Americans began trading in the Pacific in the 1780s. Trade was interrupted by Jefferson’s embargo and the War of 1812, but subsequently small American ships crisscrossed the ocean with cargoes of furs from the Pacific Northwest, sandalwood from Hawaii, copper from Chile, ginseng from the U.S. Appalachian Mountains, and silk and tea from China (Old China Trade).
Far to the north, beyond the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea, Eskimos, Chukchis, and Russians traded across the Bering Strait. Furs from America moved west, in exchange for glass beads and iron. Coastal and island Eskimos were active intermediaries.
Briefly, in 1819 and 1820, Americans from the Pacific tested the waters in the Bering Straits: two American brigs, the General San Martin and the Pedlar, explored regional trading opportunities. King Island flits into sight in journals and reports of these visits.
John Bockstoce is a historian of Northwest Alaska and its resource dependent economies. He’s written about the whaling industry there (Whales, Ice, and Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic).
Recently he’s summarized documents from the American exploratory fur trading visits in a short book, The Opening of the Maritime Fur Trade at Bering Strait (American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 2005). Bockstoce has a new book coming out soon titled, Furs and Frontiers in the Far North: The Contest among Native and Foreign Nations for Control of the Intercontinental Bering Strait Fur Trade. The Opening of the Maritime Fur Trade must be an early product of the research for this. The General San Martin’s cruise began in Hawaii.
During the summer of 1819 the San Martin traveled from Kamchatka to Kotzebue Sound and then south around the Seward Peninsula, reaching King Island on August 18.
Her captain, Eliab Grimes, reported he was able to buy 100 fur skins at King Island, including 30 from silver grey foxes. This was a relatively large number of furs, and since the silver grey foxes were not locally available Bockstoce concludes the King Islanders were active traders. Grimes noted that heavy surf during his visit to the island prevented the Eskimos from visiting the ship to trade. If trading were to be done, sailors would have to visit the shore, but this exposed them to a risk of capture by the Eskimos. Bockstoce speculates that there may have been difficulties between the sailors and the King Islanders during the visit.
The Pedlar appears to have purposely followed up on the San Martin’s visit the previous year. She reached King Island on July 25, 1820. The King Islanders came out to the Pedlar where they traded fur and ivory for tobacco and beads. John Walters, the boatswain, said that the Islanders appeared to be friendly, friendly enough that “the chief” was allowed to have a musket. The King Islanders didn’t appear to be familiar with fire arms. Bockstoce speculates that their friendliness, in contrast to Grimes’ experience in 1819, may have been due to the fact that they were on the Pedlar and were likely outnumbered by the crew.
Bockstoce transcribes comments from Walters’ journal:
Walters may also have gone ashore on King Island. “they live in caves underground that will hold a number of them,” Walters continued. “they have a small entrance to goin and keps a fier of blubber that smells disagreeable but keeps them from the cold wether…[.] they are imployed in hunting and fishing for sea horse and whale[,] seal and so forth[.] all this done with spears and bows and arrows made of sea horse teeth[.] their boats is slightly formed and covered with sea horse hide when dried[.] their diet is of the sea horse[,] blubber oil and fish. They [have] no bread or any thing of the like amongst them[.] they seem to live happy in their way.”
Walters’ “sea horse” is walrus.
Walters doesn’t say anything about houses on stilts. I think he’d have mentioned something so unusual. Either he saw another village on the island that was subsequently abandoned or the stilt houses were an innovation sometime after 1820.
American traders didn’t return to the region after these visits. Bockstoce speculates that the trading opportunities in this remote region didn’t appear good enough to justify them. Moreover, after these visits – which were made with the approval of regional Russian officials – new restrictions interfered with further visits.
There are more King Island posts here: King Island.