Kenai Fjords
A Stern and Rock-Bound Coast: Historic Resource Study
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Chapter 4:

The Alaska Commercial Company at English Bay

Established as a Russian fortified post in 1786, the settlement of Alexandrovsk, like many Russian holdings and stations, became an American trading station. Although it is not known what remained of the original Russian buildings at the time of American acquisition, Hutchinson, Kohl & Company–the founding partners of the Alaska Commercial Company–purchased Russian properties on the Kenai Peninsula. Alaska Commercial Company logbooks indicate that the company operated a trading station at English Bay at least as early as 1872. An inventory of existing buildings in English Bay taken in 1875 showed that the company maintained a storehouse, a dwelling, a barn, and a store, in addition to stores in the villages of Illiada (Iliamna) and Ostrovsky (in Kachemak Bay). [7] A later survey of the property, in 1879, included the same buildings with an assessed value of $300. A second group of buildings existed on the site which included "a store house valued at $100, a dwelling worth $185, and a second store house worth $40." [8] These buildings may have been the property of an earlier station on site established by Tittle & Company in 1869. [9] Like the Alaska Commercial Company, Tittle & Company was headquartered in San Francisco.

By 1892, the Alaska Commercial Company reported that the Kodiak District, which included English Bay and the Kenai Peninsula, had "assistants at stations scattered along the mainland and islands from Chignik Bay on the west to Prince William Sound on the east and the head of Cooks Inlet on the north, having stores in seventeen Indian villages, which are maintained throughout the year." [10] The English Bay station maintained and supported a number of local village stores and warehouses between 1870 and the early 1900s. In 1875 subsidiary stations and holdings of the English Bay station existed in Yalik and Akhmylik, Seldovia Bay, Ostrovsky or Catchikmack, and Illiama. Station manager Maxwell Cohen and agent Oliver Smith maintained the stores at Yalik, Illiama, and Ostrovsky. [11]

The English Bay station traded with stations on Kodiak Island and in Cook Inlet. Through these contacts, the commercial companies provided income to local hunters and controlled fur markets. At the Alaska Commercial Company's English Bay station, the company maintained detailed records and accounts for each hunter. Hunters sold their furs or applied them towards the purchase of hunting gear. The store kept a ready supply of baidarkas, hunting equipment, food, and household goods. [12] This arrangement almost guaranteed that hunters would become indebted to the company. By one estimate, each Native hunter or head of the family owed $500 to the Alaska Commercial Company. [13]

The English Bay station also maintained a fleet of schooners. Schooner traffic in Cook Inlet regularly carried parties of hunters, and the same activity occurred along the outer Kenai coast. The open waters of the Gulf of Alaska, and the distance between English Bay and Nuchek, added considerable hardship for the hunters. Historian Robert DeArmond noted that:

The vessels owned by the fur companies and used principally to supply the trading stations were also used as tenders for Native sea otter camps, moving the hunters from one point to another during the season. Some of these vessels also served as mother ships for otter hunters, carrying the baidarkas on deck when they were not in use and serving as living quarters for the men. [14]

Company expenditures show that crews traveled to the Barren Islands, the Gulf of Alaska, and to Nuchek. The schooners carried provisions for sea otter parties, and the crew on board purchased skins directly from the hunters. The following entry documented the arrival of hunters to English Bay from Nuchek. [15]

Thus, the schooner Eudora left English Bay on May 2, 1877, for Chonoborough [Augustine] Island with a hunting party, and at the same station on June 12, 1877, "Arrived, eight bydarkas of Nuchek Indians to hunt otter." [16]

The Nuchek hunters may have arrived independent of any schooner but given the option, passage on the larger ship would have been safer and faster. Hunters looking to take advantage of passage between larger villages and hunting grounds gradually moved away from the smaller, remote villages. Many abandoned villages later served as hunting and fishing camps for crews in transit.

The company incurred overhead costs for private baidarkas used by the Native crews. As a rule, the company expected each hunter to pay off the cost of the boat through a personal account. However, it appeared that the company extended more credit to the hunters than it would have preferred. The English Bay station agent, discouraged with the lack of return on this investment, recorded the following situation.

Natives lost 8 bidarkas since last Fall, 3 of them were brand new, a bidarka costs from $40 to $50, although the natives claim the frame as theirs, the Co. had to pay for them all, and charges each part the price of same, $12 for frame and $10 for putting on the Loftock [skin?], might as well give it to them gratis in the first place, as I am satisfied they will never pay it. [17]

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002