AHS Blog  |  49 History

Graphing the Sea Otter Hunt

Date Posted: November 6, 2015       Categories: 49 History

by Richard Ravalli, William Jessup University


The recent monograph by historian Ryan Jones entitled Empire of Extinction: Russians and the North Pacific’s Strange Beasts of the Sea, 1741-1867 is a valuable study of the Russian sea otter trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[1] Not the least of the book’s contributions to fur trade scholarship is its appendix. Jones provides a list of hunting expeditions in the North Pacific, from Vitus Bering’s fateful mission in 1741 to 1800. As he explains, such lists (based on scattered and incomplete shipping records) have appeared in previous works on Russian America. Yet according to Jones, greater use of the data will allow scholars to more accurately reflect the environmental dynamics of sea otter hunting in Alaska and the North Pacific.


Calling into question the assertion that the Aleutian Islands were not overhunted by the Russians during their tenure there, Jones’s list demonstrates a steady and increasing slaughter of sea otters over the course of the 1700s, as Russian promyshlenniki ventured east, encountered new island groups, and pressured indigenous people to kill the animals. I decided to graph his data on sea otter catches in a manner similar to how I and others have graphed records relating to the California otter trade.[2] A comparison of the Russian hunt with the California data illuminates a number of important realities. The high point in the California sea otter trade was reached in its second “full decade” (1801-1809) when 22,578 otters skins were transported from Spanish shores, or 45.18% of the total exported skins. After that period, the numbers dropped off steadily and never recovered. This peak was due in large part to Russian and American contract ventures that brought skilled Aleut hunters south to poach sea otters in Spanish California, the same native peoples employed by Russian masters to decimate the creatures along shores farther north. By the 1810s these contract voyages ceased, yet the environmental damage left in their wake was striking, especially when one considers that sea otters were historically more abundant in Alaska and the North Pacific than in California. With fewer otters to start with, California quickly ran low on the species.

Click on the graphs below to enlarge.

ryan's data

ogden graph

The graph of Jones’s data not only confirms the Alaskan sea otter’s abundance, but is further evidence that Aleuts and Russians were a deadly combination for Enhydra lutris. Hunters reached “California peak” levels above 20,000 sea otter skins and never dipped below that threshold for the remainder of the 18th century. The lowest decade after mid-century, 1760-1769, produced 20,099 skins. A substantial spike in the 1790s is the result of a decade-long take by the Shelikov-Golikov Company that resulted in 64,000 skins, according to Jones’s chart. Such a slaughter punctuated a dramatic 50-year decline of the sea otter that Russian authorities only began to take seriously by the end of the 18th century. In the early 1800s, conservation measures meant to undo some of this environmental damage in the North Pacific were put in place. (I hope to compare the Russian efforts with those undertaken by officials in Mexican California to regulate the sea otter hunt in a future blog.) Prior to then, the Siberian proverb that “God is high above, and the tsar is far away” appears to have been the prevailing attitude—at least that’s what the numbers say.


[1] Ryan Tucker Jones, Empire of Extinction: Russians and the North Pacific’s Strange Beasts of the Sea, 1741-1867 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).


[2] Richard Ravalli, Kirsten Livingston and Hannah Zimmerman, “A Revised List of Vessels Engaged in the California Sea Otter Trade, 1786-1847,” International Journal of Maritime History XXIV:2 (December 2012): 225-238. Also see Terry L. Jones et al., “Toward a Prehistory of the Southern Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris nereis),” in Todd J. Braje and Torben C. Rick (eds.,), Human Impacts on Seals, Sea Lions, and Sea Otters: Integrating Archaeology and Ecology in the Northeast Pacific (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

Happy Halloween from AHS!

Date Posted: October 31, 2015       Categories: 49 History


Halloween revelers on St. George Island in 1924 (Credit: Richard G. and Mary S. Culbertson Photograph Collection, ASL-P390-030, Alaska State Library)

Dreams of Over-the-Snow Travel

Date Posted: August 31, 2015       Categories: 49 History
Allan Air Sled. University of Alaska Fairbanks, Archives, Henry Boos Family Collection (72-123-17).

Allan Air Sled. University of Alaska Fairbanks, Archives, Henry Boos Family Collection (72-123-17).

by Chris Allan

The challenge of mechanized travel over snow vexed inventors for many years after the Wright Brothers introduced the world to motorized flight and Henry Ford filled America’s streets with automobiles. Beginning in the 1860s, a few tried and usually failed to use steam engines to power spinning barrels equipped with spikes for traction. Even so, by the 1890s some people were convinced that “ice locomotives” would carry passengers and supplies overland to the Klondike gold fields. These plans were pure fantasy. In the early 1900s inventors cobbled together machines from spare parts and equipped their strange, new contraptions with airplane, car, and motorcycle engines.

A.A. “Scotty” Allan, one of Alaska’s most famous dog mushers, was also an early snow-machine enthusiast who built this marvelous specimen in 1916 with a 60-horsepower airplane engine and propeller. Observers announced that the “dean of dogdom” had “succumbed to the lure of ‘gasoline dogs,’” but the air-sled often broke down and never seemed to leave the vicinity of Nome. On a winter’s day in 1918, a local reporter described the scene:

Scotty Allan’s gasoline consuming speed-ball attracted the attention of a great many of the populace as it wended its noisy way, forth and back along the principal boulevard of the city yesterday afternoon; many of the rubbernecks thought a riot was in progress, or that some of the home-guards were trying out some sort of new fangled machine-gun. A few of the local four legged hay consumers showed their displeasure at the noisy stranger by attempting to run, rear, buck, etc.

