XXV. THE ALEUTIAN ISLANDS AND FOX FARMING (Historic Information)

There is little known of the Aleutian Islands except as to the Fox Island group, adjacent to the Alaska Peninsula. From first to last their history has been one of exploitation since, in 1745, Michael Novidskof, in search of the sea-otter, reached Attu in his open frail craft. Fired by a cupidity that no danger could appall, other Russian traders pushed untiringly eastward in moss-calked, skin-sewn shallops, until the long line of Aleutian Islands, extending eastward nearly 800 miles, fell within their knowledge and under their rapacious control.

Some of these islands were then densely populated, aggregating in the early days nearly 30,000 natives, and their inhabitants throve on the sea-otter and other sea game. With rapacity and exploitation rampant they decreased with the vanishing game, and scarcely numbered 1,500 on the islands in 1900. Elliott tells us that in 1885 in the 800 intervening miles between Unalaska and the western boundary there were only three small native settlements Umnak, 130, Atka, 230, and Attu, a few over 100 souls in all less than 500 natives, with six or seven white men.

Indeed, the islands are neither attractive in their general appearance nor comfortable in occupation for white men. It is a region of almost continual fog and clouds, with low summer temperatures and high winter winds. About one day of seven or eight is clear at Unalaska, while the island temperatures rarely exceed 65° in the warmest month (usually July), and fall to as low as from 10° to 22° in March. The whole group is treeless, except for a few stunted willows in sheltered ravines of the easterly and warmer islands. At Unalaska barely live a few spruces transplanted there in 1805.

As the islands are of volcanic origin their general features are bold peaks and rugged highlands, with narrow dividing passes at sea and deep valleys on land. Adjacent to the many extinct craters are numerous warm and hot springs, around which grow great quantities of moss, grasses, and berry bearing shrubs.

Of the five larger islands of the Near group, Attu supplements its sea food by breeding foxes and making baskets, industries which produce money for the so-called necessities of modern life. More than 400 miles to the eastward is the next inhabited island, Atka, the most important of the thirty or more of the Andreanoff group. Although the intervening Rat group, between Attu and Atka, is not inhabited, yet its sea game is diligently sought by Atkan seafarers. Indeed, the hunters from Atka are among the most skilful and persistent of the Aleuts, and their women are scarcely second to those of Attu in their baskets and other work of woven grass. Following the modern tendency to aggregation, the Atkan natives have assembled in one village, on the sheltered shores of Nazan harbor.

Of the Fox Islands, the easternmost Aleutian group, Unalaska is the largest and by far the most important. Dominated by the volcano Makushin, 5,961 feet, it is not quite so barren as the other Aleutian islands to the west, and its fiord-indented shores and volcanic-ridged valleys are picturesque to the eye. Its principal town, Iliuliuk, is more generally known as Unalaska, and with the adjacent Dutch harbor has served as a port of call for the early Nome shipping, and all other craft doing business in Bering Sea.

In olden times the headquarters of the Russian Church and the centre of the fur-trade, Unalaska yielded slowly and reluctantly to American influences, which are to-day fully recognized. Gradually it attracts to it the drifting natives, as shown by the increase of population from 317 in 1890 to 428 in 1900.

FOX FARMING

Unwise exploitation has very greatly reduced the fur-bearing productivity of the land animals of the Aleutian Islands, as well as of the interior of Alaska. With the early extermination of foxes in prospect there was organized about 1894 the Semidi Propagation Company to domesticate and raise foxes on uninhabited islands. The original fox farm was stocked from the Pribilof group located on North Semidi Island, whence the industry has extended to thirty or more islands to the eastward, far the greater number being situated in Prince William Sound, though there are seven in the Kodiak group. Most of the islands are occupied under lease from the United States, and the law excepts from homesteading the fox islets. Two companies and several individuals have followed this industry, which has been only moderately successful from the financial standpoint. Considerable investment is necessary, it takes at least four years before any revenue is obtained, the life is most isolated, and skins are not very productive, usually varying in value from $10 to $20, according to quality and demand. In some instances natives have become fox breeders, and where private parties are so engaged they have supplemented their fox breeding by fishing, farming, or lumbering.

The largest fox farm is at Long Island, near Kodiak, where there are nearly 1,000 blue foxes. The largest number of skins comes, however, from the Pribilof group, where about 700 foxes are annually taken by the natives, supplementary to the fur-seal catch. These foxes are not domesticated.

The very valuable silver-gray fox is too thoroughly savage to accept conditions necessary for profitable fox breeding, and, in consequence, fox farming is confined almost entirely to the blue fox. The fox is monogamous, and an average of four foxes come to maturity from each litter. It is necessary to feed the foxes the greater part of the year, and careful supervision is essential to their successful raising.

The blue fox thrives wild on the extreme easterly isle of Attu, and from that point several of the Shumagin islands. Chernabura, Simeonof, etc.. have been stocked with moderate success. The extension and development of this industry is desirable as one of the much-needed means to enable the Aleuts successfully to meet changed conditions of Alaskan life.

LAND FURS

Due doubtless to the extreme value placed on certain aquatic furs, there have obtained exaggerated ideas regarding the financial importance of the fur trade of the interior of the Territory. Hitherto there has been no authoritative statement regarding this trade, but through the courtesy of the Northern Commercial Company, extended through its vice-president and general manager, M. L. Washburn, the writer has obtained data extending from 1871 to 1908.

In these thirty-eight years there have been obtained 2,809,577 skins having an aggregate value of 88,039,186, an average of 82.86 per skin. The general trend of the trade appears from the following :

Years

No. of skins

Value per skin

Total value

1871-1880 ...............

505,980

$3.16

$1,596,494

1881-1890 ...............

1,062,138

2.74

2,911,893

1891-1900 ...............

866,464

2.70

2,335,866

1901-1908 ...............

369,995

4.72

1,744,715

Totals...............

2,809,577

S2.86

38,039,186

The five years of greatest productivity in number of skins were. 1894, 138,684, 1884, 149,804, 1892, 157,636; 1885,157,749. There has been only one year since 1896 1901 with 114.995 skins that the number has exceeded 60,000. The present average may be placed at about 36,000 skins, though the hunt of 1908 marketed 45, 202 skins. The values per skin have varied from $1.61 in 1883 to $7.71 in 1902; since 1897 the value has fallen below $3 in one year only. The increase in values is a natural sequence to the over-trapping, which in the ten years ending with 1893 produced not less than 1,255,616 skins.

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