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Fur trading, grave-robbing: Chronicling company's Alaska past

Amy J. LifsonHumanities
Loren Holmes photo

Names such as Golodoff, Stepetin, Shaiashnikoff, Kudrin, Bereskin, Gromof, Galaktionof, Snigarof, Prokopiuf, Tutiakoff, Shelikov, Berikof, and Diakonof fill the pages of the ledger books of the Alaska Commercial Company that ran sea-otter hunting operations out of the Aleutian Islands in the late nineteenth century. They are also the names of families that, generations later, still populate the town of Unalaska, which had been the headquarters for company agents in the region. Links to this Aleutian past have relied on memory and family lore until a remarkable discovery at the bottom of a Nordstrom’s shopping bag opened a window onto what life was like for the Tutiakoffs, Kudrins, and others who were there more than a hundred years ago.

Historian and journalist (and former king-crab processor) J. Pennelope Goforth had been doing research for many years on the Alaska Commercial Company, the successor to the Russian-American Company that had hunted the Alaskan waters until 1867. Rummaging in a Seattle basement in 2004, Goforth came across a silver shopping bag with a mailer envelope inside. What she found were the company ’s ledger books for the Aleutian district between 1875 and 1897 — 700 pages detailing transport, merchandise, building, personnel, fur prices, hunting seasons, marriages, deaths, and illnesses. Now, thanks to a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum, those ledgers have been transcribed, scanned, digitized, and distributed to research repositories throughout Alaska. Goforth’s project, called "Bringing Aleutian History Home: The Lost Ledgers of the Alaska Commercial Company," was given the 2012 Alaska Historical Society Pathfinder Award for making previously inaccessible materials available. Goforth also received a letter of recognition for her work from the Alaska State Historical Records Advisory Board.

Church records in Russian

“We didn’t have anything like this,” explains Goforth. “In the other ledgers and log books that exist there is hardly anything on the Aleutians, because of World War I, World War II, weather, successive waves of people coming through. We don’t have much from the Aleutians, much less a list of who went hunting on this particular hunt in 1877, and what village they came from.” Some of these villages don’t exist anymore, such as Tegalda or Makushi. After the native population had been interned by the U.S. during World War II, the government would take the displaced villagers back only as far as Unalaska, where they had to settle. “Church records are the only other solid source of information that we have, and, of course, they are written in Russian.”

The ledgers owe their detail in part to the company ’s management, which instructed agents to “take note of everything that happened, what boats came in, who got married, who died,” says Goforth. In 1867, the Alaska Commercial Company, formed of businessmen scattered across the American West Coast, bought the interests of the Russian-American Company, with all its assets and duties included. Along with the rights and means to hunt around the Aleutian Islands, they also acquired the Russian employees and native hunters and the responsibility to the people who lived there.

“The U.S. government made no provisions for the indigenous tribes anywhere in the territory, so it was up to the company,” says Goforth. “And it was in their best interest to make sure their hunters were healthy, had food, were warm, had clothes. The Alaska Commercial Company pretty much did everything. They built houses, they brought teachers, they brought physicians. They did all the civil functions that a government would do, including banking.” The company relied on the native hunters for their knowledge of the local waters to determine when the pelts were at their best and where they were best hunted.

Sanctioned grave robbing

But otter and seal pelts were not the only commodity that the company desired. Detailed in the ledgers is the story of government-sanctioned grave robbing. On Sept. 12, 1877, agent Greenbaum, with help from a local guide, transported a small cargo vessel, the Bella, to an ancient burial cave. “The cave, being covered with rocks, required considerable labor to gain access to the corpses, which in the composed condition we secured a good specimen of the skull,” recorded Greenbaum. The mummies had been buried in the traditional Aleut way—folded up in a crouching position, wrapped in woven mats, and placed in the caves. The buyer for these bones and artifacts was the Smithsonian, which besides enlisting independent agents was sending its own scientists around the globe to collect specimens of indigenous peoples and artifacts for its collection in Washington, D.C. “That was really the mindset of the time, although it seems really grisly to us,” says Goforth.

Many of those artifacts have been repatriated to Alaska tribes, and the sea-otter populations have come back from near decimation. The Alaska Commercial Company still exists in name, although it is now owned by a Canadian company and no longer hunts the pelts that once made it a global, multimillion-dollar enterprise. And the residents of Unalaska have a record of another time, when their tiny villages controlled one of the most expensive materials in the world. Goforth explains that although there isn’t the frenzied market there was in the 19th century for fur, “If you’ve touched a sea-otter pelt, you’ll understand the greed -- and the effort, and the money and everything that went into capturing them.”

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It has been republished here with permission.