Sunday, March 24, 2019

White Fox and Icy Seas in the Western Arctic

White Fox and Icy Seas in the Western Arctic: The Fur Trade, Transportation, and Change in the Early Twentieth Century

by John Bockstoce

New Haven: Yale University Press

Reviewed by Kenn Harper

John Bockstoce has devoted his career to researching and documenting whaling and trading activities in the Bering Strait region of the Arctic. His previous books include Whales, Ice and Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic and Furs and Frontiers in the Far North: The Contest among Native and Foreign Nations for the Bering Strait Fur Trade.

The present volume extends and completes this work, bringing its temporal coverage up to World War II, and extending its geographic coverage into the western and central regions of the Canadian Arctic. Indeed, study of the fur trade in the region between Herschel Island and the Boothia Peninsula has been neglected until now.

The focus of this volume is squarely on trapping and trading for the pelt of the white fox, and includes that pursuit by both Native people and immigrant trappers and traders. The geographic scope of the work is vast. In Bockstoce’s terminology, the term Western Arctic includes the land and water of the Chukchi Peninsula in Russia, northern Alaska, the northern Yukon, the Mackenzie River delta, the mainland coast of the western and central Canadian Arctic, and the islands north of that coast. Bockstoce points out, “Within this district the participants in the fur trade included Chukchi, Siberian Yupik, Alaskan Eskimos, Alaskan and Canadian Gwich’in, Canadian Inuvialuit, Inuinnait, Inuit, persons of European descent, Russians, and many other foreign nationalities.”

Bockstoce notes in his preface that he thinks of all these people, both Native and non-Native, as simply “Northerners”. This is a refreshing departure from the new orthodoxy – or the constantly renewing orthodoxy – in which Canada, at least, has relegated the previously acceptable terms “native” and later “aboriginal” to the sidelines in favour of the new flavour of the day – “Indigenous.” In the Canadian new orthodoxy, meanwhile, White people, no matter how long their pedigree reaches back in this country, are recast, or miscast, as “settlers” (never with a capital), a quasi-pejorative term in the hands of many academics, which I cheerfully eschew.  I am pleased to note its absence in this work.

The author begins his book near the end of the story, with an interesting narrative on the establishment and subsequent abandonment by the Hudson’s Bay Company of a fur trade post at Fort Ross on Somerset Island at the eastern extremity of the geographic scope of his work. This post, which operated only from 1937 to 1948, was where east met west in the Canadian North. It began with a dream necessitated by the company’s realization that supplying its posts in the area of King William Island from the west was fraught with difficulty caused by ice, weather, and distance. The company’s plan was to ship supplies from MontrĂ©al through Lancaster Sound and Prince Regent Inlet to Fort Ross, where they would be transferred to a western-based schooner to supply company posts west of Boothia Peninsula. After a few years of success, the project ultimately failed because of ice conditions but also due to the sustained drop in value of white fox pelts.

This leads nicely into the second chapter, White Fox: From the Trapper to the Retail Customer, a detailed discussion of the animal itself, the trapping of it, pelt preparation, sale of pelts at the local level, and the lives of the trappers, both Native and foreign. Beyond the local level, the author carries the discussion on to include the fur auction, preparation of pelts by dealers, the manufacturing of fur garments, and their sale at both the wholesale and retail levels. This is an in-depth look at the economics and social aspects of the white fox trade that, to my knowledge, has not been presented elsewhere in such an integrated and holistic manner.

At this point, the author was faced with a choice – to present the narrative in chronological order or arrange it by region. He has wisely opted to do both. The rest of the book is presented in three parts, covering three time periods. The first, spanning the years 1899 to 1914, describes the development and geographic expansion of the fur trade. The second period covers the glory days from 1914 to 1929 – Bockstoce calls it the “heyday” of the fur trade. The third period covers the years 1929 to approximately 1950 – the end date varies geographically. Within each of these three periods the author discusses events within the three geographic regions: Chukotka, northern Alaska, and “Western Arctic Canada.” [I should note that, as a Canadian, I think of the Western Canadian Arctic as being the area from the Alaskan border to the area of Baillie Island, and the rest of the area from there to Boothia Peninsula and Somerset Island as the Central Canadian Arctic. The recent settlement of native land claims in the area is probably changing the perception of those Canadians who care, so that the consensus of today’s understanding would be that the Western Canadian Arctic extends from the Alaskan border to the Nunavut border, and the rest of the coastline and islands from there to Boothia Peninsula is the Central Arctic, what we Canadians call the Kitikmeot Region.]

This organizational decision allows the author to discuss in detail the activities in the three regions, without the reader losing track of the timeline. And still it is a complex story. But it works.

Bowhead whaling, of which the author has written extensively, transformed the cultures of the native people on both sides of Bering Strait after 1848. Native peoples had also hunted bowheads, but primarily for their meat and blubber; non-Native whalers were more interested in the baleen but they also traded manufactured goods to the natives for the pelts of foxes and other land mammals. Eventually, gold also contributed to the transformation of Native society, bringing an influx of White treasure seekers to the North and presenting new opportunities for trade.

