The Russians were the first European group “to make contact with the Northwest Coast Indians” (Merchant 269). After preparing for eight years, “the Vitus Bering-Aleksey Chirikov expedition finally left Kamchatka” to explore the land across from the Bering Sea (Merchant 269). Initially, a group of fifteen crewmen were captured by the Tlingits tribe in an attempt to protect their land at Alexander Archipelago. This was just the beginning of a tenuous relationship between the Russians and Tlingits. In 1802, the Tlingits destroyed the Russian settlement at Sitka. They “periodically killed unwary Aleut and Kodiak hunters” (Merchant 271). Another challenge that the Russians had to deal with was the warring between different ships. “Ships are often attacked with the very arms that they themselves sold, and even on the same day that they were delivered” (Merchant 254). Trading with other groups was risky, because there was a large incentive to capture the captain and crew in order to gain ransom.
Despite the challenges listed above, the Russians were successful in the otter fur trade due to the alliances that they made. The Russians got the Aleuts and Kodiaks to do a majority of the hunting. This was significant because the “the Aleuts and Kodiaks were the world’s best hunters of sea otters” (Merchant 270). The role of the Russians was to protect and transport the Aleut and Kodiak hunters in order to ensure the procurement of the greatest number of otter pelts. However, the Russians relationship with the Aleuts and Kodiaks was not always mutually beneficial. “The RAC was able to get skins in return for paltry Aleut and Kodiak wages in kind” (Merchant 271). The low wages paid to the Aleuts and Kodiaks is part of what allowed the Russian otter trading to be more profitable than the British and American trades. The Russian sea otter trade also benefited from governmental support. Many government officials, including the emperor, had a stake in the otter fur trade which made them more likely to give fur traders financial and political backing. Also, the Russians had quite a few permanent trading outposts in the Pacific Northwest, whereas the Americans and British did not. The Russians success can best be measured in the amount of rubles accrued. “From 1743 to 1800 one hundred ventures obtained more than 8,000,000 silver rubles worth of soft gold” (Merchant 269). After 1800, 75% of Russia’s sea otter pelts were coming from the Sitka Sound area. This was a sign of things to come as many of the sea otter populations were declining. Eventually, by the 1840s the sea otter population had been exhausted so thoroughly that sea otter trading became insignificant.
Merchant, Carolyn. American Environmental History: an Introduction. Columbia Univ. Press, 2007.