Friday, July 9, 2010

Otter Skins

Otter Skins, Boston ships, and China Goods; the Maritime Fur Trade of the Northwest Coast, 1785-1841 by James R. Gibson. Published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, Canada, 1992. Maps, tables, illustrations, portraits, notes, bibliography, and index.

Did you know the trade value of a single otter skin in the 1790s was a length of cloth two fathoms (about 12 feet) long? Who were the Indians of the Northwest coast? How did the purchase of pelts and skins in the Northwest and their resale on the South coast of China affect the cultures involved? And what were other trade interests of Russia, Spain, Great Britain and America between 1790 and 1840?

In ten chapters, author Gibson presents more than 50 years of trade among the Northwest Indians and the Euroamericans. He begins in Russian Headstart and Spanish Sideline discussing how the Russian expedition across the Bering Sea in 1741 began the story of trade in sea-otter pelts, and that the Spanish, already inhabiting the south coast, “… wished to keep the coast unexplored and undeveloped as a wilderness buffer against foreign penetration of the Californias and Mexico, where their primary concerns lay.” p. 18. Following are The British Disclosure, a chapter in which the author points to Captain Cook’s voyages of geographic discovery for the Europeans, and subsequent British adventurers; and the American Takeover, introducing the attraction that Yankee merchant shipping had for goods from Asia, especially as a product of commerce they, rather than Great Britain controlled.

Gibson’s work is gleaned from journals, diaries, ships’ logs, histories and other archival sources. The Notes section verifies each citation and is extensive, especially coupled with his Bibliography. Details, rather than commentary, of intertribal wars, Tlingit tobacco, Russian encounters with Spanish explorers, Yankee merchants’ experiences desire for ginseng, and that in Canton, China, traders would pay between $80-90 per fur pelt, support the overall concept of each chapter. At this period of time period in history, it was the Euroamericans who sought to exploit and control geographic traffic, commerce and areas beyond their sphere of influence.

The Natives had already intensely and frequently traded among themselves prior to the arrival of Europeans. In the Introduction, p. 8, “Trade was well suited to Northwest Coast Indian society…” and “Both scarce and specialized commodities were traded up and down the coast… mountain-goat hair “blankets” (ceremonial robes), ermine skins, copper plates, and spruce root baskets from the Tlingits; dugout cedar canoes from the Haida… and candlefish oil to be burned as candles, shark’s teeth and dentalia shells for ornament, a standard of value for the Chinooks.” Elk hide was made into “leather war costumes”, dressed and folded double or triple; they could stop arrows and lances and even musket and pistol balls at a distance.”

Gibson’s rich association of cultural and political interests is supported by his rich understanding of the players and events of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His chapters, the British Comeback, China Market, Modes of Trade, Changes in Trade and the New Northwest Trade indicate the details of intense rivalry between nations and the implications of international trade for the well-being of all involved. Finally, culminating his discussion of social impact and history of Pacific territories and countries, his tenth chapter is The Impact of the Trade where specific relevance to the Northwest Coast, South China and New England is balanced with a review of the Hawaiian Islands, their history in trade with foreign merchant shipping.

Explanation of terms:
Fathoms explained as a measurement of length
Californias : refers to Alta California and Baja California
Tlingit: one of the tribes of the Northwest Coast
Ginseng: a medicinal root of a plant native to China.
Haida: one of the tribes of the Northwest Coast,
Chinook: one of the tribes of the Northwest Coast
Elk: a large horned mammal of the Northern hemisphere
Pacific: one of the world’s oceans bordered by Antarctica in the south, South America and North America on its eastern edges, and Russia, China, the Philippine Islands, and Australia on its western edges.
Hawaiian Islands: This site is a portal to sites about the ecology and natural environment. Choose from Environmental Data Organizations and General Interest tabs that take you to links about weather and climate, ecology, water quality, plant and animal life, sanctuaries, landmarks and maps, and much more.

Museum Volunteer: At the Los Angeles Maritime Museum, volunteers answer questions at the front desk, give museum tours, operate the tug ANGELS GATE, use the Morse code, build ship models, and staff The Sea Chest, the museum’s gift shop.

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