Sunday, November 6, 2011

Changes in the Fur Trade

After the voyage of the Ruby, a marked decline in the number of British vessels visiting the North-west Coast, consequently the shores of Haida Gwaii, was quite evident. The lists of vessels for the first ten years of the sea-otter trade had shown thirty-five British to about fifteen American. From 1795 to 1804 the American ships increased to sixty-eight while the British had dwindled to nine. After 1804 the Union Jack seems to have disappeared almost entirely from the field. No doubt the Napoleonic Wars had much to do with this besides the hampering restrictions of the East India and South Sea Companies. Other changes as well were beginning to creep into the fur traffic. By 1804 most vessels wintered on the American coast, trading all the time. On their trips to China, where the furs were still disposed of, they, of course, continued to visit the Pacific Islands for fresh food or to supplement their crews with Kanakas. A further change took place in the articles bartered with the people of the North-west Coast. The old days of "chizzles," or iron collars, buttons, and beads were passing away. A great variety of trade goods were substituted--woollens and cottens, axes, muskets, pots and kettles, blankets, sugar, molasses, scissors, butcher-knives, stockings, and apples, all indicating the growing taste of the North-west Coast peoples for European articles.

During the fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries,
sea otters were hunted almost to extinction
for their luxuriant fur. Small groups are beginning to
repopulate with the help of protective societies
and conservation laws (public domain).
At this time, too, the number of sea-otters in the northern waters fell off alarmingly. This was due, naturally, to the indiscriminate slaughter which began with the introduction of firearms. The record of the "Pearl," a Boston ship which traded to the North in 1808-09, is a case in point. One voyage her owners obtained 6,000 sea-otter skins. The fact that the sea-otter has a very low reproducing rate (see Wikipedia), the average being but one cub per year, made their practical extermination a further change, which was only partially overcome years later under the wiser and more long-sighted policy of the Hudson’s Bay Company. As trade decreased, methods for gathering the waning harvest of furs became more ruthless. The result was more than one violent encounter between trader and native people. The native people often had the guns of the trading vessels turned on them for insignificant offences, but being equipped with the white man’s own weapons now, fought back and sought means to avenge former wrongs. Cumshewa and Skidegate Inlets were the scene of more than one disastrous clash. Captian Bernard Magee of the "Globe," from Boston, was killed in October, 1801, by some of the people living in Skidegate. Another captain [Stephen Hill], his purser, and steward were all killed in Cumshewa Inlet in 1796. The "Resolution," another Boston ship, was reported lost at sea in 1794, but it was thought by some to have been captured off Haida Gwaii and all but one man killed. Captain Kendrick’s second son, Solomon, perished on her, and thus the "Amazon" and her friends were at last revenged. []