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

The Western Fur Company and the Collapse of Fur Prices

Established in 1879, the Western Fur and Trading Company, another San Francisco based outfit, became the Alaska Commercial Company's principal rival on the Kenai. With trading stations at English Bay, Kenai, Tyonek, and Douglas, the Western Fur and Trading Company managed a large proportion of local trade until the early 1880s. In 1883, the Alaska Commercial Company bought the Western Fur Company for $175,000. [33] The ACC was left with no competition to share the enormous debt and to inflate prices, and fur prices plummeted. As a result, the ACC entered into a period of tighter management. The company closed stores and probably felt less of a need to provide local services in the smaller villages. This move forced the labor force to come to them, rather than the other way around. As a result, a growing number of small private hunters began to cut into the company's profits.

The implications of only one major fur company operating on the lower Kenai Peninsula had a resounding affect on all the villages. The following synopsis of what happened in Seldovia may have been equally relevant for the hunters on the outer coast, especially those who had benefited from unlimited credit at a time of artificially inflated prices. Anthropologist Joan Townsend provides the following chronology.

[During the 1870s, a] hunter was given advances of food, clothing, hunting equipment and luxury goods with the understanding that he would bring his furs to that company. Hunters again often found themselves in debt to the traders. Fur prices, after the sale of Alaska, began to rise because of the competition of the Alaska Commercial Company, particularly with the Western Fur and Trading Company. Excessive credit was given to good hunters and prices paid for furs were often on par with those paid in San Francisco.... In 1883, the Western Fur and Trading Company went out of business, leaving the Alaska Commercial Company in a monopoly position except for the presence of a few small independent traders. Prices paid for furs dropped quickly, credit was terminated and the company made efforts to collect outstanding debts. [34]

Between 1881 and 1883 Johan Adrian Jacobsen, a Native Norwegian, toured the Alaska coast as part of a German team sent to collect artifacts for the Royal Museum in Berlin. Passing through Seldovia on his way to English Bay, he noted the fall of fur prices.

Here we found the dwellings that the sea otter hunters we met the night before had used. This village had been the location of a trading post of the Western Fur Trading Company that had been abandoned in May. Because of this the price of a good sea otter pelt fell from $112 to $35. [35]

Jacobsen noted that Ivan Petroff, while working on the 1880 census, had followed a similar itinerary only a few years earlier. Jacobsen had begun his trip around the peninsula in Kenai. Thinking it best to cut across the peninsula at the northern end of Cook Inlet and take passage on a boat from the Pacific side, Jacobsen changed his plans once he learned that there would be no one to assist or meet him. In his journal, he recounted the advice he received:

...But Mr. Wilson [Capt. James Wilson], who best knows the condition of this area, urged me against this, assuring me that I could not get any men on the east side of the peninsula. He had recommended this route to the well-known American traveler Mr. Petroff, who was forced to return. Mr. Wilson suggested as an alternative that I go to Fort Alexander [English Bay] in the southern part of the Kenai Peninsula.... [36]

Following the trail of villages from Kenai to English Bay by boat, Jacobsen arrived at the Alaska Commercial Company station in English Bay. There he visited with Maxwell Cohen, originally from Berlin, who had lived in the region for many years and took a great interest in local affairs. As station manager, Cohen was very knowledge of the terrain, routes, and village locations, and Jacobsen relied on his advice and insight about the region. [37]

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002