White Fox and Icy Seas in the Western Arctic: The Fur Trade, Transportation, and Change in the Early Twentieth Century
By John Bockstoce. Yale University Press. 2018. 344 pages. $40.
In most accounts, Alaska’s territorial history consists of a few periods of intense activity, followed by leaps of several decades. The land was purchased from Russia in 1867, miners swarmed northward during the Gold Rush three decades later, then it’s fast forward to World War II and statehood. Apart from brief mentions of Denali being climbed, territorial status being established, a railroad being built, and perhaps the creation of the Matanuska Colony, that’s pretty much it.
Yet quite a bit was happening, especially in Alaska’s Arctic. Ancient trade routes that stretched from the Canada to the Russian Far East became the basis for new endeavors that, for the first time, brought Native peoples into the global economy, and brought those of European extraction into permanent residence along the Arctic coast. This resulted in lasting changes, both for the good and otherwise, and turned the Arctic from a region of myth and mystery to a resource zone supplying goods used thousands of miles away by Americans and Europeans.
This is the history that John Bockstoce explores in remarkable depth in “White Fox and Icy Seas in the Western Arctic.” An independent scholar who has devoted more than half a century to the study of the physical, cultural and economic histories of the Far North, this, his 12th book, examines the crucial period when the North American Arctic was fully swept into the modern world.
While the book ranges over broad geographical and historical areas, the foundation of the story is quite simple. Inuit, Yupik and other Native peoples of the Arctic had been interacting with Europeans for centuries, and, owing to the brief popularity of baleen corsets, the whaling industry had brought them at least partially into the cash-based economy.
It was the fur industry, however, that tipped the scales. In the early 20th century, furriers discovered the the pelts of Arctic white foxes could be dyed to replicate any natural fur, or even turned colors not found on animals (pink, for instance). This led to a sudden and huge demand. Prices for raw furs skyrocketed, and traders, especially from America’s West Coast, steamed north. Goods produced by American factories were offered in trade for pelts, and a new industry was born.
Bockstoce goes into detail on the huge number of jobs that were created almost overnight. “Before the customer acquired the fur garment,” he writes, “it would have passed through many hands on the way, gaining value at each step and helping to provide a livelihood for many persons: the trapper, skinner, flesher, tripper, trader, baler, city collector, drummer, sorter, sample man, auctioneer, broker, dealer, grader, dresser, stamper, scraper, flesher, bleacher, dyer, pointer, manufacturer, designer, cutter, joiner, nailer, finisher, glazer, jobber, factor, resident buyer, and retailer.”
A fashion trend that kept gaining popularity all the way through the 1920s was built entirely on the skin of one animal found in Arctic coastal regions, and trapped mostly by Natives who previously had little use for it.
The impact in the north was immense. As traders moved in and established posts and bartered for pelts, Native peoples abandoned traditional subsistence economies and diets in favor of the goods and foodstuffs they could acquire from traders. The traditional means by which they had long thrived in such a harsh environment gave way as villages centered around trading posts, missions and schools replaced the migratory lifestyle that Arctic survival had always demanded.
Bockstoce discusses these changes, but wisely chooses to place the history before the reader while reserving moral judgment. It took two sides to make the system work, and had the influx of new goods not been seen as offering an improved quality of life, they wouldn’t have been embraced by people well accustomed to living with very few material possessions.
Within that framework, however, Bockstoce does tell stories of various traders, some of whom were kind and honest and others who were exploitative. Those who came north were entering waters and lands that, apart from whalers, still remained little known to Westerners. They were certainly pioneers, and as with any pioneer population, not all were upstanding. At least one prominent trader was a murderer who possibly killed more than once.
The fur trade was not limited to the Alaska and Canadian Arctic. One of the most fascinating and illuminating sections of this book covers the trade that opened up with Yupik and Chukchi peoples living in Kamchatka.
Russian control of eastern Siberia had always been nominal at best, and inefficient even when present. This made it easy for Americans to cross the Bering Strait from Nome to build trading posts and conduct business. For a brief period it benefited both sides, but following the Bolshevik Revolution it was quickly squelched.
By the early 1920s, Americans traveling to Siberia could find themselves subject to arrest and the seizure of assets. Before long they ceased coming for their own safety. Meanwhile, the locals were forced into the Soviet system that demanded pelts and offered squalor in return.
The stories Bockstoce tells from before the communist takeover serve to remind readers that trade had long been the norm across the Strait, and that peaceful commerce could have grown from it, had not rigid ideology been shoved in its way.
Meanwhile, on the Western side, in 1929 the Depression collapsed the fur trade, and Natives who had enjoyed boom years had to partially revert to subsistence. But they would never quite live as they once had again.
In this informative book, Bockstoce also follows the adventures of white trappers who explored the Arctic, recounts seafaring exploits, examines the role played by the Hudson’s Bay Company which entered the Western Arctic and cornered the market just in time for the profits to drop out, and much more. His writing style can be dry and academic at times, but the history is fascinating. Northern Alaska was booming in the 1920s, a fact often ignored by historians. Bockstoce has done a great service by bringing it to light.