wooden frames. Then they are dried in specially constructed driers which are heated with rocks, and firewood is added four times in 24 hours to keep up a light heat. This work lasts all of October. Every bundle is made up of fifty sealskins, they are tightly bound with straps of seal lion hide, and each bale is marked. The cleaning and drying of the skins requires careful attention, as the least carelessness can damage the skins.

Ivan Veniaminov reported on the pay Unangan workers received for the fur seal harvest in the Pribilof Islands in the mid-1800s in Notes on the Islands of the Unalashka District, 1984 (originally 1840):

The best hunters receive from 200 to 250 rubles a year, ordinary ones from 120 to 200 rubles, and the least ones, i.e., the elderly and the sick, who work only at the time of fur seal taking, receive from 40 to 80 rubles. In addition, the wives of many of them receive a salary of from 60 to 100 rubles a year for sewing baidarka (uluta{) covers and so forth. Besides, they also have the means to stock up intestines, throat membranes, and skins, that is, all the things needed for baidarkas which all the other Aleuts lack.

[Alaskool Home] [Table of Contents]