Mon, November 04, 2013

The Alaska Commercial Company Map

By Anjuli Grantham
The Alaska Commercial Company is indisputably one of the most important businesses in the history of Alaska. A recent acquisition by Kodiak’s Baranov Museum helps Alaska’s museums and historical societies to better understand and exhibit this history.

Alaska, 1888. Images courtesy Kodiak Historical Society/ Baranov Museum

The Baranov Museum recently purchased a map from 1888, showing all of the Alaska Commercial Company’s trading stores and listing all known settlements within AC’s trading districts. Also included on the map are the names of all AC employees in the Territory, listed at the trading stations at which they work. For Kodiak, this map includes the names of individuals significant to local history. For example, P.D. Blodgett was the founder of the first cannery within the town of Kodiak and the oldest licensed bar in Alaska, the B&B. M.L. Washburn was the General Agent of the Kodiak District, making him the manager of a trading area that stretched from the Kodiak archipelago to Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, and portions of the Alaska Peninsula. He was also a founder of the Semidi Propagation Company, one of the earliest Alaskan fox farms.
This map’s significance comes from more than just the names listed. The Alaska Commercial Company was the economic heartbeat of much of Alaska for around the forty years following the U.S. purchase of Alaska. If you received mail, stirred sugar into your tea, owned a pair of boots, or opened a can of peaches from 1868-1908, chances are it was due to AC.
Yet, the merchandise and mail contracts were minor compared to the company’s control of the fur trade. I’m not just talking about the Pribilof fur seal industry, the massive operation which AC managed for many years. The reach of the company into the Alaska fur trade as a whole was impressive. In Kodiak, trappers brought fox, bear, and land otter pelts to the company and received a high premium for these furs, all of which were critical for the international fashion market. But only Natives could hunt fur bearing sea mammals. As a result, the company financed sea otter and seal hunting trips around the archipelago. In 1900, the company purchased sea otter pelts from Kodiak Alutiiq for $200 each.
One additional detail that the map contains is sailing distances between major trading stations. This hints at Alaskan supply routes and includes information that is unexpected. For example, it shows the sailing distance from Kaguyak on the south end of Kodiak Island to San Francisco (1760 miles). This indicates that the schooners would depart St. Paul (modern day Kodiak), load up on furs at the station in Kaguyak, and then bring them back to the AC’s warehouses in San Francisco. From correspondence, we know that the station agent in Kaguyak worked with Native hunters from all around the south end of the island. From this illustration, we see what a major fur way station Kaguyak really was.
The Baranov Museum is currently in the planning stages of a permanent exhibit redesign. This map will feature prominently in the redesigned exhibits as a testament to the impact that AC had on both local and statewide history.