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AFSC Historical Corner:  The Pribilof Islands

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Pribilof Islands, AK
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Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
St. George Island
St. George Villiage, date unknown.  National Archives and Records Administration - Pacific Alaska Region photo, record group 22, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  NOAA web page.

Not long after Vitus Bering's discovery of the North American continent in 1741, the sea otter and fox supplies in the North Pacific had greatly diminished from excessive harvesting. The Steller sea cow quickly became extinct from over-hunting following its discovery (Note: Wilhelm Steller, who accompanied Bering, provided the only account of this animal [Hanna, 2008*]). At the time, the furs from these animals, especially seals, had high value when traded in China for salt, and later tea.

The Russian mariners now focused their attention on finding large populations of northern Alaska fur seals. In June 1786, during their attempt to follow the seals, the crew of the Russian vessel
St. George under the command of Gavriil (Gabriel) Loginovich Pribylov discovered the uninhabited Pribilof Islands. Immediately recognized as the sole breeding grounds for the seals, the two main islands were named St. George and St. Paul after Bering's ships.

Aleuts from various villages in the nearby Aleutian Islands were taken by the Russians to hunt seals at the Pribilof Islands that eventually became their home. During the first year of hunting, 40,000 fur seal skins were taken along with 2,000 otter skins and 14,400 pounds of walrus ivory (Scheffer, 1984**). Prior to the mid-1880s, the Russians struggled with developing a successful curing (drying) technique in the Pribilof's damp climate for protecting the furs from mold and decay. Consequently, the poor quality of skins by the time they arrived in China led to the suspension of trade. During this time, however, some seal skins were being shipped directly to St. Petersburg, Russia, and later to the United States. A smaller market in England was also growing. Around 1853, at the suggestion of a London furrier the Russians began using salt to preserve the pelts – an effective technique that took them several years to perfect.

seal herd on St. Paul Island
Fur seals being driven to slaughter on St. Paul Island in 1940.
Auke Bay Laboratories photo.  Victor B. Scheffer, photographer.

In the year following the 1867 sale of Alaska by Russia to the United States, fur seals on the Pribilofs were being harvested by the Aleuts and at least half a dozen companies. In 1869, the U.S. put a halt to the sealing and placed the islands "off-limits" under military supervision. Only subsistence hunting by the Aleuts was permitted and to prevent any disturbance to the fur seal and fox populations, dogs were officially banned on the islands (and again in 1917). The U.S. Treasury Department assumed full responsibility in 1870, although the U.S. Army maintained their presence throughout the summer.

From 1870 to 1889, The Alaska Commercial Company leased the Pribilof sealing business from the U.S. Government and was contracted to abide by an initial annual killing quota of 100,000 seals from the two islands combined. In 1890, a new 20-year lease was issued to the North American Commercial Company with a starting annual quota for 60,000 seals. To preserve populations, the number of seals killed was controlled by the U.S. Government and was often suspended over several seasons.

  barreled skins
Barreled fur seal skins ready for shipment,
St. Paul Island.
  BOF photo, 1929.

Henry Wood Elliot, a Smithsonian Institution artist and private secretary, was sent to the Pribilofs as a special Treasury agent and naturalist in 1872. His published reports provided valuable insight to the biology, breeding habits, habitat (rookeries, hauling grounds, etc.) and exploitation of the fur seal.

Owing to the abuses connected with pelagic sealing, a Congressional act on 21 April 1910 repealed the continued leasing of the fur seal operation at the islands. That year, the Bureau of Fisheries (BOF) assumed the entire administration of the Pribilof Islands, including all matters relating to the northern fur seal and fox populations. The Bureau's responsibility also extended to the care, education, and welfare of the native population. The restoration of the Aleuts' trust and confidence in the Government was a primary objective.