Peratrovich a true hero, but myth doesn’t match facts of historic Alaska vote

Date Posted: August 19, 2015       Categories: 49 History

Editor’s note: The column below first appeared in the Alaska Dispatch News on Aug. 18.


by Ross Coen


Allow me to begin by stating unequivocally that I support efforts by Governor Bill Walker and numerous others to place Elizabeth Peratrovich on the revised ten-dollar bill. Her tireless advocacy for Native rights has certainly earned her a place among the heroes of Alaska.


At the same time, however, we have a responsibility when honoring figures from the past to be faithful to the historical record. Unfortunately, the Peratrovich nomination draws more on myth than history.


Elizabeth Peratrovich is remembered today for her role in the passage of the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945. The history of this act, in particular the dramatic confrontation in the territorial senate between Peratrovich and opponents of Native rights, is so shrouded in myth and has been embellished repeatedly across the decades that we know very little about what actually happened in the capitol that day in February 1945.


For example, Peratrovich left no written copy of her testimony, and the legislature in those years kept no transcripts and made no audio recordings of its committee hearings and floor sessions. So apart from a couple of quotes in a newspaper article, we don’t really know what was said by anyone. (Those of you eager to disagree should note that Peratrovich’s famous and oft-quoted testimony has no other evidence behind it and was almost certainly written and revised by others starting in the 1980s.)


There is one part of this history that is very easy to document, however. But Gov. Walker gets this wrong, too. According to his nomination letter, Peratrovich faced “absolute opposition” in the Senate and her testimony was “the deciding factor that gained passage of [the Act].”


This version of the story holds that the bill was headed for certain defeat until Peratrovich’s impassioned testimony warmed the hearts of all but the bitterest racists and carried the bill to victory.


But that’s not what happened. We need only count the votes to see that the Anti-Discrimination Bill had a majority of senators behind it even before the floor session began.


The Senate version of the bill was introduced by O. D. Cochran of Nome. In addition, when an identical bill was before the legislature two years earlier, five senators still in office in 1945 had voted yes: Frank S. Gordon of Fairbanks, Edward D. Coffey and Herbert H. McCutcheon of Anchorage, and Norman R. “Doc” Walker and Andrew Gunderson of Ketchikan. So there are six solid yea votes right off the bat.


As the bill moved through committee, two more senators—Don Carlos Brownell of Seward and Andrew Nerland of Fairbanks—reported the bill to the full Senate with a “do pass” recommendation. So now we’re up to eight yea votes.


Another three senators—John Butrovich of Fairbanks, Joe Green of Juneau, and Howard Lyng of Nome—then went on record supporting the bill when they voted to reject a poison-pill amendment offered by one of the bill’s opponents.


What all this means is that when the senators filed into the chamber and Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich took their seats in the gallery, it was clear to anyone paying attention that the bill was going to pass with at least eleven yea votes—which is precisely what happened.


There is no doubt that Elizabeth’s testimony gave voice to Native rights and continues to inspire Alaskans, both Native and non-Native, to the present day. There is also no doubt that her many years of advocacy laid the groundwork for this and other legislative victories. But the notion that she faced “absolute opposition” is simply not true. For all the myth-making that surrounds this event today, the fact remains that Elizabeth Peratrovich could have remained seated in the gallery, not saying a single word, and the bill still would have passed.


Some may accuse me of trying to tarnish Elizabeth Peratrovich’s legacy. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m just a historian who believes that we must always deal in facts, especially in a case such as this where doing so is as easy as counting the votes.

Alaska Film Archives at UAF

Date Posted: August 17, 2015       Categories: 49 History




The Alaska Film Archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) holds more than 10,000 Alaska films and videos available for viewing and use by patrons and researchers. Moving images are requested every day for research and presentations by students, instructors, historians, documentary filmmakers, and persons interested in Alaska history. Items in the collection range from professional productions to amateur home-movies from the earliest days of filmmaking through the present day. Topics covered over the past century include: Alaska Native cultural and subsistence activities, gold-mining, hunting, fishing, aviation, dog-mushing, floods, fires, earthquakes, the military, political debates, statehood celebrations, the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, parades and festivals, and family life in communities large and small from across the state.


Since its establishment in 1993, the goals of the Alaska Film Archives have been to locate and collect film and videotape pertaining to Alaska through donation, to document the regions and dates of each item, to catalog and make items available for viewing, and to store original materials under controlled environmental conditions. The majority of collected items have been cataloged and made searchable through the UAF library catalog (http://library.uaf.edu/).


Hundreds of representative clips are viewable at the film archives’ You Tube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/alaskafilmarchives) and at the Alaska’s Digital Archives site (http://vilda.alaska.edu/). DVD copies of thousands of archival film and video holdings are available for checkout worldwide. And all original materials are stored in the film archives’ climate-controlled Film and Magnetic Media Vaults.


The Alaska Film Archives is a unit of the Alaska and Polar Regions Collections & Archives, located in the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. If you are interested in Alaska’s historical film or would like to donate film to the collection, contact Film Archivist Angela Schmidt at ajschmidt@alaska.edu or (907) 474-5357.


This link leads to a clip on You Tube showing the firefighters known as “smokejumpers” parachuting to work in the 1960s:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lY2GNnO7OA