When westerners began to visit the Bering Strait, they were touching the jugular of a thriving trade in furs between America and Asia.
Furs from central and northern Alaska, and from as far east as Canada's Mackenzie River drainage, made their way west, from one set of hands to another, through a network of Native fur traders. The furs were funneled through the Bering Strait, made their way across Chukotka and Siberia, to Russian and Cossack traders, southeast down the Lena River, across and around Lake Baikal, and into China. On the backhaul blue beads, tobacco, knives, axe heads, and iron ware, made their way east.
King Island was just south of the Strait, and King Islanders were active middlemen in this trade.
John Bockstoce, the historian of the northern whaling industry, has a new book out on the 19th Century northern fur trade: Furs and Frontiers in the Far North. In Furs and Frontiers he describes a visit by Russian explorer/traders to King Island in 1822.
The Russian-American Company probed north into the Bering Sea and the Bering Strait from its bases on Alaska's Pacific coast, looking for ways to intercept the trade and its profits. In 1822Vasily Stepanovich Khramchenko was sent north in the brig Golovnin to survey Norton Sound and the Bering Strait.
He arrived off the Yukon Delta in southern Norton Sound on July 2, sailed around Norton Sound, and arrived at King Island on July 12.
King Island, July 2006. Photo by Dave Cohoe. Source: Wikipedia.
On his arrival, five umiaks with 10-11 persons in each, came out from the island. The crew in the lead umiak raised a seal bladder on a pole at the bow, and those in the others raised red fox skins on poles at the bow and stern - signs they were interested in trading.
Bartering began with an exchange of "gifts." One of the first two men allowed on board the brig offered a red fox skin. Khramchenko offered a gift in return that wasn't as valuable. This early exchange of gifts had a purpose: the Eskimos wanted to test the waters and get a preliminary read on the value placed on their trade goods.
As trading progressed more umiaks came out from the island. For security reasons, Khramchenko was careful not to let too many islanders on board.
Regional ethics frowned on stealing within the local community, but not on stealing from foreigners. At some point, while Khramchenko was below decks, King Islanders took items including shot and a spyglass.
Kramchenko responded by searching the islanders who remained on board, speaking to them forcefully about the theft, firing a falconet, and telling the King Islanders that if the stolen goods weren't returned, the thief would be pursued with this "this weapon." Some items were recovered at this point. Later in the night, Khramchenko brought his ship closer to the island and fired a blank from the cannon. This reverberated off the rocky walls of the island. Subsequently two kayaks sped out to the ship, the kayakers shouting and waving objects that had been taken the day before. The kayakers returned the items, traded a few red fox furs, and left.
At sunrise the next day - presumably the 13th - other islanders came out and traded "foxes, lynxes, beavers, land otters, sables [martens], mink parkas, and walrus tusks..." accepting "tobacco, Chukchi spears, long knives, Russian axes, sky blue beads, and lead... Toward the end the islanders bartered their weapons and [kayaks] to us, for which they accepted various trifles from us."
An islander named Kunaginyn mentioned that there was a gun on the island and asked for some gunpowder. This gun might have been left behind by an American trader two years earlier (King Island and the American Fur Traders). Bockstoce's extract says that Khramchenko didn't want to provide the powder without seeing the weapon, but leaves the outcome unclear. In any event, Khramchenko thought that Kunaginyn was the son of an influential King Islander, and was influential himself, and gave him a silver medal.
Only one woman came out to the vessel during the trading, and Khramchenko refrained from making generalizations about the women on the island. With respect to this woman, "her ears were pierced in one place, in which she had earings made up of varicolored beads. Her hair was plaited into two braids handing on either side which were interwoven with beads of sky blue color."
Khramchenko described the King Islanders' trade network:
The islanders' arms consist in large knives or Chukchi spears which they wear in sheaths purposely sewn to their trousers on the right-hand side... The chief industry of the inhabitants of Ukivok island is based for the most part on barter with the Chukchi, from whom they receive various Siberian articles and Circassian tobacco. In exchange for these things they buy furs from the Americans [Eskimos], for which they go to Stuart Island and from there along the coast to the Gvozdyov [Diomede] Islands.
At King Island, Khramchenko met a Native he calls Anak, and whom Bockstoce thinks may have also been a visitor to the island, a Siberian Eskimo or a Chukchi. Anak was tall and stately in bearing, an old man, shown deference by King Islanders, accompanied by a retinue of two translaters, two shamans, and his nephew Kunaginyn (I assume this is the man who negotiated for the gunpowder). He didn't wear the tattoos or facial labrets that were common among the American Eskimos. He and his party were dressed in ground squirrel parkas falling to the knees, seal skin pants, and reindeer or caribou skin boots. Khramchenko and Anak talked quite a bit; Anak had considerable knowledge of the Bering Straits geography. He assisted Khramchenko in tracking down and recovering the lost items.
There are more posts on King Island here: King Island.
Photo added September 7, 2009.