A 1919 Bureau of Fisheries report stated that its duties involved:
  • purchase, transportation, and distribution of supplies for the 'natives' of the seal islands
  • transportation of Government employees and 'natives' to and from the islands
  • maintenance of schools
  • maintenance of medical staff
  • general care of the 'natives'
  • handling and investment of funds belonging to the 'natives'
  • care of buildings and other Government property
  • supervision and protection of the seal herds
  • maintenance of a patrol for the protection of the seal herds
  • taking, preserving, packing, shipping, and selling of seal skins
  • operations of a by-products plant for utilizing seal carcasses
  • protection and care of herds of blue foxes, and the taking, shipment, and sale of their pelts
  • care, utilization, and improvement of reindeer herds
  • construction of roads, maintenance of proper sanitary conditions, improvement of landing facilities, etc.
  processing skins at St. Louis
Processing skins at St. Louis.  BOF photo, 1930.

In August 1911, 40 reindeer were successfully introduced on the islands as a potential pack animal to the Aleuts that could also provide milk, meat and hides. By the late 1930s, the number of reindeer had risen to nearly 2,000.

The Pribilof skins were taken to London for the last time in 1912. That year the net proceeds of seal skin sales were $130,640.57. Beginning in 1913, all skins (including those of small mammals) were now being shipped south and taken by rail to St. Louis, Missouri, where they were dyed and prepared for auction under contract by Messrs. Funsten Brothers & Company; and later by the Fouke Fur Company, contracted in 1921. This change to the St. Louis market not only provided a safer passage with war breaking out in Europe, but also saved transportation costs and promoted American industry.

Fox skins were highly valued as well and provided considerable revenue for the U.S. Government well into the 1900s. During the first 20-year sealing lease (1870-89), nearly 25,000 skins (both blue and white foxes) were reported taken by trapping – and about 16,600 fox skins taken during 1890-1910.

Additional reading on foxes:
-  Smith, H. M. 1920. Foxes, p. 87-95. In Report of the Commissioner of Fisheries for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1920 (doc. 894), 66 p. (.pdf, 691 KB)
-  Bower, W. T., and H. D. Aller. 1917. Fox Farming, p. 111-137. In Alaska Fisheries and Fur Industries in 1915 (doc. 834), 140 p. (.pdf, 1.58 MB)
-  Jones, L. E. 1915. Fox Farms. In Report of Alaska Investigations in 1914. Wash. G.P.O., 155 p.  (.pdf, 17.45 MB).

   Fur Seal Counts / Number of Skins Taken at Pribilofs, 1906-39   

in Herd
in Herd
1910 132,279   13,584  1925 723,050   19,860 
1911 123,600   12,006  1926 761,281   22,131 
1912 215,738   3,764  1927 808,870   24,942 
1913 268,305   2,296  1928 871,513   31,099 
1914 294,687   2,735  1929 971,527   40,068 
1915 363,872   3,947  1930 1,045,101   42,500 
1916 417,281   6,466  1931 1,127,082   49,529 
1917 468,692   8,169  1932 1,219,961   49,336 
1918 496,432   34,890  1933 1,313,568   54,550 
1919 524,235   27,821  1934 1,430,418   53,468 
1920 552,718   25,978  1935 1,550,913   57,296 
1921 581,443   23,681  1936 1,689,743   52,446 
1922 604,962   31,156  1937 1,839,119   55,180 
1923 653,008   15,920  1938 1,872,438   58,364 

Over the next few years several improvements at the Pibilofs took place. By 1914 both St. Paul and St. George were communicating with one another through small wireless radio stations. In 1916, St. Paul has it's first motion picture projector with the Bureau providing 100,000 feet of mostly news/education films and some dramas and comedies. Funded by a $25,000 special allotment, a small electric lighting plant and a by-products plant were installed on St. Paul Island in 1918, providing the buildings with light for the first time in history – which sparked considerable curiosity from the local inhabitants.

Also that year, three 1-ton Ford trucks, with attachments, arrived for use in road construction and for hauling materials and supplies. Other new buildings and structures were erected around this time, such as the "wash house" that contained large wooden tanks for washing, cooling and blubbering – removing blubber from the pelts with curved knives – prior to salting.

See also:  "Federal Medical Services at St. Paul Islandand  "The Pribilof Islands Tender Vessels"

Watch:  "People of the Seal" video on NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration website.