I should confess, at this point, my personal preference in reading history is biography. So I looked for, and found, the larger-than-life characters that one would expect in an epic of the north. Charlie Carpendale, an Australian; Bengt Vold, a Norwegian; and Olaf Swenson, a Swedish-American were just a few of the names of the traders on the front lines of this cultural transformation on the Siberian coast. Soon enough whaling made its impact on the north coast of Alaska with entrepreneurs like Charlie Brower at Point Barrow, from which station the industry pushed eastward to Herschel Island off the Yukon coast. Whalers and traders like Fritz Wolki took it past Herschel as far as the Baillie Island area, but it remained for the Danish cook-turned-whaler Christian Klengenberg to push into the last unexplored area of the North American coast line, into the central Canadian Arctic and initiate trade with the people today called Inuinnait, then known as the Copper Eskimos. Joseph Bernard plays an important and largely unsung role in this saga. A Canadian from Prince Edward Island, he described himself as “a trader uninterested in fortune; an explorer uninterested in fame; but consumed with a great curiosity about things of science and nature.” Bernard wintered his famous vessel, Teddy Bear, three times in Dolphin and Union Strait and Coronation Gulf between 1910 and 1914, where he traded and collected material goods and artifacts which today grace many museums. It was probably because of information gleaned from Bernard that Christian Klengenberg relocated his trading efforts to Coronation Gulf in 1916.

In his classic The People of the Twilight, the anthropologist Diamond Jenness noted that the fur trade transformed Copper Inuit society from collectivist to individualist. Copper Inuit were the last Inuit to be influenced by outside forces. Some had had fleeting interactions with explorers in the previous century, but the onslaught of traders, police and missionaries in the second decade of the twentieth century was brutally quick and transformative of all aspects of their culture. Jenness noted that “Only in one respect did it benefit them: it lessened the danger of those unpredictable famines which had overtaken them every ten or fifteen years.” Many who had suffered through those famines may have felt that it was worth the price. John Bockstoce says as much; during his many sojourns in the north, he “began to perceive how the lives of these ‘Northerners’ [and he is speaking not only of the Inuinnait]… had changed because of their participation in the whaling industry and the fur trade – and in the opinion of most of them, mainly for the better.”

In Russia, the Soviet government put the brakes on the unchecked proliferation of trading on the western side of the Bering Strait. In Canada the Royal North West Mounted Police (later renamed Royal Canadian Mounted Police) established detachments in an effort to bring law and order to the Western Canadian Arctic. At the same time the giant Hudson’s Bay Company moved eastward from the Mackenzie Delta, slowly but inexorably crushing its opponents, the independent traders. Captain C. T. Pedersen was the public face in the north for two trading companies, the Northern Whaling and Trading Company in Alaska, and the Canalaska Trading Company in the Canadian Arctic. He and his unseen southern partner Albert Herskovitz were the last to sell out or fold. In 1938 he sold the Canadian company to his well-capitalized rival. The Inuit had benefited from Pedersen’s presence. “Pedersen’s goods were of higher quality, his prices were lower, his deliveries were more reliable, and Captain and Mrs. Peterson’s accommodating personalities were far more attractive to customers than the HBC’s detachment and disinterest,” writes Bockstoce.

The outsized personalities who people this book and found success as traders were not only non-Native. On the Siberian side the Native trader Quwaaren was extremely successful, so much so that in the 1880s he purchased a sixty-foot schooner from an American whaler. Natkusiak from Alaska, also known as Billy Banksland, and others from the Mackenzie Delta settled Banks Island, virgin territory for white fox trapping, and accumulated wealth in the glory years of the fur trade. Some were able to buy their own schooners. Some even travelled occasionally to Seattle in their own vessels to purchase supplies. The author also devotes considerable consideration to a successful Canadian Inuit trader and middleman in the central Arctic, Angulalik.

Fur prices had been at record heights in 1928. But the stock market crash of the following year was mirrored quickly in the fur markets worldwide. By 1934 the retail fur market was 30% of its 1929 turnover. The market never recovered.

The end of Bockstoce’s narrative coincides with the end of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s dream of uniting east and west through the use of Fort Ross as a trans-shipment point for goods. The fur trade was not dead but it was stagnant, and the HBC, having secured its long-sought monopoly in the Western Canadian Arctic, was left to maintain its position largely unopposed. With Soviet control of Siberia in the 1920s, a curtain of silence descended on the western side of Bering Strait, with knowledge of developments there seldom reaching North America. Inuit society in both Alaska and the Western Canadian Arctic, in the meantime, had been transformed. The author notes, in his concluding paragraph, “A market for white fox pelts exist to this day, but the price – and the reward for the trapper and for the trapper’s family – has never returned to the glory days of the 1920s.”

John Bockstoce’s research for this book, done in tandem with that for his other major works, covers half a century. It shows. His scholarship is impeccable and his writing lucid and captivating. The book is well-bound, with an attractive dust jacket. Front and back end-maps cover the geographic scope of the book, and contain all relevant place names. Other maps are included with the text as necessary. Numerous relevant photographs are included, and their captions are generous and informative. The Acknowledgments read like a Who’s Who of Arctic scholarship and western Arctic citizenry covering many decades. Of particular note and utility, the book has an eight-page chronology.

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