New College of the Humanities

The Sea-Otter and History

Across the Pacific, writes C.M. Yonge, from northern Japan to the Californian coastline, the relentless hunt for the sea-otter’s precious fur had international consequences.

On October 18th, 1867, the Stars and Stripes were hoisted over the previously Russian Town of Sitka; ‘Seward’s Folly’, as it was widely regarded by his countrymen, had received the bare approval of the Senate of the United States, and Alaska, with its immeasurable resources, had been purchased from the Imperial Russian Government for the sum of $7,200,000.

It was eventually, on January 3rd, 1959, to become a State of the Union. Why, one may reasonably ask, was this vast but sparsely inhabited and inhospitable land ever colonized by a Russia separated from the Pacific by the endless expanse of a largely unexplored and unsettled Siberia? What was the lure that attracted, in many cases to their death, hunters and traders first to the Aleutian Islands and then to Alaska and down the coast, briefly as far as California?

To find the answer we must move back in time to St Petersburg at the end of the reign of Peter the Great. Among his last acts was to order Fleet-Captain Bering, a Dane in the service of Russia, to take an expedition to Kamchatka and from there, ‘in as much as its end is not known’, to explore North Pacific coast and discover whether this joined America. Peter had been dead a week when Bering left, his instructions received from Catherine I.

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