Significant events:

  • 1911 - Assistant Bureau agent Dr. Harry D. Chichester, who studied health and sanitary conditions on the Pribilofs, and naturalist Dr. Walter L. Hahn, who studied various animals, plants, and meteorological phenomena, both die from the effects of exposure after capsizing their boat in the icy waters of a St. Paul Island lagoon during high winds on 31 May.
  • 1911 - On 25 August, the first 40 reindeer are brought by the BOF to the Pribilofs as an experiment to assist the local economy by providing meat, milk, hides, and to serve as burden carriers. This number grows to over 1,700 in 1937.
  • 1914 - Seattle is selected over San Francisco as the city in which to purchase annual supplies for the Pribilofs.
  • 1915 - The Bureau acquires its first vessel dedicated to servicing the Pribilofs, the Roosevelt, though she did not begin transporting goods and personnel until 1917.
  • 1921 - On St. Paul Island, the washing and blubbering of seal skins is done for the first time on a commercial scale within a building constructed specifically for this work.
  • 1925 - In an experiment, 12 black-footed lemmings from St. George Island are introduced to St. Paul Island to determine if they can be established there. After two previous failed attempts, initial observations of this transfer show success.
  • 1926 - A Bureau of Fisheries exhibit at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial displays its Pribilof Islands operations.
  • 1941 - The tagging of fur seal pups begins.
  • 1948 - As an experimental censusing technique, aerial photographs are taken of all fur seal rookeries. An ageing process is developed based on counting ridges on fur seal teeth, which leads to the routine field work of collecting teeth at the Pribilofs for age determination.
  • 1973 - Residents of St. Paul Island will soon see a type of "closed circuit" television in their homes for the first time.
    (from NOAA Week newsletter, 9-21-73).
St. Paul village
Village on St. Paul Island in 1929.  Bureau of Fisheries photo.

Additional reading:

  • * Hanna, G. D. 2008. The Alaska Fur-Seal Islands (J. A. Lindsay, Ed.). U.S. Dept. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NOS ORR 16, 295 p.
  • ** Scheffer, V. B., C. H. Fiscus, and E. I. Todd. 1984. History of Scientific Study and Management of the Alaska Fur Seal, Callorhinus ursinus, 1786-1964. U.S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Rep. NMFS SSRF-780, 70 p.  (.pdf, 48.1 MB)
  • Jones, L. E. 1915. Pribilof Islands. In Report of Alaska Investigations in 1914. Wash. G.P.O., 155 p.  (.pdf, 17.45 MB).
  • Lindsay, B. A., and J. A. Lindsay. 2010. Pribilof Islands, Alaska: the People. U.S. Dept. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NOS ORR 19, 683 p.
  • Roppel, A. Y. 1984. Management of Northern Fur Seals on the Pribilof Islands, Alaska, 1786-1981. U.S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Rep. NMFS-4, 26 p.  (.pdf, 1.11 MB)
  • Osgood, W. H., E. A. Preble, and G. H. Parker. 1915. The Fur Seals and Other Life of the Pribilof Islands, Alaska, in 1914 (doc. 820), 172 p. + maps. In Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Fisheries, Vol. XXXIV, 1914. Wash. G.P.O. 457 p.  (.pdf, 17.3 MB).
  • U.S. Treasury Department. 1896. Reports of Agents, Officers, and Persons, Acting Under Authority of the Secretary of the Treasury, in Relation to the Condition of Seal Life on the Rookeries of the Pribilof Islands, and to Pelagic Sealing in Bering Sea and the North Pacific Ocean, in the Years 1893-1895, Part 1 (doc. 137). Wash. G.P.O. 379 p.
    (.pdf, 64.3 MB).
  • NOAA. "Island History". Pribilof Islands: a Historical Perspective. NOAA website.
  • Jones, D. M. A Century of Servitude: Pribilof Aleuts Under U.S. Rule.  (Arctic Circle [archive] website, Table of Contents.
  • Martin, F. L. 2010. Before the Storm Broke: A Year in the Pribilof Islands, 1941-1942. University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, 385 p.
  • Scott, T. L., K. M. Yano, J. Baker, M. H. Rickey, M. Eames, and C. W. Fowler. 2006. The Northern Fur Seal (Callorhinus ursinus): a Bibliography. AFSC Processed Rep. 2006-05, 246 p.  (.pdf, 1.42 MB).

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